If it endured Prohibition, you can pay your respects.
Cleveland is a city with a deeply rich history, one of the oldest metropolitan areas in the Midwest marked with all of the architecture, old-school neighborhoods and vastly diverse foods that comes with that kind of longevity. And even against that impressive backdrop, Jerman’s Café rises to the top, a neighborhood Cleveland dive bar with a story that includes terms like “Prohibition” and “1908.”
Jerman’s Café is so entrenched in Cleveland’s history that it shows up in Case Western Reserve’s Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. And the entry is impressive. Opened in 1908, that bar has remained in a single family’s hands for its entire existence, steering the bar through not just Prohibition (the space served as a speakeasy) but literally every other noteworthy American history event for the last 100 plus years.
Though Case Western and others shy away from declaring an official ‘oldest bar in Cleveland,’ there’s no doubt that Jerman’s Café is part of that conversation, and the look of the space itself certainly lives up to its pedigree. This is a neighborhood dive bar in a city full of them, a two-story structure attached to a neighboring building with a storefront on the first floor and a residence on the second floor where the bar’s second generation operator, Mitzi, was born and lived before passing away in 1908.
Case Western and Cleveland.com have both told the tale of Mitzi, a Cleveland Indians fan who lived in and ran the bar for the vast majority of her life, holding court in front of the bar’s television during games. The bar did get a scare after Mitzi’s daughter passed away, transferring ownership to a new generation unsure of what exactly to do with the space. After a two-year absence, the bar reopened and remains a staple in the Slovenian neighborhood that surrounds it today.
Jerman’s history is the cornerstone of its story, hence the time spent here covering it, but satisfyingly, the space lives up to the tale. Mitzi’s name adorns the sign and front window of the bar, ensuring that her long legacy endures. Though the floor is new as of 2017, the ceiling bears the beauty of a classic building, brown crown molding yielding to a stamped ceiling. The same pattern is repeated on the white walls throughout the bar, underscoring the vintage feel. Older photos of the space show that the white paint is a more recent addition, with a creamy brown previously pervading the bar, but given the beautifully clean appearance of the bar today, the literal white-washing is easy to forgive.
Though it’s unclear whether the bar is original 1908 wood, if someone made that claim, it would be hard to argue given the rich, deeply worn nature of the structure. Jerman’s is not the dive bar with layers of frames, posters and photographs crowding the walls. The look is much cleaner, minus a small display in the window. And that only aids the classic look of the bar, the ceiling, the walls, the building, making Jerman’s feel timeless more than old.
Underneath a large Slovenian flag, the space opens up into a second room populated with a handful of low tables. It’s easy to envision the layout serving as an all-purpose gathering spot, drinkers in the front and relaxed visiting in back. And though reality is likely more varied than that clean distinction, Jerman’s is built to serve a neighborhood’s needs and has 100 plus years of success to make that kind of claim.
For a space so long woven into the fabric of American history, a handful of updates – new paint here, rebuilt doorway there – can be forgiven. The history still hangs thick in the air, from the old-school neighborhood to Mitzi’s name on the front window, allowing for an experience that blends today’s dive bar with yesterday’s speakeasy in an unassuming, profoundly worthwhile package.