A small brick establishment dating back to 1934, Rudy’s inspires feelings of nostalgia and comfort. The restaurant, full of old pictures and college memorabilia, boasts a bar, pool room and regular seating area with a stage for bands. There is live music every Tuesday, and additional bands often play on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Some people come for the music, and some come for the “frites” — Belgian fries. Rudy’s offers a selection of more than 20 different types of dipping sauce for these popular treats.
On April 15, however, 327 Elm St. bustled with even more excitement than usual. Seniors clutching copies of their senior essay cover sheets flocked to the restaurant, eager to trade the page for a free drink.
Though known for its music and food, Rudy’s is most cherished among seniors for its annual Senior Essay Night tradition. For 37 years, the staff of Rudy’s has invited seniors to trade a copy of their senior essay cover sheet for an alcoholic reward. Hard-working seniors flock here every year, clipping their cover sheets to clotheslines running across the restaurant.
Welcome to Rudy’s
Nicol U ’02 was one of approximately 175 customers who attended Senior Essay Night. U said she enjoyed the Rudy’s experience and the bustling atmosphere.
“The people there are really friendly,” U said.
For some seniors, trading a piece of paper for a pint marks a moment of realization and liberation. Eleanor Chung ’02 has been to Rudy’s several times, but Senior Essay Night was a unique experience for her.
Chung said the night was filled with “a lot of drunken revelry with yelling, dancing seniors sharing the same relief of being able to graduate.”
Seniors can trade their cover page for any drink they choose. The cover pages are then displayed on clotheslines hanging over the restaurant.
Chung said some of the cover pages were humorous.
“It was exciting to see the wide variety of essay titles dangling on the clothesline,” Chung said. “[There was] everything from ‘Saad the Bastard’ to ‘The Homo-Erotic Journey of John Phillips.'”
U thinks some people may have taken advantage of the tradition by creating a false cover page.
Rudy’s bartender Dylan Vitale confirmed this suspicion. Vitale said some patrons submit “absolutely fake cover pages.”
They too receive beer.
Vitale smiled mischievously and lit a cigarette.
“In fact,” Vitale said, “we actually rather enjoy those [fake pages].”
Rudy’s owner Thomas Henninger, who has worked at the bar since 1983, estimates two-thirds of the cover sheets are genuine, while one-third are prank sheets.
“We’re half town and half gown,” Henninger said. “We don’t want to leave our local folks out [of the tradition] — we encourage them to write their own essays, even if it’s just a title page.”
Henninger says Rudy’s provides patrons with paper and a pen so they can create their own “essays.”
He says Leo Vigue, the bar manager, started the essay night tradition.
“Leo — is a sage,” Henninger said. “I really mean it, he’s a sage.”
Henninger said Vigue was the first person to hang a cover sheet. Vigue’s sheet was the title page of his book, “The Great Maine Woods: Poems and Polemics.”
Now the tradition has expanded. On essay night, 12 clotheslines hang across the inside of the restaurant, with cover pages fluttering over patrons’ heads like triumphant flags after a year-long battle.
Any Night’s a Good Night at Rudy’s
Though best known to many Yalies for its essay night tradition, Rudy’s is a popular establishment year-round.
John Leibovitz LAW ’03 is a patron of Rudy’s and has played there a few times with his band, the Gary Coleman Orchestra.
Leibovitz calls Rudy’s “the coolest bar in New Haven.” He praises the atmosphere, the staff, the “incredible jukebox,” and the food.
“Rudy’s is a great institution,” Leibovitz said.
Leibovitz calls Rudy’s “an authentic place, unpretentious” and says it is “low-key, in a very good kind of way — an old place, but they keep it current” with new live music and jukebox selections.
Dan Silk ’01 said he often went to Rudy’s last year, when he lived across the street from the bar. Last year, Silk was one of many seniors who traded a paper for a pint.
“I did do it as a senior — the guy at the door laughed mockingly at the title of my essay on Virginia Woolf, wrote ‘gay’ on it, and gave me two drink tickets,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was so crowded I spilled half of one of them trying to make it to the back room.”
This year, Silk said he has returned to New Haven several times and often finds himself at Rudy’s.
“When I’ve had an hour to kill,” Silk said, “or [have] been simply feeling old and out of place, I’ve often taken solace [at Rudy’s] with a $2 pint of Schaefer — the only true champagne of beers.”
Silk enjoys the ambiance at Rudy’s.
“It’s dark, warm and cozy,” he said. “Like the old Naples, its walls and tables feature the engraved signatures of thousands of previous patrons.”
Rudy’s has earned a place in the hearts of many seniors, whether they are regular patrons or one-time visitors. At Rudy’s the music echoes, as does the aura of the “old Yale” memorabilia and the continuity of the Senior Essay Night tradition.