A quick glimpse through the new windows lining the front of the Top Hat Lounge is all it takes to notice the transformation the Front Street bar has gone through during the past three months.
The Top Hat will reopen Friday when three bluegrass bands take the stage – which is in the same spot but outfitted with brand new sound equipment and acoustic upgrades – while patrons enjoy samples from the restaurant and get comfortable in the refurbished space.
Inside the bar there is more light from the new windows, new floors, a new coat of paint and new tables and chairs in new seating areas. There’s a new set of bathrooms in the back and a patio seating area in the works as well.
Patrons will also notice that front and center inside the bar is the mahogany and sawn oak brunswick bar former owner Steve Garr brought from Wyoming and installed in 1988. Appraised at roughly $75,000, new owner Nick Checota made sure the brunswick bar was restored and then highlighted in renovation plans.
“We really cleaned it up. ... The goal was to have that bar really be a feature,” Checota said.
The brunswick bar isn’t the only familiar sight among all the newness, and is just one example of Checota’s work to give the Top Hat new life while keeping its soul.
“It’s a fine line between reinvigorating and not alienating,” Checota said standing inside the bar, which has been closed since Dec. 1 while crews from Seeley Lake-based contractor Powder Hound Construction worked night and day to get it ready for the March reopening.
Outside, another iconic piece of the Top Hat is lit again. The bar’s old sign, featuring neon yellow “Top Hat” name split by the longtime winged hat logo, was reinstalled out front.
“We found a guy who did a lot of work on neon signs in the ’70s and he refurbished it,” Checota said.
The sign is attached to a new bar front, which has been streamlined with brick and timber.
Underneath the refurbished sign is a ticket booth where music fans can purchase tickets to a wide variety of shows, including a number of national touring acts Checota hopes to draw to the Top Hat with the help of his in-house arts and entertainment buyer, Tracy Lopez.
Checota’s also bringing in comedy acts, hosting a dinner series featuring local artists and showing classic movies every Monday night on a 17-foot screen installed on the stage. He’s also bringing back the popular free Family Friendly Friday shows the former owners started.
National acts already booked include reggae legends Sister Carol and Mykal Rose on March 31 and comedian Owen Benjamin April 6.
The west side of the bar, including the stage, has been opened up. The old bathrooms were ripped out to make way for a raised seating area and a smaller bar that will be open during busier evenings. The old ceiling was torn out and replaced with special sound-absorbing panels. The new $100,000-plus sound system and soundboard will help allow for supreme sound control.
Checota designed the stage area to be particularly accommodating to acoustic and instrumental acts. But, he said, most any act is going to like how they sound on the new Top Hat stage.
“As bands come here and see a place like this, it’ll attract a lot of bands. We’ve already been getting good feedback (from national acts),” he said.
Aesthetic upgrades inside the building include barstools made of reclaimed wood from the Anaconda bus station and blacksmith work on light fixtures and countertops by local artist Nathan Kimpell.
Two of Steve Garr’s reframed, original Jay Rummel posters were being hung in the Top Hat last week.
The newly exposed brick on the west wall, which was apparently blackened by smoke from a long-ago fire in a nearby building, has been blasted clean.
Checota bought the bar in September from the Garr family. Steve Garr, the downtown Missoula fixture and longtime bar owner, died suddenly in February 2009, leaving the Top Hat to his six children.
Daughters Nicole and Greta Garr ran it until they found Checota to take over.
“We wanted someone who would care for an old building, keep it the Top Hat and believe in live music,” Nicole Garr said in September. “It feels really good to like the guy who’s buying the bar.”
A former medical facility real estate development company owner who sold his interest in that business to move closer to his wife’s family in Montana, Checota wanted to build on the business the Garr children nurtured.
The renovations helped him increase capacity and expand the entertainment offerings while also diversifying the business.
“I’ll say this 100 times today, music is core,” Checota said, but music by itself doesn’t pay the bills.
With that, Checota heads to the basement of the Top Hat, into what he calls the “big add.”
Of all the renovations inside the 130-year-old building, the new kitchen downstairs is crucial to rebooting the Top Hat, Checota said.
The kitchen was full of cooks last week, led by chef Erin Crobar.
Crobar, who came to the Top Hat from the Ranch Club, will be serving a menu that will change seasonally but include salads, traditional Spanish-style tapas and stone-fired flatbread pizzas.
The Top Hat will begin serving lunch and dinner on March 18.
The menu came to life over months of hard work, including a four-day retreat where the staff perfected offerings, which include eight vegetarian tapas options.
“I really don’t think there’s anything like it,” Crobar said of the menu, adding it is a “dream come true” to work in the brand new kitchen. “Nick has just done a great job of bringing (the Top Hat) back to life, down to every detail. Each day I’d come in to a new detail.”
The Top Hat has held several soft openings to prepare for the grand reopening Friday, when Checota will watch as the latest incarnation of the Top Hat is introduced to Missoulians.
Chef Crobar is confident they’ll like what they see.
“We’ve seen the whole process from start to finish,” he said. “To walk in here for the first time, people are going to be like, ‘Oh my God.’ Once the public gets in here, it’s going to create a lot of buzz.”