Peanut shells cover the floor, a beer pong table sits in the middle of the main room, and the establishment’s slogan—“Our Clientele is from Harleys to Limos”—lines the walls of Hair of the Dog, one of Middletown’s premier bars.
Though the place looks tame enough, come Wednesday night, it is invaded by up to a hundred University students. These throngs of students make their way from campus to 544 Main Street, where they pour into the bar, continuing the long-standing tradition known as Bar Night.
The typical Bar Night offers two primary bar hopping locations: the all-American, friendly atmosphere of Hair of the Dog, and The Gatekeeper, the low-key, comfortable environment where the Bar Night tradition began.
“Bar Night began fourteen years ago when a student named Luke, who was the captain of the hockey team, began to bring his teammates and friends to the bar every week,” said Peter Lessor, owner of The Gatekeeper.
According to Lessor, few nightlife establishments existed in Middletown in the 1990s, and of those that did, few were willing to admit University students. When he opened up his bar in 1995, he deviated from the others by welcoming student patrons. Within a year, the 73 Ferry Street establishment had become the undisputed favorite among students.
“We didn’t advertise or anything,” Lessor said. “Kids just started showing up in bigger and bigger numbers.”
In 2005, Wally Stojack opened Hair of the Dog, which is located around the corner from The Gatekeeper. The bar was quickly added to the Bar Night roster. At Hair of the Dog, Wednesdays are known as “Wes Days” or “Senior Appreciation Night,” in order to acknowledge their most loyal customers, the majority of whom are seniors.
“We have plenty of seating, and we definitely have a lot of crafty beers and a big variety of drinks,” Stojack said. “We cater to everything—we don’t miss a beat.”
The Gatekeeper offers a somewhat different appeal. The plain storefront belies the cozy and charming interior which includes a pool table, juke box and fully stocked bar. At all times, the bar is fully stocked with the seven top-secret ingredients that go into a “Gatekeeper shot,” a popular drink among students.
Although Hair of the Dog is said to attract a predominantly student-athlete crowd and The Gatekeeper is thought to bring in a larger variety of students, bar staffers say this is a misconception. George Smalanskas ’09, a bouncer at Hair of the Dog who won his job in a bet, has not observed such a distinction.
“I’d say the kids that are in Hair of the Dog are the kids that you’d see at any typical party at Wesleyan,” he said.
While Stojack’s hiring of Smalanskas may seem like a spur of the moment decision, Stojack is constantly on the lookout for potential student employees.
“[Wesleyan students] tend to be really hard working and respectful, and I have them for a long time,” Stojack said. “Plus, the best way to get a bigger crowd is to hire. Then there is massive word of mouth, which is the best form of advertising.”
But despite this advertising strategy, the number of students showing up to the bars has been dwindling over the years.
“On average [the number of students who come to the bars] has definitely decreased,” Smalanskas said. “My sophomore year, if you weren’t in by 10:30 p.m. you wouldn’t get in. There was a huge line out the door. I don’t know if it is a different student demographic on campus that has caused the [decrease] or what.”
Lessor suggested that the recession could be a factor, since students may have less money at their disposal for going out to bars. Bar owners and employees, however, remain confident that the number of bar-going students will rise during the second half of the semester.
“Every spring, Bar Night just gets crazier and crazier, as seniors and other kids start to care less and less,” Smalanskas said.
Regardless of the strained economy, Hair of the Dog and The Gatekeeper still continue to attract a devoted group of fun-loving students. The well-priced beverages and jam-packed bars are certainly appealing, but above all else, it is the friendliness of the employees that keeps student coming back.
“I just treat people as people,” Lessor said. “It’s as simple as that.”
But ultimately, Bar Night’s success lies in its unique command of Wednesday nights.
“On Saturday night, there’s seven different things going on, but on Wednesday nights you know you can come to the bars and see everybody you want to see,” Smalanskas said.