"There's no place quite
like Larry's," reads the graffito on the restroom wall. It is
signed, "Chris from S.F. who used to live here." And it sums
up the feelings of the people who over the years have made the
OSU-area bar a genuine legend.
Larry's is the dump of a place on North High Street that Woodruff
Avenue dead-ends into, its green facade and two gray doors wedged
between a taco joint and a photo studio. Either door admits
patrons to a small foyer. They can read the bulletin board
on the right wall if they lean over the tangle of bicycles.
Almost any item, service, entertainment, or cause is advertised -
for sale, for notice, or for participation. In a sense, this
community bulletin board is Larry's equivalent to the door of the
family refrigerator, but, when you open the wood-framed glass door
into the bar itself, you know you're not at Mom's.
The green neon sign outside, reading simply "Larry's," replaces an
older one now stored in the basement. "The Lawrence Grill"
opened in 1934 in a rented space at 2040 N. High, back when
civilization ended at Morse Road. The little Paoletti family
business served food, beer and wine while the institution of
higher learning across the street encroached northward.
Back in the last '60s, some of the people who now frequent Larry's
wanted to burn down the place across the street, or denounce it,
or wake it up. They would come panting in to recuperate
after a day on the bullhorns and barricades. It was a
visionary time, and some of the best, and worst, visions in
Columbus were born of musings and anger over a bottle-cluttered
table at Larry's.
Nowadays, many of these same philosophers settle in at the same
tables, 10 years older, to rouse the younger rabble with tales of
the days they closed the gates at 11th and Neil and stared down
rifle bores at 15th and High.
The younger listeners weren't there, of course. But many of
them wish they had been. They come into Larry's wearing Army
surplus clothing and leather-laced hats: if fate has decreed they
miss the revolution, they can at least look the part.
But it was not any kind of counterculture revolution that set
Larry's on its present course. It was the most respectable
of all conflicts, World War II, that did the trick.
Most male OSU students were drafted and sent off to fight the
Germans and the Japanese. Those males who remained on campus
were either 4-F or were soldiers assigned to special on-campus
Sam fed the soldiers, so they eschewed the cuisine at the Lawrence
Grill in favor of The spirits. Dan Paoletti, who works the
bar part-time today, says that when his grandfather "realized we
were selling more wine and beer than food to the soldiers, he
pulled the white tablecloths off the tables."
And that was the end of The Lawrence Grill . . . as a restaurant.
The kitchen is still in operation; regulars report that it
produces some of the best pizza and sandwiches in the area.
But Larry's fame is not based on its food. It is based,
instead, on the feel of the place itself.
"Sometimes," Dan Paoletti says, "older-type people will come in,
usually around homecoming time, sit at the bar, order a beer, and
look around. After a while, they wave to me, shake their
heads, and they all say, 'it hasn't changed . . ."
And it hasn't, at least not the important things. The room
is longer than it is wide, the original bar running along the
north wall, the original dark booths lining the south wall, and
ranks of tables and mismatched chairs scattered in between.
The floor area is divided roughly in half lengthwise by the spine
of an old radiator (it's the best place to sit in the winter) and
three supports bearing coat hooks and wine posters. Ceiling
fans hang over the booth aisle and, in the steamiest weather, they
rotate lazily to stir the haze. There have been peanut
shells on Larry's linoleum since long before they became trendy.
Generally, the decor is faded Formica and sticky mahogany, uneven
ceiling tiles and hard wooden bar stools that don't spin well, if
So why do people
come? "If Woody Allen came to Columbus, he'd jam at
Larry's," says an engineering graduate student, and sometimes
amateur jazz musician.
If Woody Allen did show up, and it was a Monday night, there would
be a jazz group already there waiting for him, in a spot near the
back where some tables have been shoved aside. There is no
cover charge for the 'make-you-forget-it's-Monday" music.
Instead, 20 cents is added to the price of each glass of wine or
beer. This pro-ration system is based on the theory that the
more you listen, the more you'll probably drink, in which case
it's only fair that you pay for a greater share of the vibes.
But, aside from the music on Mondays, many of Larry's customers
come because Larry's is the surrogate living room of the
counterculture - the real counterculture of the '60's and
early '70s and what passes for it in the late '70s. There is
a mix of fading flower children and pipe-smoking intellectuals,
foreign students who long for the atmosphere of a European cafe
and ex-Beatniks who yearn to return to the days of the
is, in the words of its official T-shirt, the meeting place of the
"Epistemological and Metaphysical Society of Lower Woodruff
usually a philosophical discussion in progress among the old
regulars. Frequently, one or more graduate seminar groups
will be thrashing out some problem.
Someone looking for a lively discussion can always find one.
The quiet types can shuffle in and, on Sundays, grab a cup of
coffee and share with other patrons the various sections of the
Dispatch and the New York Times that are scattered over
the tables. There are chess boards available at the bar.
On Sunday evenings, a hot game of "Risk" begins around 6 o'clock.
Some of the people who come to Larry's do so because, in the old
days, it was the only place they could go. The rumor
persists that Larry's is a "fag bar."
The rumors started in the '50's, when Larry's was, for a time, a
fraternity bar, of all things. The fraternity men came, as
the soldiers had before them, for the beer. But it didn't
sit too well with some of them, back in those less-enlightened
years, that the Paoletti family refused to turn away "niggers and
reputation, whether deserved or undeserved, persists. An
anonymous male calls in once a month or so to warn he's about to
come down and "blow the queens away." Very young students
sometimes catcall as they walk past in the wee hours of the
morning. A newcomer to Columbus, asked if he wants to visit
Larry's says, "But I heard that was a fag bar." Former OSU
students whose careers encompass two decades react the same way.
So it is probably a good thing for the sake of history that there
is documented evidence of the bar's fraternity heritage. A
group of Greeks, it seems, once slave well into the night on a
crepe-paper homecoming float, only to have it melt in a heavy
rain. A weathered photo shows the float's soggy remains
bearing the placard: "The hell with it - gone to Larry's."
After a valiant attempt to keep Larry's their own exclusive
territory, the fraternity men finally took their self-styled
integrity and their business elsewhere, leaving Larry's to those
whose main color concern was whether the wine was red or white, or
the beer dark or light.
But the fraternity influence, if gone, is not entirely forgotten.
For the past 12 years or so, the Saturday of spring finals week
has been highlighted by Larry's Prom. On that magical night,
the area the Monday night jazz group occupies is cordoned off with
crepe-paper streamers (in memory of the deceased float) and the
customers pretend they're having a dance.
One year it was by "invitation only," except someone forged
invitations so everyone came anyway. That was also the year
costumes were the thing. The place, attendees report, was so
packed it was difficult to keep the finery from getting jostled
off in the crowd. To the strains of Debussy, Herbie Hancock
and Mongo Santamaria, the Happy Robots, Pimples, Pirates, Roller
Derby Queens (with skates), and New Year's Babies mixed until
closing under the eyes of the Beethoven poster. Things have
since calmed down; the only dress requirement for this year's Prom
was that patrons be dressed.
Not that it's always anything goes at Larry's. The staff is
under strict orders to eject anyone smoking pot on the premises,
or sleeping. Children tagging along with their parents can't
order beers, of course, so they must content themselves with
sipping a soft drink and mooching an occasional cashew from
someone at another table.
The resident dog, like the carriage horse in Emerald City, never
looks the same twice and manages to become completely invisible
when a newcomer remarks, "hey . . . a dog!"
Although Larry's accommodates anyone who walks in, feels
comfortable and doesn't "act outrageous" (e.g., "lights
firecrackers." cites Dan), a few people can't come back.
About 10 years ago a "list of undesirables" was posted, banning
certain persons who hung out at a defunct burger joint next door.
The personae non gratae, in true radical fashion, picketed
waiter recalls that police assistance was requested several years
ago to convince some rowdies to leave. The peace-breakers
had, the waiter says, insulted his friend, and when invited to go
away, they began shooting.
There are a lot of stories about Larry's - some true, some not,
and some downright confused. A few examples: you can't park
at the back door because the gravel covers the roof of the
basement bowling lanes (true). Larry's was a speakeasy and
the first area bar to open legally after Prohibition was repealed
(maybe). Folk-protest singer/musician Phil Ochs got his
start at Larry's (true). The booths (or seats or tables)
contain secret panels concealing secret compartments in which
contraband, type material was stored in "those days" (this from a
19-year old who assures you he's been a regular since 1960).
And just about everyone claims to remember that Larry's
appeared on a list of the 10 (or 20) bars in the U.S. that are
"must-sees." No one can recall in which national magazine it
was printed or in which year. (Votes are evenly split
between Playboy and Esquire.)
Whether or not the source of the honor can be pinpointed, people
in such places as San Francisco, New Orleans, New York and
Montreal have heard enough, or read enough, about the place to ask
visitors, "From Columbus, huh? Have you ever been to
Larry's?" The question is asked far more often than might be
expected for a worn little bar that didn't serve high beer on
Sunday until three years ago. But the potables have never
been the attraction at Larry's; the people always have.
There are, very definitely, "Larry's people," and each inwardly
relishes the label. Each has private reasons for turning in
at the door and shares an amazing degree of benign tolerance for
the strange collection of humanity at the other tables or in the
aisles. Some have been regulars since the new sign was hung;
others became regulars on their first visit. All consider
Larry's their bar, and very few understand why.
Bill has been at Larry's "for about eight years," he thinks.
"I don't know why I work here . . . . That's an answer in itself.
I guess it's because of Larry. Where else could I have a
boss who pauses behind the bar last week asks me what I might know
about Julian the Apostate?" The waiter lacks a few credits
for a doctorate in philosophy. He lives upstairs in "a messy
Larry's isn't for
everyone. Someone's mother once spent here first - and last
- visit sitting in the corner of a booth, crying. Those who
aspire to become Larry's people have to know the rules.
Larry's regulars operate on what could be termed the Snowball
Theory of Social Intercourse. New arrivals stop at the bar
and place an order or flag down a waiter if one happens to amble
by, look around to see who else is in the place, try to overhear
some of the conversations and check out which dog is on duty.
If they see no one they would care to sit with, they sit alone;
within a few minutes, someone they may or may not know will
probably pull up a chair and sit down. Unless the
conversation is very personal, would-be joiners are never
discouraged. Soon, a small crowd may be gathered. The
growing collection of empty beer bottles is pushed to the end of
the table; periodically, a waiter comes by, throws the empties
with a flourish into a tall can and brings more beer.
There are long-legged young women in cutoff jeans and hiking boots
to admire; poets who have been accepted for publication to rejoice
with; artists who have just been granted a big commission to
celebrate with. There are even a few scholars trying to
study in the midst of the chatter and the music and the shattering
And amidst this
real-life floor show there is the mournful-looking man behind the
bar, dressed in a timeless long-sleeved pastel shirt with white
buttons and loose-fitting trousers, looking like Marlon Brando in
the final scenes of The Godfather. When he's not
moving to fill some order or other, he will be standing with one
arm leaning on the bar, a cup of instant coffee in his hand, his
thumb hooked around the spoon still sitting in the cup.
Larry Paoletti's hair is white, perhaps from 30 years of
struggling to make money while keeping the beer affordable for
even the poorest graduate student.
Ask him what it is that makes Larry's what it is, and he is likely
to shrug, look away for a moment, then look back with a slow smile
that never quite makes it to his eyes.
Larry gave up an engineering career at Rockwell International to
run his family's refuge for the counterculture, but he insists the
bar is nothing special - just a beer joint like so many other
campus beer joints.
stands behind his bar, watching the people who call his place
home, dumps their ashtrays, serves them their beer and waits for
their latest ideas to form in the haze rising above their heads.