Rat Gets Rowdy: From Beer Cans to Buttered Croissants

It’s 9:52 a.m. and your calculus TA has a tendency to ramble. You have less than 10 minutes to quell the growling in your stomach and make it to your history lecture in Stokes South. What do you do? If you’re not a freshman, you know that there just happens to be a conveniently quick and easy, grab-and-go dining hall nestled comfortably in the basement of Lyons Hall and smack dab between the two buildings: the Rat.

Back in 1951, however, the Rat told a very different story. Boston College’s website contains nothing more than the building’s official namesake—Rev. Charles W. Lyons, S.J., who served as BC’s 14th president. Why does the nickname of the Rat persist? It’s not a cheap shot at the food, facilities, or cleanliness of the dinning hall, which was remodeled earlier this year. It’s short for Rathskeller, which is German for a beer hall that exists in the basement of a municipal building.

Yes, the Rat used to be a bar, and accommodated many a wild night. In The Heights series, Voices of the Dustbowl, when asked of his most memorable BC experience in the past year, Scott Farley, BC ’88, responded, “Waking up after the Rat without my car on Friday Morning. If anyone finds it, please return it.”

Every Thursday night beginning in May 1973, the Rat would open starting at 9 p.m. and feature beers, bops, and bonanzas. The Undergraduate Government of BC cooked up colorful theme nights—from Las Vegas Night and Mardi Gras Festival to Do it in the Dark Dance and Beers and Careers events. Anyone over 20 could buy tickets in the neighborhood of $1 to $2 for an evening of cards, roulette, and craps (Casino Night) to enter a raffle for an all-expense paid five-day trip for two at Bermuda’s Sonesta Beach Hotel (Bahamas Night). Upperclassmen never knew exactly what they were in for when they walked into the doors of the Medieval-themed establishment, but they knew it would be a night to remember.

In 1975, the Rathskeller became a full-fledged beer hall with doors that opened daily. In 1989, Amy Anderson, Vice President of Student Services and David Caffrey, Director of Student Services, noted that the Rat “becomes part of the BC experience when students reach legal drinking age … [It’s] one of the most unifying activities for Boston College seniors.”

Similarly, Rocko Graziano, reporter for The Heights, summed up the experiences of bonding the Rat used to entail. The age of grab-and-go eating starkly contrasts with the Rat’s social, carefree environment which thrived throughout the 1970s and 80s. “People who would normally never say a word to each other end up as dialectic partners for the evening. Old wounds do not matter, opinions and grades do not matter, it is the Rat and everybody talks to everybody,” Graziano said in a 1987 article entitled “Talk is Cheap.”

In 1983, the future of the Rat as a frequented bar joint for BC’s upperclassmen was threatened by a bill traveling through the Massachusetts Senate on a mission to raise the drinking age from 20 to 21. The seemingly incremental increase sparked outrage across campus, however, as the policy would effectively halve the Rat’s clientele and make it difficult for the hall’s doors to stay open after dark.

Led by Art Laske, that year’s UGBC president, BC students took action, disseminating petitions, lobbying Senate President William Bulger and planning a demonstration at the Massachusetts State House. “It’s nobody’s fight but ours,” said an impassioned Laske. Despite their best efforts, in Dec. 1984, Governor Michael S. Dukakis signed the bill into law. The Rat’s reputation as one of the premier Thursday night activities was now threatened with the tapering of its demographic.

The commotion continued in 1989 with a new Dining Services policy that accepted only Massachusetts state identification as proof of legality at any on-campus event where alcohol was served. Not only was the price of a Massachusetts liquor ID unreasonable for many students (roughly $50 today) who didn’t have driver’s licenses from the Bay State, procuring one was extremely inconvenient as it could only be done at certain times on location at various registry branches. “It’s caused an uproar in the senior class,” said Mary Clark Linbeck, the UGBC Pub Series director from 1988-1989 and BC ’90. “People are in a bind.”

This unfortunately coincided with BC’s enforcement of a $5 cover charge, which rapidly decreased public sentiment for the Rat. The glory days of the once infamous beer hall had ended with a crashing halt. Many students shared the impassioned sentiments of Sherri Martens, BC ’90, and Jeanne Beth Reingold, BC ’90, who warned fellow seniors that “there is now a new morgue in the town of Chestnut Hill… A.K.A. the Boston College RAT!!” The “traditional Thursday night stomping ground” had transformed into the “Night of the Living Dead,” and the allure of free mozzarella sticks was simply not enough of a draw for more than a few dozen students.

At the turn of the century, however, the Rat experienced a reboot by bringing in vibrant musicians and bands. In Feb 2000, the Rat hosted rapper Vanilla Ice for two sold-out shows with over 500 students in attendance. He ran up on stage, bursting with energy and shaking his cropped, bleached hair. He performed a 12-song set, peaking with his hit single, “Ice, Ice Baby”: the entire crowd jumped to its feet, and deafening screams extended even past the Mods.

Later that year, nearly 400 Eagles flocked to the Middle Campus eatery in Nov. 2000 to hear the Pat McGee Band’s anticipated debut concert. Budding acoustic guitar soloist Howie Day opened the concert. At 19 years old, he had just released his first solo album, and would soon go on to pen one of the millennium’s most poignant sing-in-the-shower anthems, “Collide.”

A few years later, the Rat again hosted a then largely unknown neo-soul singer touring with Kanye West—“On the cusp of super-stardom,” as Canyon Cody, then the assistant arts and review editor for The Heights, put it. The fledgling artist had just released his first album, Get Lifted, which featured R&B piano ballads with modern hip-hop influences. In Dec. 2004, John Legend packed the Rat.

As the years progressed, a different but equally staggering change conflicted the Rat—that of the food. Long before the shelves were peppered with “Turkey on Multigrain” and “Andy’s Sunbutter Snack,” the Rat rivaled Late Night with its selection of greasy wonders such as chickwiches, burgers, onion rings, chicken tenders, and fries. The interior, which featured a “McDonald’s style setup,” was sure to provide a “greasy and filling meal,” according to the 1997 Assistant Features Editor for The Heights Brian Thomas.

In 1997, new changes were brought to the dining hall, which provided a self-service style. Rather than dealing with indecisive loiterers at the front of the endless lines, students could now grab a tray, pick what they wanted for lunch, and pay on the way out. Students were largely indifferent to the new change, “as long as the fries stay greasy.”

After nine years of this, the Rat was fully revamped to match the new age of healthy eating as well as its grab-and-go atmosphere. The menu swapped French fries for flatbreads, and lemon soda for lo mein. “I was craving the hash browns! They didn’t tell me about the changes. I don’t like surprises,” said Clarissa Spears, BC ’07. This sentiment was echoed by Dani Wilson, BC ’07, who agreed: “Even the nurses need their junk food.”

In 2012, the Rat experienced a short but sweet reboot as UGBC advertised the 21+ event “Welcome Back Eagles.” Although it would never return to its former glory as a nightly beer joint, the “makeshift watering hole” provided a tantalizing menu of foreign and domestic beers, wines, sliders, and pigs in a blanket. Later that year, the Pub Series continued with a Mardi Gras celebration featuring po’ boy sandwiches, jambalaya, Creole-inspired music, and of course, beer and wine. Limited methods of publicizing the event were available given that alcohol was served, which prevented a full-fledged restoration, but over 100 students came.

Although the Rat’s days as the effervescent Rathskeller are nothing short of legend at this point, it will be forever remembered by the BC students it happily served for decades. “The Rat could solve all the world’s problems,” Graziano wrote in 1987. “We could have a World Leader Night at The Rat, Reagan and Gorbachev could get together, find a table, and come to terms on SDI, nuclear weapons, Central America and Afghanistan, all while downing drinks from smiling beer maids.”

Featured Image by Heide Bronke / Heights Archive

January 28, 2018