At the Dutch, A Rare Passing of the Torch
by Steven Slosberg (Originally published in The Day June 5, 1998)
Sometimes the legs of the bentwood chairs in the Dutch Tavern touch the floor all at once, sometimes they go their own way.
Some things will never change.
The newspapers on the corner shelf, tucked away from the plate-glass window facing Green Street, do change daily, as does the calendar down the dusky wall from the black-and-white photograph of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.
Occasionally, the five or so beers on tap change, and, as the years push on, the regulars, like Elston “Swede” Hendrickson, who liked to settle his bent body on the stool nearest the window, fall away. Hendrickson died last year at 68.
What changes least at the Dutch, on an abrupt side street in downtown New London, is the ownership. After 22 years, it is about to change again.
Peter Burgess, who has owned the tavern and the building it’s housed in at 23 Green St. since 1976, is selling the business and the building to one of his part-time bartenders, Peter Detmold, and Detmold’s partner, Martha Conn.
Detmold is perhaps better know to greater New London rockers as a guitarist in The Reducers, the city’s house band for going on 20 years.
I’m buying it because I love the Dutch Tavern,” said Detmold, who is 43 and has lived in the city since he was 12. “I’ve worked there for seven or eight years and have been a regular there for half my life. I may fix some things and make some renovations, but I don’t want to tamper with the atmosphere.”
Neither he nor Burgess, who lives above the tavern, disclosed the selling price.
Burgess, then a carpenter working for his father, a contractor, bought the tavern from the late Edward R. Rothen and Louis J. “Wicky” Grabner, who is 89. They had purchased it in 1951 from the later Mauritz M. “Dutch” Nauta, who opened the place in 1933.
Before there was the Dutch, there was The Oak, a cafe in the days before Prohibition and, as local lore has it, one of the few places in the city Eugene O’Neill appreciated.
The Dutch is New London’s McSorley’s, undisturbed by time and pedestrian malls and plans of development, as dependable as the grill fare and the failure of the Red Sox.
It is one room, a long, dark wood bar to the left of the entrance, a half-dozen tables placed around support beams to the right.
Flourishes are minimal. There are some ceramic mugs on the shelves, swordfish bones on the wall behind the bar, baseball books, an almanac and a crossword puzzle dictionary in a glass cabinet, football pennants, photographs from other eras, a pinball machine, a phone booth, bathrooms no bigger than a phone booth.
Just after Burgess purchased the Dutch, Frank Jo Raymond, an artist in Stonington, painted an interior of the place , with various habituees standing or seated on stools along the 30-foot bar. At one end is a nude woman, facing front. “Frank Jo must have thought it was called ‘The Dutchess,'” said Burgess, who is 52 and moving with his wife, Theresa, to Sprague. He didn’t say what he’ll do next. He wants to offer his carpentry skills to a Habitat for Humanity house project in Salem.
“We had a great run,” said Burgess, whose low-key manner suited the place and who usually was at the grill, where he cooked the burgers and steak sandwiches, and prepared the potato salad and chili.
“I’ve enjoyed almost every minute.”
He mentioned a couple.
“I was hugged like crazy the night the Red Sox won the World Series in 1986 and then watched the ball roll between Buckner’s legs. We must have had 150 in here the night Bucky Dent hit that home run. We had a party here when the Brooklyn Bridge was 100 years old, and for Eugene O’Neill’s birthday.”
He talked about Tom Deedy and plays staged by the Tavern Players. He credited his first wife, Emily, who died in 1989, with introducing chili and chowder.
Actors lending their talents at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center would stop in, as would O’Neill scholars and students. “Basically, there were just regular people here,” said Burgess.
Business, he said, is not what it once was. “There’ve been some tough spots since the Sound Lab moved away, but hopefully things are coming back,” he said. “I was so positive the first 20 years. I think it’s finally turning around.”
Detmold will rent out the upstairs apartment – “the historic town house,” he called it. He’s also considering opening on Sunday’s, but will wait awhile.
“I’m going to make some subtle changes which I hope will encourage more business, like updating the menu,” he said.
The Dutch will remain a tavern. Detmold has no doubts about his investment.
“I’ve wanted to buy the tavern for years,” he said. “It has nothing to do with what’s happening now or the ‘hip little city’ concept.
“Maybe I’ll have the oldest tavern in a hip little city. Maybe I’ll have the oldest tavern in a dying town. I still think it’s going to do well.”
Copyright 1998 by The Day