Three shops down from an empty storefront on a quiet Whitney Avenue, the yellow sign above Anna Liffey’s was still lit Tuesday night — as were many of the revelers inside the pub’s red and black doors.
At the restaurant and bar’s weekly trivia night, diners noshed on French fries and sipped their beers while a voice echoed over a loudspeaker. Trivia answers in subjects ranging from the Bible to hockey elicited cheers and high fives — or sighs of disappointment — from patrons nearly filling both levels of the pub.
“We’ve been keeping our head above water,” bar manager Gary Cullinan said, noting that trivia night — one of several weekly events at Anna Liffey’s — typically draws about 50 five-person teams each Tuesday.
Despite rising unemployment and lower consumer spending nationwide, New Haven bars and clubs near campus are generally riding through the recession, buoyed in part by steady student demand for nighttime entertainment. In interviews this week with the owners and managers of nine bars and clubs near Yale’s campus, four said business has remained steady, four said it has been down only a small amount and one said sales have risen since last year. New Haven watering holes, several bar owners said, are managing to stay afloat by keeping food, drinks and entertainment cheap for students and city residents alike.
Still, the Elm City is by no means insulated from the recession. Richter’s Café on Chapel Street is just across the New Haven Green from downtown branches of banks such as Wachovia and Bank of America that have been entangled in the nation’s financial crisis. Richter’s owner Dieter vonRabenstein said some of his regular customers — many of them brokers working nearby — have cut their number of weekly visits from three or four to just two or three in response to financial woes.
But with business from Yalies and other New Haven college students remaining steady, the dip in patronage at Richter’s is “not that bad,” vonRabenstein said. Other bars that have noticed a similar trend — Toad’s Place on York Street, Viva Zapata on Park Street and Sullivan’s On Chapel — noted that it is typical for business to be down in the winter and during local colleges’ spring breaks.
“They still want to get out and get a burger and get a beer,” vonRabenstein said of his customers. “And we’re still priced okay for them.”
At Toad’s, many students’ nightclub of choice on Saturday nights, owner Brian Phelps estimated that the recession has reduced business by about eight percent. But this decline, he said, pales in comparison to the downturns many restaurants have seen, some by as much as 20 percent.
“Our demographic isn’t as concerned with money as some of the other ones are,” Phelps noted of his club, where entrance is free to anyone 21 or over and dollar-drafts are an affordable option. “You can basically come in here, and you don’t have to spend a nickel if you don’t want to.”
Anna Liffey’s, for its part, recently added cheaper beers such as Pabst Blue Ribbon to its selection and also offers $2 specials on other varieties, Cullinan said.
At Café Nine on State Street, keeping prices low with deals like $1.50 Schaefer cans has been a boon for the club, its owner Paul Mayer said.
“I think that we’re actually benefiting from people trying to save money,” Mayer said, noting that business at Café Nine has been up this year. “When they’re looking to spend less money, they come to us.”
Another factor likely keeping local bars afloat is their combined offerings of food, drink and entertainment, several proprietors said. This variety has helped to maintain a steady stream of customers at BAR, its general manager Frank Patrick said of the Crown Street pizza restaurant and bar, which also hosts concerts and parties.
Some bar owners said they are taking advantage of free marketing on the Internet to keep sales up. Café Nine now has a Twitter account to announce deals and shows, Mayer said. And vonRabenstein said he has noticed an increase in the number of customers using coupons from discount Web sites like Restaurant.com.
Even as budgets tighten, spending money on entertainment can be “justifiable,” said Carla Barros, one of the owners of Keys to the City @ Caffe Bottega. A night out on the town may be just what locals need to take their minds off their financial woes, she explained, adding that no matter how bad the recession is, “bars are always going to prevail.”
Phelps said he is less optimistic. “If it keeps going like this, we’ll be the second wind,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how it trickles down.”