The oldest bar in the city, a two-story dive, is still standing, surviving 10 decades of change, rambunctious turns as a prohibition speakeasy, a gambling hall, jazz club and a burlesque.
But in its most enduring chapter, Tobacco Road is a remarkably ordinary, beloved neighborhood spot good for a drink, a meal, conversation and live music, blues and other stuff too.
A century’s worth of history calls for an outsized 100th birthday celebration — a two-day fete this weekend that was scheduled to end before sunrise Sunday morning. The bar hosted a string of Tobacco Road disciples, old bartenders and cooks, music lovers, neighbors, and the people who kept the seats warm over the ages. The birthday bash included drinks, food trucks and, of course, live music from Heavy Pets, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Iko-Iko, Spam Allstars, DJ LA Spam, Locos Por Juana, Artofficial and DJ Smooth, among others.
Tobacco Road and neighboring properties were sold to a developer, and as part of the deal, the bar was granted a three-year lease. After that, the future is uncertain.
So what is this dear centenarian’s secret to longevity, health and a steady stream of customers?
A formula that works: “Over the years, I think people have loved Tobacco Road because it crosses over, it appeals to young people, old people, lawyers and construction workers, good guys, bad guys,’’ says owner Patrick Gleber, who purchased the place in three decades ago. “It’s not meant for one group. It’s for everybody.’’
A little bit of luck: “I was managing a wine bar in The Falls. It was St. Patrick’s Day, 1982. When I went to look at the bar, I was outside and looked down and saw the name Dee in the concrete. That was my mother’s name,’’ Gleber recalls. “When I went back with a friend, I found a rabbit’s foot in the gutter and when I was in my car leaving, Johnny Winter’s Tobacco Road was playing on the radio. I got hit in the head with all the signs.’’
A great back story: “It’s historic nature attracts a lot of interest. People want to know more about this place with this incredible history,’’ says Rich Ulloa, owner of Y&T Music, who has booked acts at the bar since the early 1990s. “The place is iconic, a great gathering place for music and socializing.’’
Music, music, music: “There would be no live music scene without Tobacco Road,’’ says Woody Graber, a publicist who specializes in live music and concerts. “They brought in great blues music and provided a quality atmosphere for performances and, without them, a lot of other clubs simply would not exist.’’