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Former Harbor Inn at Portage Lakes gets new life as Smoke on the Water

New business breathes life into iconic building
Smoke on the Water Portage Lakes
Posted at 10:22 PM, Jun 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-17 23:14:44-04

COVENTRY TOWNSHIP, Ohio  — If you've been to Portage Lakes, you've seen the building. A lighthouse structure sits atop the roof and whether you're walking the sidewalk, driving the winding roads, or cruising on a boat in the water, you can't miss it. The Olde Harbor Inn was a mainstay of the area and after years of uncertainty, it's getting new life as Smoke on the Water moves in.

A BBQ, bourbon and beer-centric restaurant and bar, Smoke on the Water will serve exactly what its name leads on.

"We're going to specialize in bourbon and smoked meats. Very simple menu, five or six meats, seven sides," owner-operator Donnie Boyer said. "And then the drinks I can't even begin to explain, they're going to be out of this world, they're going to be amazing."

Smoke on the Water drink

Boyer owns the bar and restaurant next door to the former home of the Harbor Inn, Pick's at PLX. The empty shell of a historic building sat in sight for years, and it wasn't clear if it ever would see a business grace its halls again.

"We were really worried about the building. I knew that the damage had been extremely extensive and we were worried that this iconic piece of property might not survive," said Coventry Township Trustee Jeff Houck.

The building suffered serious flood damage a few years back, and to open anything in its place required a lot of effort and even more love.

"The place has been closed. It had a flood...I believe 2018 or 2019, and it's been closed since then," Boyer said. "We took possession of the building back in 2020 and it just took up obviously with COVID and everything, it took a little while to get to get some things done."

A lot has been done, to Boyer's point. The entire interior has been renovated. New windows open up the indoor sitting area, brassy-toned light shines from the modern fixtures, and custom bourbon-barrel tables greet guests who will come to have some smoky meats and well-crafted cocktails.

Smoke on the Water Portage Lakes inside

I wanted something that just felt more almost speakeasy. Just a really, really neat setting," Boyer said. "I put a lot of thought into everything from the decor to something as simple as the bar lights, to the equipment to the tables of the chairs to everything."

A bourbon room features a large collection of specialty bottles and leather bar stools and sofas to create the speakeasy vibe Boyer wanted to achieve.

While the inside is brand new, the unmistakable structure of the building hasn't changed. Boyer once thought about it, but quickly changed his mind.

"To be honest, we had contemplated getting rid of the lighthouse," Boyer laughed. "It is an iconic structure, so it just didn't make sense to get rid of it. So we had to keep it."

The building's history ran too deep for Boyer to want to take away too much from the building. He appreciates the richness of its past.

"It was an inn and breakfast stop, you know, for horse and carriage. So the building is very, very old...It's been around since the 1800s," Boyer said. "We are working on putting some of that history on the walls to kind of explain the history of the building and what it's been and what it's become."

So instead of changing too much of the exterior, Boyer is taking advantage of the building's blessings.

"This building has the largest patio on the water and I think that's the unique part about the building is that's why people always remember the Olde Harbor and obviously is that was what a lot of people remember," Boyer said. "I mean, the building itself kind of just speaks volumes. I think the building itself speaks for itself."

Smoke on the Water patio

Smoke on the Water will shift away a bit from the typical American fare many of the nearby establishments serve and bring a new taste to the lakes. When it does, the area expects good things to follow.

Judy Narducci, owner of Portage Lakes Cruises, said having the former Harbor Inn open its doors as something new will be a big boost for businesses like hers.

“We dock here," Narducci said. "We all help each other honestly, as soon as one does better we all do better.”

Houck sees the same thing and hopes Smoke on the Water will not only be a destination for local residents to head to but draw in out-of-towners, too.

"We love having businesses on the lake. It makes the Portage Lakes a better destination every time a new business opens up or reopens and to bring more people out to enjoy our little piece of paradise here is a joy to all of us," Houck said. "They'll go to the businesses, they'll utilize the business' area. It's not just the restaurants. It's the gas stations, it's the shops. It's the bait shops, it's everything."

Set to open in the next couple of weeks, waiting on some last-minute necessities to arrive, Smoke on the Water will throw wide the doors of a building full of memories and allow for new ones to be made along the peaceful waters of PLX.

"Eighteen years ago, right out on that dock right there, my first date with my wife," Houck reminisced. "Lots of memories. Lots of memories."

And Boyer is ready to make it all happen.

"I've had some friends telling me that they got goosebumps when they walk in. So I'm hoping that's kind of the reaction from anyone," he said. "I think that they'll really enjoy the place and I think it's just a unique environment. I can't wait to show it off."

Smoke on the Water bourbon room

Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.

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