Curtis McGaha’s career in engineering took a dramatic turn when the mixology craze coincided with his bartending gig at Mass Ave stalwart Tini. He eventually took over ownership of the bar that’s famous for its fresh juice–based cocktails and LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere. When pandemic restrictions forced him to get creative, he took over the former ComedySportz venue a few doors down and performed his own brand of improv. McGaha managed to salvage the stage component of the space, transforming it into an espresso bar (Crema) by day and classic cocktail bar with live performances (Almost Famous) by night.
How did you get into the business of bar and restaurant ownership?
I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 19. My first job was at Steak ’n Shake, as a server. I gradually started going into better restaurants and getting better at front-of-house work. I upped my skills a little bit. I was going to school for engineering, and I was trying to pay for school. In the bartending world, there was a big boom with mixology, and I got really into that. I fell in love with the history behind cocktails. I was managing Tini and creating cocktail menus, doing all the orders, and trying to travel to learn more. This was what my heart and soul was into. I asked the owner of Tini if I could have some equity in this space, and he told me that he just really didn’t need the space anymore. He couldn’t really run it, and I had been running it for years. We worked out a deal, and I purchased Tini about four years ago. I never thought I would own a bar or a restaurant or anything like that, but I just fell in love with it.
In October, you opened a new place a few doors down from Tini. How is it different?
In the daytime, it’s Crema, a coffee shop. My wife and I love to travel, and when we visited bars in other cities and countries, they usually had espresso machines behind the bars. I started talking to the guys at Tinker Coffee, tossing ideas back and forth. We have these two big windows in the front of our building, so we got one of the best La Marzocco espresso machines and put it right in the window with our logo on it. During the day, people are in there working on their computers and drinking good coffee. And then at night, it switches to Almost Famous, which is more cocktail-heavy. We serve tapas-style food with a Spanish influence—and one of the best espresso martinis in town.
Since they are nearly next door to each other, was it important for Tini and Almost Famous to have their own distinct personalities?
I’ve tried, over the years, to curate different menus at Tini, but it has taken on a whole life of its own. I mean, it’s fresh ingredients, good cocktails, and an all-welcoming environment, but I feel like that space belongs to the community. Almost Famous is more my baby. It’s 25 cocktails, and we stuck to classic originals made the way they’re supposed to be done. We have a martini list, a Negroni menu, a classic cocktails menu, and a nonalcoholic menu. It’s more dialed in on craft cocktails that are executed perfectly and beautifully.
What were all of the pieces that had to come together in order for you to open a new business during a pandemic?
During the shutdown, Tini was considered a nightclub, so they put so many rules on us that we couldn’t do anything. Like, we couldn’t open. The Almost Famous venue used to house ComedySportz. They weren’t doing any events during COVID, so we subleased it to do some performances—comedy, burlesque, drag—just to get by. And then ComedySportz actually didn’t want the space anymore. We did a six-month trial to see if it would work for our concepts. And it did. We were able to do regulated, small-audience events. And then once that started dying down, we closed to redo the kitchen, the dining room, and the whole space outside.
It sounds like you were making it up as you went along. Were you able to do a lot of advance planning?
Everything was contracted out, obviously, but I had to save money where I could. I’ve worked in construction, so I did a lot of it myself. I was chipping tiles off the floor with my hands. And I was definitely trying to figure it out as I went. Building a whole new venue during a pandemic and trying to get contractors and supplies has been a nightmare.
But now you have built your own little entertainment district on Mass Ave.
The big thing was that we didn’t want to lose another stage on Mass Ave. We had the Phoenix Theatre close. That was a big one. This one was closing, and they were going to just tear it out and white-box it. Mass Ave is an arts and entertainment district with a lot of history, and I took over the space to make sure that we kept that part of the nostalgia.
What kind of entertainment are you booking on your stage?
Once a month, we have a burlesque show. We do a drag brunch every other Sunday. We do some random comedy shows, and we do jazz every Wednesday. We have some live bands coming up, and we also have a big screen that we’ll use for showing old movies.
Why have you focused all of your business on Mass Ave?
When I first moved downtown, I lived at 11th and College. This block has been part of my life for over 10 years. My home bar is Mass Ave Pub. It’s actually my favorite bar in the city. So this neighborhood is just really dear to me.