First impression 

Remodeled Top Hat aims to become regional music destination

The new Top Hat is, well, shiny. Soft lights gleam off polished wooden and metal surfaces in every corner of the now-spacious building.

At an open house held for musicians on Friday, March 8, select Missoulians got their first look at the venerable Front Street music venue and bar, which closed in November for renovations. As Portland band Redwood Son played two sets of roots-rock, dozens of musicians mingled and chatted, grabbing complimentary beer from an ice-filled tub as servers offered platters of tapas. Even the two bouncers smiled at people walking in.

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  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"It kinda had that dive bar feeling before," says Sean Burress, a member of Polson's reggae-influenced band Off in the Woods. "Now I feel classier just being here."

The revamped Top Hat is the project of Montana businessman Nick Checota, who bought it from Nicole Garr. She took over the bar after the death of her father, longtime owner Steve Garr, in 2009. Checota says he intends for the space to become one of the premier venues in the Northwest, and one of the top 40 venues in the nation.

While still very much recognizable as the Top Hat, it's certainly new and improved: Gone is the dividing wall that created a bottleneck at the front door, and the bathrooms are now in the rear hallwaytwo renovations that vastly opened up the room. Gone, too, are many of the hallmarks of a well-worn place for drinking and dancing, like the years of accumulated décor. Band graffiti has been painted over in the green room, which now sports leather couches.

Checota's $700,000 renovation of the venuetechnically two conjoined buildings, dating from the 1880sincluded replacing the roofs and reinforcing the structural integrity. He's especially proud of the work to improve the acoustics. Previously, the dividing wall in the middle of the room would echo sound back, making live music tinny and warped, he says. New sound-absorbent material on the ceiling and more open space makes for consistent acoustics and a better experience for the musicians on stage, he says. Crowd capacity is now at nearly 600 people.

"There's no other room in town, of our size, that really has the level of quality sound we have," Checota says.

The building still smells slightly of fresh paint, but several shows and a grand opening event are already booked. Checota says nearly 150 musicians at the open house filled out surveys saying they'd like to play the venue.

Returning patrons will find that the bar operations aren't significantly different. Red Notaris, one of a few returning bartenders who waited out the renovations while getting by on odd jobs, was working the new second bar in the corner formerly occupied by the bathrooms. "We have 19 taps now," he says. A pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon is still $3, and well drinks have been raised from $3 to $3.50, because Notaris says they'll contain an extra half-ounce of liquor. The well whiskey is still Old Crow.

One of the biggest changes is in the basement, which formerly stored odds and ends and sometimes hosted art shows. Now, head chef Erin Crobar commands a bright, full kitchen with a staff of about 15. Crobar says his goal is to create "strictly traditional Spanish tapas" from local suppliers, including a Hudderite colony.

New kitchen aside, Checota says he wants to keep the Top Hat's focus on live music. He's hired Trail 103.3 DJ Tracy Lopez as a full-time booker and promoter. He says the venue welcomes most genres, in particular country, which not many downtown venues currently cater to. Checota wants to avoid electronic, though, saying he thinks there's enough places for that already and he's observed that electronic show crowds spend less money at the bar. "Frankly, I don't do very well as a business with electronic," he says. "It's our worst nights by a long shot."

With the first beer yet to be spilled, the Top Hat doesn't quite seem like a place to cut loose just now. Checota says the renovations are meant to take the abuse that hosting concerts can bring, and that's why he chose sturdy oak flooring and metal bar tops. "I'm realistic. It's a music venue. It's going to get scratched up," he says.

Aaron Johnson, who plays in several bands including Three Eared Dog and the Skurfs, spent a couple hours checking out upgrades at the open house. He says he's excited to play a show in the slick new space. "In 30 years, everyone will remember this moment when it was new," he says.

The Top Hat hosts a grand reopening, with Whitewater Ramble, Kitchen Dwellers and Lil' Smokies, Fri., March 15, at 7 PM. Free.

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