What's more addictive than free, dive bar cheeseballs?
If ever a poster child were needed for the concept of a Midwestern dive bar nestled into a residential block, Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill is not just a strong candidate, but the perfect candidate. Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill is the king of Columbus dive bars, the combination of everything that makes a divey drinking spot great including an amazing neon sign, weird trophies inside, a steady cast of local regulars, bizarre bar decorations and a weird tradition or two.
The Grandview neighborhood setting is an unexpected one for a dive bar like Johnnie’s, the upscale Columbus near-suburb that has grown in popularity and home valuations over the years. The block that Johnnie’s sits on, you guessed it, Glenn Avenue, hosts a hodge podge of small, single-family homes and a handful of multi-tenant units built where original structures have been demolished. The green metal and orange neon Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue sign shines like a beacon on a street one wouldn’t typically stumble upon, a hidden gem in the truest sense of that dive bar cliché.
It is unsurprising after seeing Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill that there is some history to the Columbus dive bar, the structure originally built as a grocery store. In 1934, Joseph and Angeline Scono purchased the space, adding a bar & restaurant to the original structure in an adjacent room. John Buscemi purchased the business in 1943 and later sold it to sons John and James in 1960, commencing an uninterrupted period of family ownership that continues today.
Part of the Columbus dive bar’s enduring appeal is that somewhere along those decades of Buscemi family ownership, wholesale updates to the space stopped, leaving intact a timeless, divey atmosphere. Walking into Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill is walking into a grandparent’s house, the décor untouched for years, the faces friendly and familiar, the feeling one of being welcomed back even on a first visit. The footprint is small, distributed across two main rooms and a less orderly space in back, the available space absorbed by short square tables and old chairs.
Immediately eye-catching is the small bar in the corner of the Johnnie’s main room, a tiny bend of a bar rail surrounding a small workspace for the bartender on duty. A few dozen liquor bottles can be seen here arranged on ancient shelves next to a very grocery store-like array of snacks and candy bars. Bar seating is cramped and in short supply, a familiar cast of characters usually assembled, especially during weekday, pre-evening hours.
Along the top of the bar and upon shelves that can be seen just below the ceiling through Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill, the first hints of longevity can be seen in the form of ancient liquor bottles in every shape and vintage. Animals, telephones, scenes of historic events, ceramic jugs of countless varieties stand as testaments to when liquor was at one time delivered in these dive bar works of art. Two recessed display areas can be found along the hallway that connects the two main rooms within Johnnie’s, each filled with more of these liquor bottles and other completely random accents like old plaques, framed photos and the occasional statue.
Much of the decorations that fill the space are Ohio State-themed pieces of some kind, ranging from framed photos of Woody Hayes to handmade, faded picture collages of games and players from decades past. A pay-to-tell-your-weight machine sits next to the front door, out of operation for years, and the bar’s biggest television sits on top of a metal shelving unit that is, of course, enhanced with weird statues and the occasional holiday decoration.
The Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill secondary room holds the bar’s pool table amid some challenging cue angles thanks to the narrow nature of the space. A pinball machine can be found here in addition to a few more overflow tables and chairs that quickly fill on busy evenings. The women’s restroom and what looks to be a phone booth can be found in this room as well, both of them dated, interesting and worth exploring.
Venturing further into the building is not just allowed but encouraged, the room behind the bar a converted kitchen not in the sense of a restaurant kitchen but in the sense of your uncle’s unused personal kitchen. Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill tradition dictates that cheese balls and pretzels are perpetually available here, sets of Styrofoam bowls used to hold the free-for-all snacks. The beer selection has expanded over the years thanks to coolers added and on display in this converted kitchen, the available varieties stretching from bottom-of-the-barrel old man beers (our favorite) to local, craft and (gasp) even seltzer options.
From there, Johnnie’s feels a little lawless, the back room home to the men’s room, a handful of tables and what looks to be excess inventory most of the time. A back patio that was once ringed in what looked like chicken coop wire fencing can be found here, often used for those on a smoke break but somehow still mysterious. Everything beyond the bar can feel like a portal to parts unknown, bar patrons sometimes disappearing and reappearing from the back few rooms of Johnnie’s.
Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill is, without a doubt, a must-visit Columbus dive bar experience that cannot be recommended more highly. The neighborhood location, the tiny footprint, the cheese balls, the absurdly low prices, the extensive collection of odds and ends, they all add up to what a dive bar experience can be and should be, unpretentious absorption into an inviting atmosphere that feels familiar with every visit.