History Lesson: Revisiting The Clarmont
The Clarmont will be revived for one night next Tuesday at Alana’s Food and Wine (2333 North High Street) as the 4th installment of the Columbus Historical Society’s Historic Supper Club series started by CU’s own Anne Evans. After having celebrated the Kahiki, the Jai Lai and most recently, the Maramor, I was excited to get out some of the stories of the Clarmont. Little did I know how many stories this legendary power breakfasting spot of local politicos and Downtown titans would have to offer.
So lets start at the beginning. All of the historians and even the local papers make the claim that the Clarmont began in 1948 and was 65 years old when it closed its doors in 2013. Imagine my surprise when I came across an article from the June 24, 1948 edition of the Ohio state journal that ran with the headline Clarmont Restaurant Moves to New Location. The article goes on to report:
The Clarmont Restaurant has moved to 684 S High St – five doors down the street from its old location where it was established for the past 10 years.
So now it can be reported that the Restaurant was actually 75 years old when it closed, having been a part of Columbus history for a decade longer than previously thought.
This was not the first surprise I would come across in researching the venerable watering hole. For instance, I had only heard of Mr. Frank Kondos as being the owner. In another article from 1948, the unnamed reporter from the Columbus Citizen writes about an interview he had with Proprietors Frank Kondos and Ray Milner. Again, conventional wisdom held that the Clarmont was solely owned by Kondos and this was the first mention of a partner in the business. The two owners share with the paper that since the July 1948 re-opening of the Clarmont.
… (it) had the largest volume of patronage in the partners experience in the restaurant business. Kondos gave these reasons for the upsurge:
The Clarmont’s reputation for fine steaks and “exceptional” fried chicken; the addition of the latest type of cooking utensils; a new “no smoke” air-conditioning system; the Clarmont’s new buff brick building and adjoining lighted parking lot.
The restaurant also doubled its seating from the previous location. The new space included modern red leather wall booths, recessed neon lighting and Cape Cod wallpaper. Interestingly enough, the previous spot is still known today as it was then. Long before it was a gay bar, the Tremont Restaurant was home to fine dining and “exceptional” fried chicken as served up by the owner’s chef.
Another draw was Vivian Boeshaar. She had been playing the Hammond organ at the Tremont since 1945 and traveled 5 doors up to continue playing at the new Clarmont. I asked my good friend Jerry Glick if he recalled hearing Vivian play and his response was “ Oh yes – in fact, I would go there as a kid with my grandmother in the 1940s and she was still playing when I went there as an adult in the 70s and 80s! The great thing about Vivian is that she would remember a couple’s favorite song and as they came in the door, she would play a few bars of it as a musical greeting”
Bob Thomas did an interview with her in 1995 for his book Columbus Unforgetables and he confirms what Jerry told me. He writes:
Boeshaar, who is blessed with a touch of showmanship, played quiet and unobtrusive background music for the dinner trade. Her choice of tunes was on target – current hits and Broadway show music. Her musical score also gave the “oldies” their fair share. Boeshaar recalls that Coach Woody Hayes, a frequent patron, knew all the words to those tunes.
Nightly, Boeshaar would recognize birthdays with a musical encore. Other highlights in her memory are about these special folks. “Charlie” Nicklaus, Jack’s father, has a favorite: The Tennessee Waltz. Edgar T. Wolfe Sr. loved Vivian’s rendition of Little Old Lady.
Frank Kondos was quite the showman himself and after having owned the restaurant for a decade or more decided it was time to show off a little of his good fortune. Apparently, he really wanted to trade in the Cadillac he had been driving for something that really made a splash. According to Doral Chenoweth (a.k.a. the Grumpy Gourmet )what he really wanted was a Rolls Royce. And not just any old Rolls but one that was all white. “paint, steering wheel, steering column, carpets and even a white fur rug”.
It took a full year for him to take delivery because every Rolls is built to the exact whim and specifications of the owner. This meant that he was able to order a long body touring limousine without a divider between the driver and the passenger. It seems that Kondos wanted to drive himself so he also ordered that the automobile be built with the American convention of the steering wheel on the left as opposed to the British right-sided model.
The all white touring limousine arrived on March 17, 1966 and Kondos often parked it right in front of the restaurant.
He sold the restaurant – but not the limo – to Barry Zacks in 1972. Barry is likely best known to local foodies as the founder of Max & Erma’s. (He is even credited by many in the restaurant industry as having coined the term “gourmet burger”).
Barry kept many of the favorite dishes, Vivian and as many of the long-time servers as he could. For instance, Betty Dotson claims that the better part of her 53 year career as server was spent at the Clarmont. In a 2006 interview with the Columbus Dispatch, she said, “She’s been friends with many of the regular customers, in some cases serving five generations of families that made the Clarmont their restaurant of choice. She was called upon to think of her tables as her own little stores.”
Barry Zacks kept up another tradition that Kondos had begun. All of the servers had to memorize their orders. Even when he added computer stations to the restaurants, they had to know their orders cold.
The example the Grump gives is in the person of Perry Brannen:
In 1987, Perry was just completing her 37th year at The Clarmont, and had one of the most personal patronages in Columbus. On any given night, her station was filled with what the management called “request tables.” Gratuities from regular customers put Brannen in the ranks of top earners in Columbus. On a recent Saturday night, those regulars found her services worth $200 during her seven-hour shift.
Her local claim to fame is that for 36.7 years, she never took a note while taking orders. Her memory cells performed like a computer. Then, four months ago, The Clarmont linked server stations, bar, kitchen cooks and salad pantry with a real computer. Brannen has mastered bytes for bites and finds it all “very neat.” But, there goes her act.
I was able to chat with the Bill Bigelow who bought the Clarmont from Zacks in 1986 and he added this pithy bon mot of Perry – “Her secret was that she had been a sergeant in the army and she had such a presence that even when she did mess up, she would tell the patron that was exactly what they ordered!”
It was important to get all of the orders correct because they were not only serving the many regular folks who dined there; they were also serving the local titans of politics and business.
In the 1980s the Franklin County Commissioners had a regular weekly breakfast session at the Clarmont. Hugh DeMoss was the lone democrat at the time and was not included in the kaffee klatch with fellow commissioners Dorothy Teater and Jack Foulk.
He complained to the Dispatch in 1989 that he understood the politics but not the practice. The breakfast was so essential that he continued with:
“If I’m not mistaken, the letterhead says ‘Franklin County Board of Commissioners’ and lists three of them,” he said. “I’d like to be included.”
When the Clarmont closed, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown told the Columbus Dispatch that she would start her workday at the Clarmont two or three times a week from about 1993 to 2010. “It was kind of like Cheers: Everybody knew your name.”
Another upside, McGee Brown said, was how the Clarmont allowed people to be seen but not necessarily heard. “A lot of the fun was in people trying to figure out what those people over there were doing together.”
Former Columbus Mayor Dana G. “Buck” Rinehart said about the restaurant in 1997 “You can get a lot of work done. I can go table to table and see all the people I need.”
“What’s fascinating,” former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery once told The Dispatch, “is you sit at a table and you see who’s having breakfast with whom. The speculation — ‘Let’s see, John Doe is with Mary Smith and Jack Smith. Who’s up to what?’ Or, ‘Oh, there’s so and so. They must be getting ready to run for something.’ ”
Bill Bigelow shared with me that some of his favorite memories are some tricks that I pulled on a few of them when I would seat two opponents side-by-side looking at each other.
“Once I sat Franklin County Auditor Palmer McNeal and Franklin County Commissioner Dorothy Teater directly across from each other knowing full well that they were not on speaking terms. I sat her facing east and Palmer at the next booth facing west. You should have seen the the looks those two gave each other! Dorothy sort of jokingly said to me on her way out that she knew what I had done. She had a great sense of humor.”
But this was also the kind of place that could operate very informally. Bill also shared with me that a couple of people who had been long time patrons would arrive first thing for breakfast, enter from the back door and turn on the lights say hello to the cook and would even put the papers out for sale before they sat down.
“Part of the time in the mid 1990’s I also had Deibels as well. You know, the place with Esther Craw and her accordion. She was a character and Deibels was a fun place to operate.
I had moved here from NYC and in NYC for 10 years previous, I owned a saloon in the West Village, an old speakeasy really. We had very good food for a saloon. And that was sort of what Deibels was like. It was called Chumleys at 86 Bedford Street. Some people say that was where the term “86’ed” might have originated because during prohibition there was no sign and everyone went in the back door. When the police came in – people would yell 86 and they would run out the front door!
That’s also where the idea of staying open for Christmas dinner came about. He would dress it up with white tablecloth and candles and have a really elegant meal. He told me that it was difficult at first to convince the servers to agree to work the day, but when they discovered that they were making better tips that day than on New Years’ Eve – it turned the tide.
Bill also introduced an innovation to Columbus – the Showgoers Club. He shared with me that “I have always been interested in theatre and when a guy from Cleveland suggested that local restaurants could purchase tickets for the Broadway Series and the Symphony and allow the diners to have dinner and a show, I was very interested. However, I set up the Clarmont’s dinner and a show as a club. We even took trips to Chicago and NYC and I recall seeing Liza Minnelli as well as Frank Sinatra. We had such great times!”
Some things, though, nobody seemed to mess with at the Clarmont. In particular, it seems that the Clarmont always kept the Steaks, the Liver and Onions and especially the Banana Cream Pie front and center on the menu. Local jazz legend Arnett Howard has even claimed that the place was the favorite haunt of German Village mavens Fred Holdridge and Howard Burns. In large part, he said, “that was because of the smelts. The Clarmont was the kind of place where if you ordered a smelt, you got a smelt and not a sardine.”
Bill sold the Clarmont to Thom Coffman in 1996 and at one point just before the recent recession was kicking in considered demolishing the Clarmont and erecting a large multi-story residential and office building on the site as well as a newly rebuilt Clarmont restaurant.
He reported to the Columbus Dispatch in February 2007 that he and local realtor Peter Luft had actually received some initial drawings of the new space from architect Samuel Ingwersen:
Ingwersen said his design was inspired by the architectural concepts of firmness, commodity and delight. In other words, it needs to be structurally sound, make money and inspire tenants and customers.
Part of the delight comes in the form of a glass lantern at the top of the building that would be roughly the same size as the flame on the Statue of Liberty.
“When a steak goes on the grill, the lights flicker,” he said.
Ultimately, that did not pan and Thom closed the Clarmont on January 23, 2012.
So these are just a few of the stories that I was able to uncover in doing some research on the legendary Columbus steakhouse. I’m looking forward to hearing more from former owners Thom Coffman and Bill Bigelow next Tuesday night. If they are anything like what I’ve already heard, we will be in for a night filled with delicious food and remarkable memories!