Arts and Entertainment | Food and Drink

Oral History: When JJ’s Place was a bar

For the average Columbia student, the phrase “JJ’s Place” conjures up deep-fried mozzarella sticks and syrup-drenched chocolate chip pancakes—images that are simultaneously mouthwatering and nauseating.

It might be hard to imagine that a student who walked into the campus mainstay 30—even over 60—years ago would likely see fellow Columbians chatting over beers instead.

In fact, the John Jay basement served as the Lion's Den pub from 1939 to 1960, the Crown Room from 1960 to 1971, the John Jay Pizza Pub from 1971 to 1985, and the John Jay Lodge from 1987 to 1996, until it was finally transformed to the JJ's we know and love today.

In order to explore the history of students’ favorite artery-clogging on-campus diner, Spectator reached out to alumni Jerry Sherwin, CC ’55, and John Tsanas, CC ’81, to ask about their respective experiences with “JJ’s” and the role it played in on-campus social life.

On what “old JJ’s” was like:

Jerry Sherwin, CC ’55: [The Lion’s Den] was very hospitable. It was a warm place—sometimes a little loud, but it was a place where people would hang out. You got to know upperclassmen, you got to know some of your own class, and John Jay is John Jay—I’m not saying that’s good or bad.

We were not co-ed. The only women were General Studies—not many—and Barnard, and they had their own facilities as well. But if you wanted a snack or something, you’d go there [to JJ’s]. They served soft drinks; they served beer. It was a very simple hangout. People enjoyed everyone’s company. Columbia College was not a huge school—in my class alone it was only 500 people—so we got to know a lot of people.

Some studied there, but mostly it was a social place. It was a very giving type of place. There was no real pressure socially. [Students] got to know upperclassmen like seniors or juniors, and the freshmen would go in there occasionally. Sometimes we’d wear our beanies, other times no—yes, we did have beanies. Freshmen were the only ones who put on beanies, and [the beanies] had a little blue cap, little peak, and a white “C” on top.

John Tsanas, CC ’81: I’ve been [to the John Jay Pizza Pub] only twice in my life so it’s hard to describe it. People would tell me it was very loud and rowdy sometimes. The impression I got was that the women there who were not Barnard women came from other schools. It was interesting that they would make the trip to go there.

I think the [students] that went there regularly liked [the Pub]. It was used for clicking on-campus. Because [there weren’t many other] places to go, it was popular Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. There was the company [the students] wanted and the beer was cheap and they enjoyed that. Especially for the people who lived in John Jay where it was convenient—because of the price they’d [go to the Pub] more.

Most of my friends went once or twice. It wasn’t the only destination to go to on the weekends. I think [because] it was loud and noisy, it was not of interest maybe for a lot of the school.

On on- and off-campus alternatives:

Sherwin: The drinking age in New York was 18 back then. There were a few restaurants between 110th and 116th street. Tom’s, I believe, was around. The most popular one was a bar on 114 street. The bar was [called] the West End. Food was not great at all at the West End. It was really a dingy bar, but the neighborhood people went [and the] students went. The West End was very popular. [Compared to the Lion’s Den, the West End] served [more] alcohol. The Lion’s Den had some beer—either that or they had the watered-down version of 3.2% beer.

What cut into the time I spent at [either] the Lion’s Den or the West End [were] extracurricular activities. Baseball or basketball, things like that. I did a lot of things. It was a lot of fun.

Tsanas: I was a commuter. You were in New York City—there were so many other things to do. Commuters had their own lives outside of school. I think the West End was the only bar about five or ten blocks away from the school so people used to go there. My impression was that a lot of people used to go to different small pubs that were downtown, around Greenwich Village where NYU is. There used to be tons of people starting from five or six at night getting onto the 110th street platform, taking the 1 train, [and] going south.

[On campus,] the frats could have their parties in their frat houses: They could have a cake [and] they could have a party there and have beer. There was a dormitory that [was] a giant castle, and they would try to have a party on the weekend daily on each floor, so there was always something going on there. We used to have FBH [Ferris Booth Hall], which is your Lerner Hall now. A lot of activities were in there. There used to be an organization called the BOM [Board of Managers] and they would do programming. They would run the movies, dances, different themed events, different holidays.

On social life at Columbia in general:

Sherwin: [The social life] wasn’t that bad. Everyone had their own social life—either they belonged to fraternities or they stayed over in the dorms. Yes, a good portion were commuters, but they made do. I worked at night at CBS Television. I lived in Queens, but it was almost like I never went home. I was always doing extracurriculars here on campus or going to various drinking establishments—bars, if you want to call it that.

Tsanas: The social life wasn’t great [between] ‘77 and ‘83. I always had to deal with the fact that there weren’t women on campus—it didn’t make any sense to me because there were always Barnard women taking Columbia courses or vice versa. There was always the sense that it was an all-boys school—we went to a good school, we got an education, and we would go on.

elaine.jiang@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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