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The story behind Waterloo’s favourite eatery (with one TV)

Justin Fauteux
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Stubborn and stupid.”

That’s how Glenn Smith describes himself with a laugh as he sits at the back of the Uptown Waterloo bar he’s called his own for the past 18 years. A veteran of the bar and restaurant game, Smith opened Ethel’s Lounge at the corner of King and Spring Streets in 1994 with a simple idea, driven by those two simple adjectives.

“I just didn’t want to be like everyone else,” he says. “I didn’t want to open another corny-looking bar.”

And since its opening, Ethel’s has developed into a local favourite. With a loyal cast of regulars and a diverse clientele that includes students, locals and those passing through town looking for a good meal, Smith can’t help but smile and crack jokes as he’s asked to describes the bar’s origins

While Smith may have started a business that was different to just about anything that existed in Waterloo in 1994, he had a clear point of inspiration. A fan of the dive bars that became popular throughout the United States in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Smith wanted Ethel’s to reflect that style.

However, there is one bar in particular Waterloo’s Ethel’s Lounge pays homage to: Ethel’s Lounge.

The original Ethel’s was a blues club in Detroit, Mi. that had its hey day from the early 1970s to the early ‘80s.

“I was familiar with Ethel’s as a blues bar,” says Smith, who’s been a devoted fan of the blues for as long as he can remember. “Just at the time that they closed was the time that I was opening here.”

The story of the original Ethel’s — though slightly doctored — is told on the menus and website of its Waterloo incarnation.

“Ethel was a loan shark’s mistress from Detroit in the ‘60s. After dumping him for a better man, she relocated to the current address in Waterloo in 1994,” the story reads before explaining the inspiration for “recreating some of Ethel’s favourite southern cooking.”

Despite the light-hearted tone of this story behind the original Ethel’s and its loan-shark’s-mistress owner — not to mention the fact it jokingly includes the line “Your host, Glenn will always be happy to sit at the end of the bar and swap lies with you” — there is indeed some truth behind it all.

“There was a woman named Ethel and she was a loan shark’s girlfriend, not to be confused with his wife,” says Smith. “I’m not sure when it opened, probably in the ‘70s, maybe the ‘60s but it was a pretty well-known blues nightclub.”

Located on Mack Avenue in East Detroit, the original Ethel’s Lounge was one of several nightclubs in the Motor City that featured nightly blues, jazz and R&B performances through the 1970s and ‘80s. The bar had a predominantly African-American clientele and played host to some of the biggest blues acts in history.

Legendary blues musician Muddy Waters performed there in 1973. Albert King, one of the “three Kings of the blues guitar” — along with B.B King and Freddie King — played at Ethel’s on multiple occasions.

And it was, indeed, all run by Ethel, the mistress of a Detroit loan shark.

“She just passed away recently actually,” says Smith of his bar’s namesake. “I always thought of bringing her up, but I never got off my ass and did.”

While Ethel never made it to Waterloo to see Smith’s creation in Uptown herself, a part of her legacy — besides, of course, her name — lives on in the second coming of Ethel’s Lounge. The bar’s sign, which typifies the dive-bar style Smith appreciates so much, complete with neon lights and a glowing tipped over glass, is the sign from the original location on Mack Avenue in Detroit.

“That sign became available, obviously because the club was closing in Detroit, so I liberated it,” says Smith.

And after a quick ride across the border in the back of the truck, some new lights and a fresh coat of paint, the sign had a new home.

And that sign, which has become an iconic logo of sorts for the bar has led to some widespread recognition for the bar. Even amongst the relatives of the original Ethel herself.

Greg Brow, a long-time employee and current manager of Ethel’s smiles in amazement as he recalls the story of an encounter one of his regular customers had while wearing an Ethel’s t-shirt.

“One of our regulars, Jeff, was in Detroit at a Tigers game and he was wearing an Ethel’s t-shirt,” Brow begins. “This big guy in front of him, turns around and asks him ‘where’d you get that shirt? What is that?’

“And Jeff’s just staring at him and says ‘it’s my bar back home in Waterloo.’”

Of all the 41,782 seats at the Tigers’ Comerica Park, who should be sitting in front of an Ethel’s regular, wearing an Ethel’s Lounge t-shirt?

“The guy just says ‘that’s my mom.’ He was sitting right in front of him and he just says ‘that’s my mom’s bar,’” recalls Brow.

Perhaps, it’s not surprising that Smith took his inspiration for Ethel’s from a 1970s blues club. Growing up in Kitchener-Waterloo a lifelong blues fan, it was his love of music that got Smith into the bar and restaurant game in the first place. Well, that, and, as he jokingly puts it, “stupidity.”

“I had another job years ago, a day job, for 20 years, I owned a wholesale company where we sold wholesale automotive batteries,” he says.

“So out of boredom and my love of music, I used to run a legion hall in Kitchener in the ‘80s where we’d have blues bands in on Saturday night. It became so big and so popular it morphed into a bar.”

Smith would move from running that legion hall in Kitchener to opening a pair of blues clubs in the 1980s: Pop the Gator on Queen Street in downtown Kitchener and the Circus Room at King Street and Stirling Avenue.

“I was getting blues bands from New Orleans and Detroit and Chicago coming up here [to play the legion],” says Smith. “And then it morphed into Pop the Gator where we actually had a lease and I sold off my day job and kind of fell into the bar business through music.”

Smith says the space Ethel’s occupies today became available just as Pop the Gator was closing and things simply transitioned from one bar to the other. Pop the Gator is still recognized on the walls of Ethel’s, where a clock bearing its name hangs.

One look around Ethel’s quickly reveals that there’s a story to everything that hangs on its walls. Be it the Pop the Gator clock, the Blatz beer sign, or one of the plentiful posters of concerts that took place in the area in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Everyone from Kiss, to Neil Young, to Steppenwolf, to Blue Oyster Cult is immortalized on the walls of Ethel’s, with countless others in between. There are even some nods to Smith’s beginnings as a blues club owner, as well as the original Ethel’s Lounge itself as posters of the likes of Otis Floyd join the atmosphere. And according to Smith, nothing is on those walls by accident.

“I went to some of those shows and then I also tracked a lot of them down,” he says. “For someone to go out there and say ‘I want to go for this look’ you’re going to have to struggle like I did and go out and look for this stuff. But then it becomes a lot more interesting.

“Every time I go to take something down, there’s someone who says ‘you can’t take that down, I’ve always loved that poster’.”

The tributes to great musicians that line the walls of Ethel’s help the bar maintain the atmosphere of an old-style blues club, despite the fact its liquor license prohibits live music – prompting the slogan on the menus that reads: “one tv, no live music.”

But not being able to host concerts inside hasn’t stopped Ethel’s from being part of the local music scene. Juno award winner Ronnie Hawkins has been known to come in and take a seat at the bar. Gordie Johnson from Big Sugar has stopped by. And several other artists will stop in for a drink while performing in town.

While the number of TVs in the bar may have increased over the year – from one to three – the appearance, the atmosphere and a lot of the people have remained the same.

And while that American, dive-bar influence is certainly prevalent; there is something about the bar that is distinctly ‘Waterloo.’

“Kitchener-Waterloo’s been fantastic to me,” says Smith. “People in this town will really support you. They love supporting a local individual. They’ll get behind that person and make them succeed, which is an honour and fantastic for me that I’ve been able to do that.”

And as much as Smith is thankful to the community for keeping him in business, the community has adopted Ethel’s as one of its entrenched establishments.

“This is the classic neighbourhood bar,” says Brow, who has now worked at Ethel’s for 15 years. “But it’s not only us, it’s a good spot, it’s a good vibe and it’s good people that come in here.”

Smith sees things a little more simply.

“I guess if you keep beating your head against the wall for a dozen years you become ingrained in the community,” he says. “And now it’s to the point where if we closed down now it would be big drama.”

It’s likely that kind of mentality that makes Ethel’s such an attractive place to work. Smith says he receives resumes everyday and could probably hire 20 great new people tomorrow. However, his existing staff just keep sticking around. “It’s like Groundhog Day in here everyday.”

Brow, one of the longest-serving employees on the Ethel’s staff, hasn’t quite been around since day one, but it’s not for lack of trying. Brow knew the bar’s original manager and applied for a job, but his connection to the original manager ended up working against him.

“The only reason I didn’t get hired here was because Glenn said ‘oh no, I don’t want any more of your friends working here,’” he remembers with a laugh.

But a few years later, Brow ended up getting the job and now, in his words, he’ll probably be there “’till the I die.”

One person who was there on day one was Ethel’s regular Nathan Stark. Originally from Toronto, Stark came to K-W to study at the University of Waterloo and in 1994, when a new bar called Ethel’s opened its doors, “we just came over, because it was open.”

And he’s stuck around ever since.

Stark has since moved all around K-W, but no matter where he’s lived, he’s frequented Ethel’s, even if it’s just for a relaxing beer on a Sunday night.

“I think my favourite thing is actually the acoustics,” he says as he sips a Labatt 50 and watches the day’s NFL highlights. “When there’s a lot of people in here and everyone’s talking, and the music’s playing, it’s just a great atmosphere, a great vibe.”

Putting aside the tangible things he loves about Ethel’s, Stark isn’t surprised it’s become an entrenched part of the community. To him, “that’s just what Uptown is.”

“Everybody that comes here and everybody that works here is a part of the community,” he says. “I always call this the Waterloo 100, everyone you see here is just rubbing shoulders with other people from the community.

“Ethel’s is just what it was meant to be.”