Thursday, September 23, 1999

Welcome to Romanesque orgy of kitsch

Cicero's is a Newport feast

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEWPORT — With its pink piano lounge, mauve seats and slot-machine wallpaper, the Syndicate restaurant was outrageous enough. Now there's a miniature Caesar's Palace in the basement.

        We're talking waitresses wearing togas and doormen dressed like Roman soldiers on opening night. Instead of beer signs and big TVs, the place is decorated with relief sculptures, busts and gold-painted grapes. The black marble dance floor is laced with lights, and the ceiling is held up with faux marble pillars.

        Saturday Night Fever, meet Ben Hur.

        The opening of Cicero's, as the new place is called, marks the final stage in a bold effort to bring back Newport's exciting past, only without all the grand-jury investigations.

        It's also an exercise in niche marketing. The owners hope to reach those 20- to 80-year-olds who love dancing but hate what dance bars have become.

        This isn't the place for frat boys wearing baseball caps and spilling beer. The dress code forbids torn jeans, T-shirts and caps. There are attendants in the restrooms. Purplish-paisley carpet is on the floors.

        “We're trying to be a throwback to the days when a dance club was a dance club and you got dressed up to go out,” manager Gary Rapp says.

        The place is designed partly for guys like him: forty-something and married, but not finished having fun. Mr. Rapp and his wife have tried Jillian's in Covington and some of the bars along Main Street in Cincinnati. They all lacked that certain sophistication — not to mention the gold-plated grapes.

        Cicero's was conceived by John Whalen, who owns both the club and the Syndicate upstairs. He leases the building from his partners, Wayne Carlisle and David Hosea.

        At 60,000 square feet, the

        complex is huge. During Newport's casino days in the '40s and '50s, it was called the Playtorium, and its bowling alley was a front for illegal gambling.

        Echoes of this past are everywhere. Mr. Whalen's business office, for instance, contains an old vault protecting an impressive-looking safe.

        “As you can see, this isn't a normal bowling-alley safe,” he says wryly.

        The Syndicate, open about four years, recreates Newport's “Sin City” image for the benefit of diners. Mirrors above the booths are etched with casino chips representing the most popular of the old clubs.

        Before opening Cicero's, Mr. Whalen went to Las Vegas for inspiration. Apparently, he came back with Roman statuary on the brain.

        In an area called the “emperor's room,” there are even some familiar-looking sculptures of half-clothed women, complete with missing arms.

        To me, Cicero's defines retro camp. This is certainly an identity and maybe even a smart idea.

        But here's the puzzling thing: Everyone who showed me around this week seemed utterly serious about the place. I looked in vain for a mischievous twinkle in their eyes.

        Typical was this comment from the Syndicate's hostess: “It's so pretty for this area, isn't it?”

        Well, yes. In a certain way, it is.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at