Step into Arnold’s Bar and Grill on any afternoon and you’ll receive a history lesson without hearing a word.

The framed portraits, illustrations and photographs highlight the bar’s legacy, while wooden floors creak with every step, echoing 153 years of patronage. Ambient window light reveals tiny nicks and scratches on a mahogany bar where decades of Cincinnatians rested bottles and glasses in between beer gulps.

After withstanding riots, a “noble” experiment and thousands of competitors, the bar at the 200 block of East Eighth Street has had a front seat to Cincinnati’s most pivotal moments. It’s a narrative that includes a cast of unconventional bar owners and patrons.

“I just love that you can walk into this place and you can feel the generations here,” says Mike Morgan, president of Queen City History and Education Ltd. “This place has a soul.”

As an unabashed proponent of local beer and history, Morgan proudly labels himself an Arnold’s regular. His pork pie hat, glasses and goatee are a regular sight at the bar, while he pours out Arnold’s knowledge like a rich amber draft. The attorney and author of Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King (2010) is currently doing research for a book about the establishment’s illustrious history. He even gives tours at the bar every Saturday, from May through September.

“[Arnold’s] is an institution,” says Morgan. “This place is kind of like a history of underdogs.”

The story of Cincy’s longest standing bar starts in 1838, when a widow named Susan Fawcett became a property owner. That was a rare position for a 19th century woman, but it was unprecedented for her to operate a bar. Her status, along with the influx of men headed west to capitalize on Ohio River opportunities, led Morgan to a stark conclusion.

“Well, it all added up to [it] being a whorehouse,” Morgan says.

It was hardly a fairy tale setting, but Fawcett fell in love with a gambler named Samuel Brown, and the two moved to Rock Island, Ill. in 1845. (Whether her former employees found the same long-term companionship remains a mystery.) Simon Arnold gave the bar its current namesake in 1861. The following two generations of family members, including his son Hugo and grandson Elmer, continued to operate the bar. Throughout the rest of the 1800s, the Arnolds operated a simple bar that provided a livelihood with an upstairs in which to live. Prohibition forced Hugo and Elmer to turn the bar into a downtown lunch spot. However, the Volstead Act didn’t stop them from hiding booze in false bottom floorboards and walls, which are still accessible today.

When Simon Arnold took control, Cincinnati was a boomtown, geographically situated between two nations at war. It was just blocks from the 1884 courthouse riots, in which more than 50 people were killed. One hundred and seventeen years later, it experienced the bruising fallout from the 2001 riots.

“When the riots hit, we almost lost it—we almost went down,” says Ronda Breeden who bought the bar three years before the last riot. She currently operates the bar with her son, Chris.

Ronda’s story reflects the bar’s resiliency in the face of adversity.

She began working as a waitress in the early ‘80s before purchasing Arnold’s in 1998.

Following the 2001 violence, Arnold’s saw a precipitous drop in business. Breeden maxed out all her credits cards, trimmed her staff, reduced her own pay and began a $3.95 lunch special. Despite this and shutoff notices from gas and electric companies, nothing could encourage her to close or sell Arnold’s. Slowly, downtown began to recover, and the business regained its lost momentum.

It wasn’t just Breeden and Fawcett who’ve invested in the bar. Former owner and Mr. Cincinnati Jim Tarbell had staked his own legacy there as well. Like the owners before, the former city councilmember moved upstairs and began refurbishing the establishment to its current state, adorning the walls with classic images and portraits. With his long hair, beard and a clique of beatniks, he created a communal atmosphere for Cincinnatians of every background.

“I had imagined this place even before I bought it,” says the now bald and beardless Tarbell.

After buying Arnold’s in 1976, Tarbell continued to serve the prior owner, a stout and burly Greek named Jim Christakos. The former professional wrestler, nicknamed the Greek God, was rumored to have made collections for the Newport Mob. You can still find vestiges of him on the menu. The Greek spaghetti pays homage to Christakos with its mix of pasta, garlic sauce, bacon and olives.

Tarbell’s own crowning contribution came when he began asking a next-door business owner about a wall and what lay behind it. The neighbor took him through his building and revealed a closed-off courtyard with trashcans and garbage. Tarbell made a proposition.

“I said, ‘What are you doing with this space?’ and he says, ‘I take the garbage here.’ Without even thinking I said, ‘I’ll take care of your garbage, you will eat and drink for free for the rest of your life,’” Tarbell recalls. “I went back inside, got a sledge hammer, and there it was.”

Where his sledgehammer slammed brick, a door now leads to an open space where guests enjoy dinner and live music under star-twinkled skies.

Whether it’s the courtyard, the menu or the speakeasy history, Arnold’s has received national praise. In 2013, Esquire listed it as a one of America’s best bars. “If Arnold’s were in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston—somewhere, in short, that people actually visit—it would be world famous,” wrote David Wondrich. “It’s in Cincinnati, which means that despite its history and tradition of intelligent, respectful ownership, Arnold’s is still primarily a no-bullshit local bar.”

It’s an acknowledgement that Ronda and her customers can raise their glasses to.

“If you sit in the bar long enough, one of our customers is going to tell you the whole story because they all know it,” says Breeden, whose face is a common presence behind the bar. “The great thing is that when you walk in for the first time, you already feel like a regular when you walk out.”