"We have a side bet that people are going to come in and not know what we've changed," says Robert Hightower, who along with fellow Rarebit restaurateur John Adamson, last fall assumed responsibility for resurrecting Big John's, which reopened Monday night.
Big John's owner Ryan Condon partnered with Adamson after taking over the 60-year-old bar's management from his nephews, who he felt had betrayed the soul of the legendary watering hole. Condon particularly disapproved of an arrangement allowing Roti Rolls' Cory Burke to serve kimchi and cow's head in a venue formerly renowned for its pickled eggs and cold sandwiches.
Under the leadership of The Rarebit's team, the bar will focus on more mainstream items from the grill, although it will offer a much more extensive menu than Big John's did in its heyday. "Our intention is to be a viable lunch place," Hightower says.
While lunch is unlikely to start up for a few more weeks, nearly everything else is in place for the bar's return to service. Adamson and High-tower have installed a mahogany bar, mahogany tables and brand-new booths, including one in a corner previously occupied by a foosball table.
"We thought it would be really nice for all the surfaces you touch to be new and clean," says Hightower, alluding to the frequently voiced complaint that Big John's was just plain sticky.
To guide their renovations, Adamson and Hightower relied on old photographs and a 1994 print by David Gobel. But they didn't consult with any former regulars, nor did they try to replicate the images exactly. There are now three dartboards and two pool tables. Hightower also supplemented the decades-old collection of bric-a-brac with mirrors, neon signs and lampshades purchased from local antique shops, eBay and Etsy.
"The idea was to not take too many liberties," Adamson says. "We wanted to keep it Big John's."
Sharp-eyed patrons also will notice the American, South Carolina and Confederate flags that once hung over the bar are missing.
"That was one of the big things: Do we put the Confederate flag back up or not?' " Adamson recalls. "But now that decision's been made for us."
Adamson claims the flags were stashed in a black garbage bag and mistaken for trash. "It was a very hard thing to swallow," he says, adding that no other memorabilia removed from the walls for safekeeping during renovations was lost. The pictures were rehung before the reopening.
"We know people are judging, we know they're going to have an opinion," Hightower says. "In the end, I'm pretty happy with what we ended up with."