"It's going good," said John Crockett, when asked about his new establishment, the Nest, AKA Alberta's newest bar. "We still get a lot of Joe's old customers in, and new people as well. There's something for everybody."
This was the first thing Crockett told me during our phone conversation, before I'd even had a chance to ask about the transition from former Joe's Place to the new Nest Lounge. Clearly, it's on his mind, and for good reason: The legendary Joe's, owned by Joe Benjamin, was, before Benjamin retired and handed the reins over to Crockett in January, the last black-owned bar on ever-whitening Alberta. It sported a fiercely loyal clientele who came as much for the 40-ouncers in the fridge as for the comfy atmosphere and amiable social dynamic. Crockett's unique challenge was to make much-needed improvements to the rundown space that would lure in newcomers without alienating the old-comers.
By all accounts Crockett has succeeded. On a recent Wednesday, the Nest was bustling with a diverse crowd of folks both black and white. A crew of old-timers yucked it up and played pool as a gaggle of attractive coeds celebrated a birthday at a nearby table. Crockett chewed on a cigarette and slung drinks as the Smashing Pumpkins blared from the revamped jukebox. It was a good place to be.
"It's all been positive," Crockett said. "Everyone was sad to see Joe go, but he was 73 and he was done. The [Joe's regulars] are shocked and amazed that the space could actually look like this after 33 years."
To bring his vision to fruition, Crockett painted the interior black and brought in new tables and cushy chairs. The counter area looks spic-and-span and shiny with plushy stools, and the bar behind it now sports liquor. Crockett also moved the pool table into the back room and altered the hallway to the bathroom. The results are impressive. Joe's, though homey and lovable, was also rather dank and dark; the Nest is spacious, giving the illusion of being twice the size. But Crockett's resizing ambitions don't stop there.
"I was looking at other spaces on Alberta," he said, "but nothing else had a huge patio attached to it. That's what sold me on Joe's."
Currently, the patio is nothing but a raw, grassy patch, but Crockett has exciting plans for it: horseshoe pits, picnic tables, and outdoor movie screenings against the two-story brick building next door. The notion of kicking back with a beer on a warm summer night and watching movies off Alberta sounds pretty damn nice as I write this and frigid March rain slams against my window.
But for now, Crockett and his little birds will stay inside the Nest, where the drinks will flow alongside basic vegetarian fare like rice and beans, burritos, and hummus platters. "I'm going to let the customers kind of decide how the menu gets shaped in the coming months," he said of this tasty but unexciting fare, opening himself up to suggestions for improvement. When queried about the delightful 40-ouncers that Joe's was so famous for stocking, he laughed.
"I keep them around," he said, "but I won't keep stocking the Old English. No one needs that much malt liquor.