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Surly Girl Saloon to Close Doors After 10 Years in The Short North

Walker Evans Walker Evans Surly Girl Saloon to Close Doors After 10 Years in The Short NorthPhotos via Columbus Food League.
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When the Surly Girl Saloon opened in the north end of the Short North in late 2005, the neighborhood was a much different place.

“There was no Jackson Building when we opened, and the old Goody Boy was a magnet for crime,” explains Surly co-owner Elizabeth Lessner. “We used to regularly chase prostitutes out of the Surly Girl Parlor and we had to watch arms for band aids as people giving blood next door liked the buzz of having a cocktail afterwards, which was very dangerous. We watched drug deals go down on the old cement couch across the street and people boldly broke into cars in our lot, even on camera. Spirits on High was still open and it made Mike’s Grill down the street seem tame. It was crazy back then.”

Now that the neighborhood has changed, Lessner, along with partners Marcy Mays and Carmen Owens says that Surly Girl has accomplished what it set out to do, and the time has come to move on. The restaurant and bar plans to close its doors on Sunday, April 26th.

“After almost 10 years, it feels like we’ve met all the challenges of the neighborhood and the space itself and done what we came to do,” said Owens. “Upgrading the kitchen from two little pizza ovens to a real line, evolving the food and drink menus from more experimental fare to solid crowd favorites, and seeing the north end of the Short North come in to its own has been a great ride. It just feels like it’s up to another generation of businesses and residents to keep the ball rolling here.”

“We were there when we needed to be there, but we really aren’t needed there anymore,” added Lessner.

The Surly Girl owners announced to their staff this weekend that they had come to the difficult decision to close down. While the restaurant business has always been good, the owners have decided that they no longer have the capacity and desire to be actively involved in daily operations in the business as they did when it first opened ten years ago.

“The three Surly Girls have some cool new things to pursue: Marcy is focused on Ace of Cups, Carmen has some projects up her sleeve, and I’m working on some projects out of state,” said Lessner. “The three of us can’t devote what’s needed and we didn’t want to run a business remotely.”

The closure of Surly Girl marks the end of the third Columbus Food League restaurant over the past year — Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits closed last summer and The Jury Room followed in November. During almost that same time period, three more restaurants have opened: The Torpedo Room at the Gateway Film Center, a second Dirty Frank’s in Westgate, and The Chintz Room Downtown. While the changes have been frequent, Lessner says that the organization is on solid footing as a whole.

“My brother Tim and I bought the Tip Top building last year and he’s always been the major player there — we plan to always be there,” she said. “The Chintz Room has been a going very well, and we are very happy to be there. The other restaurants are also humming along nicely and are being run by my partners.”

While the Betty’s closure came with six months of advance notice to customers and staff, the Jury Room closure was a bit more abrupt. Lessner offered employees from both restaurants the opportunity to transfer over to other CFL restaurants, which she said nearly all staff took them up on. Surly Girl staff have all been offered the same opportunity.

It’s always sad to lose a business,” said Lessner. “I grew up in Betty’s and Surly Girl and I’ve personally been grieving the closure of both. To be honest, I still skip driving down the strip of High St where Betty’s was. I miss it a lot.”

Skipping over the stretch of High Street has gotten easier for Lessner in recent months as she has moved on to other ventures outside of Ohio.

“I can’t say just yet what I’m doing — but right now I’m focusing on some projects in Texas and Oklahoma, so I’ve been out there quite a bit recently.”

Owens plans to refocus her efforts this summer in the Discovery District.

“I actually left grad school to start Surly Girl and I’m considering going back in a few years, but my immediate plan is to focus on Grass Skirt full time,” she said. “We started working on the Surly concept when I was 29, and I’m going to turn 40 in a year and a half, so I started taking stock of how I wanted to spend my time. I want to get to where I’m not needed in two places at once, and focus on making Grass Skirt the best it can be as that neighborhood grows with us.”

For more information, visit www.surlygirlsaloon.com.

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