North Texas Daily

Local open mic haven sold to Denton musician

Local open mic haven sold to Denton musician

Local open mic haven sold to Denton musician
February 23
23:44 2015

Julian Gill / Staff Writer

Local art pieces lining the walls have mingled with neighborhood musicians for 10 years in Banter Bistro, but the West Oak Street music venue near the Denton Square will close its doors on March 29.

Owners Ellen Ryfle and Stephen Johnson sold the business to McKenzie Smith, drummer of the Denton band Midlake, and six other partners who plan to make it a full-service restaurant called 940s.

Ryfle said she and Johnson want to spend more time with their families after owning and managing Banter while booking its musical acts for four years. 

“We have kids and grandkids and it’s a 24/7 job,” Ryfle said. “Even when we’re closed, we’re here working, but we’re only closed about five or six days a year.”

Since Ryfle and Johnson took ownership in 2011, they have made it a priority to give Denton artists a home.

“We’re really into people that can’t necessarily get gigs elsewhere, when people won’t give them a chance because they’re worried about business,” Ryfle said. “We really started pulling from the open mic. ”

Banter hosted an open mic night even before Ryfle and Johnson became the owners. The tradition continued every Thursday night, giving musicians at any skill level a chance to perform two songs.

When Matt Grigsby first walked in as a budding artist in 2008, he only had a few covers in his repertoire. Today, Grigsby has been the host of open mic for two years and plays his original songs to kick off every show.

“I feel like musically, I grew up here,” Grigsby said. “Every bit of polish I have performing, I gained it from playing here.”

Ryfle said if young artists didn’t have enough material for a full set, she still found a way to book them. 

“We’ll book a singer/songwriter night and have four or five singers between 8 p.m. and midnight,” Ryfle said. “Some of them only have 25-minute sets so when we know that, we’ll book even more in that four-hour period because then, they get exposure.”

According to Ryfle, about 80 percent of the artists featured at Banter have started at the open mic night. With more than 50 returning acts, musicians eventually find their way back to what Ryfle calls the Banter “family.”

“I even call Ellen my mom,” said local singer/songwriter Ellie Meyer, who has played more than 20 shows at Banter. “Every time you walk through the door, it’s like coming home to your family. I will miss it like crazy.”

Smith also shared the Banter stage with an early version of Midlake in 1998 when the venue was called Brick Haus. He has lived in Denton for 18 years and although there are no plans to have live music at 940s, he intends to make it an integral piece of the community.

“I love this city very much,” Smith said. “It’s been amazing to see the change and growth that’s happening around Denton and I’d like to be a part of that.”

Smith, who co-owns Paschall bar near the Square, says 940s will have a cocktail bar and a diverse organic menu.

“It’s not going to be typical bar food,” Smith said “We’re going to be locally sourcing as much food as possible from local farms. No frozen foods or anything like that. It’s all going to be fresh.”

Projected to open in early June, he said people can expect a different aesthetic after renovations to the bar, kitchen and patio area.

Ryfle believes Denton could use a new local restaurant near the Square.

“I think it’s a very ripe time for this,” she said. “They are going to bring something great to this town. ”

Ryfle and Johnson will bring back musicians who remained close to the Banter family over the years to play one last music-filled weekend March 27-29.

The regular Tuesday night band, Le Not So Hot Klub du Denton, has performed at Banter since it opened in 2005. It will strum the final chords before the doors are locked at 9 p.m.

“This is their home,” Ryfle said.  “It’s really important for us to have them play as the last band because they’ve been here since the beginning.”

Featured Image: The empty bar at Banter, a bistro and music venue, on Oak Street near the Square. The restaurant was sold to Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith, who will reopen the location as 940s, a cocktail bar. Photo by Evan McAlister – Staff Photographer

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