End of an era: Dunbar's, Collegetown's last dive bar, is gone

December 31, 2015 by Mark H. Anbinder

The last of a long line of dive bars in Collegetown is no more. We're sorry to confirm the rumors that Dunbar's has closed its doors for good.

NHL (and Cornell) hockey legend Joe Nieuwendyk has visited Dunbar's regularly when he's in town, and graciously poses for photos.NHL (and Cornell) hockey legend Joe Nieuwendyk has visited Dunbar's regularly when he's in town, and graciously poses for photos.

Unlike many other Collegetown watering holes, Dunbar's never pretended to be anything else. No attempt at pizza or subs, no sports bar paraphernalia -- except the photos, jerseys, and, yes, the famous Lynah Rink cowbell, that accumulated naturally. Dunbar's has been graced by the Stanley Cup, thanks to Cornellian Joe Nieuwendyk, who visits often. 

Proud hockey parent John Kennedy accepts his stool from owner David "Pep" Pepin, right.Proud hockey parent John Kennedy accepts his stool from owner David "Pep" Pepin, right.Countless student athletes found a welcoming watering hole at Dunbar's, no matter their sport, but the place always seemed to be a headquarters for Big Red Hockey -- and the men's and women's players' parents. Most of the stools had been dedicated, complete with ceremony and engraved nameplate, to players' parents who'd made Dunbar's their home away from home when in town to watch their kids play.

You know the place is special when the cantankerous owner inspires a Halloween costume. Can you tell which is the real Pep?You know the place is special when the cantankerous owner inspires a Halloween costume. Can you tell which is the real Pep?Opened in 1979 at the corner of Eddy Street and Dryden Road, Dunbar's has been for sale for a couple of years, but longtime owner David "Pep" Pepin wasn't looking for just any buyer. "I'm waiting for someone who gets Dunbar's and wants to keep it the way it is, but also has the resources," Pep told us last year. "The people who come to me with lots of money want to make it 'better,'" he sneers. "The ones who 'get' it, can't afford it." Pep was not available for comment this week on the final decision to close the doors. The bar was last open on December 18th, when they closed out the Cornell semester by offering all of their weekly specials at once, including the popular "group therapy," $6 for a pitcher of beer and gaggle of kamikaze shots.

Reasonably priced drinks, nothing fancy. Cash only -- credit card fees eat up too much of the profit. Graffiti on the walls. Free popcorn in a "new" machine that's identical to the one that died a couple of years ago. (Somehow, longtime staffer Joe Price found an exact match for sale.) Just don't try taking your tray of popcorn out the door with you when you leave.

End of an era.End of an era.Dunbar's was "of an era" with Rulloff's and The Nines, two College Avenue bars dating to the late '70s that always had food, even live music. Just like the Royal Palm Tavern, which closed almost four years ago, Dunbar's stuck to its drinks and its jukebox, whose playlist never changed much, featuring Johnny Cash and "Sweet Caroline," which could make the crowd burst into song several times a night. They join Dino's Cosmopolitan (originally a diner by day and a dive bar by night) and Johnny O's, each of which closed a few years ago, among the recent departures. This year, the Chapter House was destroyed by a fire, Stella's bar and cafe closed abruptly, and relative newcomer Pixel Lounge, just ten years old, closed when the property owner decided to build a new apartment building on its lot.

Rulloff's (under new ownership) and the Nines remain, along with Collegetown Bagels, which offers beer and sangria along with its coffee drinks, bagels, sandwiches, and salads, in upper Collegetown, and Jack's Collegetown Grill added a bar a couple of years ago. Across from Dunbar's is Level B, which changed hands several months ago, and offers a cocktail and dance club vibe, and further down the hill, near the Chapter House, is the dynamic duo of Loco Margarita Grill and Luna Inspired Street Food, which together offer food and drink. 

The decor at Dunbar's included not just graffiti and framed photos and other sports memorabilia, but carefully painted ceiling tiles, a tradition adopted from the Palms. Longtime employee Christopher Morris, better known as "Bazooka," says he'd had a ceiling tile at the Royal Palm, but while he was away on a tall ship for a semester, a pipe burst, and several damaged tiles were replaced. "By the time I got back, I was out of luck." 

Morris says his first night back in town was a Sunday working the door at Dunbar's, and "since the walls were festooned with everything from hockey posters to bras," he asked Pep if he could decorate the ceiling tile above his spot at the bar. Pep said he didn't care, just "have it back by Wednesday -- for Group Therapy." Bazooka's was the first ceiling tile, but wasn't the last. He painted a few more upon request, and "it took on a life of its own after that," Morris says.

Ithaca does have a couple more dive bars, such as the Chanticleer downtown and the Fall Creek House in Fall Creek, but Collegetown's going to need something new.

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