You’ve probably driven past the Reno Club, nestled just south of the Sixth Street underpass at 150 Calhoun Lane.
It’s not quite a South Side bar, not quite a West End bar, not quite a downtown tavern. Somehow it seems to transcend all those geographic classifications while embodying some of the better traits of each.
The place doesn’t look all that special from the outside, but looks can be deceiving. We suspect we aren’t the only residents who have driven past it for years but never ventured in. We believe this should change.
On a recent Thursday evening around 5, we walked through the front door and felt as though we’d stepped into a time capsule: imagine mirror-lined walls, empty pool tables, stained-glass installations and a long bar along the far wall.
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Several regulars had taken their spots at the bar, but two seats were open on the far end, so we sat. Most of the patrons seem to be older (than us, anyway) and working class. Dressed in our yuppie attire we stuck out like a sore thumb. Badly.
Despite our outsider status, we were greeted by a very nice, older bartender who took our order. Mr. Bitters again attempted to procure an old-fashioned but was brutally rebuffed. This is becoming a trend, and we suspect the request may have given away our “secret” identities. Perhaps it’s time to change our signature cocktail.
Mr. Bitters opted for a whiskey sour and received a lethally strong drink made with Four Seasons blended whiskey. Olive had a rough night in college involving Four Seasons and grape soda chasers, and hasn’t been able to look at a bottle since.
She decided on a glass of cabernet. The wine choices were very limited and inexpensive, but they offer an unobjectionable dry red, a blush and a white. As an added bonus, the bartender opened a fresh bottle of cabernet so there was no need to worry about potential oxidation.
Our bartender had to leave for the night and was replaced by a younger woman who turned out to be her daughter. The Reno Club has employed three generations of this particular lineage; serving seems to be a genuine family tradition.
A couple particulars about the Reno Club: They don’t offer food, but have a plethora of vending machine options available. They also sell packaged liquor, so you can pick up your self-medication via a side entrance.
We sipped our drinks and took in the soundtrack, which was straight out of the ’70s. We are not sure who made the playlist, but they nailed it. Kudos to the house DJ. This music was not your typical classic rock radio hits, but rather a nice eclectic assortment of period tracks ranging from disco to soft rock to California country. “Midnight Train to Georgia” came on the speakers and another patron sang along, “going back to a simpler place in time…” Sounds about right.
As we were quietly enjoying the scene, we noticed a rather boisterous character in horn-rimmed glasses and a tweed sport coat emerge from the back. He spoke to the bartender for a moment, then zeroed in on us and introduced himself. Turns out John was the owner of the Reno Club, and noticing that we were newcomers he wanted to welcome us in. He asked us about ourselves, what we did for a living, and what brought us to his establishment.
He explained that the bar had been in his family for over 70 years, and pointed out a particularly interesting pair of stained glass scenes on display behind the bar. The pieces are over 200 years old and were acquired as payment from a regular who couldn’t afford to settle his tab. They were supposedly smuggled out of Europe after World War II, and definitely added a historic element to the décor.
John went on to spin a tale about an evil spirit who lived behind those stained-glass panes, growing stronger and stronger as it captured the souls of decrepit bar flies as they drank away their sorrow.
Just when we thought this proprietor had really lost his grip on reality, he informed us that this demon was the focus of his first novel, which is in the final stage of development before being published. He showed us the cover of his book and we discussed release dates and other particulars. We wish him the best of luck, as it’s sure to be a fascinating read.
Personally, we’re more interested in his second book, which will chronicle the crazy shit that happens in a bar. He promises there are more than a few outrageous experiences from the Reno Club, and we obviously wanted to hear about the most memorable event.
He wouldn’t share specifics, so we asked the same of the bartender. She laughed and the two exchanged a knowing glance. Apparently the “craziest” will remain in the vault. However, the second-craziest night involved an all-out Road House-style brawl in the parking lot. The bartender even admitted to throwing a few punches. Awesome.
John continued to show us around the Reno Club, pointing out the stained-glass landscapes on the front of the building that he made himself. As we spoke, a woman came in and asked to cash a check. John kindly refused, as he is not a banking institution, and she left. He joked that he would have cashed it “all in 5’s if she promised to spend it all in his machines.” We suspect that may have been her intention regardless.
Eventually John had to get home to his wife, and he noted that he did not have any kids. Actually, he admitted, he probably did … somewhere. He bid us good evening and left.
After his departure, we sat and marveled at the peculiarity of our night. It’s not often we stumble upon a bar owner during our night out, and it was a highly entertaining experience.
As if we hadn’t heard enough glowing praise about the Reno Club, we were suddenly approached by a regular who wanted to throw in his two cents. This gentleman extolled the virtues of the Reno Club, saying it was the best bar around, a genuine place that treats everyone as its best customer.
He wanted to warn us, however, that the good times end around 8 p.m. He wouldn’t go into detail, but recommended that if we were still around about 7:30, we should leave posthaste.
Readers, we won’t speculate about what happens at the Reno during the witching hours, but suggest you follow our lead and avoid witnessing anything that may lead to a subpoena.
Our new friend also offered us some more history on John, who is apparently quite the guitarist and tried to make it big in the ’60s. The Reno hosts concerts from time to time and John will sit in with the band. This is something we will have to check out when we get the chance.
Since it was getting late, we got our tab. We immediately verified that everything was included, since the total was unbelievably low. We suggest taking advantage of the cheap prices and tipping generously. They deserve it.
As we left, we overheard one regular ask his neighbor if he wanted to do shots. He suggested that they could shoot either Fireball or “something classy.” Fireball it was. Overall, a great first (but certainly not last) visit to the Reno Club.
Readers, you may be surprised that we were so enamored with this tavern, that we would go so far as to call it our favorite thus far when we’ve been less than thrilled with other recent visits.
The thing is, we hate chains or anything that feels similarly generic. We’ve visited too many cookie-cutter businesses that boast of their local status but offer nothing distinctive. Our goal is to seek out unique taverns that truly care about their patrons. We understand that many bars will treat their regulars well, but we’re more interested in how they treat newcomers on their first visit.
We will not include reviews of anywhere we would be considered “regulars” for exactly that reason. We hope you join us on our quest to get outside our comfort zone and explore the full breadth of what this city has to offer. Maybe you’ll make a new friend or discover a new favorite. Cheers.
Great staff that will show you a good time.
Possibly the friendliest, most inclusive crowd of regulars we’ve found.
Cheap. Insanely cheap.
Rumored to become less hospitable after 8 p.m.
Yes, it’s dark and a little dingy inside. We noticed.
Stained glass may be haunted.
Chapter 1—The Squire Lounge.
Chapter 2—The Alpine Casino.
Chapter 3—Buck’s Bar.
Chapter 4—Stadium Club.
Chapter 5—Bones Arcade.
Chapter 6—Southern Empire Emporium.
Chapter 7—The Holiday Inn.
Chapter 8—The Tap Inn.
Chapter 9—Fiddler’s Green.
Chapter 10—The Den.
Chapter 11—CJ’s Bar and Grill.