Some thoughts on Nighttown: a love letter
It's not an exaggeration to say that the report of the sale of Nighttown restaurant, in early January, shocked the community. What was already a trying year was underscored by the transition of a legendary and community-defining institution. Most of the community—of musicians and music lovers, diners, artists, students and former students, and residents who grew up matriculating in and through this distinguished institution—is worried.
Many things make Nighttown unique.
While the food was good, it wasn't the focus of the club (though most everyone had their favorite “signature'”dish). What Nighttown featured was atmosphere and ambience, emerging organically through the decades of its existence. Nighttown was the antithesis of the overproduced and overprocessed. It was a club, as in nightclub, as you imagine they were in the 1930s and ‘40s (or at least as they were in movies of the 1930s and ‘40s).
Nighttown is a serious place; it’s adult fun. It was not a “family” restaurant, where you packed the car with your kids and rolled over for a quick bite and junior burgers. When you wanted a night out without children, you meant without anybody’s children. It has low, deep lighting; walls and shelves packed with genuine art and artifacts; quiet background music that’s there for atmosphere, not a rock concert. At the same time, in Nighttown's internationally recognized music room, it’s serious music, not music to talk through or over.
In the best sense of the word, Nighttown's waiters were professional—knowledgeable, efficient, honest, personable. They knew the names and tastes of their customers, many of whom returned again and again, for years and years.
You may have recognized that my tense keeps alternating: past/present to present/past. The truth is that no one really knows Nighttown's future: Will it re-open with major changes? With minor changes? Will it re-open at all as a restaurant? Or, like many before it, will it succumb to some box development for shopping, or inhabiting, or become a franchise feeding-hole?
I hope the new owners understand that they’ve come into a great gift, like a classic Jaguar or Mercedes; it’s not a Corvette or a Mustang, and certainly not a Ford or an Oldsmobile. When you get into a classic Jaguar or Mercedes, you feel special, like you've been somewhere cool and you're going somewhere cool.
Let's hope that, as the virus winds down, Nighttown continues to take us to cool places.
Neil Slobin has lived in CH since 1962, and was a waiter and bartender at Nighttown in the mid-'70s. He teaches philosophy at Lakeland Community College. The "NS" (falafel and baba ghanouj) sandwich at Tommy's is named for him.