The term “B&B” means something a little different at the Olde Town Inn than it does at other places that describe themselves that way.
In other words, if you want breakfast, you’ll have to wait until 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday, when The Fox’s Lair downstairs opens and can offer you a Bloody Mary.
Hardin and co-owner Melinda Jones bought both the Inn and The Fox’s Lair on July 5 of last year. While they’re celebrating that anniversary this week, they’re also celebrating the fact that The Fox’s Lair has been open for 40 years.
As is befitting such a mysterious place, often described as “Augusta’s best-kept secret,” the origin of the Lair is up for debate and available largely by word of mouth.
“One of our most regular regulars swears that either his uncle or father, or someone like that, came here in 1978, and knew it was operating as a bar in 1977,” Hardin laughs.
After unsuccessfully attempting to get “Crutch” on the phone to verify the story, Hardin continues to recount the history he’s heard about the Olde Town neighborhood, which goes hand in hand with the creation of The Fox’s Lair and the Olde Town Inn.
“This neighborhood did not even have the name Olde Town until Peter Knox gave it that name,” he said. “Peter went around and bought parcels of land down here in the neighborhood called Pinched Gut [it’s also referred to as Pinchgut in some places] and then got to renovating. A collection of eight of those parcels were in this courtyard here and became the Telfair Inn. This building was the office building for the Telfair Inn.”
Knox, by all accounts, was an avid fox hunter and decided to finish the basement in that office building so he and his friends would have a place to hang out after hunting.
The building’s fascinating history goes back much further than that, however. It was erected in 1896 and somehow escaped being damaged by a fire in 1916 that destroyed much of the same block. Many think that the last legal duel in the state of Georgia was fought over a woman who lived there, in what used to be called the Delaigle House.
Oh, and there may or may not be a ghost.
“As far as we know, there’s only one ghost,” Hardin laughed. “People say there are two, but we think there’s only one. I believe our ghost is either the spirit of Louise de L’Aigle, daughter of the woman over whom the legal legal duel was fought, or her mother, Mary Clarke de Laigle, the actual woman whose honor the fight was about.”
And, yes, all those name spellings are correct. The family’s name was Anglicized and eventually ended up as Delaigle. There continues to be a brass plaque on the wall of the building identifying it as The Delaigle House and some of the Delaigle descendants still live in Olde Town.
The Olde Town Inn and The Fox’s Lair are unique, and not just because of their history. Where else in Augusta can you find a four-room inn above a bar? And where else can you find a true neighborhood bar?
As far as we know, only in Olde Town.
“There are bars that people could argue work hard to be a neighborhood bar,” Hardin said, mentioning restaurants with bars that have appeared on Central and Monte Sano avenues and in Surrey Center, “but they’re still in a business area. We’re in a dadgum neighborhood. And with the rooms up above, it’s such a cool staycation place. So many people we run into say they spent their honeymoon in one of our rooms and we have wedding parties who are booking with us now. Bridesmaids groups and things like that.”
The convenience of their location — within walking distance of most anything downtown yet far enough away from the crowds to lend it a quiet and relaxed atmosphere — has increase people’s interest in the inn. But the two businesses have a lot more going for them than just location.
The Fox’s Lair is open four nights a week and Hardin says they have live music every night. Tuesday’s are especially popular with Dr. John Fisher leading a group that plays Irish music.
“It’s huge,” Hardin says of Tuesday nights at the Lair, a typically slow night for any bar. “It starts early and ends early, so you can still get up and go to work the next day. People love that. Dr. John Fisher’s been doing that at least 12 years in this location that we know of.”
Thursday nights are dedicated to open mic, while Fridays and Saturdays feature local and regional singer-songwriters and bands, all of whom love the small room’s acoustics.
“They say they sound better here than almost any other place they play,” Hardin said. “The acoustics in here are fantastic and I think we’re just lucky. I think the ceiling shape has a lot to do with it, the bricks, it’s not a smooth wall, the ceiling beams. And it’s got that feel to it. The room is cozy and someone who’s got the right vibe and soul in their voice can really shut the place up. We’re not a listening room, we don’t tell you to be quiet, but I’ve seen people like Carey Murdock shut the room up just because we’ve got that atmosphere here.”
“Last night there was a group of students here and I started wondering why they had come,” Hardin said. “They were talking and then it just came to me: It’s because it’s quieter. They can sit down and talk and have a conversation even when there’s music going on without it being craziness going on around them. I don’t know what the right word is, but it’s just a nice atmosphere for visiting with who you came with. Being with the people you came with.”
The biggest plus for The Fox’s Lair, however, has got to its legendary bartender. Judy Whitaker has been mixing drinks with a smile on her face for 23 years, and Hardin said he and Jones wouldn’t have considered buy the place if she hadn’t stayed. While both have experience owning businesses — Hardin owns White Cap Water Sports and Jones owned her own salon for 15 years before becoming the area manager for three Fantastic Sam’s locations about to open locally — neither have bar, restaurant or hospitality industry experience.
“Melinda and I had no bartending experience. I know how to drink, but I don’t know how to make them,” Hardin said. “But Judy will remember every person who comes in here. If she does not remember your name, which is rare, she’ll remember what you drank. Even if you’ve only been in here once, years ago, you can walk in and she’ll say, ‘Manhattan?’ And it freaks people out. There are people who will come in the door and, if she’s not behind the bar, they’ll say, ‘Judy not working tonight?’ And if you say no, they’ll turn around and walk out.”
One of the things that Hardin and Jones were wary of when they took over The Fox’s Lair a year ago was changing much. A large portion of their customers are regulars, some who have been coming to the Lair for 30 years or so and consider it “their” bar. The two have made some subtle adjustments, however.
In addition to their regulars, Hardin has notice more and more young professionals visiting, something for which he gives his business partner the credit.
“Do you remember the old TV westerns and they had a saloon with a woman who was the saloon manager that everybody knew? That’s Melinda,” he said. “She’s got that enthusiasm and personality. She likes everybody and everybody likes her.”
It’s Melinda who promotes The Fox’s Lair on social media and, Hardin said, it’s Melinda and Judy who book the bands. In fact, for the first time ever, there will be a cover charge to see one of the bands visiting The Lair in July.
And as for the old “best-kept secret” moniker? Well, Hardin and Jones decided they didn’t want the Lair to be a secret anymore. They’ve added lead-in signs and lights to the bar’s Fourth Street sign.
Still, it’s been difficult to shake The Fox’s Lair’s air of mystery and when a fan posted a new slogan, Hardin thought it was just perfect.
“We hadn’t had this place for very long before somebody posted on Facebook, ‘Just had a great night at The Fox’s Lair, the coolest place you’ll never find,’” he said. “And I just thought that was awesome and said, ‘That’s what we’re going with.’”
The Fox’s Lair at the Olde Town Inn
349 Telfair Street, Augusta
Inn open daily; Fox’s Lair open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 6 p.m.