July 2005--Attractive thirtysomethings order Cosmopolitans, "up." They flirt over cool blue martinis in low voices and nibble on fruit and cheese. No one is talking about the most recent survivor voted off the island. No one.
A drop-dead gorgeous pin-up holds court from the wall behind the piano bar. Baroque chandeliers hang from the ceiling, would-be relics from an ancient Hungarian palace, the idea of which lay behind the bar room's design. Lush red velvet drapes keep secrets inside. The languid lounge music isn't just background noise; this is a soundtrack that croons sexy, sexy, sexy. Finally, a place that proves the assertion: Adult Is Good.
"Can I taste that one?" coos a bedroom-eyed brunette as she points to a Chardonnay. The proprietor obliges and offers an observation. "You can mix wines," he says, "but you can't mix bourbon and gin." His sultry patron murmurs her agreement.
Tremont? No. The warehouse district? Try again. A little-known jewel nestled somewhere on Coventry? Strike three. Try the Southside, that unspeakable part of town that cities such as Seven Hills and Broadview Heights and Parma call home. And this spot, called Budapest Blonde, is in that dyed-in-the-wool municipal homage to mom, old glory and apple pie: Independence. Owner Leonard DiCosimo shrugs. "The cats have plenty of room to park," he says of the strip mall location.
But a joint that's smoother than Baileys on the rocks can easily tackle all the sniffs, snorts and eye-rolling chants of, "location, location, location," that Southsiders have endured for years. Just one cocktail at the tony wine bar, located on the otherwise boorish Rockside Road, is enough to convince even the most jaded jet setter: this is easily one of the hippest spots to hit Northeast Ohio since the Theatrical. DiCosimo should know, his band, the Wingtips used to perform at the legendary downtown venue.
The entire bar was, in a way, born of theater. Huge elaborate picture frames hang horizontally from the ceiling; an element designed and built by Russ Borski, a CWRU professor of theatre. DiCosimo's sig-other and Budapest Blond co-owner Ilona Simon ("We're not married, just madly in love") touts a background in marketing at Playhouse Square, where she was the biz brains behind productions such as Sheer Madness and Forever Plaid. When he's not shaking martinis, DiCosimo is a professor of music at Baldwin Wallace and the secretary treasurer for the Cleveland Federation of Musicians. He's worked with Vickie Bussert at Cain Park and still chums with Wingtip drummer Frank Stolarski, who tonight is tapping his fingers on the side of a rocks glass at the end of the bar. Cool, man.
Simon and DiCosimo have managed to take all their art and performance background, mix it with a powerful triumvirate of rules (No smoking. No beer. No television) and pour out a watering hole that is not at all like a bar, but a bona-fide cocktail party. DiCosimo and Simon are such extraordinary hosts that, even in those rare instances when vacant barstools outnumber occupied, a drink at the Blonde still feels like an occasion.
"You have to be intimate in here," says DiCosimo before emerging from behind the bar and tickling the ivories. He performs My Funny Valentine and Making Whoopee. Patrons stuff his tip jar. "Know any Jimmy Buffet?" quips one regular. The comment is met with a round of laughs. After all, a parrot-head wouldn't last ten minutes with the cats in here.