Ty Cobb, FDR, Babe Ruth and three generations of drinkers can’t be wrong.
This review should be one sentence long and it goes like this: Hotz Café has been open for 100 years, owned by a single family through the entirety of its existence, features a shuffleboard game dating to 1936 and once served alcohol to FDR, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. And if that’s enough to motivate a trip to the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland and premier dive bar Hotz Café, you’re reading the wrong article.
That storied history belongs to a brick-laden building best described as, very simply, a typical Cleveland Midwestern house. Hotz Café isn’t part of some gentrified urban hipster neighborhood and though more expensive bars and restaurants loom a few blocks away, the neighborhood around Hotz reflects the unassuming nature of the bar itself.
Front doors are always dead giveaways for dive bars and Hotz’s resembles the entrance to 1930s butcher counter more so than a bar, a good omen. The corner lot makes for a diagonal entrance into the space with Christmas lights typically strung around the door and windows, a simple sign above the doorway. Above that doorway is a second story, where the current Hotz in charge lived as a child.
Immediately upon entry, the shuffleboard table commands attention, running the length of the bar, not exactly a stunning feat given the short dimensions of the room. And the sentence says “the room” because that’s what Hotz is, a single room with a small hallway and bathrooms. It doesn’t take a dive bar review to know that shuffleboard table is old, wearing every one of its post-1936 years, but retaining a kind of stunning, beautiful quality that makes it a welcome center of attention. The table is functional, popular and worth the line.
The bar itself sits opposite the shuffleboard table, a shallow L-shaped mahogany original flanked by similarly original stools dating back to 1919. History is tightly packed into the small square footage, a storefront opened those 100 plus years ago to serve steelworkers coming off their day’s shift. The walls continue the theme, packed with framed photographs of the family members who have come in and out of the bar’s existence as well action shots of times gone by, black and white drinkers who sat on the same stools.
An opaque glass top runs along the tap area of the bar, glowing red on this reviewer’s visit and inscribed with the name of the bar as well as some amazingly vintage lettering spelling out “Draft-Rite System by Claus of Cleveland.” While I cannot say for certain that the draft system dates back as far as the bar itself, a casual Google search of those terms would sure indicate that the likelihood is high. And that only shows the density of the history in such a small space, from the furniture to the bar hardware itself.
The space is finished out with a sparse collection of high top tables and chairs, with only limited space available between the bar and the shuffleboard table. Behind the bar, classic mirrored, illuminated shelving to place liquor on the pedestal it deserves.
More than a dusty old dive bar, Hotz Café feels alive, no small feat given the space restraints and the time-worn building. The lighting, the fixtures, the space, the people, the combination creates a world within the shoebox-sized room still proud to call itself a shot & beer bar above all else.