After 10 ½ months and $1.2 million, the historic Brown Hotel and Restaurant re-opened its doors right at the beginning of mud season on April 15.
While many establishments this time of year take a few weeks off, owner of the Brown Michael Cavanaugh had no qualms about opening while business was slow.
With a renewed focus on live music and the Brown’s reputation as a “locals’ bar,” the refreshed and larger venue will be featuring bands during the off-season weekends for free.
“We’ve always been a local bar, it’s always been through word of mouth, ‘Oh you should go to The Brown,’” said Kevin Daily, the Brown’s general manager. “We opened in mud season, and we are offering free shows — we are trying to get the locals who are still here to come out to get first go of the Brown before we spread the word.”
This weekend, the Brown welcomes 2 Dudez on Friday night and The Swingalongs on Saturday. Music starts at 9 p.m. and ends at midnight.
While mud season will see a lot of local favorites, Daily’s goal is to bring in bands from out of town of all different genres. There are four rooms upstairs — also Cavanaugh’s home for most of the last 30 years — that band members could stay in after playing a show.
“Our focus is on music and, hopefully, just evolving that concept,” he said. “We’ll definitely try to provide as much music for people in town that we can.”
Walking into the front doors, it feels much like the same old Brown — patrons are still greeted by a narrow hallway to get to the bar area, small rooms to the left with air hockey and other bar games still offer a separate space to play. The space still has the historic look and feel to it, and the bar area is still a little crooked,; but the floors have been redone, the wood has all been refinished and the bathrooms have been updated.
Walk past the original bar area, and that’s where the addition begins. Cavanaugh ripped down a dilapidated barn that was on the back end of the building and re-used all the wood from the barn to create the additions in order to keep its historic status. The added space blends seamlessly with the original and keeps with the feel of having several separate spaces to lounge, just adding a few more. Upstairs, a pool table sits in the middle of a spacious room, and downstairs features a modest stage, dance floor and another bar area. Some of the leftover pieces from the barn are puzzled together to create a unique bar top in the downstairs space.
Daily said the Brown has evolved a lot over the years since Cavanaugh first purchased the space.
“I originally wanted to do a health-spa retreat, with fine dining,” Cavanaugh said. “But the town killed me. I bought in ’85, they killed me in 1996: They just gave out liquor licenses like they were lollipops. So there was so much traffic down on Main Street, it put this totally into jeopardy. So I turned it into a gin mill with games for locals.”
Daily, who has worked at the bar the last four winters, said many people have been attracted to the Brown because of its legend of being haunted.
With its renewed focus on live music, Cavanaugh also invested in a mixing board and are in the process of getting more equipment, with hopes to give bands a chance to record at the Brown when it’s closed, as well as record live shows.
Once summer finally rolls around, Daily said they will be landscaping the outside area, so guests can enjoy drinks on the back porch, with plans for acoustic sets during happy hour. They also plan to use the extra space provided by the remodel to host private parties, such as weddings, bachelor parties or company gatherings.
The soft opening on Friday, April 15 brought out a large crowd, he said. Although they weren’t quite prepared that day for the amount of people that came out, he said it was a good way to figure out where they were strong and what they needed to work on.
“Every local was excited that the Brown was back open,” he said. “Everyone came out, and it was awesome.”
He said their goal is to host live music three nights a week, year-round.
“There is so much music around, we just want to give an outlet for people,” he said. “No one really picked up the ball after Three20 left.”
Cavanaugh has a nonprofit in the works, called The Fox’s Den, that will help young musicians with their music. His friend Jim Salestrom, a guitar player known for recording with John Denver and Dolly Parton, is helping him get the project off the ground, although it still has a ways to go. Salestrom has experience with this type of nonprofit, as he runs a foundation in Big Sky, Montana that helps kids learn more about music.
“We are going to sit down and see what we can put together between the two of us creating these 501(c)(3) foundations for aspiring artists,” Cavanaugh said.
He hopes to have senior artists like Salestrom come in to work with and record with aspiring musicians at the Brown. He plans to use a portion of proceeds from cover charges for live music to help raise funds for The Fox’s Den.
“That way we can start up and develop a fund … we can do a small scholarship to like Chicago Institute of Music or something like that, or they could go on tour with somebody,” said Cavanaugh.