This is the first in an occasional series of Q&A's with local bar owners, tenders, musicians, bouncers and anyone else apart of Baltimore nightlife.
Tony Cushing Jr. is the 25-year-old owner of Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point. In his 25 years, Cushing has seen a lot of hardship, with his father passing away from a heart attack a year-and-a-half ago, leaving him to run the bar. Tragically on Sunday, Cushing's right-hand man, and good friend of his father's, Timmy Wright (or "Indian Timmy") also suffered a fatal heart attack.
But business must go on, and despite all of the loss in Cushing's life, he keeps Cat's Eye going strong. Walking in on a weekend night, there's always a raucous band (of pretty much any genre) on stage, as well as a crowd that's all over the board as far as age, race, and background. But there's one thing they all have in common: They love Cat's Eye and keep coming back because it feels just like home. I sat down with Cushing Tuesday afternoon and discussed how he runs such an awesome place.
Can you give me a little history of the Cat’s Eye Pub?
My father Anthony Cushing started the bar with Kenny Orey in 1975. Kenny passed away 11 years after the bar started and my father passed away a year-and-a-half ago, February 5. My mom, Ana Marie, is the treasurer; she re-books all of the bands and does all the accounting. About five-and-a-half years ago, my dad called me up and was getting a little overwhelmed with the bar. He called me and didn’t ask me to do anything, he was just telling me his situation. He never wanted to force me and I made my own choice. I was at the University of South Florida for business management. I had finished three-and-a-half years there and cut it short to come down here. He gave me three months to help him out and try to learn everything. I’ve been here ever since.
It seems like you’ve made a lot of improvements, despite some terrible circumstances.
Yeah, the first thing that I did when I got here was I tore up the old keg room (it was 25 years old), so I tripled the size of the room. I refinished the bar, sanded it down, and replaced the rotten wood. We went from 28 to 32 beers on draft, and have 41 total in the whole building. I reinforced the floors. A week from now we’ll be repainting all the windows outside. I just wanted to bring the bar back to its heyday.
Can you describe its heyday a little bit?
When the bar first opened, they couldn't afford to order actual booze, so they used to sell illegal hooch out of here and it came from a distillery in Southern Pennsylvania called the Cat’s Eye. That’s where we got the name from. One of our patrons drew up the logo and then it all fell into place. We’ve always had a good relationship with the sailors and, once we could afford it, the distributors too.
What makes Cat’s Eye unique among the strip of bars on Thames Street?
We have live music 365 days of the year. The days that people aren’t open, we have music, like Christmas and New Year’s Day. We have music twice on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in the afternoons and evenings. We’re eclectic. We do blues, classic rock, funk, zydeco, jazz, bluegrass, Irish, and rockabilly.
You talked earlier about the things you’ve changed. What would you never change?
I’m never going to repaint the bathroom walls because of all the “drunk knowledge” written on them. There are proverbs, like “the man from Nantucket, with a [expletive] so big you could…” You can probably figure out the rest. I would never change the flags on the ceiling. I would never change the music. Steve Kraemer [and the Bluesicians] is my Sunday afternoon band and has been playing here for 29 years. I’m never going to be a Greene Turtle. And I’m never going to make chains, people keep asking me that. I have enough work here, number one. Once you start making chains it becomes unoriginal. I’d rather have one great place than a bunch of okay places.
Can you talk about your clientele?
Here’s an example of somebody not used to our clientele. This one guy came in from New York and comes up to me and says, "Hey" and he has a problem. He tells me that somebody tried to buy him a beer. So he was like, "What is this guy, hitting on me or something?" And I said, "No he’s trying to make you feel at home." And it blew his mind. He just couldn’t imagine that someone was trying to buy a drink for him to be nice. I guess they don’t do that in New York. The reason that I love Baltimore is because it’s filled with honest, genuine people.
To you, what makes a perfect bar?
Staff. No one here is above anyone else. There are no managers, but we all help out together. I have three employees here right now who aren’t working, just here to help me out. We all chip in together and that way there’s no hierarchy. We have Terry who’s been here for 27 years and she is very in your face. Then we have Rob who’s my doorman and always shakes everybody’s hand. One thing I always do is I introduce myself when people start a tab. If you’re going to come here and spend your money, I want you to feel at home.
What do you think your dad would say about the bar today?
I think he would love the keg room, since the draft beer actually tastes good now. I hope that he would be proud because I plan on being here as long as he was. I figure this is still his bar and as long as this place is here, he’ll live on.