Joey Walter / Sun File Photo

December 31, 2015

Dunbar’s Closes Doors After 36 Years in Collegetown

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After more than 36 years in operation, Dunbar’s is the next Collegetown watering hole to shut its doors, according to former manager Brian Rettger.

A Collegetown fixture established in 1979, Dunbar’s is known to many Cornellians for its dive bar atmosphere, with ceiling tiles and walls scribbled on in permanent marker and six dollar “Group Therapy” special.

Rettger told The Sun Thursday that owner Dave Pepin had decided to close the establishment over break, and that the “timing is unfortunate.”

Though Rettger was unable to provide details on the reason for the bar’s closure, Pepin had decided to put the bar up for sale in 2013 due to his desire to spend more time with family, The Sun previously reported.

The closure of Dunbar’s follows the shuttering of a number of Collegetown bars in recent years. The building that housed Pixel Lounge was demolished this summer to make way for a new residential and commercial development on Eddy Street. Stella’s Restaurant, Bar and Café — located at 403 College Ave. — also closed this year, and is now occupied by StartupTree.

The iconic Chapter House pub was destroyed in an early-morning fire on April 14, though management has stated that they hope to reopen by next August.

The Royal Palm Tavern — known as “The Palms” — closed in February 2012, and both Johnny O’s and Dino’s shut their doors the year before.

Rettger said that for him and Pepin — who both attended Ithaca College — Dunbar’s was their connection to Cornell and the community.

“Pep has been a long time supporter of wrestling and hockey, as well as a big fan of all athletics at Cornell,” he said. “Several alumni brought the Stanley Cup to the bar during the time he owned the place. I know those are fond memories for him.”

For Rettger, who stayed in Ithaca after graduation but has since moved away, Dunbar’s “was always a bit like coming home.”

“And the jukebox. Loved the jukebox,” he said.

  • concerned_alum

    This is really appalling. Other than the fact that Dunbars was dirty, a dive, etc., it served its purpose well, and for more recent graduates, served as simply “the bar” to meet friends after each and every other option disappeared. It would be one thing if these old bars and haunts were closing to accommodate a new crop of more hip, exciting (and hopefully cleaner) bars, but they’re simply not. Blame it on the new drinking age (certainly not “new” anymore), blame it on “pregame culture” (plenty of 21+ students I graduated with fully intended on paying for drinks 2-4 nights a week), or blame it on high rents (why are they so high? why do slumlords, often extremely well known by Ithacan residents and politicians, escape all possible consequences?) but the quality of life, particularly social life, in Collegetown and at Cornell has deteriorated to a depressing level. Yes, Cornell has been and will always be a wonderful place to get an education. But, it was once also a wonderful place to meet like-minded people outside the classroom, and learn how to socialize in a more mature way. No one would refer to Dunbars, Pixel, Loco, or The Palms as “mature,” but adults in the real world, from all walks of life, socialize in bars. Destroying an essential part of college culture to make way for “luxury rentals” that a miniscule percentage of the student body can afford, is, in my opinion, absurd.

    • Bob Higgins

      It is a shame that bars are going under, but it is part of a larger trend in human interaction. There used to be a time before social media that people talked and interacted in person. I frequented and DJed in many collegetown bars and also many fraternity & sorority functions. People would arrive reasonably sober and slowly partake of legal refreshments while socializing and dancing. Nowadays they arrive drunk, stumbling and a few of them already throwing up. They spend more than 1/2 their time on their cell phones, and barely talk to each other. Hopefully it is just a phase.

      • Dan

        I’m ashamed that somebody who attended an institution as prestigious and rigorous as our own would make such a foolish comment. Please provide evidence that folks back in the day would “arrive reasonable sober” and “slowly partake of legal refreshments” in contrast to this supposed era of raucous debauchery. You say that students would arrive drunk, stumbling throwing but if you take a look at a variety of statistics college students are drinking more safely and more responsibly then they ever have in the past. DWI/DUI rates have plummeted as have the rates for alcoholism and alcohol related fatalities. When was the last time you were actually in a CTown bar? Sure there are kids one their cell-phones but by no means do they occupy their entire evening with texts and snapchats. I understand that using technology must be difficult for members of your generation but by no means are youths so entranced by their cell screens that they have forgotten how to socialize. I harbor no resentment towards your generation however there is surely a laundry list that can be laid out here. Your response is endemic of politicians, policy makers and landowners that have wholly misunderstood shifting demographics, spending habits and new technologies. Who’s closing all these bars? They sure as hell aren’t college students. Keep blaming us though, I’m sure that will help.

        • concerned_alum

          This is a particularly aggressive response, especially considering Mr. Bob Higgins never a) indicated whether or not he attended Cornell and b) never indicated his age. As a millennial, I am fully aware that many people my age spend a large portion of time using smartphones. However, I don’t think this is a huge contributor to the loss of demand for bars in Collegetown- students still want to go to bars. If a student is looking at his or her phone at the bar, this is often a defense mechanism or a way to look “busy.” Adults in large cities behave similarly, including my parents, at bars and in all kinds of social situations. As for Mr. Higgins’ belief that college students today show up to events drunk, that is certainly true, but based on stories and conversations with Cornell alumni of many different ages, I do not believe this is an entirely new concept.

          • Don

            For what it’s worth, Bob Higgins did attend Cornell, and having been present at dozens of parties where his company provided the music, I can say that he was a fixture on the hill for many years. Based on what my college-age kids tell me, I would not find much to disagree with his observations. “Pre-gaming” is a big deal and does cause a lot of kids to be totally smashed when they first arrive at parties. This is not unique to Cornell, but it’s a real problem.

    • In my humble opinion

      I think everything you said for the most part is true. But I think the major reason why bars in Ithaca are failing is because of the city law preventing bars from staying open past 1am. Bars at other schools are allowed to stay open to as late as even 4am. This increase in operating time allows for higher profits/the opportunity to make more money. Bars in Collegetown are not the only one’s that fail. 2nd level in the commons just closed also, I think bars closing at 2, 230, or even 3 would make a serious difference. Further, from a promotional standpoint, bars at BIG10 schools do a truly unbelievable job promoting their bars especially at Kilroys with 2-dollar Tuesday’s and tee shirt Thursday’s. Sure it’s the pregame scene, but it’s really the lost operating hours equating to lost profits due to the city rule.

      • Brad

        The closing hours of 1am have been that way for over 25 years. It’s not new and it’s the entire county. Bob has been around Ithaca for a long time and attended more parties and bars at various locales than most anyone I know and as such has a unique and expert perspective. so As someone who visited cornell and some of the bars, many times in the 80s, attended Cornell 16 years ago, and have lived in Ithaca since 2000 and been managing in Collegetown bar for ten years… I have to support that his testimony is expert, assuming it is actually the same Bob Higgins. If you think of it, Pep had a great run. Running a bar is a young mans game – you have to be young to deal with everything Bob mentioned, because it’s true a majority of the crowd shows up at 1130 or midnight, and are challenging to manage for an hour while in various states of operation. Pep is tired, he gave it his best and is a great guy. He loved the students, and you have to to run a bar like that. It may have been the same back in 1980 or whenever the Don poster is concerned with, but it’s not working for many of the bars- or they would still be open. Palms, Gates, Johnny Os, Dino’s, Chariot, Johnny’s big red etc … It’s a trend that’s been building since the drinking age went to 21. Everyone can drink at home….meetup later drunk at bars. Not good for business. Smartphones exacerbated it, but not the only cause. If you’re appalled – then please come open a bar or at least support the ones that are still trying to provide service to the students! Level B, Locos, Rulloffs, The Nines, CTB, and that sports bar on Dryden- all still there! Go early, thank the bartender and the owner, tip well, drink responsibly – take care of your friends and vice versa…

        • Alexander S


          Bars closing at 1am is not a national thing. Most bars around the country close at at least 3 or 4. Here’s a few towns that do not close before 1am:

          Ann Arbor, Boston (Harvard), Philly (Penn), Bloomington, University of South Carolina, U Texas, Brown, East Lansing, and just about every college town in this country except for Ithaca.

          • Brad

            Alexander – I wrote COUNTY not COUNTRY. Tompkins County is 1AM, its not a “city” decision. And to your point, you are correct there are many cities around the COUNTRY that are past 1AM, most are. But there are several places that are 1AM and doing just fine.

  • Need More Dancing Venues in Collegetown

    You forgot the Gates. This venue, at the top of Eddy St didn’t quite make it 1 year, but was one of my favorite places, a bar with a lot of great concerts and dancing. Such a beautiful space (Hot Pot now).

    This space was a victim of an agent of Ithaca Renting that promised the apartment that bordered the bar/club/venue would NOT be leased out–yet they leased it out. So the venue quickly had a noise violation and Ithaca Renting staff screwed another business owner.

  • 09Grad

    How do I get my tile? Dear God please don’t destroy my tile.

    • John Molinda

      Dear 09 Grad
      Did you ever find out what happened with the tiles? My daughter would love to have hers but works halfway across the country and couldn’t make a trip to get it

  • Tim Wells

    So sad… Not that really that place smelled…alot. But the freinds and times their that we all had were timeless. Especially going to Hot Truck after a night of Jagerbombs and Miller. Here’s one to Dunbar’s!!! Cheers. Now what bar is next in Collegetown… The Nines?

  • non-AA member

    God forbid people find things to do with their time other than get drunk. It has always seemed silly to simultaneously claim that college is a great, educational experience, both in and out of the classroom and yet expect drinking to be the primary form of socialization. Maybe being slightly less full of alcoholics than most colleges can become something special about Cornell.

  • David Delchamps

    Smartphones (and even dumb phones) make it easy for students to micro-schedule — no need to head out to the Palms at 11 PM or so and wait for people to filter in — just line up outside at 12:45 PM for Palms O’Clock. As Joey Leonardo said prior to the Palms’s closing, “That’s a business killer.” The decline in random hanging_out-type traffic has led bars in C-Town (Dino’s, Johnny O’s, Palms, Dunbars) to close. Stella’s was a different story (owner issues).

  • Dustin

    It’s crazy to think that everything we knew when we were students would exist in perpetuity, just because it meant something to us (besides Hot Truck, that is, because that’s a goddamned institution).

    I was back in Ithaca for work during the summer after I graduated, and even then I knew the place I loved and held so dearly was no longer mine. We can’t force people to do things that don’t fit today’s culture or current societal norms, so if a place that worked yesterday doesn’t work today, it’s simply not going to last.

    I’m just happy that places like Dunbar’s last as long as they do.

  • Scott F

    After nearly four decades Dunbar’s doors stuck shut from coagulated beer and p* and p*. Two generations of Cornellians hang their heads in flashback hangovers.

    Cornell President declares a year of silence:

    “TRILLions and TRILLions of brain cells have been lost at Dunbars. Think of the Nobel Prizes lost; the cures for cancer postponed; the flowers of youth lost in this cesspit, hosed, then hosed off like so much scum. Dunbars! ‘Far above Cayuga’s Waters there WAS an awful smell!.’Indeed!”

    • Scott F

      Oh, forgot. Arts ’84. Or was it ’85?

  • Big Jim

    Sad day for Cornell, no matter how you slice it. That said, Bob has an undeniably unique perspective and is mostly likely correct.

  • Bill Stewart ’78

    Dunbar’s opened up just after I left Cornell; maybe I went there on some trip back but I don’t remember. The Palms was where we went for a local dive bar (some folks went to the Fall Creek House, but I never got there – too far down hill), or The Chapter House, or Johnny’s for a steak, or Cabbagetown Cafe for hippie food (or Moosewood, if you were downtown), or whichever bagel or sandwich places were nearest.

  • Slip 90′

    I am a little late to this send off but I have missed that Juke Box. Nothing like sitting in a booth with your friends (or whomever pile in) and since Brown Eyed Girl and Buttercup, etc.. and feel like you were part of something going back many years.

    Students at Cornell now will have their own memories and new institutions will evolve.

    Hell it is just one more example of me having to explain to my kids what once was. All I know is that I have lived in over 10 cities since graduating and recreating hot truck has never been easy.
    Happy New Year to you all.

    • 90sCUgirl

      totally agree with you on the Juke Box. So many good memories of CCR, Van Morrison, and other wonderful groups! Group Therapy was a regular session my friends and I would attend. Hey, who doesn’t need group therapy? RIP Dunbars! You will be missed!

  • Jim Blum ’80

    The Moax from 609 State Street had a last hurrah at Dunbars at their 35th Reunion last summer. Last call.