Three years after their beloved tavern was booted from its historic home, two former Rudy’s regulars have opened a new bar in the old Elm Street building—and launched an effort to “rebuild” a neighborhood institution.
Rick Seiden and Ed Thurschmann III, two commercial fishermen from Milford, served their first customer a pitcher of Miller High Life Thursday on the first day of business of their new bar, called Three Sheets.
The bar sits at 372 Elm St. in the former home of Rudy’s Bar and Grille, a legendary watering hole founded in 1934. The landlord, the Chan family, doing business as Hang Seng Inc., kicked out Rudy’s in 2010 after 76 years, then opened its own bar, called Elm Bar, in the same location, replicating the historic decor.
The bitter dispute divided the loyalists at Rudy’s, one of the few spots where Yale students mixed with longshoremen, firefighters and indie rockers from around town. Some, embittered by the eviction, boycotted Elm Bar and followed Rudy’s owner Omer Ipek to 1227 Chapel St., where he opened a more upscale Rudy’s with a fuller restaurant and a wider array of Belgian and craft beers. Others, feeling the new Rudy’s had betrayed its working-class roots, stayed loyal to the physical spot at 372 Elm. Still others became unmoored, feeling at home in neither.
The episode raised the existential question: What is a neighborhood bar?
Is it a building? A business? A certain chemistry of people sharing space and time?
Can it be moved? Recreated?
Sitting on a barstool Thursday at Three Sheets, Seiden sought to answer those questions.
Rudy’s is “the building,” he said. And the people.
Seiden, who’s 43, drank at Rudy’s for two decades before it shut its doors three years ago. Then he—and lots of his buddies, who were firefighters, cops, longshoremen—stopped going to 372 Elm. The place they knew was dead.
Old Rudy’s, Seiden said, “felt like home.”
Old Rudy’s had a special mix of people, Thurschmann noted: Not the downtown crowd. Not the Crown Street crowd. It was a low-key place for New Haveners to drink.
“Everyone has a Leo story,” added Seiden, referring to Rudy’s’ longtime bartender, Leo “Big Daddy” Vigue, who touched generations of regulars during his 50 years as bartender. Vigue died in 2011, a year after the old Rudy’s closed.
Vigue became so iconic that he was often mistaken for the bar’s namesake. In fact, the bar is named after Rudy Conti, who founded it in 1934 as a one-room bar and grille next to a barber’s shop. Rudy died of a heart attack when he was in his 30s. His brother Joe carried on the family restaurant until the mid ‘70s. The business then passed through several hands before Ipek took it over in 2002.
Seiden and Thurschmann are new to the bar business. They make a living hauling clams and oysters for the Bear Neck Shellfish company in Milford. They were considering buying another fishing boat when they came across a listing on a brokerage site.
Seiden made a discovery: “O.G. Rudy’s was for sale!”
(That’s his nickname for old Rudy’s. O.G. stands for “original gangster,” a character who’s been around.)
It turned out that, three years after getting into the bar business, the landlords at 372 Elm wanted out.
“I’m just [too] tired to do any kind of restaurant,” said Perry Chan, who has been running Elm Bar along with his brother for the past three years.
Chan’s dad owns the building, which includes the adjacent Main Garden Chinese fast-food joint.
Chan said he also got out of the Chinese food business: He sold Main Garden eight months ago.
“I’m [too] tired to do the business. I’m working in the restaurant over 22 years,” Chan said.
He said Elm Bar took a lot of energy to manage. “A lot of late nights.” And there were sometimes problems when people got drunk.
Perry Chan and his brother, Punhon, also found themselves in the middle of some ugly public disputes with neighbors, who fought their effort to bring karaoke to the bar.
Seiden and Thurschmann bought the Elm Bar business and signed a 10-year lease to rent the space.
They named the new bar Three Sheets, after the sailor’s phrase “three sheets to the wind,” meaning drunk. Seiden and Thurschmann don’t sail, but they thought the nautical theme fit their line of work.
“The new owner is very nice. I think they’re going to do very good,” Perry Chan said.
“I wish them well,” said Rudy’s owner Ipek.
The bar was closed for one day, Wednesday, amid the transition. It reopened Thursday at 3 p.m.
Four regulars rushed in, jostling to be the first customer.
Stina DelSanto was the first one in the door. Matt Pecoraro pointed out that he was the first paying customer. Pecoraro, who works as a deliveryman for CTNow (the former New Haven Advocate), ordered a pitcher of Miller High Life.
Heather MacDonald (pictured) poured it from the tap. She said she has been bartending there since August. She kept her job in the transition. Seiden said he kept all the same staff, and he made sure to stay open for the holidays so that they wouldn’t miss a paycheck. He said he plans to close the building for renovations in January, then hold an official opening.
DelSanto sat at the bar with Lindsey Noble, who ordered an Angry Orchard cider on draft.
“As long as they keep it a dive bar, we’re happy,” said Noble. Noble, who lives across the street and works as a runner for bands, has been drinking at 372 Elm for nine years.
DelSanto, a waitress, is a longtime regular at Elm Bar, and before that, Rudy’s. She said plans to keep drinking there under the new ownership.
“As long as they keep the same bartenders and I can still draw dicks on the wall, I’m OK,” DelSanto said.
Seiden said he plans to improve the craft beer selection, but continue the working-class, dive-bar feeling that made old Rudy’s feel like home.
He also plans to expand the menu to include fresh shellfish caught by his fishing company.
He was asked how he felt about Rudy’s moving across town. “I wish they were still here,” he said. “But I’d rather not say any more.”
In taking over Elm Bar, he said, he sees an opportunity to “rebuild” a beloved gathering spot.
He said he has summoned his old drinking buddies and invited them to return.
“I’m bringing back a lot of people who haven’t been here in a while,” he said. “It’s a chance to bring back a neighborhood institution.”