By Suzanne Ramsey
In Lynchburg, it seems almost everyone has a story about The Dahlia.
Some people will tell you about the fights they witnessed at the Bedford Avenue establishment that for most of its 65-year existence could best be described as a dive. They’ll tell you about how the men would go outside to duke it out and then come back inside and have a beer together like nothing ever happened.
Or, the Christmas Eve day in the 1970s, when everyone sang carols while two guys fought on the sidewalk in front of the bar.
“They were giving out free beer in the middle of the afternoon,” said Pam Evans, who was visiting The Dahlia for the first time that day with her boyfriend, now husband, Bobby.
“Everyone was really drunk and so a fight breaks out in the bar and the guy behind the bar, who I assume was the owner, pulls out a gun and starts waving it around and telling them to ‘Take it outside.’ Meanwhile … I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to die in this crappy bar in Lynchburg on Christmas Eve day.’”
Evans, who was visiting from Connecticut, said the men proceeded to “beat each other to a pulp in front of what was then a big picture window. All the people in the bar … crowded around, watching these guys beat each other up, and they’re singing ‘Peace on Earth, good will to men.’ That was my introduction to The Dahlia.”
Some owners of The Dahlia—originally called The Blue Dahlia in homage to a 1946 film title—were as colorful as their patrons. Jerry Godsey, described his father Roy, who opened The Blue Dahlia in 1947, as a perennial showman with a “huge heart” and a sense of humor, who also was never without a pistol.
“Daddy always had a show going … always an event,” he said.
One of those events was an annual ball celebrating the “Most Worthless Man in Town.”
“It was not the kind of contest you wanted to win, but it was pretty much the sorriest person in Lynchburg,” Godsey said. “It was typically somebody who came from a pretty affluent family who didn’t do much. People nominated people. It was a big deal. I can tell you a lot of fathers made sure their sons didn’t win it.”
According to Buzzy Coleman, a Dahlia regular in the 1960s and 70s, owner Dink Robertson once hit an unruly patron with a pick hammer.
“Dink always had a little something back there, you never did know [what],” Coleman said. “He was a good boy, but he didn’t put up with any crap. You could raise a little hell, but don’t get out of line.”
But it wasn’t all drunken brawls and wild escapades at The Dahlia. Like Lynchburg’s version of the TV series, “Cheers,” The Dahlia was a place where buddies met after work and where, when bad things happened, like a 1976 plane crash that killed several Dahlia regulars, they bonded.
“One of the worst things that happened down there was … the plane crash,” Coleman said. “That was just terrible. They left The Dahlia and had some really nice people on the plane, and [the pilot] just got lost up in the air. That was the worst thing I ever remember … related to The Dahlia. A fight was nothing compared to that. … The whole gang that hung around The Dahlia went to three funerals in the same day. That was terrible.”
Throughout its history, The Dahlia has also been a hotspot for college students, particularly its basement bar, appropriately called The Cellar.
“We boomed all the time back then because you didn’t have beer on campus or liquor by the drink,” Mary Jane Abbott, Dahlia bartender from 1965 to 1971, said. “We were busy from the time we opened to the time we closed.”
Phil Trent, who owned The Dahlia from 1976 to 1979 said, “It was full of Randolph-Macon girls when I had it. … When I had it, 18-year-olds could drink so the girls from up the street loved to come down there. Several of them worked for me. Sometimes, the boys would roll in on the busloads from Washington & Lee and UVA. … It was fun.”
Over the years, The Dahlia went through a series of owners until 2009 when the business finally went under. About a year later, James West, who owns next door neighbor, Blue Marlin Seafood, bought the building with the goal of opening a new and improved Dahlia.
As a Rivermont resident and business owner, West was no stranger to The Dahlia.
“I had a pub crawl before my wedding that started [there],” West, 38, said. “Having the business next door, I’d often have a cold one after work at The Dahlia. … I’ve been going there for the past 10 years. … The Dahlia had the cheapest beer. When I was young and working in the restaurant business, money wasn’t in abundance. You could put up with the smell for cheap beer.”
When West bought the building, he found it in awful shape. For example, in 1997, the local newspaper reported that city officials shut down The Dahlia for violating building codes, more specifically, faulty wiring. The fire marshal quoted in the article said, “wiring was just one of a variety of hazards at the Bedford Avenue restaurant.”
West described the building’s condition as “deferred maintenance” and said, “Everything single thing, practically, had to be replaced.”
On The Dahlia’s Facebook page, there are about three dozen before-and-after photos of the transformation. Among other things, the old circular booths were replaced with upholstered, rectangular ones, over which hang pendant lights with stone-colored shades.
The dingy, blue-green walls were painted in red clay and stone hues, the industrial tile floor was swapped for hardwood, and the chrome-and-vinyl barstools were ousted in favor of tall wooden chairs. Outside, the blue-and-white facade was painted a subdued brown and cream, and the once-concrete entryway was paved with flagstone.
Some remnants of the past remain, however. The glass blocks in the bar are original, as is the blue neon Dahlia sign that hangs where it has for decades on the wall behind the bar. Black-and-white photos from 1950s soapbox derbies, with cars sponsored by The Blue Dahlia, hang on the walls, along with menus from the early days, touting everything from brains and eggs for 50 cents to a porterhouse steak for $1.50.
The Dahlia’s new menu is an eclectic mix of English-style pub food—fish and chips, bangers and mash and beef in Guinness—and Southern standards like shrimp and grits, Brunswick stew and lump crab cakes.
There are also soups, sandwiches, salads and hamburgers, including a Lynchburg staple, the Cheesy Western, and the pimento cheese-topped Pearson Burger, a nod to Pearson’s Drug Store. Most entrees are in the $10 to $12 range and a burger and beer can be had for about 10 bucks.
“I’ve been a foodie most of my career, so taking the food seriously was something that The Dahlia needed,” West, a self-taught chef with 23 years in the restaurant business, said. “One thing about The Dahlia, too, when we put together the menu, we wanted it to be the kind of place we wanted to go: non-pretentious, exceed your expectations in the quality and not sock-it-to-you in the wallet.”
West opened his reincarnated Dahlia on Christmas Eve 2010. He also reopened The Cellar. On Friday nights, The Cellar’s 50-foot-long bar—once rumored to be the longest on the East Coast—is reportedly packed with young professionals. Patrons can also order from the same menu downstairs as up.
“It’s a little more casual downstairs,” West said. “It feels more like a traditional bar. There are five TVs, a jukebox, a dartboard. We went 21st century with the new jukebox. It’s hooked to the Internet. You dream a song and you can play it. All the old favorites, everything you can imagine.”
Godsey, who now lives at Smith Mountain Lake, has eaten at the new Dahlia a few times with his younger brother, Eddie, a well-known business owner in Lynchburg. For Godsey, even with the new menu and stylish décor, it’s still the same place his dad built in 1947.
“I thought, ‘How cool is this?’ You used to go to The Dahlia and it was like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name. … It didn’t make any difference if you delivered mail or were the doctor,” Godsey said. “I was amazed that everyone in the restaurant was intermingling with each other, going from this table to the next. It was really fascinating that you could take that kind of atmosphere [of the old Dahlia] and convert it to a restaurant and do the same thing. I thought that was very good. It’s amazing how little they’ve changed. … It’s a good place.”
Check out The Dahlia online at thedahlialynchburg.com and on Facebook.
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