Will this Lexington dive bar keep its character after a much needed renovation?

By Matt Wickstrom, Kentucky.com

Erin Hathaway jokes with Paul Masterson at Al’s Bar in the northside neighborhood. The dive bar’s hours are scaled back to a long weekend schedule from Thursday through Sunday but will be expand to seven days a week soon. Photo by Alex Slitz

LEXINGTON, Ky. — When storied northside watering hole Al’s Bar went up for sale in late 2018 everyone was caught off guard, none more than business partners and northside natives Tim Small, Seth Brewer and Brian Surbaugh.

Citing a bevy of memories and fond experiences from inside the dimly lit bar and a desire not to see the gathering spot vanish for future northsiders, the trio went all-in, acquiring the bar and building at 601 North Limestone on April 1 and renovating it.

Al’s new ownership have a diverse portfolio of business experience to pull from going into this venture. Small and Brewer also partner together in Best Friend Bar, which celebrates its five year anniversary on Oct. 12. Additionally, Small brings experience as a past partner of the now defunct Enoteca along with being the current operations manager at the Lyric Theatre while Brewer operates Wine + Market with wife Renee. Surbaugh also brings with him a cooking background, having worked as a chef at Table 310 and County Club, among others.

“With Al’s we’ve got the chance to revitalize an old spot that we have fond memories of,” said Small. “We get to work on the building and make it into our vision, whereas with Best Friend Bar we were dealt the cards that we were in terms of the interior look and setup.”

While it may be the same old space, Al’s Bar now comes with a new look, receiving final touches of a summer long renovation process.

The decision to, or not to renovate, was often a dilemma for the partners, who had to weigh keeping the bar and building’s character in tact versus updating glaring issues and inefficiencies.

“All that was much thought about because we knew that everything we did was undoing something else,” said Brewer. “We weren’t going back and trying to fake a dive bar because you can’t fake a dive bar – you can’t put up new stuff and have a new car smell with the same old feeling.”

The group took a month after acquiring the bar to engage with regulars and get input on how to improve the space.

As a result, a newly installed bartop, floors and exposed brick walls line the interior. And now there is plenty of room to navigate due to the removal of booths that made for near impassable traffic jams on busy nights.

Lingering issues, such as plumbing woes, have been addressed while other tasks such as finding a food partner to replace Fida’s Caribbean Cafe, which is now housed next door at 109 West Sixth Street, persist. They’re looking over many options, including bringing back chicken tenders, tater tots and other pub food previously served at Al’s.

While much has changed with the look of Al’s, several familiar faces are still around to merge the old with the new, including bouncers Levi and Cecil and bartender Chris Evans. Much of the drink menu will remain the same, with the addition of canned wines through Brewer’s connections at Wine + Market.

“We’ve got a little bit of everything, but we’re not trying to be a mixology bar or a bourbon emporium either,” said Brewer. “Those themes don’t fall into the vibe of the small neighborhood bar feel we’re going for at Al’s, plus there’s other spots in town that do those things well.”

Al’s Bar is currently back open for business on a limited, long weekend schedule operating from Thursday through Sunday. The renovation should be fully completed in the next couple of weeks.

According to Brewer, the bar looks to incorporate live music back into the fray along with comedy, trivia and karaoke nights and other events. He said the goal is to engage the local creative community which they hope will help the gathering spot to further blossom into a beacon of creativity and inclusion for fellow northsiders and all of Lexington.

“The revival of the North Limestone corridor currently taking place reminds me a lot of the resurgence of businesses and activity on Jefferson Street in recent years,” said Brewer. “It’s not easy work but it is exciting, and something I’m proud to be a part of.”


Where: 601 North Limestone

Hours: 5 p.m. – 2:30 a.m. Thursday through Sunday with plans to expand to seven days a week upon the completion of renovations

Map: https://goo.gl/maps/vmLrRPVmLX9n3nbW7

NOTE: This story was initially published on Kentucky.com on Aug. 29, later appearing in print in the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Weekender on Aug. 30.


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