By Tom Robotham
For the last 10 years, The Taphouse in Ghent has been my home away from home—my “Cheers,” if you will. I started going there in 2008 after the end of a long marriage and quickly got to know the staff and regulars. There was great comfort in that. When you suddenly find yourself living alone again in midlife, it’s nice to find a place where everybody knows your name.
Many of the people I met there, in fact, became more than just drinking buddies. I have the Taphouse to thank for a number of close and lasting friendships. Thanks to former employee Gabe Baesen, who booked bands from all over the country in those days, I also saw countless memorable shows, some by bands, such as Lake Street Dive, that have gone on to establish international reputations.
Not that the place was without its flaws. The bathrooms, for a long time, were notoriously awful, and a number of women I know wouldn’t go to the bar as a result. A few years back, it also suffered from roiling turnover in the staff and a host of related problems. It got so bad at one point that I stopped going there myself for several months—a significant hiatus, given how much the place had meant to me.
Thankfully, under the supervision of bar-manager Parker Harrington, who took over in March 2016, things began to settle down again. Parker, along with many regulars, recognized the pub’s enormous potential—but because he didn’t own it, his ability to tap that potential was limited. Now, I’m happy to report, he’s been liberated: Early last month, he announced that he and his fiancé, Adelaide Rooney, had purchased the bar.
It didn’t take long for him to begin tackling some of the major problems—notably those bathrooms, which have been completely refurbished. There’s also a fresh coat of paint on the walls, and the well-worn concrete floor has been sanded down and will soon be resealed.
Some of the other renovations will not be evident to customers but are important, nonetheless.
“We pulled out every piece of kitchen equipment that could be moved, and scrubbed them clean,” said Adelaide. “We had a private company that does inspections come in, and they didn’t find much wrong. But my standard of clean is higher than that.” Further exemplifying this point, she noted that they replaced the dishwasher, and when they pulled it out found that they had to replace the wall behind it as well because of excess moisture.
Recognizing that live music has always been a draw, they also plan to build a breezeway, or vestibule, off the patio door, and move the stage to a spot immediately behind it. That will help with sound, as well as air-conditioning and heating flow, they said. Additionally, there are plans to upgrade the sound and lighting systems.
Meanwhile, Parker said, they’re going to be more selective about the bands that they bring in.
“The summer’s pretty much booked, and we’re going to honor those bookings. But in the long run, we don’t want have shows just for the sake of having them. People need to be able to trust that if they’re coming here for music it’s going to be good.”
They also want to commit to a wider range of start times. Over the years, most of the shows have started at 10 or later. Recently, however, the Taphouse hosted two Sunday shows in the early evening, and they went over extremely well.
“Those Sunday matinees are going to become a thing,” Parker said, “and more than likely they’ll all be free. There’s something to be said for capping your weekend off with a good show, then going home and getting a good night’s sleep before work on Monday.”
Their goal eventually, in fact, is to make many of the shows cover-free, while offering the bands minimum guarantees, and then move forward in faith that people will come because of the reputation for good music.
In addition to live shows, they’re considering adding a karaoke night, while retaining non-music events, like Trivia night on Tuesdays, which is quite popular already.
Then there are plans to upgrade the menu, keeping staples like their popular cheeseburgers, but adding more vegetarian and vegan options.
It is Parker’s and Adelaide’s hope that a lot of these changes will attract more women to the bar.
“Women have different priorities and different needs,” said Adelaide, reiterating my earlier point about the bathrooms, but noting that she has other things in mind as well. “The ownership here never had a female presence, so you didn’t have that representation,” she said. “A lot of women I know only drink wine,” she said, for example. “Earlier today I met with wine rep. We’re not going to give wine the same emphasis as a place like Mermaid Winery. But if somebody only drinks wine, then they’ll have something delicious to drink.”
That said, the Taphouse’s focus on a large beer selection won’t change. Unfortunately, in recent years, the bar has had problems with refrigeration, which resulted in inconsistent beer temperatures. Ensuring that the beer is cold will be another high priority.
Parker said that many of these things will be accomplished soon, at which point they’ll begin turning their attention to “phase two,” which will include refinishing the tables and adding new seating, indoors and out.
“We don’t want to get into too much detail at this point,” said Adelaide, “because we want some of the changes to be a surprise. But we definitely want to make the outdoor space more dynamic and interesting.”
As they talked about their plans, one thing came through loud and clear—their sense of dedication and passion. I know the previous owner, and he’s a great guy, but he wasn’t on site very much, and toward the end his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. In fact, if Parker and Adelaide hadn’t stepped up, the place would likely have closed.
Parker’s and Adelaide’s personal commitment is of fundamental importance. One can own a 7-Eleven franchise, or something, and live halfway across the country. It doesn’t need to have its own distinctive character. Owning a bar, it seems to me, is a different story. It’s the sort of business that thrives only if the owners are invested in the life and spirit of the place, in addition to the bottom line.
“We weren’t planning on this,” Adelaide said. “We were planning to get married and have kids pretty soon. We traded a wedding for a bar, so this place means a lot to us. In fact, it was right here in this parking lot that Parker and I had our first kiss.
“It means so much to a lot of people,” she added. “I know many who refer to this place as their second living room.”
Their commitment extends beyond the bar. They are committed to making this a better community. Parker told me, for example, that they are looking into a recycling program “because there is far too much waste in the restaurant business.”
To my mind, however, the bar itself is a service to the community. They agree.
“It’s a lot like a coffeeshop,” Adelaide noted, where people can go and have great conversations.”
One feature that always appealed to me is the broad age range of the patrons—during the best of times, at any rate. It always drew a lot of 20-somethings, but on many evenings, I also ran into families with young children, as well as elderly folks. That is what has made it a true neighborhood pub, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill bar.
In spite of this, the Taphouse, during certain periods in its history, developed a reputation—deserved, or not—for being cliquey. Parker and Adelaide are committed to ensuring that this is no longer the case.
“We very much want it to feel inclusive for everyone,” Adelaide said.
In short, they want to clean it up and add new features, while retaining the fundamental character that has made it unique in this city.
“We don’t want to get rid of the history of this place, by any means,” Parker said. “It’s been here for 23 years, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be here for 23 more.”