I remember driving through Centre County about 15 years ago and eating breakfast at a small restaurant off of U.S. Route 322 in Boalsburg. It was a nice place, and I remember thinking I’d like to eat there as often as possible, when I was passing through.
But it closed eventually and that was that. Little did I know it hadn’t just closed, it had undergone a metamorphosis at the hands of Kelly’s Steak and Seafood owner Sean Kelly and then-local music connoisseur Terry Ricketts.
It morphed into The Bar, a Centre County icon with a cult-like following ... a warm and friendly cult.
“Sean wanted to open up a blue-collar, working-class, rootin’-tootin’ smoking bar for people to hang out in,” manager Johnathan “Chyers” Myers said. “That’s what he kept calling it, a ‘rootin’-tootin’’ place.”
If that was the goal, mission accomplished.
There are a lot of places to listen to music in Centre County, each with its own vibe, each with its own scene. Some are places where people come to hear music, some are places people go to eat and drink, some are a little bit of both and some are places still searching for an identity.
Then, there’s The Bar, a decidedly self-aware, self-actualized venue that makes no qualms about what it is and what it hopes to be.
The Bar is known locally as a super-casual throwback music place where people go to relax and have a good time with each other. There are a few TVs on the walls and there’s a pinball machine, but otherwise it has a short bar, some tables and high-tops and a gritty but welcoming ambience.
“I like it for what it is — a hometown bar that’s easy to walk into and get a drink,” patron Seth Walker said. “The prices are great and the service is spot on. I choose that place because it’s got great live music.”
You can hear live music at The Bar at least once a week, and sometimes Thursday through Saturday, depending on the availability of musicians. It is thought of fondly by musicians throughout central Pennsylvania for how easy it is to secure a gig and how appreciative the crowd is — a crowd that knows the musicians are working for tips, which is a rarity in Centre County.
“The Bar is one of my favorite places to play because of the people,” Strayer and the Dogs band leader Bill Strayer said. “They appreciate good, honest music. As a musician you can be free to try new things and original music. It’s always a blast to play at The Bar.”
One feature of The Bar is that smoking inside is allowed — and maybe even encouraged — but Kelly and Myers do their best to mitigate potential patrons’ aversion to sitting in a bar room filled with smoke.
“I know the cigarette smoke bothers a lot of people, but if you can get past the cigarette smoke, we do our best to make people feel comfortable,” Myers said. “We have a smoke filtration system, and since we got it fixed it’s not as bad as it used to be. A lot of people see we’re a smoking friendly bar and they’re deterred from it, but this place is a little gem. We’re trying to accommodate everybody.”
The Bar is also gearing up for a complete renovation starting in early February and ending in April, during which time the establishment will remain open. After this renovation, the second in the life of The Bar, the inside will be bigger and there will be a formal stage for musicians.
“We’re going to knock down a couple walls, make the bar bigger for more seats and put a stage in the back to start gettin’ a better music scene going on in here,” Myers said. “We’re also incorporating a shuffle board table, and we’re going to try to open up and get more seats so we have a higher occupancy.”
The remodeling will also benefit how the musicians are paid when they perform at The Bar.
“You’re playing for tips, you’re playing for draft beer and an occasional shot of liquor,” Myers said. “With the remodel we’re trying to open it up a little bit better, but we’re not trying to change too much. I want the bands to have more incentive to play here. I know the money’s not here, and I get that.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.