This week the Rathskeller in SUB I closed its doors for good to make way for a new campus dining option. “The Rat” as it is often called, was the only establishment on campus where one could meet friends, buy a beer and enjoy a Patriot Club sandwich or Buffalo wings and curly fries, all while watching any one of about 20 televisions. Off and on since 1975 the Rat has occupied a space in the lower level of SUB I. Since then, successive generations of George Mason Patriots made the Rat a go-to place to hang, grab a bite, and have a cold one.
Rathskeller is a word of German origin. It literally means “a beer hall or restaurant in the basement of a public building”. The word rath is German for “council or city hall”, and keller is German for “cellar”. While the word and concept is more than six hundred years old, there are many examples today of basement pubs that go by the name “Rathskeller” all over the world. Dozens of universities in the United States alone have some kind of Rathskeller or Rat. Up until now George Mason was one of them.
In the early 1970s there were few real hangout spots for Mason students. Before 1974 there was no student union at Mason. Student service offices were scattered among the four small buildings on the north side of campus, and the next best thing to a student union was the Ordinary. The Ordinary was the campus dining hall in the basement of the South Building (now known as Krug Hall), which housed the university’s chemistry labs. Legend has it that the fumes from the experiments taking place above the Ordinary wafted into the dining hall at times, making eating there an out-of-body experience. The Ordinary served cafeteria-style food, and students hung out, smoked, played cards or listened to their favorite songs on the Ordinary’s Rock-ola jukebox.
In 1972 the University broke ground on its first-ever student center. Completion of Phase I occurred in 1974, and it opened as the University Union. Phase II, completed a year and a half later, almost doubled the size of this student-centered building. The University Union (now known as SUB I) could be likened to Mason’s Johnson Center, built 20 years later. The upper levels were home to student services, lounges, and game rooms, while the lower level of the University Union housed the dining hall. With the completion of the second phase of construction in 1975, the university opened the Rathskeller adjacent to the cafeteria. Billed as a “coffee house” in Broadside, Mason’s student newspaper, its name was said to be “temporary”. Nearly 44 years later, the Rathskeller closed with the same name it opened with.
While during that first semester the Rathskeller had difficulties solidifying a student following, the idea of having a gritty student pub on campus soon caught on, and students flocked to the university’s new hot spot. The original Rat was decked out in 1970s German pub décor. The walls featured exposed beams and sconce lamps. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and tables featured “Old-World”-style wooden chairs. The large window on the Rat’s west side gave a view of the Union’s small brick-walled patio and the patch of woods which would later give way to Robinson Hall B. Since the drinking age in the Commonwealth was only 18 at the time, nearly anyone, freshmen to graduate students, could go in, have a cigarette and a beer, and listen to music or a poetry reading. Most of all, Rat patrons could be part of a community.
Over the years, the Rat changed focus, appearance, and locations. Still, it attracted its clientele with three staples: beer, relatively inexpensive bar food, and music/entertainment. Early Rat-goers might likely have dined on a sub sandwich and listened to a fellow student playing his or her acoustic guitar or the jukebox that once occupied the Ordinary. Subsequent generations of patriots went to the Rat for dancing or to listen to bands as later iterations of the pub featured a dance floor and space for deejays to spin records, as well as lighting and a stage for bands to plug in amplifiers and monitors and rock out. In the 1980s the Rat underwent a few makeovers to update its look – the 1989 makeover gave the entranceway a checkerboard floor and translucent glass panels. Pizza was the dish of choice for patrons, and some alumni (the author included) still swear that the pizza at the Rat during the late 1980s and early 1990s was among the best they had ever eaten.
With the opening of the Johnson Center in the mid-1990s, most campus activity and food service shifted to that part of campus. The JC became a hub of student, faculty and staff activity. New food options, including well-known fast food chain fare, as well as group study rooms, a computer lab, bookstore, library, and a bank made the JC an instant destination. As a result, foot traffic through Student Union I lessened, and the Rat was quietly transformed into a “game room” with pool tables, ping pong, and free-standing video game machines. Gone were the pizza, beer, bands, deejays and groups of students seeking a place to gather.
In 2009 a Mason Dining employee and former George Mason student, Mark Arnold, suggested to Dining Services that Mason bring back the Rathskeller to replace a failing restaurant located on the lower level of SUB I. The restaurant just happened to be across the hall, literally 15 feet, from where the original Rat was located. The suggestion was met with approval not only from Dining Services brass, but from alumni and staff, as well. In the fall of 2009 the Rathskeller re-opened in the basement of the Student Union. The Rat was reborn!!! The new Rat was more of a sports bar, featuring multiple ceiling and wall-mounted televisions, but it still had the basic ingredients: beer, food, and music/entertainment. In 2015 the Rat received the addition of a time-line wall panel, which highlighted eras in the university’s history. But alas, try as it might, the Rat could not compete with the other food options on campus, particularly trendy campus newcomers such as Panera and Chipotle and will close to make way for a new campus dining option. The Rat’s last day of operation is today, May 15.
Goodbye, Rat. I hope someday we meet again.
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