Food & Drink

As New Brunswick Changes, the Corner Tavern Remains

f6e6d26896a7a89d26a3_IMG_20161220_215347.jpg
Co-owner Vinnie Inzano poses with bartender Andrea Grover.
e80f6511a294019d2d53_IMG_20161220_215218.jpg
The inside of the Corner Tavern.
09aebb038a2a5ce9da6b_IMG_20161220_215225.jpg
A section of tables inside the spacious bar.
466716bee6d3adc92c73_IMG_20161220_215304.jpg
Yes, the Corner Tavern has a shuffleboard table, along with darts and pool tables.
f6e6d26896a7a89d26a3_IMG_20161220_215347.jpg

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.

Sign Up for E-News

“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 1980s, 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, just steps away from the 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 Saint Peter’s elementary and high schools, just steps away. 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 WWII. 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 WWII 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 WWII vet 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 WWII. 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 dayshift. Their mother, Angie, did the books until about 10 years ago. She turns 100 next month.

In the mid-1980s, 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.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Plainfield

Our Children, Our City, Our Future.

July 21, 2018

They say that charity begins at home and with almost 1000 book bags given to deserving Plainfield students at last year's National Night Out. We demonstrated unequivocally that we understand how important it is to help our children learn, and that we are a caring community.

Our ultimate goal is always to build paths to self-sufficiency, but we know and understand that there are times when ...

Plainfield BOE Member on Naming of the New School

July 12, 2018

On Tuesday, June 19, 2018 – I, Carmencita Pile, an elected Plainfield School Board member presented this during the Plainfield School Board monthly business meeting to the public and to the board after being recognized by Plainfield School Board President Mr. Richard Wyatt.

On Tuesday, August 8, 2017 at 12:10PM an email was sent from the Plainfield School District's Postmaster that ...

Video Emerges of Parents Arguing at Junior Baseball State Sectional Championships

July 21, 2018

FORT LEE, NJ -  Nutley made it to Junior League Baseball Section 2 Championship before falling to Saddle Brook last night. 

The game was marred by an incident that began in the bleachers during the third inning as parents representing both teams began shouting at each other.  The expletive-filled argument, behind the Nutley dugout and near child spectators, ...

Nuestros Hijos, Nuestra Ciudad, Nuestro Futuro

July 21, 2018

Dicen que la caridad comienza en la casa, y con casi un mil de mochilas donadas a los estudiantes de Plainfield en el "National Night Out" del año pasado, demostramos que entendemos lo importante que es ayudar a nuestros hijos en el aprendizaje, y que esto es importante para nuestra comunidad. 

Nuestro gol es construir los caminos a la autosuficiencia, pero sabemos y ...

La Guerra contra los Inmigrantes- Cuando es Demasiado?

"Primero, vinieron por los comunistas, y yo no hable- por que no era comunista.

Después, vinieron por los sindicalistas, y yo no hable- por que no era sindicalista.

Después, vinieron por los judíos, y yo no hable- por que no era judío. 

Después, vinieron por mí- y no hubo nadie para hablar por mí."

Este dicho por el ...

Mayor Mapp:  El Programa de Verano de los Jóvenes

El lunes, 9 de julio, nuevas caras alumbraran las oficinas de la Alcaldía. Nuestro Programa de Verano de los Jóvenes por fin comienza, y otra vez los empleados tendrán la oportunidad de ser mentores de un nuevo grupo de jóvenes.

El Programa de Verano de los Jóvenes corre por seis semanas todos los años y les da la oportunidad de empleo y experiencia a ...

Featured Business: Studio 15 Young Plainfield Entrepreneurs Expand Business Once More

“What you see behind me is a life-changing project for myself that I have been working on since January 2017, nearly two years, discreetly; not sharing much about it with anybody. I've had plenty of reasons to give up on this truck; I purchased it pretty much from the ground up from Rashine Mobile, another local city entrepreneur. The truck had no steering column, no computer; it ...

People I've Known and Been: Little by Little by Rich Little

People I've Known and Been: Little by Little by Rich Little (Dog Ear Publishing, 2015)

 

Rich Little is a national treasure; a living encyclopedia of movie stars, comedians, and former presidents all wrapped into one dynamic package. Recently, my husband and I had the good fortune to see Little perform at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, where he has been doing his uncanny ...

Lucia, Lucia by Adriani Trigiani

Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani (Ballentine Books, 2003)

 

If a summer romance novel is what you are craving to read as you sit by the pool or beach, Adriana Trigiani's Lucia, Lucia is a perfect choice. Set in 1950 New York City, the novel is about a young woman, Lucia Sartori, who is determined to have a career and be able to support herself, an unusual choice for a girl who was ...

The Anatomy of Escape by Mike Blue

The Anatomy of Escape: An Unconventional Adventure by Mike Blue (Available on Amazon)

 

Imagine that you could just say, “Chuck it,” and walk away from the bonds that keep you tied to what Mike Blue, author of The Anatomy of Escape: An Unconventional Adventure, defines as the restrictive Work-Consume-Die cycle. To most of us, becoming what Blue terms “a ...

The Death of Koko the Gorilla

Koko's Kitten, Koko's Story, The Eduction of Koko all by Dr. Francine Patterson

 

Last night when I heard about the death of Koko, the lowland gorilla who was educated to communicate through American Sign Language by Dr. Francine Patterson, I went numb with grief. I have followed the life of Koko, her two gorilla companions, Michael and Ndume, as well as Dr. Patterson for forty ...

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (William Morrow, 2018)

 

A friend, whose opinion on literature I respect greatly, reported to me recently that she had just finished reading A.J. Finn's debut novel, The Woman in the Window. Of it she said, “I wish I hadn't finished it,” which I interpreted to mean, “It was so good I'm sorry that I finished it.” ...

When the Men Go Off to War by Victoria Kelly

When the Men Go Off to War by Victoria Kelly (Naval Institute Press, 2015)

Victoria Kelly's first published volume of poetry, When the Men Go Off to War, is a wonder in that poems can be written so beautifully about the subject of war. Each poem is a jewel, polished and colorful, glittering with elegant imagery, and rich in emotional wallop. The book, divided into three sections, ...