Lights out at the Night
Written by Bwog Staff
The Night Cafe, like Mona, is closing. Bwog correspondent Kate Linthicum got there before the taps shut off forever.
Last night, as the prickly first winds of autumn blew across Morningside Heights, the loveliest dive bar in the neighborhood sang its swan song. Dozens of devoted patrons pressed into the warmth of the Night Café to drink, reminisce, and take part in the bar’s weekly trivia competition. The mood was somber, because everyone knew that this night might be the last: The bar’s owners have announced that it will close sometime in the next two weeks.
The Night Café has occupied a long, narrow storefront at 106th Street and Amsterdam since the early 1990s. Nestled next to a bustling laundromat, its red neon sign is nearly concealed behind a curtain of scaffolding. Inside, it’s usually warm and bustling. Lou Reed’s voice might be wavering out of a dilapidated jute box stacked with rock and roll, and a posse of pool sharks will surely be crowded around a game on the rundown table in the back. The nighttime bartender, a wild, wiry man who seems to like swigging drinks as much as making them, greets every person like a friend. He’s been known to perform pushups on the bar (and pour free cocktails for impressed strangers).
The bar is closing because it’s fallen victim to what one chatty smoker called “rent-ificiation.” The landlady recently doubled the property’s rent, and the bar’s owners can’t afford to stay. One of the owners is Brian Flanagan, a former Columbia student who was once a member of the radical group the Weather Underground (some scenes from a 2003 documentary about the group were shot at Night Cafe). These days, Flanagan spends his time organizing trivia competitions, not revolutions. He is, by all accounts, obsessed with trivia. He’s won thousands of dollars appearing on “Jeopardy!” and he sometimes personally hosts Night Café’s Sunday night contest. A different, quite elderly man was running the show Sunday, and Flanagan seemed unimpressed. “Come on,” he bellowed from his seat at the bar. “Let’s pick up the tempo!”
Night Café attracts a diverse crowd, and everyone seems to mingle happily. “It’s for working-class people in the neighborhood and Columbia students who think their school is elitist,” explained Mostafa Omar, a former bartender, in a soft Egyptian accent. Omar said the bar is also a gathering place for left-leaning intellectuals. “It’s a hub for liberals and socialists and anarchists,” he said. “For them, this place isn’t just a bar going out of business.”
Outside, the building’s super took a break from lugging trash to talk about what he thinks will be next for the space Night Café now occupies. He said he thinks the bar will be replaced with a classy restaurant. When the patrons at Night Café were told this, they shook their heads and muttered quietly about gentrification. As the night wore on and some people began to slowly trickle out into the chilly night, one man voiced his frustration with it all. “This is the most depressing funeral I’ve ever been to,” he shouted, swinging his vodka cranberry in the air. The crowd laughed and relaxed a little. And as the second round of trivia began, they drank in the night.
NOTE: The article that ran today in the Spectator (which does not appear to be online) does not accurately reflect the character of the Night Cafe, which the author called an “empty cavern.” According to Linthicum, she was there at the same time as the Spec staffer, who left after asking the owner being denied an interview in the middle of a trivia game.
UPDATE TO NOTE: The phrase “empty cavern” was actually referring to empty bar. The article is now online. We apologize.