Question: How do you spell “resurrection” in the bar and grill business?
Answer: C-O-N-C-A. As in Ralph, Mark, Danny and Phil Conca of Nutley.
The Old Canal Inn, originally opened in 1934 and closed in 2008, had fallen into disrepair. But now it’s back, the original bar from the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, shuffleboard action to the right room of the bar area, the “Death Seat” -- all of it.
What? You’ve never heard of the “Death Seat?” Fear not, and I really do mean, fear not.
I ask Mark Conca if he’s loyal to the legend. “Oh, yeah,” he responds seriously. How loyal? He’s creating a website for it. He leads me over to the chair. “Two guys who sat there died of a heart attack in the same month,” says Mark as he shows me the seat at the corner of the bar, a sign in the window next to it inviting “FREE SEATING AT THE DEATH SEAT TONITE ONLY.”
It’s chained off now and for display only, but many who have sat in it have lived to see what they thought they’d never again see.
The Old Canal Inn back in business. The Grand Re-Opening was held on Saturday, June 11.
“I’m gonna come for lunch everyday,” says an enthusiastic Kenny Miliano, a regular from 1985 until closing. A Bloomfield resident who often arrived – and will now do so again -- at the Old Canal Inn with his mom Norma via motorcycle, he relives the old days. “My dad and uncles used to play shuffleboard here. I thought I was never gonna see this place open again. I was so sad.” Then he brightens. “But this is fantastic! This is a great bar, and great people. It’s like it’s never been closed.”
“Character,” is how Phil Conca describes the Old Canal Inn.
Brother Ralph adds, “Close to original.”
“But a little modern,” adds Phil.
“I’m excited,” says Danny. “We’re proud to bring back a piece of history to the area. It’s also revitalizing the area. We knuckled down and put it together. Mark was the one who really pulled the trigger.”
“This,” says his brother Mark, “is the rebirth of the Old Canal Inn.”
As someone who dined a lot at the Old Canal Inn in the 1980s, and even with my wife took my daughter Stefanie there when she was a month old back in December of 1990, I absolutely love this. Everything from the inside to the out.
Even the tiny number “2” on the ancient sign outside – and don’t say you haven’t thought that it meant there was an Old Canal Inn 1 somewhere.
“The 2 stands for the address, 2 Passaic Avenue, Nutley,” affirms Mark. “I thought there might have been two locations.” But, as far as he knows, THE only Old Canal Inn they know of is the one they’ve labored on and now opened with and to great enthusiasm.
“I mean it,” says Phil, “old-timers – people were in tears at our soft opening (June 3rd and 4th).”
“Everyone,” says Mark, “every 5 minutes (during reconstruction) someone is popping in.”
Tom Skorupski Sr.’s uncle opened the Inn as JoJos Tavern back in 1934, and Tom bought it 1948 and renamed it the Old Canal Inn in honor of the Morris Canal that used to pass through the area. The facility was primarily a bar until the 1970s, when a dining room was added in the back. It remained in the family until 2008, which is when Mark Conca began talking with Skorupski about a possible purchase.
“It’s probably the oldest bar in the two towns (Bloomfield and Nutley). This (the purchase and eventual renovation) has basically consumed my life the last two years. I always wanted this building. The size, location, potential, history – everything about it.”
It has, as well, filled the days of Ralph, Danny and Phil, construction workers who work in Manhattan. The trio took off 6 months to see the project through. “All the brothers,” says Mark, “helped out over here.”
The NEW Old Canal Inn, which is, yes, in Nutley but resonates with and holds many memories for Bloomfielders as well, will have a simple menu. Quality angus burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, ribeye steaks, tilapia, baked ziti, and a variety of other entrée options, as well as bar food and bar pies, and a kid’s menu. There are small party opportunities with the small three rooms, and ample free parking in the adjacent lot is an asset.
Oh, and in the bar area, the train that travels the perimeter of the ceiling works, and the red light is a blinkin’ again.
Nutley Mayor Joanne Cocchiola weighs in. “This is important because a long time Nutley family, the Concas, has taken an establishment, restored it, breathed new life into it. I couldn't be more proud”
“Failure here is not an option” says Mark, who owned the former Backstreet Gourmet for years in Nutley. “We didn’t fail at Backstreet Gourmet, and we won’t here.”
“We’re confident,” says Ralph.
“You don’t invent the wheel,” replies Mark Conca when I ask him his secrets of success. He then looks at the bar area, then into the back dining room. “We gave it (the Old Canal Inn) a fresh, clean look. It’s simple, and not overpriced. We gave the locals what they want.”
And I’m one of those locals. Thank you, Conca brothers.
Old Canal Inn, 2 East Passaic Avenue, Nutley, (973) 284-1272, www.theoldcanalinn.com