Opening its doors just three days after prohibition was repealed in 1933, the All-American Rathskeller is the longest continually operating bar in Pennsylvania. A true staple of the State College and Penn State community, the Rathskeller’s comprehensive history is perhaps the most important part of its identity today.
Doggie Alexander bought the bar in 1934, becoming the All-American Ratherskeller’s first tenured owner. A true “kitchen guy”, Doggie focused on building the bar’s menu. At the time, there were no dining halls on campus for Penn State students, so the Rathskeller got its start as a hub for student dining. In fact, students could use their campus meal tickets to eat here! Sustaining this message even today, the Rathskeller continues to be a meeting place for students, both current and graduated.
It was during Doggie’s time as owner that the Rathskeller met one of its most colorful customers. Harry Neideigh first sat down at the bar in 1948, ordered two pony bottles of Rolling Rock, and never left. He has been one of the Rathskeller’s most loyal patrons; perched upon the same bar stool and greeting each person that walks into the tavern with a smile for over 50 years. To read more about Harry’s story, click here.
After 24 years of service to the bar, Doggie sold the Rathskeller to Dean Smith in 1958. Becoming one the Rathskeller’s most dedicated and personable owners, Dean introduced liquor to the bar. At the time, only beer was permitted for sale until the State College Congress passed a law allowing for the sale of liquor in public taverns. Additionally, Dean highlighted the importance of making the Rathskeller a place for alumni, a message that rings true today as the Rathskeller continues to be the major hotspot for Penn State alum.
The Rathskeller saw significant growth in the 60’s under Dean’s management. The addition of the back bar was constructed, expanding the Rathskeller’s size to match its growing base of customers. The back bar features a stage, which became an early stomping ground for several of State College’s original bands.
However, Dean’s biggest contribution to the bar was Rolling Rock, a local beer brewed in Latrobe, PA. At one point, the Rathskeller was the largest retailer of Rolling Rock in the world. All Rathskeller owners have retained strong relations with the family owned brewery, although the beer is no longer sold since moving its manufacturing to New Jersey.
Dean sold the Rathskeller to John O’Connell in 1980 after devoting 22 years of leadership to the bar. Undoubtedly one of the Rathskeller’s most notable traditions, the Rolling Rock case race concept was introduced to the bar with John’s tenure. On November 9th, 1983, John decided to throw an anniversary party to celebrate fifty years of Rathskeller tradition. “Come on down early,” John said, “we’ll try to set a case drinking record.” Little did he know his customers would pack the bar by noon. At 2:00am, the Rolling Rock case sales had reached 903, beating the existing record held by a bar in Germany, by over 200 cases. By the end of the night, 932 cases had been sold. This record has made its way into The Guinness Book of World Records as the highest number of Rolling Rock beer cases sold and consumed in one day. Setting the world record in 1983 marked the start of the annual case race. Although no longer practiced today, the Rolling Rock case race is a tradition still reminisced about today.
Along with the case race concept, John O’Connell brought pizza to the Rathskeller. Slices were sold for just a quarter a piece! The bar become more self-sustaining on not just students, but on alumni and patrons who had long time connections with the bar and made it a point to stop back for a drink when visiting the university.
Having Penn State as a neighbor has been critical to the Rathskeller’s success. Alumni continue to flock to the bar on the busiest weekends of the year including Art’s Fest, Homecoming, and Blue & White Weekend. As current owners and Penn State alum Duke and Monica Gastiger see it, “A lot of people are connected to this place. There are people who come back and want to go to a place that makes them feel at home. This is that place.”
The Rathskeller saw some big changes in the 80’s. Eddie Hill and Duke Gastiger bought the bar in 1985, marking only the 4rd ownership change in the bar. Eddie had worked in the bar business for over 30 years and made strides in introducing the locals back to the Rathskeller scene. Duke brought with him a history of managerial experience in the hotel business. And together, Eddie and Duke transformed the bar into a real tavern. They got rid of the small kitchen and began putting more stress on not just the brew, but the food.
Currently, the Rathskeller shares its kitchen with Spats Cafe and Speakeasy, a restaurant lying just above the underground bar serving the best Cajun and Creole food in State College. Being so, the Rathskeller is committed to sourcing locally and providing anything but just bar food.
There is no doubt of the ties that people have to the Rathskeller as it has been home to several wedding receptions and engagements. Bridal parties continue to make visits back to the Rathskeller, reminiscing about when they met their spouse within the bar’s decorated walls. These are the moments and memories that make the Rathskeller a priceless place for friends and family.
So where does the name “Rathskeller” come from? The German word “Rathause” translates literally to “city hall” and “Keller” is a “basement”. Ratskeller became the basement bar under the city hall, thus “Ratskeller”, or “underground basement bar”. Bars in Germany are called “Ratskellers” (no “h”), however the “h” carried over in America for more fluidity and smoothness of speech.
To see just how much alumni value the Rathskeller, check out the underground bar on a football weekend. Even before opening its doors at 9 AM, there is a line extending onto the street, bustling with old friends anxious for Penn State Football and a cold beer. Alumni often begin and end their Saturday football with the Rathskeller. As Gastiger puts it again, “When people come back, they don’t want to go to campus or visit classrooms, they want to go to places where they have had their fondest memories.”
In keeping ties with a base of customers practically more loyal than the owners themselves, the Rathskeller has stayed true to its origins over the last 80 years it has been in service. New bathrooms, a new bar, and no more pool tables, the Rathskeller has made some big changes over the years. What keeps the Rathskeller such a staple are its traditions. The building is pre 1900’s and a look around inside shows you that these traditions are never forgotten. Each wall is covered in newspaper clipping, articles, photographs, clothing, and endless other paraphernalia representing the rich history of the bar and of Penn State. Keeping tradition through responsible change is important to the Rathskeller. As Duke puts it, “We have added some things and moved things around a bit, but not to the detriment of the feel of what this place is supposed to be.”
The Rathskeller’s owners are not the only ones seeing such a low turnover rate. Some employees have been with the bar for several years. With a diversity of ages and experiences, each server and bartender brings something special to the bar’s scene. As Duke stresses, “We want to have people of all ages so we can reach people of all ages. It really is a team. We rely on everyone helping out and watching each other’s back.”
What is it that makes the Rathskeller such a staple? Perhaps it’s a history of good friends and great food. Perhaps it’s the sense of genuine care and heart that each owner, employee, and customer brings to the bar. Perhaps it is just about good times and enjoying life together. Whatever your reason for stopping by, come in for a drink, for a great meal, or to meet old and new friends, and see just what the All American Rathskeller has in store for you! After all, the greatest part of the Rathskeller is being able to return to an unchanged tradition which spans the better part of a century.