The Court Tavern at 124 Church Street in 2020

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – A cultural landmark in downtown New Brunswick will transform from rock and roll club to vegan restaurant this spring, New Brunswick Today confirmed this week.

The Court Tavern, which has been closed since 2019 but was a favored watering hole in this city for generations, will become Veganica sometime this spring. 

The news first appeared in a writeup by the Home News. Focusing on the new restaurant’s offerings, it buried a cursory note into its eighth paragraph that Veganica will be located “at 124 Church St., the former home of The Court Tavern.” 

A phone call to Veganica’s partner restaurant up the block at 1 Elm Row, Veganized, confirmed their plans to open there this spring. 

Renovations are in their last stretch, but no official date is set yet.

The eclectic, colorful 120-seat restaurant and bar, which will feature Tiffany stained glass fixtures, plush seating and Queen Anne chairs, will be one of the first 100% vegan bars in the state.

[Veganica] will eventually offer sandwiches and upscale small plates, as well as live music. Vegan, organic, from-scratch pastry offerings will include cookies, cupcakes, muffins, brownies, pies and cakes.

“This New Brunswick restaurant has one of the best vegan pizzas in the country, says PETA” by Jenna Intersimone, February 19, 2024.

Veganized will remain open as well; vegans of the Fifth Ward will have options.

Veganized opened in 2015 at 1 Elm Row. The building is owned by the Barrood family, which owns property all across the city, including the Court Tavern.

This newspaper has previously chronicled Mike Barrood’s troubles in keeping the rock and roll club afloat in the years since acquiring it from the Albert family in a 2012 auction.

Many have wondered whether the Court Tavern would face the same wrecking ball-fate as so many other revered haunts in town, including music clubs the Melody Bar and Roxy.

Demolition has always been a lurking threat to the Court. 

Especially as DEVCO’s cement trucks continue to lay foundations for the Helix, “coming 2025” per its website, just across the street from the Court Tavern. 

The Helix’s footprint itself was home to the original Court Tavern site until 1981, at 149 Church Street. 

The city employed bullish tactics throughout the 1970’s to acquire that land and build the Ferren mall and parking deck, which was then torn down in the mid 2010’s. (Since then, we’ve made a habit of calling it The Wasteland.)

But now instead of a second demolition, the Court Tavern building gets reborn as a vegan restaurant. 

Reactions to the news from a few former Court regulars ranged from incredulous laughter, to “Is nothing sacred?”

The Court Tavern in 2020. Photo by Bennett Kelly

We wonder if a demolition would offer more closure to the Court Tavern’s nomadic regulars, who are dismayed, to say the least, at what’s happened to it since 2012. 

Or maybe this creative new life is something to applaud in its own right.

On French Street, the once world-famous Melody Bar is a forgotten patch of grass in the shadow of a parking garage. 

Also on French Street, the Roxy club and Doll’s Place were both swallowed by the hospital. 

Talk about sacred: New York’s punk mecca CBGB is now a high-end fashion store. “Bowery Jeans” start at $158.

And the Court Tavern is going vegan. 

Which of those fates is best, is something to chew on. 

Maybe at Veganica starting this spring.

“The $23 personal [Mackin’ Out Pizza] pie includes sweet potato truffle cashew cream, garlicky roasted broccoli, smoked shiitake mushrooms and spicy red pepper flakes smothered over a homemade pizza crust served atop cornmeal for added texture.”

You know, that sounds pretty good. Though some might prefer one more bar pie from the old tavern.

“PETA, perhaps the most well-known nonprofit animal rights organization… recently named Veganized’s Mackin’ Out Pizza as one of the top 10 vegan pizzas of the year.”

Eat your hearts out, rockers. 

The Old Man and the Bar

Bob Albert Sr. purchased the Court Tavern at its original location, 149 Church Street, in 1961. 

“I remember [Bob Sr.] had a great crewcut,” said Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken with a laugh in 2021. 

“We would always hang out with him upstairs at the bar. And I just remember him being there, and being supportive,” Diken said. 

Bob Sr. told a Home News reporter in 1977 that the tavern dated back to 1902. It was formerly known as Joe’s Bar through at least 1950. 

In its early days, the Court Tavern was a “lawyer bar,” attracting lunchtime clientele from the nearby courthouse and law offices. It offered 45 cent hamburgers and 60 cent “American cheese sandwiches,” among other fare. 

Associating with lawyers didn’t preclude the Court from subversive activity. In fact it more likely fostered it, as observed in this 1977 article by the Home News, which characterized it as “an informal government annex.”

Bob Albert says he thinks the throngs of office workers, lawyers, office holders, office seekers, judges, jurors, probation officers and shoppers who pile into his Court Tavern at noontime choose his place “because we’ve got the big sandwiches.”

To be sure, a triple decker roast beef platter or ham and Swiss on rye at the 149 Church St. restaurant and bar is as complete and filling a meal as any lunchtime appetite could handle.

But lots of places offer big sandwiches and still have sparse gatherings at noon.

And Albert, who has owned the establishment at the corner of Spring and Church streets for 16 years, knows there is nothing really special about his drinks.

But the Court Tavern, and its upstairs dining room, the Cypress Room, are city landmarks of sorts, there having been a drinkery continuously on the spot since 1902, according to its present owner.

That tradition remained unbroken through the Prohibition years of the 1920s and early ‘30s when the small frame building served as a popular speakeasy, according to Albert.

In the business of New Brunswick, the Court Tavern has become a “neighborhood bar without being in a neighborhood,” according to a frequent patron. 

Therein lies its appeal as neutral political turf, a place where deals can be made, business transacted, rumors spiked – or scotched – and secrets exchanged. 

“Variety of diners hold court at lunch in Church St. tavern” by Christopher Guidette, July 30, 1977. Home News Tribune

Doug Vizthum worked at the Court Tavern in a variety of roles from the early 80s through to and beyond the 2012 sale, and even was inside its original location across the intersection. 

He fondly recalled working for the “Old Man,” Bob Sr., who passed away in 1997 at the age of 69.  

“I loved them,” he said of both Albert’s, in an interview with New Brunswick Today in July 2021. 

“The Old Man loved me but he also goofed on me too. And no matter what the problem was, it was always, ‘That Slugger, it’s all his fault.’ But he’d be winking behind my back to people when he was yelling at me. He was great.”

Bob Jr. really ran the club then, Vizthum said. 

He had come aboard in 1981 to help out his father after the original tavern was forced to move across the street to make way for the (since-demolished) Ferren Mall and parking deck.

The original Court Tavern, pictured here at 149 Church Street pre-1981 (photo by George Red Ellis), and the same site in 2022 (photo by Bennett Kelly). The Helix is currently under construction there.

“His father was having trouble with it after he opened it in the new place, and he asked him to work with him,” said longtime Court Tavern doorman Marc Lanzoff in a New Brunswick Today interview in 2022. 

Lanzoff shared great detail with us in summer 2022 on his life in and around the pirate ship that was the Court Tavern. He passed away in February 2023 at the age of 71. 

Bob Albert Jr. passed away in May 2022 at the age of 63.

“That’s the one thing you had to say about Bobby Albert,” Lanzoff said of his late boss a few months later. “He went in there not really wanting to run the bar. And that’s when Bobby started bringing the bands in, when he was in his twenties.” 

“Bob Jr. is old school, he was always old school,” said Vizthum in 2021. “He was a great guy to work for because he was a very funny guy.”

Albert Jr., his family, and the Court Tavern community staved off prior attempts at closing the club. The wrecking ball almost came for the Court a second time, back in 2001.

Just weeks after the Melody Bar abruptly and unceremoniously closed in March 2001, the city tried to declare the Court Tavern a blighted area in need of redevelopment.

It was a notion that did not align with public sentiment. Emotions were running high, and hundreds gathered at a city council meeting to fight for it.

“The only thing that was missing was pitchforks and torches at that point,” Vizthum said of those April 2001 council meetings. 

Bob Albert Jr. in 2001 after the the Court won its day in court

“There were so many people that were mad that went down there because of what they were trying to do at that point. They tried everything. They tried to get the eminent domain going, they tried to do everything they possibly could to get him out of there,” Vizthum said.

By October 2001, the proposal was dropped and the Court was allowed to stay in place. The Court planned a big party to celebrate.

The city’s antagonism would not dissipate however, with construction projects and scaffolding a constant presence in the immediate vicinity of the Court throughout the rest of the decade. 

“[Bob Jr.] was the thorn in the side of New Brunswick forever,” Vizthum said. “His dad got on the wrong side of the democratic machine, because he had like a re-election office for somebody that was running against one of their people. Ever since that, all they did was make his life a living hell.”

Bob Albert Sr. has spent much of the 1970’s arguing before councils and courts on behalf of his tavern. 

The first episode began in 1971 when Bob Sr. objected to the opening of a nearby tavern on Paterson Street, it was said for being “too close to the county courthouse and would add to traffic congestion.” 

Albert Sr. was doing well in delaying it up until 1974, when the city councilman leading the objections, John A. Smith, was revealed to be a close friend of, if not in the bag for Albert. 

Smith had a law office next door at 151 Church Street, and had set up a telephone service for message taking at the Court Tavern from about 1966-1972, the extent of which he initially lied to the courts about. 

Albert had also given a $1,400 loan to Smith, and they also initially withheld this information. 

These were just “expressions of friendship,” in Albert’s words in the paper back then. 

But those expressions led to an Alcohol Beverage Control investigation, which determined a conflict of interest in Albert’s potential influence over Smith.

The opposed tavern, Christopher’s Pub, finally opened at 55 Paterson Street in March 1977 after being tangled up since 1971; it’s now the site Clydz cocktail bar and restaurant.

Albert Sr. demonstrated further civic savvy when the demolition crews came in the late 1970’s. 

Developers were going hard after the city’s Fifth Ward, leveling homes and shops like the Art Cinema, the Cone Zone and New Brunswick Lunch in favor of new office buildings, parking decks and hospital properties.

But Albert Sr. repeatedly refused the city’s undervalued purchase offers, and sought fairer prices on behalf of the other impacted businesses. 

For months he was “bitterly protesting” the city’s plan to condemn the tavern, and even invoked the State Department of Community Affairs to help push back against the city. 

And so by August 1981, the Court Tavern was the last operating, undemolished building on its original block. (“The remaining property on the block, the Court Tavern at Spring and Church, will be vacated next month,” the Home News reported on July 29.) 

Albert Sr. negotiated to keep Court Tavern in business at 149 Church Street until its last renovations were complete across the street, hoping to close the old location and open the new one on the same day so as not to lose business.

In the end, the Court lost three weeks, closing at 149 Church Street on August 3, 1981 and opening for business at its present location of 124 Church Street on August 24, 1981.

Soon after, Bob Jr. came aboard, and the bar began its ascent from local hangout to nationally renowned music club. 

Home of the Stars

There would be ebbs and flows to the scene over the years, a boom and bust in each of the 1980’s and 1990’s

Music venues rose and fell, whether it was Patrix at Throop and Handy streets, or the Melody and Roxy on French Street, or the Budapest and the Plum St. Pub in their neck of the woods, to name just a few. 

The band Penelope performing under the “Cruel But Fair” banner in the 90’s

But musicians that played around the city in those booming decades speak reverentially of the opportunities available they had.

“In the 80’s, New Brunswick was so hot for live music,” musician Cyndi Dawson told us last year

“When you had major labels for rock and roll, they could have been in any bar any given night of the week to go see bands down there,” said Dawson. “And a lot of bands were signed, back in those days. It was just such a fabulous time to be in New Brunswick if you were in a band.”

Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken said the band started playing at the Court Tavern in 1981 or 1982. 

“Of course, the Court became legendary,” he told New Brunswick Today in 2021. “They really did give us, and a lot of the other original area bands, they gave us a platform, they gave us a place to play, try out our material. 

“We were able to build an audience there and build a following there,” he said. “We always felt if we were going to play the Court, we were going to have a good show. And we’d see our friends, we’d see our fans, we’d make new fans and new friends. It was just a very supportive atmosphere for us.”

Of all the local rock and roll joints, the Court Tavern stood tallest for more than thirty years, and drew bands in from across the state and country.

“We tried to make it like we weren’t like every other club,” said Vizthum. “Every other club was kind of serious, you know. And while we were very serious we also had a sense of humor. Everybody did, we all had a wacky sense of humor to say the least,” he said laughing.

Bob Albert Jr. installed a record store inside the Court Tavern in the 1990’s

“When we used to have ads in the Aquarian and East Coast Rocker, we always had a rotating bit called ‘The Home of…’ 

“Bobby’s thing was he used to call it the ‘Home of the Stars,’ which was a joke obviously because there’s no stars,” Vizthum said. 

Albert would answer the phone with “Court Tavern, Home of the Stars…”

“And then it became Home of the Chronic Unemployables, Home of the Floating Chromosome…” said Vizthum. “Then there was also Cruel But Fair, which was one of my favorite lines, which [Bobby] took from Monty Python. The Court Tavern: Cruel But Fair… We had a lot of ‘em.”

Vizthum said the Court had its last thriving musical period in the wake of those packed 2001 council meetings, from roughly 2002 to early 2012, when it was sold to Barrood. 

As Vizthum remembered it, he had taken a year off from booking shows around 2001 – or rather, he was “removed from booking the club.” 

But his replacement booker lost his shirt by drawing in a lot of revival shows, older rock acts, and ignoring the local scene. 

“This whole time when this guy was booking all these acts, there was a whole underground rock scene going on in New Brunswick. Which we all know about now. All those basement shows, all these bands were sprouting up while this was going on,” Vizthum said. 

Albert Jr. invited Vizthum and his friend Andy Diamond to take back the booking in 2002, and in short order the Court had its pick of the litter. “It was like opening the door and being like, ‘Come on in,’ and all these bands were there waiting with all these crowds,” he said. 

“When we started booking these bands, that place flourished for a long time. We were doing record shows all the time, because we had all these fresh acts,” Vizthum said.

The Smithereens also returned, booking a four-night residency in Winter 2008 and another residency in one of the summers. A live album of those winter shows, Live in Concert! Greatest Hits and More, was released in May 2008. 

Doug Vizthum (left) performing with Bad Karma at the Court Tavern in the 90s

Last April, another featured Court Tavern rock act, Dinosaur Eyelids, released a live album from a 2016 show. 

The Court was known to bands for a few things: it usually had a built-in audience; it had a stage, a rarity in New Brunswick; and it had the best sound system around. 

Its top sound engineers, Kirk Miller and Gabe Monago, both wound up getting poached from the Court, Vizthum said. 

Miller was hired to fix the sound system at Maxwell’s in Hoboken in the mid-nineties.

“Everytime I played [Maxwell’s], it was always a disaster,” Vizthum said. “There was always feedback and stuff. They had a lousy sound system up there. For all the cool stuff that they had going on, they never took care of their sound system. And Kirk came in and fixed their sound system.

“Even when Kirk left, you still had Gabe, and Gabe knew how to really turn the volume up and let bands really shine loud. He was great. Both of those guys were very instrumental in the sound of the Court.”

Miller was eventually hired to be the sound engineer for Ween when Ween would go on the road. Monago also did work for Ween.

“Ween I think stole just about everybody on their team from the Court Tavern at one point or another,” Vizthum said, including one of his Bad Karma bandmates. 

Bad Karma, “I’d Rather Be Sleeping”

A Bad Karma song was chosen to introduce Fritch Clark’s documentary “The Last Bastions of Rock,” in which the Court Tavern and the New Brunswick scene figure prominently. 

The documentary continues on its YouTube channel; it keeps adding new lost bastions.

In New Brunswick, while there’s been no Court Tavern since 2019 (and if you ask the regulars, since 2012), there’s still music being played. 

The basement scene remains vibrant, just not very accessible to anyone who can’t blend into a college party anymore. 

Bars like the Ale ‘n Wich and Cinco de Mayo do their part with occasional and regular gigs.

Pino’s in Highland Park has seized a starring role in the local scene, and bands with New Brunswick roots feature often at Crossroads in Garwood, a local rarity in being a dedicated rock and roll club.

So, let’s all raise a glass to the old Court Tavern. But the show must, and will go on. 

Music Reporter at New Brunswick Today | | Website

Bennett Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. He is a two-time winner of the Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage award from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists, for his features on the New Brunswick music scene in 2021 and 2022.

Bennett Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. He is a two-time winner of the Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage award from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists, for his features on the New Brunswick music scene in 2021 and 2022.