Taps for the Tap Room?

Restaurateur and landlord Mike Clark may sell his Cumberland Strip property to a Nashville bar owner

If a proposed sale of the property at 2200 Cumberland goes through as planned, little will change except on paper at the Old College Inn—but the longest-operating bar on the Strip, the Tap Room, would vanish after 30 years.

The seller is Mike Clark. The OCI, which he owns and operates, shares a Cumberland storefront with the Tap Room, long a beer-only working-class bar in the late afternoon and evening, college-student hangout later at night, and mecca for fans of all ilk throughout home football weekends.

Clark leases part of the property to Tap Room owner Doug Pickens, and another freestanding building that sits behind the OCI/Tap Room duplex to El University Mexican restaurant. All three businesses rest on the property for sale (though part of the OCI sits on property Clark leases from the Jones Family Trust), but the OCI would stay as is after the buyout.

The potential buyer, who now has until May 15 to gather costs, forecast budget and potential profit, and decide whether to purchase, is Benjamin Goldberg, a Nashville trendsetter in his late 20s who already co-owns (with brother Max) the upscale hotspots Bar Twenty3 and City Hall in Nashville's Gulch restaurant district.

But this property development would likely follow in the footsteps of Paradise Park Trailer Resort and Food Stand, the 8,400 square foot, 24-hour diner and honky-tonk Goldberg owns on his own. The flagship is just what it sounds like: a low-brow trailer park theme bar and restaurant that both mocks and celebrates redneck "culture." It features $6 pitchers, "double-wide" burgers, fried Spam sandwiches, a full bar, honky tonk acts, and a bright red Camaro sitting right next to the plastic tables and chairs.

"I'm not certain how Benjamin Goldberg will structure the new corporation for this entity," says Clark, "and I don't want to come out and say it's sold. These real estate things are never done until they're done, and they have 60 days to make a decision. Their decision can still be, ‘We're looking for another property.' That's never your intention going in, but..."

Part of the research involves figuring out if the Cumberland property could be parlayed into a Paradise Park spinoff. The buyers would have to be granted a city variance to connect the Tap Room portion of the building (leaving the OCI as is) with the freestanding restaurant behind it via a covered walkway, says Pickens, who's turned his keen bartender's ear to listening to all the principal players in the pending deal. (Benjamin Goldberg could not be reached before deadline after repeated calls and e-mails.)

"This gives them the ability to combine occupancy for both places, 58 each, which would allow them a high enough seating capacity to sell liquor," says Pickens.

Clark, who also owns the Butcher Shop restaurant, says the decision to sell is strictly financial. "It's best for the company from a spreadsheet perspective," says Clark, who holds the property jointly with his brother Randy and was forced to close the Old College Inn West in August 2007. "We need to retire some debt and consolidate some debt."

If Clark had his first choice, an investor would pour some money into the real estate holding and let the current bar and restaurant owners carry on. "But most people with that kind of money aren't interested in being landlords," he says. "Usually if someone invests in a local entity that's not a publicly traded stock, they want to be in control of the restaurant or bar or buy you out completely."

If Goldberg's the buyer, however, Clark will still own and operate the OCI. "We're staying," he says. "I've got that all worked out."

The Tap Room, though, would cease and desist. "The end of an era," says Pickens, who has been the owner just for the past six years, but downed his first cold ones there in the '70s and has been a regular patron of the old-fashioned dive ever since.

"There's been a great deal of angst over where the ‘Home Room,' which is what we call Fridays, is going to convene," he says. "There's a group of 20-plus people who have been coming down here most Fridays since the '70s. There's a real family atmosphere."

Pickens himself says he'll get out of the bar business when the deal goes down. He's already working a part-time construction job. "I'd probably just do that for a while until I figure out what I want to be when I grow up," he says.

Clark also has hoisted beverages at the Tap Room in his days studying Civil Engineering at UT, which ended in 1985. But he admits that if this deal doesn't go through, he'll keep the Cumberland property on the market. "Doug is a good tenant and has done a lot to overcome things the previous owners did that gave them a black eye with the city," he says, referring to consistent underage drinking charges and other alcohol-related arrests. "He didn't create this situation. I don't like to see a business that's been around 30 years go away either," he says.

"But nostalgia doesn't pay the bills."