Because alley beers are just better beers.
On the merits of the space alone, Johnny’s Little Bar is a great, downtown dive bar. What weighs on the perception of the bar is its role as the “around the back,” purpose-built complement to Johnny’s, a ritzy downtown Cleveland restaurant complete with high prices and tablecloths. The vibe inside certainly doesn’t suffer from the association, particularly on crowded, weekend nights, but an air of suspicion does exist that Johnny’s Little Bar exists because someone somewhere decided a dive bar would drive some credibility for the restaurant out front.
That being said, the space is cramped in the best possible way and the experience of turning down an urban alley to walk in a side door is always a pleasant one. A small green sign and a round, similarly green awning are the only indicators of the bar’s existence, a portal in a nondescript brick wall. Inside, the theme continues, exposed brick throughout paired with aged-looking wooden beams across what almost feels like tiered theater seating given the orientation of the bar’s two levels.
On a crowded night, that tiered structure can make it feel like a wall of Cleveland drunks encroaches closer and closer as the night wears on. The bar itself sits at the space’s lowest point, accentuating the feeling of occupying the lowest deck of a dive bar boat on the Cuyahoga River. A small handful of chairs offer bar seating with a series of high top tables behind. Three steps up, an elevated platform serves as the space’s second layer, densely packed with low tables and chairs.
A staircase in the back corner of the bar leads to a disconnected but spacious secondary space populated with an array of low tables and a lonely dart board. The downfall of this densely populated area is its disconnection from the main bar and, on most nights, the crowd that makes a dive bar like Johnny’s Little Bar worth the trip. For most drinkers, the room is more the thing on the way to the bathroom than an extension of the action.
Despite the lack of dusty dive bar credibility, the connection to a fancy restaurant does offer benefits to Johnny’s Little Bar, including a deep food menu (the hamburger is still the best bet) and robust beer selection. Again because of the connection, the bathrooms hardly register as dive bar bathrooms, maintained with a cleanliness standard hard to label as dive bar-like.
And so it’s best to think of Johnny’s Little Bar as a best-of-both-worlds situation, a handful of better-than-average amenities that provide some polish to the experience without sacrificing the vibe that two levels of lubricated Clevelanders can provide on a packed Saturday night.