Café Nine

March 12, 2021

Café Nine is New Haven’s corner bar. For over 30 years, a diverse and colorful medley of people have passed through the doors where on an given night you are able to rub shoulders with world famous musicians and at the same time catch up with friends, have a date, and celebrate any random occasion.

Located at 250 State St. on the corner of Crown St., Café Nine began its current form in 1990. The building dates back to the early 1880s, appearing on an insurance map as a produce store located in the heart of New Haven’s dry goods district. Due to the proximity to Long Wharf and the harbor, then the Farmington Canal, and later the railroads, lower State St. was New Haven’s bread basket. It was densely packed with markets, small factories and what we term today as “mom and pop” shops. The local storefronts catered to the residential working class and the teeming new immigrant population in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With that, came the rise of the “shot and beer” bars. Small hole in the wall taverns where a diverse cross section of the city would casually convene at all hours of the day for a cheap drink.

From 1891 to 1935, R & C Harris and Co. was located at 248-250 State St. Records indicate it was a wholesale corner market that at one point sold liquor, wine and beer as its preferred source of income. In 1936, a man named E.F. Stephens opened and ran a barber and cosmetic supply company that lasted until 1967. From 1967 to 1972 the ground floor store was occupied briefly by a thrift store followed by the Zoom Restaurant, which has been described as “counter culture friendly hip coffee house.”

In 1972, Michael Reichbart opened Blubartz Café, a shot and beer bar keeping in the tradition of friendly local inexpensive watering holes on State St. Named as a combination of Reichbart’s preference for wearing all blue at the time and his last name, Blubartz quickly developed a diverse group of regulars. A person’s color, sexual orientation, or beliefs didn’t matter to Michael. He and his staff greeted everyone with a smile and a drink. In 1974, Reichbart bought the entire building and began to book local rock, doo-wop, and acapella groups to play several nights a week.

Reichbart sold Blubartz in 1984 only to reacquire it in 1990.  The interior stucco walls were chipped off to reveal the bricks underneath, the old bar was rehabbed, and the stage was expanded. Reichbart removed the second front door to accommodate the new larger stage. The address became solely 250 State St. and Café Nine was born.

In 2003, after a chance meeting at the bar, Paul Mayer and a group of friends bought Café Nine from Reichbart and his wife Maureen. They kept the traditions of the local corner bar intact while at the same time expanding the range of musical acts that play there 7 days a week. Incorporating jazz, blues, rock, and hip-hop into the schedule, Café Nine became regionally and nationally known as the “musician’s living room.” Mayer has continued over the last 18 years to innovate and adapt the business while keeping it true to its roots. Popular draws like the Jazz Jam and Beatnik 2000 continued from the 1990s to the 2010s, and there have been countless highlights of phenomenal gigs played on the small window stage. Wanda Jackson, John Doe from X, David Johansen from the New York Dolls, Xenia Rubinos, Brown Bird, Adrian Belew, and Wolf Parade just as they were breaking out on the national stage in the mid-2000s, are examples of acts that have packed the room and brought the Elm City community of music lovers together time and time again.

In 2010, Café Nine underwent a major renovation that shortened the original bar and installed a huge steel beam across the front of the room to replace a wood supporting column. The result was an opened up space to accommodate more people with great sightlines and excellent sound quality that enhanced the overall show experience. Today there is no other room in New Haven to see a show like Café Nine, where for a few bucks at the door, the line between you and the band is pretty much the drink you’re holding in your hand.

A year ago the world came to a halt. Café Nine as a music venue has been mostly silent aside from a brief series of outdoor rooftop concerts last fall. In a partnership with their neighbor, Firehouse 12, the bar has opened on occasion in warm weather outside on the sidewalk patio. It’s still a far cry from their normal schedule of opening 7 days a week. But Café Nine is a survivor. This corner bar has kept the lights on, the taps flowing, and the music playing for decades. It has anchored the 9th Square through bust and boom. It’s a local icon in New Haven that straddles the remnants of the past while always looking towards the future. Where seeing an impromptu show with friends or having a random conversation with a stranger can still change your whole world in a night. Cheers to the future and the past of 250 State St.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo-Archives

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