Over the past year, Brendan Finnerty has made it a point to be seen less around his neighborhood of Federal Hill. It has been the easiest way to avoid the question he dreads most: When's Idle Hour coming back?
"I turned into a hermit because I didn't want to talk about it," Finnerty said recently from inside Idle Hour, the Riverside haunt he's co-owned with Randal Etheridge, 42, for nearly 13 years. "This has probably been the roughest year of my life."
Since Finnerty and Etheridge unexpectedly closed Idle Hour in December 2014 due to structural damage to the building, the owners have been on a financial and emotional rollercoaster in order to reopen their small, beloved bar. They hope to reopen before summer starts next month, and they have some inspections to pass and cleaning to do. But the return of Idle Hour seems imminent.
"It's been longer than we could have ever imagined," Finnerty, 45, said. "We really now see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Cue the collective exhale from the bar's loyal fanbase. Since opening at 201 E. Fort Ave., Idle Hour has become a favorite bar among Baltimoreans more interested in conversation and vinyl records than staring at a TV screen. The mood-lighting and overall ambience makes Idle Hour feel like a gem of a bar, hidden in plain view. It's known for allowing patrons to spin records of their choice on Mondays and dance-filled New Year's Eve parties lasting until 6 a.m.
"We don't have TVs and we don't have chicken wings," Finnerty said. "But for the people that get it, they really get it and they love it."
They've proved it, too. Last year, shortly after the owners announced Idle Hour's closing due to safety concerns regarding a buckling wall behind the back bar, Etheridge and Finnerty raised nearly $14,000 between two fundraising events at Little Havana and the Ottobar. While they admit to considering all options — including selling the bar — these events motivated the owners to persevere.
"Feeling like we were a couple of charity cases was really hard, but it was heartfelt," Finnerty said of the response. "It was just really amazing to see that many people turned out for us and really cared about us. That was an epiphany moment."
They eyed reopening last August, but delays kept coming as the money dried up. Much of it went toward demolition and construction of the back-bar wall, but the funds also paid for consultation with lawyers on how to move forward, existing utility bills and mortgage payments (Finnerty and Etheridge own the adjoined residence next door as well). They said banks refused to loan them money, and their insurance company would not help either, as it considered the problem "wear and tear," Finnerty said.
They initially believed $80,000 would be enough to fix the issues and reopen, but they underestimated the cost and didn't predict every task along the way. When the bar reopens, it will have cost nearly $160,000, Etheridge said. The owners contributed roughly half of that, Finnerty said.
The initial decision to close was made out of safety and urgency, which meant there was no master plan in place of how to return.
"It was a five-minute decision to close the bar," Etheridge, an Upperco resident, said. "It's not like we planned for months how we were going to do it and saved up."
After intermittent spurts of work and extended periods of inactivity (due to lack of money), they finally found a personal lender willing to lend the rest of the money needed to reopen Idle Hour.
The wall has been fixed, and other structural issues have been addressed. (Staff will be happy to see the floor behind the bar no longer has "squishy" spots of instability, the owners said.) But most patrons won't notice any drastic changes to the 900-square-foot bar, which was the point, Finnerty said.
"It is essentially the same place," Finnerty said. "I think that's the reason we got the money, the reason people support us — they liked what we did."
The most striking aesthetic difference currently has the owners upset: Construction work led to standard drywall replacing the bar's signature dark wood walls. The hope is to reopen and then purchase new wood walls, which would be expensive but ultimately worth the investment, Finnerty said.
"We've got a wood guy who's looking all over the country for us," Finnerty said. "It's a legacy piece for the bar, and it will last forever."
They expect to be busier than before, partly because Riverside has recently welcomed a younger, more varied clientele, the owners said. The hope is to add a new keg system and eight draft lines, expand staff and, for the first time, eventually open the second floor for private events.
Finnerty has been filming and uploading updates to Idle Hour's Facebook page to keep supporters aware of the progress. Soon, they hope, there will be a video announcing the official return date. While the journey has taken its toll on the owners, they say the support they've received — along with the break from the day-in, day-out grind of running a bar — has recommitted Finnerty and Etheridge to the bar.
"This whole thing has reinvigorated my passion for the business. I want to be here and make things good," Finnerty said. "I'm super grateful, and I'm just ready. More than ready."