Last call for Kerouac hangout

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NEW YORK (AP) – Back in the 1940s, Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg often closed down the bar in the West End.

Over the decades, thousands of their fellow Columbia University students did the same in the cafe opposite their Manhattan campus. And now, it’s almost last call for everybody at the Broadway fixture where a beer and burger was virtually part of the curriculum.

The West End, a well-known Columbia haunt in a variety of incarnations since 1911, is set to become a Cuban restaurant. Its owners, after running the place since 1990, are ready to try something else.

“I’ve always said over all these years that nobody owns The West End,” said current owner Katie Gardner, who first visited the restaurant as a Columbia undergraduate. “You caretake it. You make sure you don’t do it harm. You try not to lose the flavor of the place.”

It was in The West End that Kerouac, author of the classic “On the Road,” did some of his earliest writing. Ginsberg often joined Kerouac at the bar, with a Columbia dean eventually calling the poet’s father about the pair’s long hours at The West End.

As news of the restaurant’s impending sale began to spread, regulars stopped by to commiserate and the phone rang constantly during lunch hour.

“People want to know what’s going on,” said Gardner. “They’re worrying if The West End is going to be The West End.”

It is. And it isn’t.

The new buyer, Jeremy Merrin, owns a pair of Manhattan restaurants called Havana Central, where the cuisine tends to run away from typical college bar fare.

But he’s also familiar with the old West End: He spent many hours inside while earning a master’s degree at the Columbia business school.

The restaurant, with its wallet-friendly $5 hamburger, is so linked to Columbia that it gets a mention on the university Web site. Gardner and husband Jeff Spiegel, whose children are now grown, are looking to experience life beyond the kitchen and the cash register.

“We’re reaching the time in life to go out there and try a hand at something new,” she said. It’s unclear now what that will be.

Gardner recalls watching students playing beer pong at the tables and the crowd that gathered in the hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack.

“It was someplace you could feel like family and community,” she said. “It was an amazing experience to have that sense of connection with people.”

The new facility likely will be operating by the time the Class of 2010 arrives in September. Gardner says the restaurant’s name should live on: “It’s hopefully going to be called Havana Central at the West End.”

AP-ES-04-04-06 1652EDT

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