The black-and-white checkerboard floors, exposed brick walls, red leather booths, and shining red lights displaying “MEL’S.” The dartboard, wooden chairs, and the cramped and dark interior of 1020. The long bar counter, antique light fixtures, and abstract paintings of Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor. These are the staple campus bars for many Columbia students today—places to de-stress, mingle, and enjoy drinks and classic bar food.
Throughout Columbia’s history, bars have played a major role in shaping both campus and Morningside Heights culture. They brought together students, faculty, and local residents, setting the stage for major political and cultural events over the last 120 years. Yet only a few from the 20th century still remain open.
“These are places where important things happen, important conversations, important social-political movements, undoubtedly, especially in our neighborhood,” said Dan McSweeney of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee. “We lose our clubs and taverns and bars and they get replaced by banks and drugstores and tax preparation offices. It’s not sustainable for the community’s local spirit.”
According to Christine Sismondo, the Toronto-based author of “America Walks Into a Bar,” bars act as “community centers” that are more casual than traditional religious or civic centers.
“A good neighborhood bar should be able to bring people together from quite a few different walks of life, ideally from different races, classes, genders,” Sismondo said. “It’s kind of nice to be able to have a place where you can very informally find some sort of common ground and community … with people who are not necessarily identical to you in certain ways.”
For Carl Schaerf, CC ’88, bars were places to step away from the cliquiness of Columbia and bond with students and local residents that one would not be able to interact with otherwise, including peers in physics or pre-law classes and notable alumni like Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardized the futures of many Morningside Heights bars due to increased dining regulations. Megan Giometti and Danielle Savin, who co-own the local bar Bob’s Your Uncle on Columbus Avenue, said that despite immense community support, they had to shut the bar down for the winter.
“Once they closed indoor dining, there was no point to be open. Not a lot of people want to sit out in the freezing cold to drink,” Savin said.
Sismondo argues that when bars like Bob’s Your Uncle shut down temporarily, community members lose neutral spaces to connect with others. Noting that anti-immigrant sentiment has become more vocal over the past few years, Sismondo believes that bar spaces in such a diverse city are more crucial than ever to creating cohesive communities.
“We’ve had so many people meet and get married and have babies and have birthday parties and have reunions and have wedding parties, and because Bob’s Your Uncle kind of feels like home to them, some have even met here,” Giometti said. “It’s just a place that is really special.”
According to Sismondo, on-campus bars have also played a role in shaping both the local community and nationwide policies. Across the country, bars were major centers of LGBTQ activism, most notably at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and the predecessor to Mel’s, the Gold Rail Tavern, where about 50 people protested the tavern’s refusal to serve a gay man. Sismondo noted that one of the first LGBTQ movements in Canada began at university bars in Toronto.
Campus bars have been and continue to be communal spaces for people to socialize and help one another out during tough times. From the civil rights movement to 9/11, these bars have facilitated community growth and sprouted discourse between people from all backgrounds.
Although Columbia does not currently have any bars within academic buildings or dorms, there used to be a number of places to purchase alcohol on campus.
In February 1939, Columbia held its opening gala celebrating the opening of “the Lion’s Den,” a venue in the basement of John Jay that we know today as JJ’s Place. According to a 1939 Spectator article, the Lion’s Den marked “the first time that a student night club for the sole use of staff officers and students of Columbia has been located on the Campus itself.” Celebrities like Wynn Murray and Madeleine Carroll performed at its opening.
JJ’s Place was called “the Pub” for most of its history. Known for its cheap alcohol, live music, and student-run events, the Pub served as the premier bar on campus for many years, although alumni noted “in bemused tones” that the pub had fallen from its peak as crime rates around Morningside Heights increased in the late 1970s.
“There really wasn’t a cheap place other than the Pub. The Pub was really the only place you could go if you were from a middle-class neighborhood, didn’t have a ton of money, and you wanted to buy a pitcher,” Schaerf said. “But it wasn’t a great social scene, and when it closed, it was not mourned.”
The Pub served food similar to today’s JJ’s Place; an advertisement from 1976 says that the Pub served “Hot & Cold Sandwiches - Hamburgers Grilled Cheese - Franks - Fruits & Pastries - Rhinegold Beer on Tap.” The Pub was the site of edgy events like the “ugly man contest,” as well as more raucous events like football team gatherings. Many students avoided the Pub due to its noise and very informal feel.
When a coffeehouse was set to open on the ground floor of Ferris Booth Hall in 1977, the business manager of the project, John Haggerty, remarked that “it’ll be a place where a guy can take his date and be able to hear what she’s saying, not like the King’s Pub.”
Sandy Holtz, BC ’81, who considered The Pub a “great place for students to relax,” said during an interview with Spectator that she actually met her future husband, who did not attend Columbia, outside of John Jay during a fire drill at the Pub. As everybody piled out of the place, she ended up standing next to him and the two struck up a conversation.
The Pub eventually closed in 1985 due to financial and legal strains that were exacerbated by an increased drinking age. To make matters worse, another campus drinking establishment named the ‘Plex opened that year in today’s Lerner Hall. Schaerf felt that the ‘Plex was more modern and welcoming, and described the space as a “very ’80s disco concept.” The ‘Plex contained “a dance floor, bar, snack counter, lounge area and a video arcade—with a video jukebox to boot,” according to a 1985 article. Alcohol was banned from the dance floor to emphasize the entertainment aspect of the nightclub, and many student groups like Orchesis performed in the space as well.
After the Pub closed, the ‘Plex began holding sporting events on weeknights, but in 1996, the ‘Plex was shut down to make room for Lerner Hall. By this point, students were much more likely to go to private businesses outside Columbia’s gates.
As spaces like the Pub began to deteriorate, a group of students opened a co-op grocery in the basement of Furnald Hall that offered alcoholic beverages. David Brown, CC ’76, who garnered student enthusiasm and alumni support for the project, noted in a 1978 article that the store “is run by students who see it as being in their own best interests to sell food cheaply, provide good jobs for other students, and create a pleasant atmosphere in the store.”
“What was kind of neat about the Furnald grocery store was that it was disgusting. I mean, it was a student-run co-op and it was not the cleanest option for shopping in the neighborhood by any stretch of the imagination, but they had some very cheap beer,” Schaerf said.
Schaerf also mentioned that “you had to check the expiration dates” because the Furnald grocery store would sell goods like matzo for Passover year-round, inspiring the informal slogan “It’s always Passover in Furnald grocery.”
The grocery closed in 1989 after four years of serving alcohol to just a small subset of legal-age students. A number of Spectator op-eds expressed concerns over Columbia becoming a “dry campus,” including one in 1985 that stated that “without [alcohol], students will go off campus when they want to relax, making social life at Columbia even worse than it already is.”
By the mid-1990s, students mostly gave up on “letting liquor flow on campus,” resorting to local off-campus bars for their beer and wine.
The West End Bar
The West End Bar, also known briefly as the West End Gate, was a popular bar for Columbia students and faculty. Opened in 1911, the bar advertised itself as “Where Columbia Had Its First Beer,” and it remained open until 2006 when it was replaced by Cuban restaurant Havana Central at the West End.
“The West End Bar is one that comes to mind very much in terms of a place where you see sort of the cultural side of political movements coming together,” Sismondo said. “Not all of the people at the West End would necessarily have been going to Columbia, but there certainly would have been a tremendous amount of mixing with people who were students at the University.”
According to Schaerf, the West End Bar “was a little bit more of a campus place, because it was so close and you could sometimes have a drink with professors there.”
The current owners of the space, board game café Hex & Co., kept many of the bar’s original features, including its ornate brick mural, floor, fixtures, paneling, and counter area. According to Hex & Co. co-owner Greg May, the West End Bar was “perhaps the most important bar in all of uptown New York” because famous alumni like Barack Obama frequented it before launching successful careers.
“We were absolutely blown away when we walked into this space about two years ago. We were very excited about this character, but what was missing was light and brightness,” May said. “It was a very dark space, very pub sort of feeling, but for our business, if you’re trying to play board games, you need something a little brighter.”
The West End Bar was where poets from the Beat generation like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lucien Carr discussed their studies and futures as authors. According to a 2006 Spectator article, Columbia students and faculty met at the newly renovated Havana Central at the West End to honor the Beat writers’ beginnings at the bar.
“We wanted to reclaim a part of Columbia history,” University spokesman Jerry Kisslinger said at the time. “The Beat movement was born in here. … Their impact on world culture is not celebrated enough. They were so anti-establishment in many ways, and that contributed to [their] not always being recognized by the University.”
By 1951, the bar already considered itself “The Best Columbia Tradition,” hosting many jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and serving up rather pricey alcohol. In 1973, the bar launched a “cultural renaissance” that featured poetry readings, film festivals, folk music, and one-act plays.
The bar was also a go-to spot for Mark Rudd, who led the Columbia branch of Students for a Democratic Society, a left-wing student activist organization during the 1960s. Students often held protests at the West End around that time in support of the civil rights movement and the end of the Vietnam War.
“Not that we didn’t ever do things that people do and just have fun and relax and get high and go to bars—go to the West End—but there was always, every day, that consciousness of the need to do something about the war,” Rudd said in a 2003 Spectator interview.
The increase of the New York drinking age from 18 to 21 is partly to blame for the West End’s bar yearlong closure in 1988. The bar had deteriorated during the 1980s, and changes in management made the bar a less-than-desirable place to hang out. Columbia even tried to close the bar, considering it “a joint” according to a 1989 Spectator article.
“For 50 years the End was near, but then came the end, and the End was no more. Now the End is gone, but in the end, the End is just around the bend, and the next end of the End should not come until at least 2004,” the article reads.
Jazz musicians brought the bar back to life after Jeff Spiegel and his wife Katie Gardner orchestrated renovations and renamed the bar the West End Gate Cafe. From 1990 to 1994, jazz historian Phil Schaap featured giants like Buddy Tate and Branford Marsalis during the jazz program he ran at the bar.
Despite its rich history, many students felt that the bar’s drinks and ambiance were lacking. In a 1975 Spectator article, authors John Day Griffith and Dutton Peabody remarked that “Drinks are the most expensive and least palatable in the area and orders are often confused; the more elaborate, the more spoiled or watery.”
Along with the West End Bar, Cannon’s was another go-to bar for many Columbia students from the 1930s until its closure in 2004. This Irish pub was considered “the athletes’ bar” by many alumni due to its loud and raucous atmosphere. The pub was also known for its amiable service, close-knit community, and live jazz music.
“If you have a good, responsible bar staff and a good bartender that knows how to treat customers and not act irresponsibly with them, we’re talking about a long-term relationship with people who used to go to Cannon’s, which was a really important part of our culture,” McSweeney said.
“Cannon’s was your old-time Upper West Side beer-swilling place,” Schaerf reminisced. “There were names carved in the tables. There was graffiti in the bathroom … and it was nice because it was across the street from this Cuban place called La Rosita, which made Cuban sandwiches so you could walk downtown [to Cannon’s] and then you could go get Cubanos after the bar closed.”
The bar was known for a line of graffiti that alluded to the Beat generation with the words “I’ve got Jack Kerouac in my liver.” As befitting the bar’s chaotic, dingy atmosphere, Kappa Delta Rho fraternity president Dave Terry, CC ’89, commented in a Spectator “Quote of the day” that a fraternity member was once injured in a brawl at Cannon’s.
The bar was frequented by comedian George Carlin, and it was most popularly known as the bar from the 1983 film “Trading Places,” in which Billy Ray Valentine, played by Eddie Murphy, repays a debt to the barman and orders champagne for everyone there.
Lucy’s Surfeteria opened to Morningside Heights in 1987 with surfboards on its walls and fajitas on its menu. The California-style bar replaced the Blue Rose, a popular spot for live rock bands that was shut down for code violations.
With wooden booths painted ocean blue and Malibu-inspired clothes for the waitstaff, Lucy’s was what Schaerf describes as a “kitschy drinks place” that would put a “plastic whale on your drink.” A sign on the wall read, “what surfing is all about is happening out in the waves … not in the clothes you wear, not in the music you listen to.”
The bar drew a lot of criticism from community members and students who believed it was gentrifying the neighborhood. In a 1987 Spectator article, Stanley Sagner described the bar as “soulless,” and “so impersonal it feels like they have [not] taken the plastic wrap [off] the furniture yet.”
However, Lucy’s Surfeteria grew in popularity in 1987 after Tom Cruise spent a week training to bartend for his upcoming movie “Cocktail.” Cruise would serve clients drinks during regular business hours, doing very “little to make himself incognito.”
“...Everybody went down there,” Schaerf said. “[Cruise] had a big smile [and] was very light about it. And he deflected everything—the football players were going after him, busting his chops, and he just smiled.”
The Marlin Cafe
The Marlin Cafe was another staple bar around the University, one known for its very cheap drinks and risqué ambiance. A 1975 Spectator article notes that the bar had “granite floors, creaking bar chairs, and a proverbial television tuned to a never-ending baseball game.”
The bar occupied space now owned by Koronet Pizza and featured a marlin hanging on the wall. Schaerf describes the bar’s clientele as people “who weren’t really looking to fit in.” The Marlin Cafe had a more intimate and informal character than the nearby West End, even as it was also considered dodgier. Professors like Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky often drank at the bar and occasionally taught classes there.
McSweeney considered The Marlin “a real landmark” in which he spent his teenage years. Its 1994 closure after 46 years of operation devastated him. “We have been losing these places, one by one, year by year, and it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks or says; bars and taverns are very important aspects of the local community.”
Despite recent closings, there is no denying the longstanding influence these bars have had. These spaces were cultural institutions that inspired cultural movements, fostered discourse, and made people feel welcome and accepted.
“The kind of ideal bar … had a feeling of sort of equality amongst a number of patrons despite the fact that there were lawyers, University professors, cooks, taxi drivers, bartenders, waiters, everyone kind of discussing the political events of the day plus the neighborhood politics,” Sismondo said.