You’ll get some debate if you start talking about Arnold’s in some establishments – there are people who don’t think it’s as old as it is, or want to claim that there are places that are “older” even though they weren’t continuously operating.
I’m here to tell you, they’re wrong – even if I’m coming from a partially emotional and not entirely historical point of view. (But that’s a different post, for a different day, isn’t it?)
Why Arnold’s Bar and Grill is Important To Cincinnati
There aren’t a lot of bars like Arnold’s left in the United States, let alone in Cincinnati (though we do have some great places to grab a drink). It feels like stepping into a time warp when you walk in – and I mean that in the absolute best way that you can mean it. Dark, old wood holds the stories of the people who drank at its bar. It’s dark, it’s warm… it’s ‘real’.
Arnold’s is a piece of what this city used to be, a time capsule of the good, the bad and the ugly sides of our story. Belly up to the bar and that story can definitely be relayed to you by someone who lived a part of it.
I’ll get into what Arnold’s is like in just a little bit – but let me tell you this, now. It’s not like most bars that you’ll find these days… and again, I mean that in the best way that you can mean a statement like that.
The History of Arnolds
We know Arnold’s is old – that much has been made clear. How old is it, though? Well… the actual place dates back to 1838, though not as a bar. Back then it was operated by Susan Fawcett as a brothel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… especially in early Cincinnati, but I’ll take a bar, personally.
In 1861 the bar was opened by Simon Arnold who lived upstairs and ran the bar downstairs. His family owned and operated the bar continuously for 98 years, and through three generations. It’s important to note continuously too… because we’re talking about it operating through prohibition, too. That’s right, Arnolds was a speakeasy. It passed from Simon Arnold to his son Hugo and finally to his grandson Elmer – staying exactly (or close to exactly) as it had always been… and that’s a big part of the charm of a place like Arnold’s, but we’ll get to that.
The “Modern” life of Arnold’s
In 1959, Elmer Arnold sold off the business Elmer Wiedemann, who only owned it for a few months before selling it off to Pro Wrestler (and rumored mob collector) Jim Christakos and his brother who also lived upstairs.
In 1976 Councilman Jim Tarbell (Mr. Cincinnati) bought the bar from the Christakos brothers. This era was a good one for Arnolds. The bar underwent a big expansion that included the new patio in the back, which definitely makes one of my favorite places to drink outside in the city.
In 1998, Ronda Breeden, a longtime Arnold’s serve, purchased the bar to run with her son Chris. If you’re up on your Cincinnati history, you’ll know what happens next.
The Struggle and The Light
Cincinnati hit a rough patch, to say the least in the early ’00s. The riots brought with them uncertainty about downtown, and things were rough for Arnold’s. Business took a major downturn, with Ronda being forced to max out credit cards, offer up lunches for under 4 dollars and more just to keep the business open. If you were the gas company, the electric company, or the like… I’m sure you remember this era for Arnold’s, as well.
But they never gave up. Ronda knew what Arnold’s was to a place like Cincinnati (and to the drinkers that lived here, even if they didn’t always remember). Today looks very different than it did back then. Arnold’s is doing great again, and it’s one of the best places in this city that you can belly up and grab a drink in Cincinnati these days.
If you want some fun history of the bar and a little deeper dive than I’m going into here, there is plenty of information out there including this great article from Cincinnati Magazine.
In 2019, Ronda announced that her son Chris would be taking over the ownership and operations of the bar full time with her retirement. With that… we enter into a new era!
What It’s Like
As I’ve already mentioned in this post – when you walk into Arnold’s you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve entered into some sort of Cincinnati bar time-warp. The floors have visible layers from the years of being refinished and preserved. The wooden bar dominates the narrow room that you walk into. Sure, you can make your way into the other dining parts of the establishment – but you can tell that this bar is the heart of it all.
There is a trend with today’s bar designers to build their establishments more open, brighter, more well lit… that’s not what Arnold’s is about. The construction of this bar is exactly what you’d expect it to be from the 1860s and that’s a beautiful thing.
There’s also that patio that we have to talk about – it’s one of… if not my favorite place to sit outside and have a beer in the summertime. Again, much like inside, the outside of Arnold’s is like stepping back in time, an oasis in the middle of a modern midwestern city. They host live music out there, they serve cold beer and great food – I’m sorry… if this isn’t what heaven is like, I can’t say that I want to go there very much.