Friday, October 21, 2016

The Fall of Celebrity Themed Restaurants in Cincinnati




Willie's Sports Cafe in Covington was once an iconic sports bar named for and once partially owned by a local radio host. It's the latest in a long line of celebrity inspired restaurants in the area to close up shop.



- The closed Willie's Sports Cafe, named after 700 WLW radio host Bill "Willie" Cunningham, sitting closed in Covington, KY.
The celebrity-associated restaurant is an interesting concept. A lot of times these places fall flat either outright or after a few years. In a few cases, but far less common, they become local hits, although typically for tourists. Sometimes a celebrity is simply listed as an investor to gain instant press, sometimes the place is emblazoned with their name. These tend to be notable people of the local variety, but larger brands jump in too.

The Chicago Tribune has a great piece from 2013 on the concept. The article breaks down some of the big name celebrity dining spots that came and went in the Windy City throughout the years. These days, most celebrities are now just investors adding their name recognition and financial investing power rather than creating a place themed after their accomplishments. Rarely now is the namesake ever involved with the food options or dining experience. Michael Jordan was the greatest the NBA has ever seen, but that doesn’t mean he knows what consumers want to order. Whether for ego, a chance to make a quick buck, or the love of suburban sports bars, Cincinnati has had its own fair share of dining establishments propelled by a big name. Talking to my friend John Kiesewetter of WVXU, he was able to rattle off several rather quickly:

Local sports icons Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Bob Huggins, and Ted Kluszewski all had restaurants at a time. Meanwhile, Cincinnati media personalities such as Andy Furman, Bob Braun, Gary Burbank, and Bill Cunningham also tried their hand at the business. Even Dick Clark's chain of restaurants once had a location in Kenwood. Edit: Through social media and the comments below, several people have mentioned many other local celebrity restaurants, the list has been updated at the bottom of this article.

Bench’s “Homestretch” and “Homeplate” restaurants operated in the market right alongside his teammate Pete Rose’s “Restaurant” and “Champion Restaurant” in the late 70’s. All four are now gone. Huggins’ “Huggs Inn” of Hyde Park closed in 1997.


EDIT: John Kiesewetter from WVXU sent over these old advertisements for Johnny Bench's restaurants from some 1970's Reds programs:


- Credit: John Kiesewetter, WVXU.

- Credit: John Kiesewetter, WVXU.


Perhaps Ted Kluszewski was the only celebrity restauranteur who actually stayed involved beyond a naming rights deal. He was regularly checking in on customers and helping out at “Jack and Klu’s Charcoal Steak Houses.” According to biographer William Cook, Kluszewski often greeted customers and made time to talk with them in the cocktail lounge and at their tables “like he was daily taking the city’s pulse.” Ted passed away in 1988, his restaurant franchise disappearing sometime before that, although it had seemingly thrived in the 60’s.

- Credit: John Kiesewetter, WVXU.

TV news legend Bob Braun’s Celebrity Inn downtown had been regarded as a fine dining establishment while several WLW radio hosts attempted to get in on the local media personality restaurant game. Andy Furman created “Furman’s” off of I-71 while Gary Burbank had a few locations of “Burbank’s” around town, specializing in Barbecue. Bill Cunningham is still on the 700 WLW airwaves today and his restaurants still somewhat exist in the form of "Willie's Sports Cafe."

- In this ad for "Furman's" from a 1993 Cincinnati Magazin, it claims the radio personality's restaurant to be "arguably, the best sports cafe in Cincinnati." Interestingly enough, fellow WLW radio host Bill Cunningham's restaurants were also referred to as "sports cafes."

Odd for a radio personality who doesn't really cover sports, Cunningham’s restaurants were/are adorned with tons of athletic memorabilia and cartoon caricatures of “Willie” himself, arranged in a way that makes you stop and say “so this was what the mid 90s looked like!”

- The closed Willie's in Covington.

I say was/is and were/are, because Willie’s is an interesting chain in flux. Once boasting several regional locations, it now only has two. The company also has nothing to do with Bill Cunningham anymore, he apparently doesn't have a controlling interest or any investment. Willie’s has still been able to stay afloat as its own thing for awhile, although most people probably still associate it with the flamboyant radio host who comes on air at noon every weekday. The one location I ever went to still had his cartoon face everywhere.


Personally, I'm not a fan of Bill Cunningham, the radio personality at least. Maybe the human being who isn't in character behind a microphone is a decent person, but the "Willie" I happened to meet at the Apple Store a few years back was about what you'd expect if you've ever heard the show. Waiting in a queue of holiday shoppers apparently wasn't an option for a local celebrity as he demanded instant service so loud as to have his voice recognized by everyone in earshot. I also called into his show once back in 2009, taking up his challenge to visit Over-The-Rhine in the middle of the night. I survived and Willie never returned my further calls or emails. I hadn't made it a point to seek out any of his restaurants until it happened to be convenient. You can get wings just about anywhere, watch sports anywhere, and find cheap buckets of Coors Light anywhere. Even if Willie’s had been an early pioneer of the suburban sports bar, the market has become oversaturated with the concept.


Having wound up living in West Chester, Willie’s Sports Cafe on Princeton-Glendale Rd. became the closest place to get some takeout chicken wings. To my surprise, they weren't just good, they were very good. I'd grab 12 of them and fries anytime I felt like throwing my arteries to the wind. After only about three visits I was hooked. The fourth time, looking to grab some food to watch hockey with, Willie’s was gone; sports memorabilia, caricatures, and all stripped from the strip mall.

EDIT: John Kiesewetter from WVXU was kind enough to send over these photographs of the closed West Chester location:


- Credit: John Kiesewetter, WVXU.


- Credit: John Kiesewetter, WVXU.

- Credit: John Kiesewetter, WVXU.

- Credit: John Kiesewetter, WVXU.

Locations all over greater Cincinnati started closing down, the most notable being the Covington location seen here. Up on the hill overlooking the city, Willie’s Covington had been known for its shuttles that took patrons between the restaurant and Reds/Bengals games for 24 years.

Although the radio personality had apparently not held a stake in the business for some time, the restaurants had still been a well known local chain. The one in Kenwood became a Mexican restaurant, West Chester sits empty, Montgomery and Mason too. The iconic Covington one is gone, all of its possessions sold at auction. If you still want to try Willie’s though, two locations remain: one in Cincy’s West Side on Glenway Ave., another in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana.


These days the only celebrity restaurants you’ll come across in the Queen City seem to be Lachey’s by the Lachey brothers of “98 Degrees” fame (although to be fair, they’re known for a lot more locally than just being in a 90’s boy band) and Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” in the downtown casino.

The former Willie's still sits atop the hill and for a time was flying a tattered American flag. Odd, considering the conservative radio host it was named after proclaims himself to be "The Great American."


Some other Cincinnati celebrity restaurants to note as mentioned in the comments and sent in on social media:
- WEBN radio host "Wildman Walker's" "Boomerang's" in St. Bernard.
- Musician Bootsy Collins' "Bootsy's" in Downtown.
- The Reds' Dave Parker's "Dave Parker Chili" in Milford.
- WEBN/700 WLW radio host Eddie Fingers' "Eddie Fingers' Rock-N-Roll Cafe" in Clifton.
- Cincinnati Royals/Ohio State University Basketball player Jerry Lucas' "Jerry's Beef-N-Shakes" in Middletown. 
- The Reds' Tommy Helms' "Tommy Helms' Extra Innings."
- The Cincinnati Bengals' Max Montoya's "Montoya's" is still operating in Ft. Mitchell, KY as of this posting. 

16 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. "Wildman" Walker of WEBN fame also had his own bar called "Boomerang's Bar & Grille" in St. Bernard that's now closed. I've never been there, nor know when it closed, I just remember him talking about having a bar sometimes on WEBN.
    https://www.yelp.com/biz/boomerangs-bar-and-grill-cincinnati

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    1. I forgot about that! He used to plug it all. the. time.

      I added it to the list at the bottom!

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  3. My old man, Dan Royal, had "Dan Royal's Newsroom" in the late 1980s in downtown Cincy, across from the convention center, around the corner from WCPO ... :)

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    1. I'll add it as soon as I get a chance! Had no idea WCPO was downtown once. Why'd he close up the restaurant? Is it the one that's still in the area now called "the newsroom?"

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    2. Not sure why he closed it up, I was 10. LOL. My memory remembers WCPO being downtown, on the fringes alas but still downtown. Nope, no affiliation with The Newsroom.

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    3. Thanks for the info and for sharing your memories!

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    4. WCPO was right behind the convention center. That's the location when a gunman came in and held some folks at the station hostage if my memory serves me correctly. They moved when the convention center expanded.

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    5. I forgot about that. The video is interesting.

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  4. I have the vague memory of a Ted Kluszuski Steak house out on Montgomery road on the edge of Pleasant ridge and Silverton there is a Midas shop there today. Or am I just dreaming about a suburban location?

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  5. Didn't John Phillips have a joint in Crescent Springs recently?

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  6. Bengal Max Montoya opened a Mexican restaurant in Ft Mitchell. It's still there: Montoyas

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