Despite rumors which swirled after the announcement of The Green Door’s imminent closing, bar owner Ryan Condon says he’s not only keeping Big John’s Tavern open: He’s planning to return the 59-year old institution to its former status as a traditional watering hole, where the TVs tuned to football are a bigger draw than the fish head curry.
“I want to return Big John’s to what Big John’s was when I started going there,” says Condon, who started hanging out at Big John’s as a high schooler. “If Big John would ever have seen The Green Door, he would have rolled over in his grave. I don’t even know what the hell grilled kimchee is; I just want to restore Big John’s the way it was.”
“Big John’s was where everybody went,” Condon recalls. “You felt safe there. They had the best roast beef sandwich in town, the best ham sandwich in town. It was a great place to go.”
According to Condon, drinkers flocked to Big John’s because of Cannady’s protective “gentle giant” personality, which helped persuade Charleston parents to let their underage teenagers drink there. But an aging Cannady was struggling to run the bar when Condon made the partly sentimental decision to buy it.
In 1999, Condon leased Big John’s to his nephews, Jim and Chris Condon. Although he wasn’t pleased with their choice to promote Big John’s as a dive bar – the bar’s phone number is 723-DIVE – he says he didn’t interfere with their operations. “They gradually turned it into something it wasn’t,” Condon complains.
“Big John’s has been a dive bar forever,” Jim Condon responds. “We didn’t decide that.”
But the Condons strayed furthest from Ryan Condon’s business plan when they turned over Big John’s kitchen to Cory Burke of Roti Rolls. Burke introduced a relentlessly inventive menu featuring odd pig parts and Ethiopian influences, a far cry from the boiled shrimp and pickled eggs which were mainstays back when the bar’s staff consisted of Cannady, a sandwich maker and a server.
“Just because it’s not my kind of menu doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it,” allows Condon, who’s a co-owner of the local Crab Shack seafood chain. “That’s just not what the business was intended to be.”
Condon’s opinion took on the weight of a ruling when a few weeks back he assumed control of the bar. Condon claims he was owed $60,000 in back rent, but Jim Condon disputes his account:
“Ryan only stepped in because my brother and I decided to step out,” says Jim Condon, who recently moved abroad. “I could not do justice to running the place from Germany and Chris wanted to move on to other things.”
Burke says he knew The Green Door wouldn’t last long under Ryan Condon’s leadership. Burke characterizes the quick closing as a “shock and surprise,” but in Condon’s telling, Burke came up with the Oct. 31 closing date after recognizing Condon’s determination to clear the bar of its modern touches.
“I just told him I’d like to see him get out,” Condon says.
Although Condon agreed to let The Green Door stick around through month’s end, he’s reconsidering his stance after learning Burke is planning to throw “a big party, go all out” on The Green Door’s last night. The prospect of a Halloween blowout is “scary,” Condon says.
According to Jim Condon, “Cory and I had lots of discussions and general verbal agreements but we never had anything in writing,” so Ryan Condon can end The Green Door’s stay whenever he chooses.
Recognizing that “closed for renovations” usually means “closed for good” in the restaurant business, Condon emphasizes that if he closes Big John’s briefly, “it will reopen as Big John’s. We might make it a little nicer. I don’t have it on my bucket list to make it a lot nicer.”
The decision to evict The Green Door wasn’t personal, he adds.
“I like the guy,” Condon says of Burke. “He’s certainly got some vision. If I had another location, I would rent it to him.”