Sunday, October 25, 2009

Proper Noun of the Week #13: Paulius Nasvytis of the Velvet Tango Room

I love Cleveland. I love living here, I love the idea of the city. You all know that already, assuming this isn't your first time reading, and if it is, well, you do now. This is a city that has it all, just for the taking.

One of the things I love the most is the cultural pragmatism of the city - rarely are their frills or delicacies BUT when you need such things, we have those in abundance, too.

I've been known to have a beverage and while many of them are High Lifes while watching rock shows at the Beachland, I also find myself from time to time with a taste for something finer.

Enter Velvet Tango Room.

I've long been an enthusiast of cocktails, and the summer before I moved here, while I was spending considerable time researching the city that would soon become my home, I came across a mention of Velvet Tango Room as a nice place to have a drink. A real drink. At that point still unaware of the vast understatement of such an endorsement, I mentioned the joint to the bartender at my local watering hole. He, a fiendish aficionado of cocktail history, immediately commenced drooling and informed me how wonderful a place I'd soon be living near by. After many minutes of west coast cocktail style versus east coast cocktail style and this and that, he reached the conclusion of his ad hoc lecture: Velvet Tango Room might be the best bar in America. In the very least, it was on his dream cocktail grand tour of the nation, along with places like the Violet Hour in Chicago, Eastern Standard in Boston, the Swizzle Stick in New Orleans, and a few other places in towns like Portland and New York. Between his ravishing review and this particular blog post I discovered that summer, penned by Cleveland's own Michael Ruhlman, by the time it came to load up the moving van and flee Texas for the Cleve, VTR was on the top of my list of things I couldn't wait to discover.

Fast forward to the present and it both bewilders and pleases me to note that Paulius Nasvytis, the proprietor of the Velvet Tango Room and today's Proper Noun of the Week, has become a dear friend of mine, one of my very favorite people in this city I've come to love as my home. Paulius is as much of a cultural institution as his beautiful bar is, an asset to the city and the perfect portrait of a gentleman. He's also one of the most respected cocktail masters in the country, yet he plies his trade day after day in his semi-anonymous near west side location.

Lately, the buzz about Velvet Tango Room has reached almost deafening volumes - witness recent coverage in publications like the New York Times, USA Today, and Continental Magazine - and Nasvytis is stepping up his already top-shelf game with ambitions plans, including an exciting two-stage meet-up with one of his cocktail king counterparts, Chicago's Brad Bolt. On Monday and Tuesday, Cleveland plays host to part one of this auspicious cocktail summit as Bolt and some of his staff travel to our city and show us how they do things in the Windy City. Stage two goes down November 9 & 10 as Paulius and a few of his colleagues go west to fly the beverage banner for the 216.

In honor of this event, I asked Paulius to participate in my weekly interview series. Read on to get his take on the city, one that he has loved his entire life.


1) How long have you been in Cleveland? And if you didn't grow up in Cleveland, where'd you relocate here from?

Since 1959.

2) What is your favorite Cleveland memory?

The hustle and bustle of downtown when it still existed. Fishing in the lake.

3) How does (if at all) Cleveland influence your work and/or art?

Clevelanders have a comparatively sophisticated palate due to its strong ethnic backbone. It’s the damn inferiority complex that our city has that hurts it.

4) What would be your ideal Cleveland day? Or, to put it another way, if it was your birthday and your nearest and dearest were all willing to do what you wanted, what would your day be like?

Little Italy for breakfast, a walk around the art museum lagoon, lunch at Greenhouse, the pier at Wildwood Park, Ty Fun, and maaaayyyybbbbbeeeee a stop at the vtr.

5) Say you had a friend coming in for 24 hours and had never been to Cleveland before. What would you make sure they saw and did?

See above.

6) What is something from another city you wish you could import to Cleveland?

Clevelanders need to start thinking in progressive albeit unusual ways for the city to rekindle. And we probably have more viable neighborhoods now than a few years ago such as Tremont, Ohio City, the Warehouse District, and the blossoming Waterloo Road neighborhood. It is the young people making it happen, actually moving there from the burbs…

7) If you had the undivided attention of the mayor, city council, and county commissioners, what would be the one thing you'd ask for or tell them?

Please fire everyone in city hall, then resign. Then I would propose Stephanie’s plan to build a 10 story downtown parking garage that has bike valets, a bike mechanic on staff, showers and lockers. The rest would be for cars. It should be safe, beautiful, clean, well lighted and patrolled. Here’s the catch. It would be totally free to park. This would force the current parking lot owners to either develop the vast plots of asphalt that are all over downtown, cut the parking prices, or sell to someone who will.


To meet Paulius and to treat yourself to one of the gorgeously crafted cocktails he is famous for, stop by the Velvet Tango Room. Every night is a special occasion at the VTR, but on Monday and Tuesday there will be guest bartenders representing Chicago's finest cocktailiers from 8-11 pm both nights. Just remember - dress like a grown up and no white limos after 9.

And if you found this post interesting, check out previous Proper Noun of the Week conversations about Cleveland and culture with the following interesting folks: Frank Revy, Bill Rupnik, Mina Hoyle, Brendan Walton, Leia Alligator, Arabella Proffer, Becca Riker, Greg Ruffing, Mallorie Freeman, Dave Desimone, J.R. Bennett, and Jeff & Mike from CLE Clothing Co.

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