Stepping down the recessed stairs to Louise & Jerry's Tavern at 329 Washington St. is like stepping into a little slice of Hoboken's history.
With exposed brick, a tin ceiling, cream circular floor tiles, and a large mahogany bar, it looks much the same as it did in 1958, when owners Louise and Jerry Grieco took over the old Neerlandia-German-Dutch Seaman's bar.
This one-room tavern has been frequented by locals since the late '50s and remains one of the few neighborhood spots where Hobokenites can trade stories of old.
Old bar, new name
Jerry Grieco came back after WWII, where he served as a MP under General Patton, to discover his family's bar on Monroe Street gone.
Jerry Grieco and his wife Louise Blanche then went to Washington Street and purchased the building at 320 for $17, 000.
The first major change the Griecos made to the bar was to remove the old potbelly stove in the back, which was replaced by a small kitchen.
They also installed a different bar in 1961.
The magnificent floor-to-ceiling bar that is a focal point of the tavern today was purchased from Schaeffer's, a German restaurant on Washington Street. (Schaeffer's once stood where Bahama Mama's is today.)
Although the fire destroyed the building of Schaeffer's, the bar remained intact and was picked up by the Grieco family.
The bar has its own history. Before residing at Schaeffer's or Louise & Jerry's it was originally in a speakeasy and is estimated to be almost 100 years old.
According to Police Captain Anthony Romano Jr., nephew of Louise and Jerry, the bar had to be rolled in on dollies in pieces because it was too big for the entranceway. He added that the inlayed mirror was reconstructed back to its original design.
In the early years, Jerry ran the bar himself. According to Romano, Jerry ran a tight ship.
"He was meticulous," said Romano. "He used to measure shots to ensure a good pour."
He added, "He always sat at the end of the bar. He made sure the bottles were neat and clean."
Jerry's heart problems in the '70s forced him to turn over the stick to wife Louise, who began bartending in 1970.
Not many customers are left who remember Jerry, who died in 1973, but none can forget how Louise put her heart and soul into the place.
Louise adopted regulars as family since she couldn't have family of her own. According to Romano, Louise almost died from a miscarriage early in her marriage.
"Louise was like a grandmother to me," said Romano. "She was more than an aunt. I was her only family close by in Hoboken."
Louise worked the bar from 1970 until 1994, and maintained the same level of service her husband first established.
She was often the lone woman in a sea of men: Men she cared for, fed, and even cashed checks for.
According to Romano, Louise cooked chicken, steak, and many pasta dishes including: pasta with peas and potatoes; pasta with asparagus and eggs; and pasta fazul.
Nephew Romano remembers his aunt as being extremely strong willed and opinionated, but with a big heart.
"She lent out a lot of money to people that didn't have any," said Romano.
No cursing! And as for women playing pool...
Born in 1914, her generation was raised with certain values. She was against cursing and didn't allow it in her bar. Extremely patriotic, she closed the bar every night to "God Bless America."
And women didn't have the freedom they do today. According to Romano, it was considered inappropriate for a woman to enter a bar alone until the 1970s.
"Once the Clam Broth House started letting women in alone, [Louise & Jerry's] did," said Romano.
Louise also didn't allow women to play pool, except in certain situations. Some women took exception to that, which prompted one woman to write a letter to a local paper to complain. A copy of the letter hangs on the wall today by the pool table.
On Wednesday afternoons, only select male regulars were allowed to play.
Cast of characters
According to Romano, Louise had her own crew of regulars who frequented the bar including: Fire Deputy Jim Halloran, frequent Hoboken Reporter letter writer Leo Genese, Ed Noonan, Walter Dunn, Steve Yercovich, and more.
"There were flavorful characters that hung out here," said Romano.
Hoboken detective Paul Koska worked the afternoon shift at the bar after he retired.
"He was called the dapper detective," said Romano. "He wore a long apron when he worked."
In 1994, shortly after Louise's 80th birthday, she suffered a stroke. As a result, retired Police Captain Anthony Louis Romano Sr. (father of junior), who was called "Rocky," stepped in to help the family.
Rocky immediately hired two twenty something Hoboken residents, Matt Dolan and John "Jay" Colangelo, to run the bar.
Part of the new blood that Dolan and Colangelo brought to the bar were young restaurant workers from Arthur's Tavern, who would frequent the bar after their shifts.
"All of the bartenders have brought their own vibe to the place," said Romano Jr.
All in the family
Although Louise recovered from the stroke, she didn't bartend after 1994, and died five years later in 1999.
Her sister Mary Romano (Anthony junior's mother) took over greeting regulars with a friendly smile. She continued to greet new faces and old until her death in July of 2005.
The bar then passed to her grandson, Angel Louis Romano.
According to Anthony Romano, it was always his family's desire to keep it as a neighborhood bar.
"It is still a neighborhood bar, but what does that mean?" he said. "Now the neighborhood changes with the years, but it still has a neighborhood feel."
He added, "We hope to keep as many regulars as we can, but time stands still for no one. But still we want to keep the essence. Louise & Jerry's is my mother; it is my aunt. We are keeping it alive."