Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, right? Have a drink—or five—with your back covered and your guard down, talking or not as you damn well please.
You need two things. First, you need a place where everyone knows you and where not too many strangers wander in—they might not know you, after all. Bum’s Saloon is such a place—and this is a story about place, far more than about the food and drinks served there.
You’re sure to get noticed the first time you walk in, as your sudden appearance is likely to upset the delicate balance of regulars, who wonder who the stranger is. Come back a second time and you’re bound to see at least a couple of people from your first visit, if not the whole damn groundhog-day bar full. Cheers.
Just don’t expect to be dazzled by the light show, sound system, duck-fat fries or wine list, or to find any of those things. At Bum’s? You must be kidding.
This is a genuine Clevelander’s bar. If you’ve been drinking only downtown or in the Flats, you don’t know what that is—not to these folks you don’t, anyway. Those bars are full of the new Clevelanders, god bless their chamber-of-commerce smiles and trendy outfits.
But bars like Bum’s, to the extent they still exist, are full of the Clevelanders who never left the city to begin with. Legend has it that Bum’s space was once a butcher shop, but that would have been back in Cleveland’s streetcar era. It’s been a bar since World War II or so, and it’s been Bum’s since 1989.
Bum, as in Willy “Bum” Pulling, is the man who has owned the place since ’89. He had heard it was for sale from one of his vending machine customers and snapped it up. He’d wanted a bar, but he tended his for only a short period, he said. “I couldn’t do it—I don’t have the temperament. I’d probably kill someone,” he says with a laugh. He’s still in the vending machine business though.
Bum is often around, but he’s not a fixture. You’ll catch him on some weekends or for special events, like Customer Appreciation Night, when the bar buys a whole pig and a long-time regular roasts it on the sidewalk in a big black barrel, “Puerto Rican-style.”
Bum is the center of attention, like George Clooney at a party, holding court at the end of the bar as a stream of patrons stop by to say hello and hear his stories.
“Know everyone at the bar tonight?” we ask. He glances down a line of 30 or so drinkers with a pause or two to see around someone’s head. “Yep, I think so,” he says, as one old guy at the taps sees him looking and waves.
Indeed, he’s more comfortable on the drinking side of the bar. Behind it, during the day at least, is his wife Angie, who doesn’t drink at all and never has, except for losing a bet or two, she says. It may be Bum’s Saloon, but it’s Angie’s place, and if he’s the George Clooney making everyone laugh, she’s the David Letterman making the whole show happen. He knows it, and so does everyone else.
“Angie? You mean mom?” says a patron of 24 years. Oh, and we’re not being sneaky with the lack of patrons’ names here, but most folks at Bum’s, while plenty friendly, didn’t want their name in any magazine or online.
“Why, you got warrants?” we asked? “Ha—maybe!” was the pig roaster’s reply. “Nah,” he clarified, “just private . . . I’m Will.”
We ran into several regulars who referred to Angie as mom— something not lost on her. “I have a lot of sons. I have black sons, Puerto Rican sons, Italian sons, you name it,” Angie says. That’s one reason why, in her late 70s, Angie says she doesn’t worry one bit about running a bar in a Slavic Village neighborhood made rough by the sand and surf of tough times.
“They always look out for me. A lot of times they won’t leave until they walk me to my car.”
We talk to Nick Pulling outside Bum’s early one evening, sitting on the bed of a pickup with our feet dangling above Broadway Avenue. It wasn’t the hood of a Dodge, but the scene along that part of the street does evoke something like an early, gritty Springsteen song, as old cars with leaky mufflers or loud stereos drift down the otherwise deserted street.
From here, you can see the downtown skyline 60 or so blocks to the northwest up Broadway Avenue. Bum says there used to be a hundred bars between there and his place, but now his is the last of just two or three along the street. Angie and Nick say he exaggerates, but there surely used to be dozens, if not scores, and most were around as recently as the ’90s.
“There used to be a lot more plants around here,” says Nick, Angie’s youngest Italian son, by the way. (Her maiden name was Conti.)
The big plants, like the old B.F. Goodrich plant up the street, are all shuttered now, he says. But there are a few small shops and foundries nearby, and Angie delivers lunch to some of them.
“She makes a mean meatball,” Nick says. The meatball sandwiches aren’t on the menu though—they’re one of Angie’s Thursday Specials, which is when Nick says she puts her cooking into full mom-mode with her best comfort foods.
Food is strictly a lunchtime affair, “mostly for my boys,” Angie says. More than one regular patron attests that “mom has always taken care of me” as an affirmation of both the food’s quality and availability, perhaps even to a regular who’s a little short one day.
Lunch is served 11 to 2, Monday through Friday, with Angie doing the cooking. “That woman’s been coming in here and opening the place up for 39 years,” Nick says.
She’s got no plans to stop either. Angie says she still enjoys running the place, especially the annual trip the bar’s bowling-machine league takes to Niagara Falls, or to some other casino spot every year. By all accounts, Angie’s a pretty good cook. The menu at Bum’s is nothing fancy—the Bum’s Burger with cheese and mushrooms is probably the No. 1 item, she says, and it shares a menu with items like the Hammie Annie ham sandwich, chili, hot dogs, and grilled cheese. You know, the stuff any good mom would cook for you and your friends.
It’s all pretty inexpensive too, along with the booze. The big one-third-pound Bum’s Burger is $5 and a longneck Bud is $2.50. “Where else are you going to get that beer for $2.50?” Angie asks. “But my competition is private clubs, and they’re cheap.”
But, again, Bum’s isn’t about the food, or even the beer. It’s about a place. A place that doesn’t exist much these days—sort of a gritty, sometimes rough, always loyal, blue-collar Brigadoon.
“It’s an awesome place,” says Cindy Miller, who’s been drinking at Bum’s for years. “It’s like home.”
Bum’s Saloon is located at 7771 Broadway Ave., Cleveland. Hours are 10am–2:30am Monday–Saturday.