Closed for Business

A Proper Sendoff to Sidebar, One of Downtown Phoenix's Favorite Bars

Benjamin Leatherman
SideBar — once a second-story hang in downtown Phoenix.
Josh Parry’s favorite spot at SideBar was in the southwest corner of the room, alongside the ground floor entrance and overlooking the historic F.Q. Story neighborhood.

“From that seat, you could see everything that happened there,” says Parry, recalling the popular downtown bar he opened with business partner Mike Winn in late 2008. “You could see the bar on the other side of the room, the people coming up the stairs, the artwork on the walls, the crazy movies we had on the TV.”

Parry is wistful about SideBar. He locked its doors in March in observance of COVID-19 guidelines. By August, it was clear he couldn’t afford to reopen, ever.

“I didn’t want to contribute to the pandemic,” he said. “And meanwhile the bills were stacking up. I knew we’d never get caught up to where we’d been.”

Where SideBar had been was a pinnacle of sorts among downtown nightspots. The neighborhood pub was an immediate success in 2008 and maintained its popularity for more than a decade — a rarity among bars, particularly in a town filling up with new drinks places.

“The thing we did was make a bar for people who didn’t love bars,” is how Parry explains SideBar’s success. “I wasn’t a huge bar person, so I wanted a place that was friendly and quiet but not stiff or boring.”

click to enlarge From wilder times at Sidebar. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
From wilder times at Sidebar.
Benjamin Leatherman
SideBar, says Toni Wein, was never boring. “The people who worked there were nice,” remembers Wein, who lived for years just up the street from the place. “And that’s not always the case in any bar. And, you know, I could go in there and talk to people and hear them. The music was never too loud, there was never this crowd of people screaming, the food was good. Where am I going to go now?”

Wein met her boyfriend, David Kase, at SideBar. “That place always smelled good,” Kase insists. “And those wild movies they showed on a loop. I still don’t know where they got those.”

Parry got the weird flicks from his own collection, he admits. “I love campy old science fiction and monster movies. I wanted something you didn’t have to watch all the way through, you could just look up and there’s a giant lizard eating a town or something great to look at.”

SideBar wasn’t anything great to look at when he discovered it 12 years ago, Parry recalls of the former home of Emerald Lounge, a notorious (and notoriously popular) dive bar.

“At that point, all it had going for it was a liquor license,” says Parry, a native who left Phoenix for LA after college. He swore he’d never return.

“I also said I’d never be a mortgage broker like my dad,” he laughs. “I moved back to Phoenix and was working as a mortgage broker when I got the idea to open SideBar.”

Back then, Emerald’s original space was downstairs where Pei Wei’s prep kitchen is today. “I really wanted to love the place,” Parry remembers. At first, affection for what became SideBar didn’t come easy. Although Emerald Lounge had been closed for a few years, locals had continued to gather there — when it was a ballet school, a photography studio, an artist’s loft — to drink and party. They left behind a mess.

“The place was derelict,” Parry says. “There was a billboard hanging off the back, the parking lot was a wreck, and the floor was so soft you could barely walk on it.”

His first act as a tenant was to have the floor and ceiling rehabbed. As the space began to take shape, he fell in love. Parry pictured a corner bar, low cocktail table seating, lots of wall space to show local artwork, and a big screen where Godzilla could do his worst.

click to enlarge The Sidebar space is now Highball. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The Sidebar space is now Highball.
Lauren Cusimano
He hopes the new tenant, Highball, succeeds in the space he came to love over the past 12 years. “Everything has its moment, and SideBar had its moment,” he says. “Highball didn’t steal anything from us, and now is their moment. They’re the next thing.”

Parry misses his former stomping ground, but when he stopped in at Highball last month to pick up a laptop he’d left behind, he was surprised by how glad he was to see new place hopping.

“It was sad, but it also felt right,” he admits. “Of course, I’m going to miss it — the people, the good times, the artists. But even though it’s gone, I can honestly say I’ve had better closure with SideBar than with some of my other relationships.”