By Natalie Kouba
The beloved Rathskeller pub, better known as “The Rat,” will be closing its doors for good at the end of the semester after serving nearly 40 years as the College’s proverbial watering hole.
In place of the Rat, a rec hall used for movie screenings, meetings and lectures will be built, while a more updated restaurant will open in place of the College bookstore. In addition, the new restaurant will swap out the grease-stained blue carpet for a polished-stone floor; brick walls for reclaimed wood walls; and oversized, glass windows overlooking neighboring buildings, collectively turning fond moments at the Rat into mere memories.
“For me, the Rat was its own fraternity and sorority,” said Juan Torres, a member of the class of 1995 who worked as a server at the Rat. “Most students who worked there needed the money, but it was such a fun job. I miss the cast of characters I worked with.”
With renovations to the Brower Student Center beginning to take shape in phases, the demolition of the Rat and construction of another eatery will be among the first parts of the project undertaken. Dobco Inc. contractors and KSS architects are heading up the project, which will total about $26,740,000, according to assistant campus architect Mark Kirchner.
The project is also funded by Student Center reserves and capital contributions from Sodexo, according to assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Sean Stallings.
Although the Rat will always be remembered as the stage for budding artists and students’ musical idols, it wasn’t always the hang-out spot is has grown to be today. Before the Rat became the local bar of the campus bubble, students gathered at Phelps Hall, or what is currently Eickhoff Dining Hall. The Hall was split into two sections — the Club and the Pub — for alcohol-free and alcohol-inclusive events, respectively.
But the Rat quickly took over in popularity when it opened inside the Student Center in 1976. Phelps Dining Hall subsequently closed, resulting in Eickhoff’s construction.
“The Rat needed lots of updating, at best. I remember it being kind of ’70s era,” said Steph Furness, class of 2003. “I’m glad there will still be a place for people to meet up. But I definitely have some good memories of the Rat, just having a place on campus to meet up because, as you know, Ewing is not exactly a bustling college town.”
“For students with no college town, it was the closest thing to a neighborhood bar, albeit one that only sold beer and made awesome grilled cheese sandwiches,” said Jay Butkowski, class of 2004.
Upon the completion of the Campus Town project in several months, students at the College will have a collection of restaurants at which to gather, including a sports bar, according to Greg Lentine, director of University Campus Development for the PRC Group.
But the Rat has a history unlike any other spot on campus which cannot be hastily recreated. The black-and-white photos of students in athletics, residential life and student activities which hang on the walls were chosen by director of dining services Karen Roth from the library archives in an effort to bring school spirit to the pub. It still has not been determined whether the photos will also adorn the walls in the new restaurant.
“I think students will miss the warm feeling of a place to go, get good food and also feel like it’s your own,” said Angelle Richardson, class of 1996. “It’s not the big cafeteria. It’s a space where the people know you, everyone hangs out, and you can laugh and have fun. There’s no place else like it on campus.”
During its lifespan, the Rat set the stage for a myriad of performers, some of which went on to create names for themselves. Sitcom star George Lopez, 1969 Woodstock-opener Richie Havens, Celtic band Gaelic Storm (featured in “Titanic”) and rock group Moby Grape, which had Rolling Stone magazine cover its Rat debut, all took the stage at the Rat over the years.
“We played the Rat a few times, and it always felt like a homecoming,” Butkowski said. “My band Back Up Jackson was started at TCNJ, so playing the Rat had a sort of mythological importance, like we finally arrived.”
“Even though the Rat had ‘a clique’ of people that attended, I can safely say every student that has been to TCNJ has seen at least one performance on that stage,” said Brandon Schiff, class of 2014.
When the Rat shutters at the end of this semester, construction on the new College restaurant will begin, making a home for finger-food-loving students and hosting late-night performances.
The construction of the restaurant is set to be completed in January 2016 opening for the spring semester, but the completion of Student Center renovations is on schedule to be completed in July 2017.
Students will no longer have to squeeze through the winding close-set tables at the 2,240 square-foot Rat. Instead, the new restaurant will be nearly double in size, opening up 4,600 square feet in space and over 100 seats, according to Kirchner. It will feature beer, wine and a similar menu serviced by Sodexo, but many of the specific menu and design details are still being worked out by a committee of students, staff and Sodexo representatives.
A stage and student lounge in the restaurant will be separated from the dining area, possibly by furniture, to be used independently, but can also be easily opened up to the entire restaurant.
“The idea is to be as flexible as possible with utilizing the premium space that will be left behind when the bookstore vacates,” Kirchner said.
A patio decorated with planters will extend out toward the Art & Interactive Multimedia building, shortening the small roundabout driveway between the buildings but providing 80 additional seats outdoors.
Just like a swim in the fountain or “riding” the lion mascot outside Roscoe West, a visit to the Rat for a student solo night or a cheap beer is a staple on any student’s College bucket list. After almost 40 years of serving students, it is only a matter of weeks before the Rat finally has last call, dims the lights and locks the door for the final time.
“It was the epicenter of social life back when FaceTime involved being in the same room,” Torres said. “I don’t know whether today’s students will miss it or not. But they will learn, as I did, that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”