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Gunther’s Tap Room’s new owners keep look, feel unchanged

An exterior view of Gunther's in Northport, Sept.

An exterior view of Gunther's in Northport, Sept. 20, 2016. Credit: Ed Betz

It’s a dimly lit, cash-only bar with a well-used pool table and vintage cigarette machine.

Gunther’s Tap Room in Northport is probably best known as a former haunt of 1950s beat writer Jack Kerouac, but for countless regulars the 53-year-old establishment is a second home.

Since owner Pete H. Gunther died in April, many of them have wondered what would become of the nightspot that he built into an institution through discrete kindnesses, regular generosity and a love for its regulars.

Now they know nothing is going to change.

Bartender Eddie McGrath, 42, and his business partner Brad Vassallo, 44, both of Northport, bought the Main Street bar with the goal of preserving every detail — down to the green tile “G” at the entrance.

“We’re just trying to keep the legacy of Pete Gunther and this whole institution going,” Vassallo said. “We were afraid someone would come in and buy it and change the whole mystique of it. We loved that guy, and there were a lot of people afraid of this place changing.”

Lori Kerman, Gunther’s daughter and a co-trustee of the estate, said the family had many offers, but they sold to McGrath and Vassallo because they knew the men would keep their father’s memory alive.

“It was our number one priority,” Kerman said. “We didn’t want it to change. It’s something that’s been in our family for 53 years. . . . We want to honor our father and continue it in the way he would have.”

McGrath and Vassallo took over the bar in June.

Chuck Peterson, 69, of Stamford, Connecticut, first ventured into Gunther’s in 1987, and the people he met there kept him coming back. For 12 summers he’s made a weekly pilgrimage by boat to the bar, affectionately dubbed “Club G” by regulars. He said he was relieved to know nothing would change under McGrath and Vassallo.

“If it changed, I don’t think the same bartenders would be here,” he said. “I don’t think the same clientele, the same people would be coming in.”

Part of the attraction is that it’s never hard to strike up a conversation with strangers, he said.

The new owners said that’s a culture Gunther created, and it’s led to the loyalty of employees and customers. McGrath and Vassallo plan to start an annual event honoring Gunther on his birthday — Sept. 24.

“It was just extraordinary to see how loyal the people were who worked for him,” Kerman said. “They referred to him as a father. And that was overwhelming to me. A lot of times in my life I felt I shared my father with the bar and the people down there.”

Gunther spent years sitting at his usual table in the back, cheerfully chatting up locals and shaking hands.

“He was like the Godfather — but not in a bad way,” said Jeanne Goldschrafe, 65, who has cleaned the bar six days a week for the past 18 years. “Pete Gunther was one of the finest men I’ve ever met. He was a gentleman. He knew how to party. He could give you one look and let you know if you were stepping out of line.”

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