It’s 1998, and downtown Orlando is home to fewer bars than you could count on your fingers. The best national bands tour almost exclusively through Sapphire Supper Club (now the Social) and local bands lay claim to Barbarella (now Independent Bar). Sitting squarely between the two is Orange Avenue Card and News, an unassuming, practical stop for the daytime crowd that would over the next 16 years become speckled by the colorful legacy of Bar-BQ-Bar.
When Bar-BQ-Bar opened its doors in 1998, it was primarily to serve up its namesake: authentic Southern-style barbecue. The laid-back joint was the brainchild of co-owner Ashley Dishman, who at 21 realized she did not do well working for others and let her imagination conjure the rich concepts that eventually embodied the trifecta of downtown debauchery found at Bar-BQ-Bar, Eye Spy and Sky Sixty.
Once Dishman got the notion in her head to create her dream bar, her stubbornness to see it realized led her to propose a partnership with co-owner Hurst Marshall. On a Sunday at Dexter’s in Thornton Park, Dishman sat at the bar, enjoying brunch with her friends. Marshall, Dexter’s bar manager at the time, was in local bands and the two shared mutual friends, but he’d never met Dishman until that day she perched on a stool to ask: Want to open a bar with me?
Marshall said yes, but only if he could be a full partner and co-owner. They assembled a core staff, a quirky group of distinct personalities who would remain behind the bar for 10-year spans or longer, some of whom went on to open current favorite Orlando haunts like Matador and Lucky Lure.
Attracting musicians and their scenes with cheap drinks and proximity to popular venues, the bar culture overtook the restaurant ambitions, and when plans to build the rooftop bar Sky Sixty (inspired by Dishman’s interest in hotel architects like Philippe Starck and love of Miami hotel bars) were laid a year later, the kitchen was scrapped to make way for the elevator that transports inebriated 20-somethings to the rooftop bar. Eventually, the pair went on to buy out the back of Barbarella to achieve Dishman’s next vision, Eye Spy, a maze of hidden rooms and cameras she dreamed up after a trip to Milwaukee’s spy-themed Safe House.
Then and now: Bar-BQ-Bar photos demonstrate the dive’s unruly nature
The success this downtown duo experienced led the bars to grow every year since they opened, and now, at what Dishman calls the height of their best business, all three bars are closing on Aug. 31 and reopening under the ownership of the Social/Beacham as Olde 64, Spy Bar and Sky Bar. Dishman and Marshall will exit downtown and have no plans to reopen Bar-BQ-Bar in a different location. Instead, Marshall and Dishman, whose creative use of space is tried and true, will summon a new hangout as soon as negotiations on a location are settled, using only some of Bar-BQ-Bar’s kitschy remnants. The bar’s jukebox will go to one lucky patron through a special Facebook giveaway at the bar midnight Friday, Aug. 29 (facebook.com/barbqbarinc or sign up at barbqbar.co for more updates).
You’d think the seasoned bar owners would be unafraid of the challenge, but Dishman says it’s scarier now that she has a family to consider and Orlando’s bar scene is so sprawling. The fearlessness that led to Bar-BQ-Bar’s beginnings was in the heart of a 21-year-old who didn’t know any better, which would, over the years, define much of the bars’ clientele. So here’s the history of three of downtown’s favorite dives from the staff and patrons who people-watched nightly on the patio, sloshed $2 wells over a bar top and booths made from the old Orange County Courthouse’s doors (those scratches you’ve likely traced idly over the years? They’re from handcuffs dragged over the wood) and considered the bar a second home.
Ashley Dishman, owner: Doesn’t everybody have balls at 21? I think it’s like the older you get, the scarier it is. You don’t know any better. It never scared me.
Hurst Marshall, owner: It didn’t seem to take a long time to actually get open. There just wasn’t a lot down there. The only thing that was down there was the Sapphire Supper Club and Barbarella.
Dishman: I remember certain things were easy and other things were hard. People didn’t take me very seriously.
Billy Dill, patron: I took the Knock Knock bar staff and picketed the opening of Bar-BQ-Bar wearing pig masks and butchers’ smocks covered in stage blood!!!
Jon Davis, bartender: I went from the guy that was in a band to the first door guy at Bar-BQ-Bar. I skipped the bar-backing thing and just went to bartending because they needed someone on a Sunday. Hurst was always there, showing you the ropes. I mean, he’ll let you know when you’re doing something wrong, you know. But I got my whole understanding of how a bar works from Hurst – because I worked there over five years, and then the next step was Matador downtown. I basically used his template to go to the next step, which was at Matador, which is basically a grown-up version of Bar-BQ-Bar.
Dishman: My whole goal with the trailer was … it was supposed to be like hanging out at someone’s trailer, having a beer, having a drink. You’re at a barbecue. It was supposed to feel kind of like camping. And when we expanded [the bar], we had to take that wall down, so that’s when we moved [the trailer]. One of my favorite parts about building it was we went to an old junkyard, basically, and they had this big, huge, old trailer. And we were like, “Can we scrap this thing for parts?” And they were like, “Sure!” So I got a friend and a chainsaw, and we cut the entire side off the trailer. I still wish we had a picture of what we left behind. It was literally this trailer standing there with no walls. That was kind of a big piece for us. It will have to stay with us.
Marshall: The jukebox that we had at Bar-BQ-Bar originally, we started off with all kinds of different stuff, but over time, we did start to put in any local musician who came in with a CD they wanted to put in. And that was really cool, too, being part of the music scene. You would hear a lot of local bands being played on the jukebox.
Kyle Raker, patron: There’s no stage, so you’re on ground level with the bands. And there’s always been an element of local music tie-in with Bar-BQ-Bar. The jukebox used to have local bands on it, and local musicians, guys like Brad Register and Tyson Bodiford that were in Summerbirds in the Cellar, worked there. It’s a welcoming environment for local music and local musicians, especially with the cheap drinks. A lot of musicians don’t have a whole lot of money. Those $2 wells definitely help.
Marshall: It was still a quarter a song. You could put a dollar in and play four songs. I think I kept it that way until the iPod just took over, and after a while, that’s when all the employees would come in and they would have what they wanted to play. And I was like, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ I had to watch the jukebox thing fade out a little bit.
Dishman: But it’s still there. In the corner.
Preston Dehler, bar manager/DJ: The people that I’ve brought in to DJ, they’re actual music lovers. They’re the kind of people who really enjoy music – people with taste in music and not just the top 40 junk that everybody plays. More rock-infused stuff that people aren’t really listening to, outside-of-the-box stuff. I think there are other people downtown who do great stuff like that, but I’ve always thought that, you know, Bar-BQ-Bar, beyond everything else, when I’m DJ’ing is the counter-culture place to be to hear stuff that you wouldn’t hear if you walked into any other bar.
Jeramiah Caret, bartender/DJ: I always get the weirdest song requests [on Ladies Night]. It’s like half the people don’t know what they’re walking into when they walk in there. It’s mostly hip-hop and newer dance music that’s not on the radio. I like all kinds of music, but the crowd expects a certain thing. So people ask for really, really odd stuff, like whatever’s popular on the radio, and I always say no.
Marshall: I totally forgot about that. It was Ladies Night on Tuesdays [originally], and we did $2 drinks and $2 beers, and Michael Blaise and Henry Mays would dress up in drag. I haven’t really thought about that in a long time.
Dishman: We were just trying to have a fun Ladies Night. We were like, “We don’t wanna just, like, have Ladies Night and call it Ladies Night.”
Caret: That’s one of the things about Bar-BQ-Bar, too. You don’t really have to be customer-service-oriented, cuz it’s too busy to break it down to a customer why you can’t make them a flaming flying frog shot or whatever.
Dehler: I had my first drink at 21 there from Jon Davis. It was a Bloody Mary, actually. I was like six months younger than all my friends, so I watched them go in there every night. And then the moment I turned 21, I went in there and had a drink.
Davis: What happened [one night] was, we were attached to the Sapphire or Social, and Jim Faherty got really drunk and passed out there. So we went next door, stole his keys, got his Jeep, pulled it into the Bar-BQ-Bar, carried him and put him into the Jeep, closed the doors, and locked the bar and left for the night. And the Jeep was still there the next day when we got to work.
Marshall: About two years into Bar-BQ, there were issues with Sapphire, actually, first, so we took over Sapphire and renovated it and reopened it as the Social. … There was like an A&R thing or a big record company thing … a private showing [at the Social]. Sevendust had just come off a tour, and they played. I just remember it because it was a totally private show. I went around and watched their soundcheck, because I was a huge fan of Sevendust. And I’m just sitting there with me and a couple other people in the room, at the bar, and they did like a four-song soundcheck. It was so awesome. I started applauding. But a couple of them popped in later that night. I said hello to them and served them a beer.
Dishman: [Bartender Laura Pellatreau] started working there because she was in love with Rob Thomas, and she heard he hung out there. And then he finally came in one night, and she was just like, ‘Yes! My dream is realized!’ It was so cute.
Lindsay Gigler, bartender: One of my fondest memories of Bar-BQ-Bar is when a group of guy friends developed “shirtless shots.” It was a hot Saturday night about midsummer. We were posted up at the end of the bar near the hallway to Eye Spy. After who knows how many PBRs, one of the guys took off his shirt and ordered a shot. As the trickle of lowered inhibitions set in, each guy quickly followed. Within two minutes, eight guys were shirtless, banging their fists on the bar and chanting, “SHIRTLESS SHOTS. SHIRTLESS SHOTS. SHIRTLESS SHOTS.” They got louder and louder until the shots appeared on the bar.
Devin Dominguez, patron: [My friend Daniel Chappell and I] both lived downtown and walked to Bar-BQ several times a week, as most 20-somethings do. I remember that this night was especially fun, but not because there was a grand celebration. It was one of those magical nights where everyone in the bar was your friend, and you danced all night.
Dishman: Around the midnight to 2 a.m. block, people kinda come from everywhere, and then all of a sudden [the Eye Spy courtyard] fills up.
Marshall: That evolved, too, because there was a guy that came in, his name is Perry Howell, he’s been the house DJ back there for the entire time. And it became the little courtyard dance scene. … Perry just started doing more and more and more, and I was going, “Wow. People really want to come in here and jump around and have a good time.”
Dishman: I used to work for Miller Brewing Company and traveled some with them, too, and I found this bar in Milwaukee that just had this great feel. It was like memorabilia of spy culture, and I was like, “That’d be kind of a cool concept for a bar here.” [Eye Spy] started out with hidden entrances and bookcases that moved, and there’s hidden cameras all over it, and it was just kind of fun.
Marshall: It really was. I mean it was an absolutely wonderful concept. The thing is, it started growing
Dishman: Then it got so busy that none of those little things mattered.
Marshall: Which is great, you know, but it takes away from the original concept that it was meant to be. It was really cool with the hidden rooms, rooms behind bookshelves and hidden cameras. There are cameras in the photo booth and cameras in the secret rooms that people go in and are doing things in there, and everybody else watched. But it did, it evolved and just grew and grew and grew, and just got busier, and we were trying to accommodate for more people.
Dishman: Everything we ever did was a reflection of where we wanted to hang out at that time in our life. Bar-BQ-Bar was, like, he was in a band, we were hanging out with musicians, and that’s just kind of where we wanted to be. My goal was a place where anybody felt welcome. Any age, whatever you had on, you would feel like you could walk in there, and anybody could feel welcome to have a drink. Then I started traveling a little bit more as I got a little bit older and fell in love with all of Ian Schrager’s hotels and Philippe Starck, so I was like, “Oh, we need to have an outdoor-like Miami bar,” and that’s kind of how Sky Sixty was born.
Marshall: This is a big deal to me. This is a third of my life that I’ve put into this place. I’m proud of what we’ve done, and we want to try to celebrate the 16 years, but at the same time, there’s a lot of sadness there.
Dishman: We don’t want to leave. It wasn’t our intention to leave. Our business is better than it’s ever been. It’s continued to grow every single year that we’ve been there.
Caret: It sucks, you know. I’ve worked directly under Hurst for 13 years, and as much of a strict, stubborn man he can be, he was in the trenches the whole time. It was very respectable what he built, and I don’t know exactly what happened, but it seems like he’s not happy about it, so I’m assuming it’s not awesome. When we had the meeting, it kind of felt like a friend died. Because it was such a shock to everyone. It’s an establishment in Orlando. It really is.
Dishman: No matter what the reason or celebration is, you always would go to Bar-BQ-Bar. I remember we used to think about that. It was like, somebody had a good day, they came to Bar-BQ-Bar. Somebody had a bad day, they came to Bar-BQ-Bar. You wanted to celebrate something? You came to Bar-BQ-Bar. You needed to cry about something? You came to Bar-BQ-Bar. It was just a comfortable place to be.