NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Vinnie Inzano has tended bar at the Corner Tavern since 1976, when his father bought the watering hole. He’ll probably continue tending bar there until it either closes or, only slightly less imaginable, a catastrophe wipes New Brunswick off the map.
At the intersection of Easton Avenue and Somerset Street, the Corner Tavern has welcomed travelers from the train station, given jobs to cash-strapped fraternity guys and kicked off Rutgers football tailgates, all in countless numbers.
For the die-hards, there’s always been something perfect about the tavern’s worn, diner-style booths, red-and-black bar and dark, divey atmosphere that made this beer-and-shot business a natural place to grab a drink and set down their shoulders.
“When I had a few bucks left over, I’d go to the CT (Corner Tavern),” one World War II veteran, who was a Rutgers freshman in 1940, told a university historian. “The Corner Tavern was one of the places that we used to (spend time at,) just around the corner. They were here, (we were) here.”
But, from windows glowing with neon beer signs, the Corner Tavern’s customers and staff members have watched “here” — New Brunswick — change. Vinnie, a former city firefighter who still shaves his head and listens to emergencies unfold over a walkie-talkie, has had as good a view as anyone.
Years ago, patrons wept as they watched the Hub City’s last go-go bar burn to the ground, just steps away. Now, Rutgers students study on the same hallowed land where barely-dressed women once gyrated for singles.
In the 80s, the only late-night eatery on Easton Avenue was Greasy Tony’s, whose ex-con-look-alike employees used to beat college students who were unwilling to pay, outside the bar's front door. Now, residents can eat almost any fare at any time, with or without gluten, before retiring to high-rise, luxury apartment buildings with the fastest Wi-Fi available.
Not long ago, bar staff and regulars attended Midnight Mass and enrolled their kids in nearby Saint Peter’s elementary and high schools. Now, a Rutgers church has taken in what’s left of the congregation, and the schools are shut down.
As the world outside the Corner Tavern has changed, so has its regular crowd. But the bar still sells Budweiser for less than $3 a pint — $2 after 9 p.m. — and proudly displays the off-white, clay mugs that once were prized possessions of Rutgers boys awaiting to report to World War II. The tavern still offers billiards and a place for family members visiting hospital patients to decompress.
While the entire neighborhood has changed — and, dare we say, “gentrified” — the Corner Tavern refuses to be anything other than itself.
“I think people enjoy the bar the way it is. It’s not a Bennigan’s or something that’s corporately owned, where all they’re looking for is dollars and cents,” Vinnie said. “This whole area has changed. People come back just to see what’s been built. And then they see the tavern is still here, and they can’t believe it.”
Some Were Soldiers. Many Were Family.
George Kalli opened the Corner Tavern in 1933. It soon became a hangout for thirsty college students and, as the drum of World War II began to beat, a favorite haunt among students who proudly served.
On the night of Dec. 7, 1941, after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, a bunch of young men drank beer in “the CT,” and sang whatever they pleased. Instead of “It’s a long way to Tipperary,” wrote veteran and Rutgers graduate John W. Berglund, they sang, “It’s a long way to Yokohama, where the yellow bastards grow.”
Within six months, most of those men had enlisted, Berglund wrote. On those distant battlefields, the CT became a fond memory, where the girls were beautiful, the beer flowed until the wee hours of the night and the band played on.
Tonight, dozens of beer mugs hang above the old bar, each one tattooed with a Rutgers logo, the first initial and last name to whom it belonged and his graduation year, which was most often 1941.
The lore goes like this: Each mug was owned by a veteran who attended Rutgers either before or after fighting in the war. Some left theirs to the tavern, while others took them home. But each carries forth a dying legacy.
One of those men, T. McKay Jr., visited the Corner Tavern while in New Brunswick for a class reunion. He looked up at the bar, saw the mugs and, as Vinnie puts it, nearly had a heart attack. McKay had graduated in 1941, and he asked Vinnie if he could send his mug to the bar, so it could join the others.
Vinnie agreed and quickly moved on. Weeks later, he received a package that contained McKay’s bubble-wrapped mug. It now sits on the mantle.
“That’s part of the Corner Tavern,” Vinnie said. “We’ve had family members come in who are going to Rutgers now, and their uncle or grandpa would tell them to see if their mug is still here. Sure enough, they’d find them.”
The bar has indeed come to represent family more than war.
Salvatore “Sal” Inzano, Vinnie’s dad, grew up working for his parents’ grocery store, next door to the Corner Tavern. One of eight siblings in an Italian family, Sal was expected to continue in the family business.
Instead, he bought the bar and the building in which it sits and expanded the tavern’s size. He became a figure in the community, holding summer barbecues in Johnson Park, offering free meals to locals with money troubles and lending an ear to anyone with a problem and a desperate need for a patient bartender.
“It was a good, thriving business. My father was in his glory because he loved to be in a bar, talking to people,” Vinnie said. “He knew everybody by name.”
Vinnie and his older brother, Frank, began tending bar shortly after the purchase. After Sal died, 17 years ago, they took it over. Their sister, Marie, works the day shift. Their mother, Angie, did the books until about 10 years ago. She turns 100 next month.
In the mid-80s, Vinnie faced a dilemma similar to that of his father’s: Stay in the family business or follow his dream? The New Brunswick Fire Department offered Vinnie a job that he sorely wanted, but breaking the news to his old man wasn’t going to be easy.
“It was like asking the father for his daughter’s hand in marriage,” Vinnie said. “You don’t know what to say.”
They talked. Sal understood. Vinnie adjusted his schedule so that he could become a firefighter and, when not on duty, man the Corner Tavern.
After 28 years in the fire department, Vinnie retired as a captain. And he’s never stopped tending bar at the Corner Tavern.
Even his newer employees, like bartender Andrea Grover, have begun to form a special connection to the haunt.
“This is home for me,” said Grover, whose mom used to hang out at the tavern years ago, when she was in college. “I don’t think that I would go to a different bar.”
It’s Not All About the Beer
Two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Vinnie finally returned home, shaken. He had spent most of that time searching for bodies in the rubble of Ground Zero. He had been away from the Corner Tavern and, most importantly, his family. And he had seen worse than most could imagine.
“You can’t train or plan for anything you saw or did over there,” said Vinnie, who was called to Lower Manhattan as part of an urban search-and-rescue team. “You take what knowledge you have and use it to the best of your ability. I saw shit and did things I would have never thought I could do.”
He returned to a bar where people relied on him. They relied on him to serve drinks, yes, but also to act as a sort of therapist. He helped his customers talk through their own shock and grief, keeping inside the horrors he witnessed firsthand.
The world had changed, but the Corner Tavern remained.
Eleven years later, Superstorm Sandy tore the roof off the three-story building that is home to the tavern. Before a friend could install a protective tarp, rain dumped onto the structure and flooded the barroom.
Vinnie and his siblings placed heaters throughout the bar, mopped up water and got friends in construction to help them repair what could be repaired and removed what couldn’t. They reopened after a week or so.
The state had changed, but the Corner Tavern remained.
The bar has also seen its share of regulars decline over the years. Drunk-driving laws, Vinnie said, have made some commuters wary of having even a drink or two at the tavern after work. Other bars — some flashy, nearly all designed to enchant college kids or young professionals — have moved in.
The city had changed, but the Corner Tavern remained.
“This is the kind of bar you can take your curmudgeonly old grandfather to and he’ll feel right at home,” one unimpressed Corner Tavern customer wrote on Yelp.
But why, exactly, it has stuck around might be because it has stayed true to that dive-bar persona.
Cheap beer, low lighting and billiards provide more than enough reasons to saddle up to the bar, regulars told TAPinto New Brunswick. That formula still attracts new, young customers.
One patron, a 20-something man named Thomas who declined to provide his last name, saw the bar’s neon lights and its dark, cozy interior a year ago and decided to take a barstool. The Corner Tavern has since become his place — a room of friendly people watching “Wheel of Fortune” and sharing a pizza.
If the bar were to change, it simply wouldn’t be his Corner Tavern, Thomas said.
“It’s not Buffalo Wild Wings or Hooters or something where you go and they’re all interchangeable,” he added. “This is just one of those places that you come upon every once in awhile.”
What Comes Next?
None of the Inzano siblings’ grown kids work for the Corner Tavern. The Inzanos who do are getting older.
After their father died, they just kept going — “like a train,” Vinnie said — and didn’t stop to consider what’s next. Sooner than later, he said, they need to map out the future of the bar.
If they hire a manager and other people to help, Vinnie noted, then the Corner Tavern will no longer be much of a family place. But the siblings don’t ever want to run the bar “half-assed,” he said, because their father would never have accepted that.
Whatever its fate may be, the Corner Tavern is an institution. Like the mugs that hang above, its owners and employees carry forth a legacy that is rooted in New Brunswick, steps from where Rutgers University was founded.
So the next time you stop in New Brunswick for a drink and a deep pull of city lore, you know where to go. Vinnie will be waiting with a cold one.