Rathskeller reborn: Burgers, shakes and more return

Beloved dining has been serving up food and conversation since it opened in 1949.
Nott Memorial

Rathskeller reborn: Burgers, shakes and more return

  • (Photos by Matt Milless unless otherwise indicated)(Photos by Matt Milless unless otherwise indicated)
  • Students enjoy some ice cream at the Rathskeller in 1959 (Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)Students enjoy some ice cream at the Rathskeller in 1959 (Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
  • The Rathskeller as it looked in 1951 (Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)The Rathskeller as it looked in 1951 (Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)

Marc Donovan had a sinking feeling as he descended the steps to the basement of Old Chapel. A burst water main buried beneath the circle outside the Chapel sent thousands of gallons of water rushing down the staircase and into the Rathskeller and other spaces on campus.

Donovan, the assistant director of Facilities Services, knew he was facing a disaster on this July night in 2014.

“It was a total loss,” he said of the beloved social space where pub fare has been served up over talk of parties and Plato since it opened Dec. 2, 1949.

Most of the equipment, fixtures and mechanicals were drowning in water that rose to as high as five feet, along with the memories and gritty character embedded in the iconic arches and catacombs by generations of students, faculty and staff.

A year and $2 million worth of renovations later, Rathskeller 2.0 is poised to recapture its charm, 21st-century style.

“It’s a fresh, new, exciting space that’s very inviting,” said David Gaul, director of Dining Services. “People will be very comfortable with what’s been done.”

After being closed the last academic year, the new Rathskeller debuted this week. An official grand re-opening is planned for Sept. 29. For more information, click here.

Working with local companies Architecture Plus, Engineering Solutions and Sano-Rubin, Union’s Facilities and dining partner Sodexo created an airy, well-lit space that feels more like a contemporary cafe.

An ordering station greets diners as soon as they enter. Designed to eliminate the bottlenecks that sprung up around the old counter and serving area, the portable station can be moved if a line forms outside the door, especially in poor weather.

Once inside, visitors get their choice of sleek high-backed chairs, stools or custom-made booths. Employees and student workers prepare orders in a spacious and sparkling new kitchen outfitted with a vastly improved ventilation system.

Even the menu got a bit of makeover. Favorite sandwiches like the gut-busting Deadbolt and the Lumberjack remain, but healthier fare including salads and paninis are available. There are also more gluten-free and allergy-free choices.

Several mornings a week, breakfast is served, which should alleviate the frequently long lines in Dutch Hollow.

“The space is much more user-friendly than ever before,” said Gaul.

He said a number of groups have already requested the space for special events. The Board of Trustees will hold an event there when it meets next month.

In some respects, the flood was a blessing in disguise. It allowed the College to not only refresh a popular late-night dining spot that had barely been touched in decades, but also to bring the 3,500-square-foot space up to code, particularly with ADA accessibility.

Workers were able to salvage slithers of the past, including the pop-art mural painted by a student and an eight-foot round table featuring the carved names of students dating back to the Rathskeller’s early days.

“It’s not the old Rathskeller of the 1950s,” said Gaul. “But the space still harkens back to a special time. The vibe may be different, but the guts and bones are still intact.”