Photo by Jacob DeSmit
Athens, with 20 bars, and counting, can sometimes seem like a drinker’s paradise. With the bars in such close proximity, competition keeps drink prices low, and that crowding makes pub-crawls easily accessible. It really is a booze-soaked dream.
With legal-aged students in abundance, Court Street bustles with blissed out crowds, but the constant overcrowding can become burdensome for those seeking a quiet night out, or even some good service.
Swarms that never cease lead to these uptown bars getting lax about cleanliness, attentiveness to customers, and unique offerings. It’s great that I can get a $2 beer almost anywhere, but having to wait 15 minutes for a look from a bartender while my shoes stick to a grimy floor gets old, and yes, sometimes I crave more than a Bud Light.
Enter West End Cider House.
Athens’ newest bar is a different beast altogether, and it starts with its location. Tucked quietly away at the corner of West Washington and Shafer streets, West End Cider House occupies the building space of the former West End Tavern that sat vacant for over a decade. The new bar seems to revel in the past and precedent that the old bar set, keeping the big, beautiful storefront window and horseshoe bar almost exactly the same.
Athens tradition rests literally right outside of the door, with bricks and blocks from Athens, Nelsonville, Hocking, and Trimble paving the sidewalk out front. West End Cider House is gorgeously lit by natural light during the day, thanks to its big windows. Customers are greeted by the sounds of artists like Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, and Robert Lockwood coming from the speakers upon arrival. Needless to say, the vibe is a little different than the other bars around town.
A retro look of brass and wood keep things simple, and that old-time feeling is only amplified when a bartender with big, mutton chop sideburns asks me what I’m having and hands me a menu. The first thing that pops out are the prices: the average house cocktail will cost you around $8, like the Moscow Mule, a mix of locally crafted vodka, ginger, fresh lime, soda and hopped grapefruit bitters. If you want to get in the mood even further, you can have the Mule served to you in a copper mug, but a deposit is required.
As the name suggests, West End Cider House specializes in locally sourced and fermented hard cider. Two big, metal fermentation devices sit adjacent to the bar and are ferment batches that will be ready in the spring, while wines and meads age in large barrels in the back. Cider House owner Deanna Schwartz teamed up with Kelly Sauber, a local cider maker and distiller, to craft the bar’s house ciders and signature cocktails. Sauber owns Fifth Element Distillery in Shade, and the Fifth Element brand serves as the bar’s house liquors.
After scanning the somewhat overwhelming options on the menu, I settle on Original Sin Elderberry cider from New York. It’s red, sweet and unlike anything I could get anywhere else in town, maybe barring Jackie O’s. It’s also delicious and only costs me $5.
The bar top is clean, adorned with small vases of flowers in multiple spots. Behind the bar is a horde of expensive and exotic-looking bottles, but they don’t look to be there just for decoration. In other Athens bars, where Knob Creek and Oyo may go untouched, these bottles sit half empty.
West End Cider House is relatively busy for 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. The bartender tells me they’ve had a steady flow of customers since opening in May. A group of med students sit at the end of the bar opposite of me, with one saying audibly “it’s nice to venture off Court Street,” while clutching one of those copper mugs. All of the different ciders, craft brews, meads and wines available keep customers adventurous, even curious about the upscale drinks that they aren’t accustomed to.
“What’s that?” asks one patron as the bartender mixes something in a glass.
“Just coffee,” he says with a laugh, “but there’s vanilla bitters in there.”
The bar is cozy, but there’s plenty of seating. There are couches in the back next to coffee tables with magazines like Distiller and Whiskey Advocate resting atop. An intimate patio rests behind the building where patrons can go for some air or a smoke. For all of the classic touches, West End Cider House also sports some modern marvels; iPads serve as registers, a new flat-screen LG TV hangs on the wall, and a water free urinal waits in the bathroom for guys needing to break the seal.
As far as food goes, Cider House keeps things easy. Customers are offered preparation-free treats like meat and cheese trays and locally made pretzel chips, kettle corn, breads, and nuts. Fruits and vegetables from indigenous crops are offered too, which are available to eat and or be blended with many of the cocktails.
For all of its many charms, West End Cider House is still a bit pricey for a broke college student, so I order just one more cider – Vander Mill Blue Gold from Michigan, a 16 oz. tasty blueberry cider that runs for $6 – then I depart. Cider House isn’t somewhere on a college budget one could afford to visit all the time, but the experience is perfect when you’re either feeling ambitious with your drinking, your parents are in town, or you’re trying to get to know a potential special someone.
“It’s the perfect place to come before or after a date,” I overhear one patron say as I head out the door.
I’ll have to keep that in mind.