All the Scoopapalooza About the Star Bar’s Rebirth
One particularly frustrating aspect of getting a bar up and running in Atlanta is waiting for code inspections to be conducted and the Mayor’s office to approve the liquor license application. On the positive side, the compulsory downtime does allow a prime opportunity to spruce up the joint before thirsty customers start traipsing in. Which is exactly what the new crew at the Star Community Bar did for the first two months of this year: put in new floor tile and ceiling tile, gave it a fresh interior and entranceway paint job, installed modern point-of-sale systems and basically sifted through and discarded about 30 years of accumulated debris. (To my amazement, no dead bodies were uncovered under the stairway.) But longtime Star Bar devotees and dive bar purists need not be troubled by this “much needed makeover,” according to incoming co-owner Dan Meade. “It’s gonna look a little different, but it’s gonna be the same Star Bar.”
With the joint having been closed since January 1, Meade and crew finally had liquor license in hand and were sweeping the floors one final time in preparation for its public reintroduction in mid-March…just as COVID-19 hit the United States in full force and state and city governments ordered restaurants and watering holes like the Star Bar closed, to “flatten the curve.” That was supposed to last approximately two weeks. Now here we are in late July and most bars and small music venues in Georgia are still closed up, although many could in fact reopen, if they chose, with reduced capacity. At long last, however, the Star Bar opened a week into July, if only the basement level: the cozy Little Vinyl Lounge and outdoor patio, accessed from the rear of the building. The upstairs room, where bands generally play, will unlock its doors at an as-yet undisclosed later date, most likely when current capacity restrictions are eased up.
During a recent visit a few nights after its resurrection, I was relieved to find that very little has changed with the place. At least, as far as the good aspects go. With an easygoing turnout of around 15 happy drinkers scattered around on this particular Tuesday night, co-owner Luke Lewis was serving beers, cocktails and conversation from the bar. Meade was milling about, as was local musician Dusty Booze (frontman for sleazeball rockers the Baby Haters), who’s been taken on as a business partner by the new Star Bar gang. The biggest change downstairs is that the bar itself has been trimmed so that it doesn’t jut out so much into the room, which led to the narrow entranceway frequently clogging up with bodies. There are assorted tables and chairs inside and out, and at some point they plan to put a few video games and pinball machines at the far nook where bands would once occasionally play.
Who exactly are these new owners? Meade’s been a bartender around town for many years, most recently at Trackside Tavern and Comet Lanes in Decatur. A couple years ago he, Highlander bartender Christopher Jackson, Bruce McLeod (an IT guy who’s logged hours for Cox Communications) and Lewis (a man with 20 years of production experience, most recently with Video Equipment Rentals/PRG the past three and a half years, he’s also the drummer in McLeod’s band Blowdown) invested money in the Star Bar, owned at the time by Kahle Davis who purchased the business in September 2013 with his then-wife Susan Pavlin. Both Meade and Jackson could subsequently be found bartending at the Star Bar, although tensions with Davis intensified as the venue’s financial situation deteriorated. When asked if there was ever any discussion with Davis about transferring full ownership of the Star Bar from Davis to its new investors prior to its closing, Meade replies, “Yes, but it wasn’t positive.”
The news of the Star Bar’s abrupt shuttering on New Year’s Eve, announced via the venue’s Facebook page that afternoon, provoked all sorts of sobbing and shrieking from the city’s nightlifers. And understandably so. Opened on Halloween night 1991 by David Heany and Marty Nolan in a former C&S bank, the Little Five Points dive bar has long been a cherished, reliable oasis of lowbrow comfort and great music in a city where too often such spots are left to wither and rot and be bulldozed over in favor of the latest trendy hotspot. Although it went through several ownership changes, the Star Bar managed to keep its unique personality and charm. But the NYE Facebook post (taken down several days later) was deliberately misleading, prompting much misinformed speculation among commenters as to the reason for the “last chance to party at the Star Bar.”
The post, presumably written by Davis, was worded in such a way as to suggest that the landlord – Scott Pendergrast of Point Center Partners, LLC – had informed Davis out-of-the-blue on the Thursday prior that the Star Bar had to vacate on January 1, 2020, “giving our employees 5 days to find new jobs.” Now, any sentient human being that knows anything about business arrangements knows that a landlord cannot simply kick out a business on five days’ notice, point blank. That’s complete bullshit. It’s not the big bad landlord’s fault the Star Bar closed, nor does it have anything to do with gentrification or the Atlanta city government or any of the other boogeymen some people were blaming at the time. The fact is, Point Center Partners never wanted the Star Bar itself out. To the contrary, while problems with Davis were ongoing, Pendergrast regularly let Davis slide on rent, hoping for an eventual payment. Unfortunately, he let it slide for several years, accumulating to the point that by last December, according to civil case documents, Davis owed Point Center Partners a whopping $322,900 in total unpaid rent!
By that juncture, Pendergrast had plainly had enough, and had Davis served with a Summons and Affidavit for Distress Warrant, filed in the DeKalb County Magistrate Court, on December 31. Clearly knowing the end was near, Davis did not renew the Star Bar’s liquor license (which needs to be done by the end of every year), but did promote discounted drink prices in the aforementioned “last chance” Facebook post, undoubtedly in hopes of unloading as much of the club’s beer and liquor as possible, as that stuff can’t be sold or transferred to new owners. It worked – the place was packed with a line to get in up through last call/closing time.
But anyone who’d been paying close attention to the Star Bar over the course of 2019 should not have been shocked that it came to this. There are touring acts that previously frequented the Star Bar that began declining to play there. In two separate instances last year the power and the water were temporarily cut off, resulting in the club being closed for several days, shows cancelled at the last minute. Davis was habitually behind on paying people. I mean, he was always cool towards me and I’m grateful to him for letting me do my little rock ‘n’ roll trivia nights there for a few years, as well as our 20th anniversary show. On the downside, he left months of unpaid invoices for ads in S&S, over two thousand dollars we’ll never see. Obviously, that’s a pittance compared to the hundreds of thousands he owed Pendergrast, but it’s a significant amount from the perspective of a free local publication that survives through ad sales. (A settlement was subsequently agreed upon between Pendergrast and Davis for a reduced past due rent sum of $100,000, according to a Consent Judgment document dated Jan. 22.) The place was just in an obvious downward spiral.
So let’s all be thankful that it didn’t collapse for good, but has been given yet another renewal, a rebirth under the combined direction (through a newly formed LLC) of Meade, Jackson, McLeod, Lewis and now Mr. Booze as well. Although they’ve all worked in and around the bar/rock club business for many years, they are new to the ownership role. We hope for and wish them success.
But other than the fresh paint, nice floors and rebuilt LVL bar, not much has changed, Meade emphasizes. Along with a few new faces, many of the old bartenders are still gonna be pouring drinks (yo, Adrian!) Rodney Leete is still going to be hosting stand-up comedy on Mondays, DJs will still be filling the dance floor on Tuesdays, and Bryan Malone is returning to book the bands that’ll be rocking the stage on other nights. Popular recurring events such as Latin dance party La Choloteca/El Star Barrio are intended to continue, alongside some new ones, namely local musician/DJ Pietro DiGennaro’s soul dance party that he’s planning for the first Friday of each month. The Little Vinyl Lounge, which was largely locked up and unused much of last year, will be operational nightly (it’s currently Tuesday through Saturday), with the stairway open leading to and from the main upstairs room on nights both are open, Meade tells me.
One thing you’ll immediately notice is that you can breathe inside. With its lack of windows or suitable ventilation (or working fans), the lingering fog of cigarette smoke made the Star Bar one of the more suffocating spots in town for non-smokers. (And it always seemed that a majority of its patrons smoked, on top of that.) But with the city’s no-smoking ordinance, which went into effect on January 1, that’s no longer an issue – if you can make it past all the smokers huddled around the front door or on the rear patio, once inside you’re golden!
There are also plans for the Star Bar’s small kitchen to actually be a functioning entity at some point in the near future, according to Meade, serving light bites, cold sandwiches, simple snacks, allowing them to open on Sundays. As of now, you can obtain a small assortment of munchies at the Little Vinyl Lounge: boiled peanuts, potato chips, hot dogs, Frito pie. Hey, it ain’t much but it’s more than used to be offered. Examining the temporary, “Apocalyptic” paper menu on the night of my visit, there was even the choice of “The MKD,” described as “a homage to the previous V4.0 owner. An empty paper boat to lose all your hopes and dreams in.” Kleenex was $5 extra.