FIRST ON SJO — Wally’s Mills Avenue Liquors is scheduled to reopen later this month with a new owner and a refreshed look. Yes, some of the old wallpaper is still there but much of it was crumbling after years of damage from cigarette smoke.
What remains will have a better chance of surviving for years to come because of one major policy change: The new Wally’s will be a nonsmoking bar.
That may disappoint many of the barflies that sat on the stools around the three-sided bar chain smoking and sipping the notoriously stiff cocktails. But it should also delight others who wanted to patronize the popular bar but decided they didn’t want to damage their lungs along with their livers.
There’s something else you should know about the new Wally’s: it is no longer a dive bar.
It’s actually kind of gorgeous.
Reid Pasternack, the designer retained by the new owner, Minesh Patel, gave me a sneak peek of the redesigned space on Sunday. (I first wrote about Pasternack’s restaurant work in 1992 when he designed Colorado Fondue Co. in Casselberry.) Pasternack shared the two photos here of the interior and gave me permission to show them to you.
“The place was literally crumbling,” Pasternack said of the bar, which opened in 1954 and closed last year. “I don’t think many people realized it because it was very dark in there and you couldn’t see it.”
The roof leaked and the electrical system was “nonexistent, just a maze of extension cords.” Making it safe was the main goal, he said. After that, his duty was to “clean it up and give it a refresh so it could go another 64 years.
The “bones” of the building’s interior are the same. The original bar countertop is there but it’s under a thin concrete layer that has been stained the same orange as it used to be.
The lighting is more dramatic. It still has the dark areas but the bar fairly glows from the track lights that line a suspended cork ceiling above it.
A part of the wall that separated the bar from the package liquor store has been opened up and a secondary counter space will give patrons another place to lean with their drinks.
The package liquor part of the business will remain. But the space now resembles an elegant tasting room at a high-end wine shop.
And Wally is still there, too, both figuratively and literally. Walter Updike’s image is still on the sign out front, and an old sign with various beer logos and a quote from Updike, who died in 2008 at the age of 65, hangs on a wall inside.
Also, his ashes are in an urn on a shelf above an old Miller High Life sign next to a gallery of photos salvaged from the old place.
Pasternack kept or recreated other original touches that even some of the old patrons might not notice. He matched the mossy green color of the cinder block walls after years of “veneer” were pulled away, and he went to great lengths to reproduce paneling that hasn’t been available since the mid 1960s.
He also tried to save the wallpaper, but much of it was unsalvageable. “When we started taking pictures off the wall,” he said, “we realized the wallpaper was crumbling. So there were some areas we had to remove.” Those areas are now covered by large mirrors that also help to make the space feel larger.
There’s at least one other element to tie the new Wally’s to the past. At least one of the former bartenders has been hired to return.
So maybe the drinks will taste the same.
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