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LOOSE ENDS: A golden time for the Ivy Inn

Siblings Kelly and Richey Ryan are part of the family that has kept The Ivy Inn open for business

By Pam Hersh
   The Ivy Inn at 248 Nassau St. gave itself a party on Saturday, Aug. 6, to celebrate a milestone birthday of 50 years under the Ryan/McCluskey family stewardship.
   The pub’s message to its many fans in the community was that the Inn is alive and well and digging in and hoping to build up — literally — in the future. In spite of the challenges of owning and operating a family bar and restaurant business, the Inn is having nothing to do with out-migration from Princeton.
   ”We have been part of the Princeton community for five decades. Our roots are here, the bar/restaurant is doing fine,” said Richard “Richey” Ryan, who owns the establishment with his mother Michelle “Mickey” Ryan, nee McCluskey. He added that they have no plans to closde the Inn’s doors, as other iconic Princeton family-owned restaurants such as The Annex, The Carousel, Harry’s Luncheonette and Lahiere’s, shut down.
   When I got to the party at 7 p.m., renowned “townie” saxophonist Tom Stange, who lives within a block of the Ivy Inn, was rocking away with the funk, R&B, rock-soul musicians of the legendary Papa Delux and Main Street Groove band. Ivy Inn aficionados from near and far crowded under a tent in the parking lot and inside the bar to dance, drink, eat and share Ivy Inn “remember-the-time-when” tales — all alleged to be true by Richey and his sister Kelly Ryan.
   Allegedly, a Chestnut Street resident (living right around he corner from the Ivy Inn) several years ago robbed the bank (then the United Jersey Bank) at 370 Nassau St. On his way home from the robbery, he stopped at the Ivy Inn to enjoy a few drinks after a hard day at the “office” and acted as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
   Another story alleges the wife of one of a regular customers charged into the Inn one evening and was wearing a mink coat — only a mink coat. She flashed the crowd and asked her husband if he preferred the old guys at the bar to what was under the coat. Her husband was a painter, and she — sporting her open mink coat — threw the can of paint at the bar.
   And not allegedly, but really, came the mongoose story. After captivating me with the anecdotes, Richey scared the wine right out of my glass. He brought out a cage and announced that the Ivy Inn’s mascot — a mongoose — was in the cage. Richey told me that the Inn adopted the mongoose from a Princeton University student, who initially asked the Inn personnel to baby-sit the mongoose, while the student was on summer break. Richey encouraged me to get close enough to look at the creature. Psychotically revolted by all rodents, I warily inched my way closer to the cage. Then suddenly the grungy tail jumped out of the cage, and I jumped backwards, my glass of wine landing all over me. My squeals of horror drowned out the laughter of Richey and a few patrons, who knew it was a big fake fur hoax.
   ”He loves doing this stupid trick — don’t feel bad — everyone reacts just as you did,” said Kelly.
   The Ivy Inn was brought into the McCluskey/Ryan family in 1966, by 25-year-old L. Richard “Dickey” McCluskey, Richey Ryan’s uncle. After graduating from Princeton High School in 1959, Dickey became a lineman for PSE&G, as well as a part-time bartender at the Ivy Inn tavern. It then was located at 254 Nassau St. where Small World Coffee (the smaller one) is now located. The former owner needed to sell the business that was only a few years old. He took a liking to ‘Dickey,’ who with the help of his family, managed to put together the financing to buy the liquor license and business.
   ”As smart as it was to purchase the place, the really smart move came when my uncle decided in 1973 to buy the property at 248 Nassau, the site of the Flying A Gas station,” Richey said. The Ivy Inn opened at the new location in 1975. “The Ivy Inn has been able to thrive, because we own the property — no rent, no issues with a landlord,” he added.
   When Dickey died at the age of 55, there were no kids or spouse to assume the business. The prized pub fell into the hands of Dickey’s sister, Mickey Ryan. Mickey, also a PHS graduate (class of 1960) was much loved in the community for her long and successful career as a nurse at Princeton Hospital (through its various name changes). Knowing a lot about medical operations and little about the operations of a pub, she asked her son to assume responsibility for running the business. Richey, after graduating PHS in 1994, had been working part time at the Inn and was “too stupid to be scared about taking on my new role. I just stepped up and did it,” he said. By the time he got his B.S. in business and entrepreneurial studies from Rider University in 2001, he also had obtained an experiential degree in running a business.
   Another transformational change for the Ivy Inn occurred in January of 2013, when the Inn started serving full meals that went way beyond bar snacks. With the help of a Princeton-based investor, the Ivy Inn renovated by creating a kitchen to accommodate meal preparation and opening an outdoor patio seating area. The owners tapped the expertise of well-known New Jersey chef and catering consultant Jacqueline Baldassari, who created the new food menu at the Ivy Inn.
   ”The menu is basic pub food, but high quality,” Richey said. “We use the best and freshest ingredients, nothing is frozen, and the prices are reasonable. We were successful right out of the gate. From (a) business point of view, I knew that our success relied upon making a good impression from the very first meal we served.”
   The next step forward, he said, is to move up but not out. The owners would like to enclose the outdoor patio area and add a rooftop patio deck.
   Dickey McCluskey and now Richey Ryan also have made a good impression among area residents through community service. Richey has carried on Dickey’s tradition of sponsoring the area’s youth sports teams. In addition, Richey is involved in volunteering for Good Grief, a grief counseling service for young people under the age of 20.
   The commitment to create a sustainable business that serves the Princeton community is related to the fact that the Ryan/McCluskey relatives associated with the Ivy Inn were born and raised in Princeton and are Princeton High School alumni. Dickey, class of ‘59; Mickey, class of ‘60; Richey, class of ‘94; Kelly, class of ‘89. Richey’s niece Alexa, PHS class of 2015, thus far is uninvolved in the operation of the establishment — perhaps because she has yet to change her name to Alexey.

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