Reviving Cool

To save throwback bars and restaurants across America, a new generation applies the lightest touch possible.

By Regan Stephens

From the moment you pass the facade, flashing with the garish glow of custom neon signs–“Poker Liquor Weddings”–everything inside Abby’s Highway 40 confirms its status as a dive bar. Over the span of 70-odd years, the Reno, Nevada, bar became a sort of living time capsule, plastered with layers of framed photos and Playboy covers and bartending awards its original owner amassed during his decades-long career. There’s the collection of shot glasses; the pool table covered in a soft green felt that was once part of a craps table at the Nevada Club, a now-shuttered 1940s-era casino. 

Everything’s still here, and everything feels untouched. Everything, that is, except for the bathrooms.

Piper Stremmel and Chris Reilly took over Abby’s early in 2022. Mostly, they kept the bar intact. The bathrooms, however, are now new and cushy, with modern facilities and walls papered in a bold-yet-tasteful floral print from luxury interior design house House of Hackney in London.

“We were trying to keep everything, but then have these small elements of surprise,” says Stremmel. She was born in Reno, and after their stints living in Shanghai and San Francisco, the couple got married and moved to the city in 2017. Soon after, they opened The Jesse, a stylish, six-room boutique hotel designed with exposed brick walls and custom wood bed frames, anchored by a ground-floor mezcal bar. 

The Jesse overlooks Fourth Street, once U.S. Highway 40, still lined with historic buildings and long-standing businesses. One of them is Abby’s, just a block away, first opened in the 1940s. The previous owner, Donny Schwartz, took it over from his father Abram (the bar’s namesake) and had been running it for the past two decades. When the couple heard Schwartz was thinking about doing something different, they made their pitch: if he let them be Abby’s new owners, they would maintain the spirit of the well-worn watering hole.

Stremmel told Schwartz, “We want to keep this feeling inside, because this bar has a person’s soul in it.

“When you lose these types of historic, classic bars, they’re just not going to come back in the same way,” Reilly says. “To make that space continue to sing and bring a new generation of people in there–it’s an exciting opportunity for us.”

Abby’s is one of the historic institutions–from the Sandy Hut, a century-old dive bar in Portland, Oregon, to music venues, diners, and motels in Austin, Nashville, and Charleston, and many more cultural nooks and old holes in walls in between–revived by a new generation of savvy hospitality pros. These aren’t examples of any kind of formal historic preservation or “curation” as much as examples of a sensibility in action in various ease. Instead of modernizing the crumbling space, stripping it of its well-earned character, or worse, razing it to make way for luxury condos or a new coffee bar, new owners are keeping long-standing establishments mostly the way they were–or maybe, ideally, the way they should have been in the first place.

Will Bridges grew up in Austin and started earning his reputation for saving its iconic spaces in 2011, when he helped reopen Arlyn Studios, a recording facility inside the Austin Opera House, where musicians like Willie Nelson and Ray Charles have made music. Just a few years later in 2014, he bought Deep Eddy Cabaret, a dive bar in the same family since it opened in 1951. And the following year, he took over Antone’s, the city’s legendary blues club, where musicians like B.B. King and Muddy Waters have played since 1975. 

“These are places that I didn't want to live in Austin without,” Bridges says.

He takes over these businesses seamlessly–“like a baton pass,” he says–without closing for a single day, if he can help it. It’s a move that helps maintain staff and assuage any fears the regulars might have. “We just earn our stripes a little bit by just operating it the way that the prior operators were,” he says. “People get really freaked out when they hear that it's being sold. They assume we're gonna change everything.”

Changes do happen–gradually, largely confined to deep cleaning and structural upgrades. But Bridges also searches sites like Facebook Marketplace and eBay for items that will fit seamlessly into the spaces: new stuff that will look old. At Antone’s for example, there’s a shoeshine stand from a famous hotel in Chicago, and at Deep Eddy, an old cigarette machine that looks so much like it’s always been there, even returning customers assumed it was.

“I hear, ‘It's so cool that you even kept the old busted cigarette machine’” he says. “Well, actually I bought that cigarette machine, but I'm glad that you think it was always there. It’s supposed to look like that.”

In Bridges’ eyes, the survival of local icons is hardly guaranteed, even in a city like Austin that treasures its mainstay spots. Like assuming the cigarette machine has always been there, there’s a collective expectation that these spaces will remain, which can lead to a diffusion of responsibility for fighting to keep them.

In late 2020, the forces of change just about came for  Brown’s Diner in Nashville, an outwardly drab, low-slung greasy spoon in the crosshairs of luxury condo development. It was saved at the eleventh hour with a call to Bret Tuck, who had less than a day to decide if he would buy the beaten-down bar. 

Tuck moved to Music City more than a decade ago, giving him a fresh perspective on the city, without the nostalgia that can help overlook most flaws, like a bad burger.

“Everybody in Nashville talked about it, when I first moved to town, ‘Oh, you gotta go get a Brown’s burger.’ But it was just Sysco frozen stuff,” remembers Tuck.

Burger notwithstanding, Brown’s was legendary. First opened in 1927, the bar has been in business continuously since, and holds Nashville’s oldest beer license. A snug stage area hosts live music, but many more country music legends have gathered at its wooden bar, including John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Deana Carter. Vince Gill wrote a song about it. But by the time Tuck took over in early 2021–only Brown’s third owner in more than a century–the place was in disarray. 

“The floor felt like you're walking through an old movie theater, the carpet was so sticky,” he says. When it rained, water would pour into the back room. Fixes were surface-level and temporary. “The floor near the sink in the kitchen was just three layers of plywood. It’d rot through. They’d put another piece of plywood down.”

In the years before he took over Brown’s, business was in decline. But Tuck also acquired the bar at the height of the pandemic, when other community staples were closing in Nashville, including the 75-year-old burger spot Rotier’s. (A year prior to its closing, that restaurant’s building was sold and the new owners wouldn’t renew the restaurant’s lease. A mixed-use tower is slated for the land.) In the meantime, the city has bounced back from the pandemic, with visitor spending contributing a record-breaking $8.8 million to Nashville’s economy in 2022. In fact, the tourism industry has been on a hot streak for the last decade.

“Nashville has evolved to be a really cool, dynamic city, and as a result, some properties are way more valuable than the restaurants that sit on them,” says Will Newman, who owns the Nashville-based barbecue chain Edley’s and is also a minority owner of Brown’s. But these institutions helped make the city a destination to begin with, and each old bar offers a glimpse of what Nashville was.

“Brown’s is a unique little hole in the wall, with so much history,” Newman says. “We need to preserve it for the next generation. 

Tuck did preserve the building, first by giving the space a thorough cleaning. Framed memorabilia and photo collages of musicians and patrons made by longtime bartender Ron Kimbro came down. Tuck fixed the ceiling, repainted the walls, and put it all back up just as it was. He also fixed those sticky floors, the roof and the “absolutely disgusting” bathrooms–all while maintaining the age-old aesthetic. Tuck even gutted a ‘70s-era beer cooler, adding new working parts, just to keep the same look. “It was twice as much as buying it new,” he says.

Tuck also chose to keep his place open, so his employees wouldn’t be out of work, renovating one section at a time. He’s still working on the kitchen, and plans to add dishes like catfish to the menu, and eventually breakfast–back in the ‘70s Brown’s was actually a diner. And the frozen burger meat was replaced with fresh ingredients. [He also moved his employees compensation into the 21st century, cleaning up the books and giving all the employees a 30-40-percent raise.]

In Reno, like at Brown’s, Stremmel and Reilly took everything off the walls at Abby’s to clean and repaint in the bar’s signature teal and persimmon-red colors, returning each item with forensic precision. They kept Abby’s pool table, along with a dart board that’s been used for decades. But they added their own stamp in a few ways, including building an outdoor patio with fire pits and a permanently-parked airstream selling dumplings. Inspired by the couple’s time in Shanghai, Dumpling Queen sells soup dumplings and made-from-scratch sauces–something you couldn’t already easily get in Reno. (While these more modern additions don’t seem like they’d exist in the same universe as a dive bar, they notably occupy a physically separate space.)

And inside, the renovated bathrooms were a surprise to returning visitors–or to anyone who’s ever been to a dive bar and expects a harrowing space. They kept the 1950s-era condom machines, though, and now they’re filled with custom Abby’s Highway 40 condoms.

Stremmel and Reilly felt like they succeeded when–even with the grime-free walls and more pleasant bathroom experience–returning regulars felt comfortable. “They can't really put their finger on which parts have changed,” Reilly notes. “And they're like, Oh, you didn't mess it up.”

In some cases, transformation comes in more obvious and exhaustive flavors, as at North Charleston’s Starlight Motor Inn–even if a bygone spirit remains intact. The pale pink mid-century motel was recently spared demolition, in part by new owners pushing to have it added to the National Register of Historic Places. It will reopen after major renovations with plush, vintage-inspired rooms, a pool, and a cocktail lounge. One thing not changing, though, is the accessible price point. “There are plenty of motels being rehabbed throughout the country with $350 price tags per room, and that’s not our move,” new co-owner Walker Lamond told the Charleston Business Journal. It should stay accessible, he says, “in ​​keeping with the spirit of this property and this neighborhood.”

And sometimes, spaces don’t change at all even as a new lease on life takes hold. Jeff Wilson took over Valentine Texas Bar, about 35 miles outside of Marfa in Valentine, Texas, in 2019. Run by the same family since at least the 1950s, the ramshackle bar has plywood floors and walls papered in dollar bills signed by patrons going back decades. There’s also a barber’s chair–because sometimes the patrons got haircuts. And Wilson has vowed not to change the interior. “My belief is that you should just throw another layer on the German chocolate cake, you shouldn't scrape it.” Nowadays, Wilson puts a sandwich board open sign on the road whenever he’s in town, offering beer and spicy pickles. His own layer, so far, is the free tattoos offered on Valentine’s Day.

Saving these old establishments isn’t just about preserving history for its own sake, though. “I think it’s about keeping these like strange, quirky, magical spaces in our city,” says Lindsey Scannapieco, founder of urban design and development firm Scout in Philadelphia.

“There's the sameness,” she says. “You go to a kind of cute, cool coffee shop in any major city in America, and you could be anywhere.” But, she says, that’s not what makes a good or interesting city. From dive bars to hardware stores: “You need a variety of scales, a variety of ages. Not everything should look pretty–you need spaces that feel a little bit rough around the edges. I think this does feel reassuringly authentic today.”

Scannapieco’s background is in adaptive reuse of historic buildings, an expertise underpinned by her company’s transformation of Philadelphia’s Bok Building. The 1930s-era former technical school is now a 400,000 square-foot workspace, a de facto hub for some of the city’s most electric creatives and innovators who design small-batch jewelry or weave heirloom textiles amid original terrazzo hallways lined with old steel lockers.

Coincidentally, walking through these hallways also inspired Stremmel and Reilly, friends of Scannapieco, to pursue saving and reviving old spaces in Reno. Seeing how Scout re-envisioned the behemoth of a building in a way that eschewed West Elm-clad office spaces or, once again, luxury condos, made them think about how they could do the same with some of Reno’s historic spots.

The couple is just getting started. “These spaces testify that they can either get run down,” says Reilly, “or they can get better with age.”