Two things about iconic hostelries. First, many had larger-than-life owners (consider Mushy Wexler’s Theatrical or Herman Pirchner’s Alpine Village). Second, their repute often was magnified by the renown of their customers (politicians, rock stars, actors, gangsters, etc.). Jim Swingos Keg & Quarter fits both bills. From 1968 to 1984, this eatery and adjoining hotel were the raucous hub of an otherwise moribund downtown.
Jim Swingos (1941-2015) was born into a Greek immigrant family. After graduating from Benedictine High School (the first non-Catholic ever to do so) he matriculated to Ohio State University as a Criminology major. Swingos ultimately found this too depressing a career path and joined his father in the bar business. Numerous restaurant-management positions followed until, in 1968, he purchased the faltering Downtowner Restaurant at East 18th Street and Euclid Avenue. The price was a pittance: 16 months in back rent.
Thus the Downtowner Restaurant became Swingos Keg & Quarter, serving garlic-drenched food to businessmen staying at the adjoining Downtowner Hotel. In 1971 Swingos bought the hotel—a dicey move given that Cleveland was hardly the world’s destination of choice. "Cleveland's hotel business was dead,” Swingos once recalled. “And I was trying to support a hotel with a restaurant. Then I got a call from a promoter wanting to make a booking for Elvis."
Suddenly no-one was singing Are You Lonely Tonight? at the Heartbreak Hotel. Elvis’ advance men blew in, liked what they saw and booked four floors. Moreover, Elvis wanted to use the hotel as the base of operations for a Midwest tour. Swingos quickly renamed the place Swingos’ Celebrity Inn and from then on, it was Shake, Rattle and Roll. “We were booked by every big name, little name and everyone in between. The one exception was business travelers: You get someone like Led Zeppelin in town for a concert. They stay with us. They get done with the concert and they want to party and make noise. Below them may be a businessman who needs his sleep for a big meeting the next day. We lost the businessmen in the commotion."
Swingos’ restaurant and hotel thrived without the suits, catering to a near-continuous parade of actors, musicians, athletes and the almost famous. In fact, the place was featured in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie "Almost Famous," which told the story of an uber-groupie whose real-life counterpart once plied Swingos’ halls and rooms. More publicity came courtesy of the Rolling Stones, who wore their "Swingos: Have you slept there lately?" T-shirts for a spread in Rolling Stone magazine.
Naturally, the rockers were a handful. Ian Hunter, leader of the British group Mott the Hoople, noted that Swingos was "a place you remember checking in and out of, but you can't remember anything in between.” The Who’s Keith Moon once walked up to female patron in the K&Q bar, slapped a pair of handcuffs on her and casually walked away. Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore engaged in a late-night screaming match with Yul Brenner. Members of Kiss flaunted 10-inch heels and 10-foot tongues. Led Zeppelin, the four horsemen of havoc, were among Swingos’ favorite guests. "I loved Led Zeppelin, because they always traveled with their accountant," Swingos remembered. "Whatever damage they did to their rooms, the accountant always took out his checkbook and paid for everything down to the penny. I didn't mind because I always got new stuff for whatever rooms they stayed in after they left."
But the game changer was Elvis: “Always our biggest draw,” according to Swingos. “[The first time Elvis came] he ordered a chopped steak and a Boston strip steak. They had to be cooked well-done. He requested that I bring the meal up and that I cut the strip into tiny pieces for him. Then he inspected the cut-up steak and asked me to put it back together like a jigsaw puzzle before he would touch it.”
Which is not to say that non-rockers didn’t add to the commotion. Sports stars and carousers like Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Martin were frequent patrons. Basketball legend Dave Cowens once accosted a bartender. Jerry Lewis would make bizarre noises into the PA system and regularly change the locks on the door of his room. “He drilled them out himself,” recalled Swingos. Frank Sinatra—consistently generous and courteous (but also demanding)—became Swingos’ close friend. Down at the bar, a cacophony of locals mingled with celebrities. “The FBI would be in one corner; Hells Angels in another; mob guys at the bar; and George Forbes and the Stokes brothers at a table.”
Through it all, the Keg & Quarter restaurant managed to maintain not only dignity but quality. Its food received consistently high ratings from critics and customers. Male waiters—exceptionally well-trained and always dressed in tuxedos—buzzed around, consistently adhering to Swingos’ mantra that customers are always right, even when they aren’t.
Swingos expanded his foodservice empire. He opened two additional restaurants at Nick Mileti’s Coliseum (where he was listed on the Cavaliers roster as “team dietician”). He also took over Marie Shriver's at the Statler Hotel, renaming it Swingos at the Statler. And when he cashed out at 18th and Euclid in 1984, he opened the moderately successful Swingos on the Lake in the Carlyle Apartment (now condo) complex on Lakewood’s Gold Coast.
But none of Swingos’ other endeavors matched the success or notoriety he achieved at East 18th and Euclid. For more than 15 years, Swingos was the shining center of a comatose universe. "In the 1970s,” explained former WMMS program director John Gorman, “downtown was dead. There was no reason to come. That is, until Jim Swingos gave them a reason."