Elizabeth’s Oldest Neighborhood Tavern

Joseph Nugent, Sr., purchased the Highway Restaurant from the Jucknow Family and the Producers Building and Loan Association for $8,300.00 on June 18, 1923. They held the mortgage on the property until 1927, when Joe finally took title to the premises located at 844 Newark Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey.

The original building was a converted two-family house with living quarters on the second floor and the restaurant on the first floor. Due to the original structure of the building/you had to climb about five steps before you gained access to the restaurant. There you found a large bar or counter, 5 slate tables, a small kitchen and a men’s rest room.

When buying real estate, it is always location, location, location. Joe had the foresight to buy property directly across the street from the Durant Motor Company. William Durant, one of the founders of General Motors, had purchased this quarter-mile long, three-story building from Willy’s Overland in 1921. At the Elizabeth facilities, Durant produced about 400 “Stars” and 150 Durant Four each day.

Business was booming, every one wanted to own an automobile. The company had a backlog of orders for the Durant Star, a five passenger, 4-cylinder car with sliding-gear transmission and self-starter, to retail at $348.00, lower than Ford’s Model T, to meet the demand, Durant Motors often had to work three shifts to fill the backlog of orders.

Joe Nugent took advantage of this opportunity by offering the workers a hot meal for $.50 after they finished their shift. Most of the workers were from out of town, living in a rooming house and the Highway Restaurant was the only place where they could sit, relax and eat a hearty home-cooked meal. The Restaurant prospered from the influx of factory workers until the failure of Durant Motors in 1930. Durant’s failure was due primarily to neglect in over-seeing production, cost over-runs, inadequate funding, and inability to compete in price and style with Chevrolet and Ford.

Nora and Joe Nugent continued to operate the restaurant; but in 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition, the name was changed to Nugent’s Tavern and continued under that name for 54 years.

In 1933, in the midst of the worst days of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as our 32nd President. He had confidence in the American people, their spirit, and fortitude, and was able to communicate his own strength and assurance to a badly frightened people. This sense of hope resounded throughout the United States, but especially at the Tavern. They continued to service the factory worker but provided a gathering place for everyone. The men would discuss politics, family, work, play checkers, card games, especially 24-card Euchre and Pinochle. The anti was usually a penny, but tempers would flare when they caught someone reneging or cheating.

After Sunday mass, the men would gather at the Tavern, while the women were home making dinner. At times, the customers were three deep at the bar, trying to get served their one glass of beer. In those days, no one drank a lot, money was scarce.

In 1938, the original building was renovated and an addition was added to the first and second floors, and the basement. The cellar was excavated and the first floor lowered to street level in order to facilitate easier access to the building. The first floor addition consisted of one large room designated as a meeting room, banquet hall or a place where the women and children could gather while their husbands went to the bar. This addition also included a powder room and a ladies’ entrance. At that time, Nugent’s Tavern was for “men only” and women and children were not permitted in the bar area. Indirect florescent lighting enclosed in wall cornices, illuminated this room. The oak floor provided a perfect dancing area for parties, while listening to the music from the jukebox. Service was provided by ringing the wall bell, located at each table, and a bartender would come back and take the ladies’ orders. The children enjoyed coming to Nugent’s because they would get free soda and pretzels, while they danced to the music from the jukebox.

The bar section of the first floor was renovated at the time. A new and longer mahogany bar was built, mahogany cabins installed to hold bottles of liquor, new sinks and beer taps were added, and the kitchen was updated.

Excavating the cellar made it possible to install a large beer cooler, storage rooms and a small meeting room, with a bar and a restroom. This meeting room was designated “Nugent’s Club Room”, where meetings, parties, the Gun Club dinner and the St. Patrick’s Parade reception were held.

The addition to the second floor consisted of two new bedrooms, and outdoor porch and a new staircase, which connected the second floor to the first floor.

At the onset of World War II in 1939, new tenants and industry moved into the former Durant Plant, and nearby building. To name a few: General Instrument Corp., Burry Biscuit Corp., Breeze Corp., Vernon’s Paper, Terry Candy Company, Welcolator Corp., Elastic Stop Nut Corp., and the Schweitzer Paper Company.

Many of these corporations had to re-tool production from being consumer oriented to that of a defense supplier for the Federal Government. Production intensified after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7,1941, causing these corporations to insist that their employees work overtime, it was their patriotic duty.

The workers did not mind overtime, or the extra money in their paycheck; they were doing their part for the War effort. After a long day of work, they could relax at Nugent’s Tavern for a beer, food or conversation with others about the war.

The tavern continued to operate during World War II in spite of rationing and air raid alerts. This was made possible by the influx of new workers, new immigrants looking for work and loyal customers who considered the Tavern their home away from home.

Nugent’s customers came from all walks of life, but they never hesitated to divulge all their problems, debate the outcome of ballgames, if unemployed, they would ask their friendly bartenders who was hiring. When television was installed at the bar, the customers had to vote on what program they wanted to see, thus avoiding any disgruntled customers.

The bartenders acted as a surrogate priest, psychologist, marriage counselor, references in settling disputes and enforcing the rules of the house.

Throughout the years, the Tavern had many bartenders. Joseph Nugent, Sr., set a high criteria when interviewing candidates for this position. They had to be of high moral character, have a sense of humor, not quick to anger, personable, and most of all, a good listener Required to wear a uniform, consisting of a white shirt, tie and a long white bar apron.

Several of the bartenders stayed at Nugent’s for 20 years or more: Mickey Dowling, Jimmie Neary, Kay Ivesson, Bill Dowling and Austin Bange. Employed at various times: John Lauftis, James Nugent (Joe’s brother from Ireland), Joe Nugent, Jr., Frank Nugent and Max Kurtz. The current mayor of Elizabeth, Chris Bollwage, was a part-time bartender, as was Tommy Laughlin, Joe Nugent, III, Matt Giackin, Lou Sarno, Tom MacNamara, Owen McGovern and John McCole.

The kitchen was a vital part of the business. It started as a restaurant, serving hot lunch and hot dinners. Steve Borowski and Tim* Biele ran the kitchen for many years. Followed by Mrs. Roll, Marge Carmason, Mrs. McGee, Mrs. Cassity, Eileen Scotto, Dolly Mierzewski and Bella Laughlin, In later years, only lunch was served. The Tavern was the place to go for lunch and enjoy the great hamburgers and gigantic sandwiches: ham, roast beef, etc.

After World War II, the business continued to prosper; times were good. Everyone had a job and our veterans were given an opportunity to attend college, as a result of the G.I. Bill of Right passage.

Nugent’s became a well-known establishment, often attracting people from out of town who had heard about it from a friend. It was a gathering place; tall stories told, lasting friendships fostered, hunting and fishing trips planned, baseball and football games discussed; generally, the patrons were a congenial group of men. Occasionally, someone would get out of line and started a fight. Joe Nugent was the first one over the bar to apprehend the culprit and evict him from the premises. Joe had a reputation of being fair but strict regarding your behavior in his tavern. Once you were evicted, you could never enter Nugent’s Tavern again.

In 1950, Kurt Carlson and Bill Sharp, customers of the tavern, undertook the renovation of the facade of Nugent’s Tavern. They enclosed the second floor porch, changed the windows on the first floor, and brick faced the exterior.

After Joe, Jr. joined the staff in 1954, and Frank in 1956, Joe Sr. joined the ranks of the semi-retired. They introduced television, darts, shuffleboard, and sponsored a baseball and basketball team.

It was a sad day in Elizabeth when Nugent’s Tavern was sold in 1980, after 57 years in business. Joe and Nora started the business with very little capital, but their strength, fortitude and hard work enabled them to get through good and bad times. From a small restaurant in 1923, they created a very famous and successful business. It provided a comfortable life for Joe and Nora, their children and grand children. They were proud that they had helped their neighbors and friends in their times of need, but most of all, the wonderful customers they met along the way.