When I decided to write about the unique position the Ivy Inn holds in Princeton’s collective mind and heart, I started close to home, with my own two daughters and their husbands, all in their 30s. From there I expanded to longtime Princetonians and finally to Richey Ryan, who with his mother, Mickey, has owned and run the Ivy since the death in 1996 of his uncle, L. Richard (“Dickey”) McCluskey. It was Dickey McCluskey who bought the bar in 1966 and made it into the “shot and beer joint” it became, and which charged 40 cents for draft beer well into the 1980s. Even today drafts start at $2. On Saturday, August 6, the Ivy celebrates its 50th anniversary with a festival from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. that includes food trucks, a pig roast, two live bands, t-shirts, and commemorative mugs.
Besides its reasonably priced quaffs, two attributes popped up in every conversation I had about the Ivy: its unpretentiousness and the diverse demographic of its clientele. No wonder that in 2015 it made Thrillist’s “21 Definitive American Food, Drink & Travel Destinations.”
Neither of my sons-in-law, Ryan Ritterson and Chris Le, is from Princeton, but the Ivy is their go-to spot whenever they’re in town. I called on them for outsider perspectives. “Most bars have a theme and then try hard to broadcast that,” Ritterson says. “Even dive bars use the diveyness as a statement. The Ivy is just a bar where you can go get a beer at a normal price, which is a relief because you can just enjoy yourself rather than try to accept or reject the statement the bar is making.”
He calls the Ivy crowd “hilariously diverse,” noting that he’s seen, all in one visit, “old men doing crosswords at the bar; middle-aged men for whom college was the high point of their lives, wanting to relive it whenever possible; painfully shy 19-year-old college coeds who are desperate for someone to notice how hard they are trying; and 30-something townies who don’t know where else to go.”
That last is a reference to himself and my other children, including Chris Le. Le recalls a visit where “a pretty good cover band was playing that seemed to appeal equally to the after-work business-suit couple, the hippie who wore a backpack the entire time, and the raucous group of 50-year-old ladies.” He also appreciated the friendly bartenders and found the layout of the place interesting. “A mini-stage for bands, patio, pool table, giant beer fridge that anyone can open, darts — all crammed into a small footprint.”
Fran McManus has lived in Princeton since 1972. She recalls when Princeton had other blue collar bars, including the Pink Elephant (near the Ivy Inn) and Rosso’s (where Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe is now). McManus marveled when the Ivy added food in 2013. “How far it’s come,” she says. “I admire how they’ve chosen to change with the times while keeping it casual and friendly, unlike many other bars in town.” McManus, who is the longtime communications manager for the Whole Earth Center, also notes, “It’s essential to a community to have a place where workers in restaurants around town congregate after hours, and where young people can afford to go.”
Richey Ryan, who lives in Montgomery, recently turned 40. Asked what he thinks accounts for his bar’s popularity, he says, “That’s a hard question. Princeton is an anomaly. Basically, I was lucky in that I started working here when I was 18. My uncle had gotten ill by that time, and I made changes that I thought were fun, that were fun to an 18-year-old. I put in a pool table and a jukebox. I turned 21 at this place, and it evolved as I evolved.”
He credits word of mouth for building the Ivy’s reputation. “And the price doesn’t hurt,” he admits. He also notes that the Ivy has always felt like family to both its staff and customers. “I remain friends with almost all of the workers who have come through,” he says proudly. And the Ivy is and always has been a truly family affair. The day Ryan and I spoke, he had just dropped off his mother at the train station. A retired nurse, she was on her way to Newport, Rhode Island, to visit friends she had graduated from nursing school with in 1963. Like her son, Richey, and daughter, Kelly, Michele (“Mickey”) Ryan is Princeton born and bred.
Ryan recognizes that he is no longer a bellwether for what his younger customers find fun. “The people coming in, at night at least, are still 22,” he says, “so these days I may not be the best person to relate.” His response has been to step back from being behind the bar, delegating that and the choice of music and bands to younger managers. “I’m lucky in that I have a staff that’s loyal and happy. If they’re not happy, the customers are not happy.”
One area that does not make Ryan happy is social media, Yelp in particular. “It’s the bane of my existence!” he says. Nevertheless, he keeps close tabs on it (“I can tell you that right now we have 76 reviews”) and responds personally to negative reviews, including giving out his phone number and the best time to reach him.
“One in 30 people is inclined to write a positive review,” he notes. “Somehow, if you’ve had a good time, you’re not as likely to post about it. And keep in mind that 60 percent of our business occurs between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., so the story is going to get muddy. I always go out of my way to make sure that the complaint is valid. Now, I’ll accept the comments about sticky tables, but don’t tell me that anybody who works here said anything derogatory towards you, because I can assure you that you’re a liar,” he says. “You know how many people have called me when I offer? Not one!”
The addition of casual eats came at around the same time Ryan was stepping back from behind the bar. He says he owes that development to Geoff Aton, who was a regular customer at the time. “Geoff was a Wall Street guy, a commuter who used to come in from the Dinky on his bike,” he recalls. “He’d have rubber bands around the legs of his pants so they wouldn’t get caught in the chain. I’d called him ‘J. Crew’ because he was always well dressed in a Princeton way. But once he got to the Ivy, he became just a regular guy.”
The two men got talking one day and Aton suggested the addition of food. “I told him I really didn’t have the money. He said, ‘Well I do!’ And here we are! It was a terrific decision.” These days, Aton can be seen manning the bar during the day.
Best sellers on the menu include the Reuben sandwich, beef sliders on sweet Hawaiian rolls, and the burger with ancho chili mayo. The surprise hit, Ryan says, is the blackened salmon sandwich, a special.
“A guy direct-messaged me on Facebook asking me when we were going to have it again,” Ryan says, a touch of incredulity in his voice. He credits the appeal of the fare to both Jacqueline Baldassari, an area chef who was called in as a consultant back in 2013, and the two cooks in the Ivy kitchen. They came over from the erstwhile Ferry House, which closed just around the time the Ivy was adding food. One of them, known by Ferry House regulars as “Senor Juan,” was the lead cook there.
I asked Ryan how he reacts when people refer to his place as a dive bar. “It used to bother me because first of all, it’s not a dive. There’s a difference to me between a dive bar and a real bar. To me, a dive bar is, you walk in and everybody turns their head and gives you a look and a toothless man behind the bar comes up and asks, ‘what’re you having’ — if he even pays attention to you at all. And the bathroom doesn’t work and there’s a bra hanging from the light in the ladies room. We’re a real bar. You can come here and we don’t care if you just came from working in mud or if you’re dolled up. Just come as you are and have a regular conversation like you and I are having. If ‘dive bar’ means ‘unpretentious,’ then yes, I’ll accept it.” The term that does bother him, he admits, is “Princeton’s attempt at a dive bar.”
I also asked about the Ivy’s reputation for drawing police activity. “For some reason this place has always had this stigma and it’s just not true,” Ryan says. “The cops comment on how well we run the place. There are hundreds of fake IDs — maybe 700 or 800 — sitting in my office right now! We take it seriously. So for people to think there’s crime here, that’s nonsense.”
If Ryan has his way, the Ivy’s “small footprint” that my son-in-law took note of may stay the same, but there will be a second floor above it. His original plans, which earlier this year went in front of the town’s site plan review advisory board, met with resistance from residents in the neighborhood, who were concerned about lack of parking.
“We weren’t denied. It was just an initial review. But who else on this street even has parking?” he asks, in reference to the spaces outside the Ivy’s front door. “They’re building all these new residences, which is fine, but at least add parking to go with it! Don’t tell a business that has been here for 50 years that there’s not enough parking!”
Ryan is raising capital to move forward with his plans, and envisions opening up the wall to the existing back patio, enclosing that entire space, and adding a second story with a glassed-in wrap-around space. “We might even have a room up there for a band and an area for private parties.”
Princeton’s Ivy Inn continues its evolution.
Ivy Inn, 248 Nassau Street, 609-921-8555,