There's this place underground, where those things you never forget happen. Where life takes a turn and you change and learn and laugh.
As Mary Martin Gillman '73 did. The psychology major “pushed pizza and beer” at the Rathskeller.
“Working there was good preparation for life. I’ve always liked my fellow humans and have always been interested in their nature, and the ‘Skeller was a terrific place to study just that,” Gillman said. “During my time, professors frequented the place and intellectual conversations were de rigueur.”
“It was the kind of dark, smoky place that smelled of food and beer—the stuff good novels are made of,” she added. “Remember the cantina in ‘Star Wars’ where Luke Skywalker and his droid enter the dark bar? Just replace those aliens with students, mostly men at the time, and you have a pretty good likeness of my memories. Lots of good times and hard work, and that’s okay.”
The good times and hard work remain, but this atmosphere (for decades made of smoke, low lighting, pinball machines, a juke box and wooden booths) is not as it was.
When a water main under the circle outside Old Chapel burst in July 2014, the Rathskeller and most of its equipment, furniture and fixtures drowned in water as deep as five feet. It was a total loss, the gritty character left behind by generations of students difficult to entirely resuscitate and replicate.
The new ‘Skeller, officially re-opened in September after $2 million in renovations, features sleek high-back chairs, custommade booths, a bright and airy ambience, flat-screen TVs and a new portable ordering station. The 3,500-square-foot space was also brought up to code, particularly with ADA accessibility.
Even the menu, which hasn’t featured beer since the drinking age rose to 21 in 1985, got a make-over.
Healthier options, like salads and paninis, are now offered alongside old standbys like mac ‘n cheese, and there are also more gluten-free and allergy-free choices. The ‘Skeller serves breakfast now, too, providing quick things like bagels and muffins, but also hot fare like egg-and-cheese sandwiches, hash browns and oatmeal. There’s even a cappuccino machine and locally made Ciabatta bread.
“We added breakfast to help with the increase in customers we see at Dutch Hollow,” said Gregory Nalewjka, retail director, Union College Dining Services. “While we can’t offer everything Dutch does, having popular items served at the ‘Skeller will help give students, faculty and staff another option on their way to classes or meetings. It will provide another great service at the Rathskeller and help reduce the traffic we see in the mornings at Dutch.”
All these changes don’t mean the ‘Skeller, first opened in December 1949, has lost touch with its roots or original purpose, though.
“We did try to retain parts of the old place, we understand the significance of it to alumni. Of course, as rules change for dining areas and the equipment and furniture ages, we have to make changes and update the facility,” Nalewjka said. “Some may not like that it isn’t exactly the same, but we did try to retain the ‘feel’ of the ‘Skeller. I believe we mostly succeeded and were able to bring it up to current codes for a business.”
Specifically, the iconic pop-art mural painted by a former student was saved. So was a big, round table filled with messages and names carved by students who were there during the joint’s earliest days. Traditional gut-busting favorites the ‘Skeller is known for, like ‘Deadbolt’ and ‘Lumberjack’ sandwiches, are still there too. And of course, that catacomb feel and those atmosphere-defining arches pressing close overhead survive.
And the subterranean hangout is still beloved by students. It still serves the kind of comfort food you get cravings for. It’s still open really late (or really early, depending on your perspective), and it’s still the place where those things you will never forget happen.
“Students have a special place to call their own, and they’ll remember the Rathskeller—the first time they tried a ‘Deadbolt’ or a ‘Skeller shake,” Nalewjka said. “Not to mention the late nights they spent with friends grabbing curly fries or mac ‘n cheese at 1 a.m.”
Kathy Mullaney ’74 got a lot more than fries out of the ‘Skeller.
“The memory that stands out the most is the night WRUC did a remote broadcast from the ‘Skeller,” said Mullaney, who worked there and was involved with the station. “At the end of the night we were loading up the radio equipment into a small pick-up truck and a friend broke he rankle. She was whisked off to Ellis Hospital ER, and Brian and I followed on foot.”
“It was during that walk that he asked me to marry him,” she added, noting Brian was manager of the ‘Skeller (working for Saga Foods) during her senior year.
Today’s students, no doubt, will have similar stories to share. They just won’t be meeting their future spouses in exactly the same setting many alumni recall. And that’s pretty much okay with them.
“I’m glad it’s re-opened, when it was closed people still came to Reamer wanting all the ‘Skeller classics,” Dorothy Hazan ’16 said. “Sometimes you just crave comfort food, and then you thank god you can go to the ‘Skeller! Plus, the wings on Wednesday are pretty great.”
“It looks stunning,” she added. “It looks clean and the lighting is nice. You almost feel like you’re in a restaurant.”
This restaurant quality can be extended to the old ‘Skeller, too, in a sense. The underground haunt, it seems, has always been defined by its un-campus-ness.
“Sad (and happy) to say, my very first date ever was at the Rathskeller. He was a senior and I was a sophomore and I couldn’t believe he asked me out. I was so nervous I choked on my burger,” Kamasha Hendrickson ’00 recalled.
“The ‘Skeller was also the place my friends and I would go on Friday nights. You were on campus but felt like you were not because it didn’t have a college feel to it. It was a flashback to the old days—dark, with a lot of character and a fun atmosphere.”
And this last—a fun atmosphere—is something that hasn’t changed. Students today might grab a ‘Deadbolt’ under brighter lights, but they still love the ‘Skeller. They still change and learn and laugh there. And they’ll still think of “The Rat” with a smile years from now.
“I’ll always remember it as a place to go when you’re out with friends and the night is winding down,” Hazan said. “I’ve had some great memories there, free curly fries from a friend working behind the counter included.”