On the Regular: At Bello’s, an "odd little family"
by Andaiye Taylor/August 24, 2016
With “On the Regular,” we’ll profile regular patrons at bars throughout Newark. Have a suggestion for a bar we should profile? Email email@example.com.
It’s nearing dusk on a weekday evening, and I’m sitting outside across a table from Manuel “Manny” Rebelo, in a curbside dining area just east of Newark Penn Station. With his look-you-in-the-eye style and no-nonsense manner, both leavened with a sharp and winking since of humor, Manny is an engaging conversationalist, especially on the topic of his Newark bar. Nonetheless, my eyes can’t help but be averted every so often to the sidewalk sign just over his left shoulder.
Less than a week earlier, I’d watched a 20-second video during which that sign had been wielded by a soccer fan who’d participated in a quick, medium-grade “brawl” that briefly became international news after an Associated Press reporter captured it on his cell phone and published it to YouTube.
Back at his bar, Manny groaned when the topic came up. “I can’t have this bull—-. I can’t have it,” he said. “That is not who we are,” he continued, a look of pique flashing across his face.
Manny is the owner of Bello’s, a forty-year-old institution here in town that offers 180 beers, and a menu offering items well beyond typical bar fare. The pub was born John Rebelo’s Tavern — John was Manny’s father — in 1974, and has been family owned and operated ever since.
Manny bought the pub in January of 1993, then gutted it, rebranded it “mmmBello’s” after his college nickname, and reopened it. He shortened the name to “Bello’s” two years ago, around the time he renovated the pub’s façade.
To see Manny at Bello’s nowadays is very often to observe someone who is all business, yet he has also cultivated a familial atmosphere for both the regulars and the newcomers who step inside his bar.
Its location near a major node of the region’s transportation system contributes to the wildly diverse array of people the bar attracts. The will of its owner has a lot to do with the bar’s diversity too.
“Not to be corny, but the culture here is the exact opposite of what you’ve seen his weekend,” Manny said, referring to the soccer fight. “It’s multicultural, and that’s the way I like it. It doesn’t make things boring. I’ve always liked the fact that you’ll see a construction worker next to a corporate guy next to a Democrat next to a Republican. And if anyone comes in that’s a complete a–h—, they get asked to leave.”
That very day, the bar crowd consisted of area professionals, construction workers, retirees, and about a dozen New Jersey Medical School students who’d just gotten to town. But sprinkled throughout the throngs, holding court at the downstairs bar, the upstairs bar, and curbside, were a handful of Bello’s regular patrons. Here’s what they had to say about life at the bar.
Beatrice, left, with Brian Taylor
“So Bello’s. It’s very mixed here, and — Tommy!”
At the end of the bar, I’d been interviewing Beatrice Rivera about her time at Bello’s when another regular walked in, much to her delight. “See, we have everybody here,” she said, nodding towards her friend, a tall gentleman named Tommy Walker. “We get a lot of different people,” she said as she landed a kiss on Walker’s cheek, and sealed the greeting with a warm hug. “We’ve got everybody,” she continued, underscoring the point yet again.
The 45-year-old funeral director has been a Bello’s regular for “Whoo! A long time,” as she put it. For two years during the mid-2000s, she bartended at Bello’s during Sunday football.
Now she was sitting at the end of Bello’s downstairs bar, admiring the plate of veal cheeks that had just been placed before her, and divulging the craziest thing she’d ever seen there. “One time, I did body shots on a girl, right there on the bar,” she said, pointing down a ways.
“And I can publish that?” I asked her.
“Go ahead!” she said.
So how had the bar changed recently? “There’s definitely been an increase in people” over the years, she said. Things were different when she first started coming to Bello’s. On a given day, a larger percentage of the average Bello’s crowd was constituted by its regulars. Now, there is a much larger rotation of seasonal patrons and newcomers. The Prudential Center had brought people. Soccer had brought people. “So yeah — a lot more people,” she said, turning her attention back to her veal.
I moved onto Tommy, a port worker who’s been coming to Bello’s for “eight or nine years,” he said. “I like it here because it’s always comfortable, and everyone gets along,” he continued.
So what first brought you here? I asked.
“Tell her why!”
My head jerked in the direction of the voice only to find that it was Beatrice, looking up from her plate and smirking in my and Tommy’s direction.
“I heard she worked here on Sundays,” Tommy admitted, looking slightly sheepish.
Tommy said he enjoyed the friendly, mixed, sports-oriented crowd, a good bottle of Yuengling, and the bartenders. “John and Vanessa,” he said, needing no further blandishments to pay homage to two of his favorite bartenders.
Above, Todd Sneed (center), Paulie Cunningham, and bartender Peggy regale singer Sade with a rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song.
I headed to the second floor bar. While speaking with Tommy, I’d spotted Bello’s regular Todd Sneed quickly make the rounds before heading upstairs. Todd had been interviewed for this story a week prior, and I wanted to ask him a followup question or two.
This past January, I’d entered the same second floor bar only to find Todd flanked by fellow regular Paulie Cunningham and bartender Peggy, donning a brown t-shirt bearing the visage of singer Sade, and standing over a cake with blown-out candles. They’d just finished singing a birthday tribute to the R&B singer, and were showing off the cell phone footage of the proceedings.
But Todd said his most standout memory was actually of another moment caught on video. “Definitely What Would You Do?” he said, when I asked about his most unforgettable moment at the bar.
Todd Sneed intervenes on What Would You Do? Derived from original clip by YouTube user Debbie Horivoch.
The popular “bystander reaction” television show filmed at Bello’s and aired on NBC in 2009. The show depicted three actors appearing to beat a man on Market Street, and captured the reactions of passersby to the staged scenario. While a succession of bystanders did little to nothing, Todd, described on-camera as “a mild-mannered insurance supervisor by day” who was a “force to be reckoned with” that evening, singlehandedly confronted all three of the faux thugs.
When he’d been interviewed a week before, the 20-plus year veteran of Bello’s told us that the employees were like family to him, and added that the bar also does well by its customers in terms of the food. “Manny focuses on the menu,” he said, touting its consistent quality, and giving a special nod to the nachos. His drinks of choice: “Long Island iced tea or sangria,” he said. Bello’s sangria recipe is proprietary to its owner.
Pictured above with Beatrice Rivera
Back downstairs on the curbside patio, I ran into Beatrice sharing a laugh with Brian Taylor. After a little cajoling, Brian assented to my questioning.
How would he characterize the regulars at Bello’s? “There’s all kinds of people here from all different walks of life,” he said. “You got us” – he gestured to Beatrice and his friend Carl August, who was lounging in a corner seat across a table from him – “who have been coming here forever. You’ve got commuters. You’ve got students. You’ve got Yankees fans. Mets fans. We tolerate the Mets fans here — they get to clap three times a month. So there are all different types of regulars here.”
Brian had been a regular since Manny assumed ownership of the bar, citing the fact that he knew Manny “from down neck,” as many Newarkers call the Ironbound, as a youngster.
“So you grew up together?” I asked.
“I used to beat him up and take his lunch money,” he said with a smirk, as Beatrice threw back her head in laughter.
Brian is a member of the Century Club, comprised of people who have drunk all one hundred beers on Bello’s famed Century List. Patrons who complete the list earn a succession of recognitions and privileges at the bar up to the fourth time they finish. “It was a lot of fun actually. And when we did it, we did it. We drank the beers. Understand?”
I asked him for clarity.
“Well now sometimes, the sinks get drunk. People buy [the beer], they get credit, but if they don’t like it, they don’t drink it all. When we did it – whether you liked the beer or not – you had to drink it all the way down to get credit for it,” he explained.
Brian is two-thirds of the way through his fourth go-around with the list, but said he’s not particularly motivated to finish any time soon.
I moved on to Carl August, another original who’s been coming to the bar since Manny took it over. “I just stopped by because it was a commuter bar,” Carl said. “But what kept me was the atmosphere. It was just such a great melting pot of different people. The people that hung out here” – he paused – “it’s been a lot of fun over the years here.”
Carl said the beauty of Bello’s was that the family feeling among regulars doesn’t break down when everyone leaves the bar. “Guys check up on each other. We actually call each other when we don’t see each other,” he said.
He remembers a time years ago when Saturdays were slow, and Manny didn’t open the kitchen then as a result. “All the regulars would come, and we’d take turns bringing food for everyone so we could eat lunch together. It was just a beautiful atmosphere,” he said.
Over the years, Carl said, “It’s gotten more commercial of course. It’s almost inevitable,” he continued.
Carl is a famed Century Club member who actually negotiated the “half-price for life” deal that those who complete the entire Century List four times receive. “There were a few Seton Hall Law students who’d gotten to three hundred beers and were saying ‘What now?’” he said. “So we spoke to Manny, and it was a tough negotiation, because he’s a tough man, but at the end he said, ‘Hey, I’ll do half-price for four hundred beers competed.’ I did my four hundred in a week,” he said. Carl is the very first four-time Century Club member.
“Most of the real regulars, they protect this place like it’s their home,” he said. “If Manny’s not around, he can sleep well knowing that if the regulars are here, it’s going to be ok.”
Ralph Durant, right, with Liz Duguay
Back inside I ran into Beatrice yet again, this time talking to her friend Ralph Durant, 57, who is retired from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, and is a 15-year veteran of the bar.
“It’s an odd little family,” he said of the bar’s regular set. “We’ve all grown together. Some have gotten married, some have had kids. Some have gotten divorced.”
Like Brian and Carl, Ralph is also a member of the Century Club. He said the feat took two years to complete. “It’s a hobby, not a job,” he explained.
Like Todd, Ralph made sure to note that as much of an attraction as the beer is at Bello’s, the food is also top-notch. “I haven’t had a bad thing yet,” he told me. His favorite dish? “Well, I come in here and say ‘I’m hungry, whatcha got?’ And whatever Manny brings out is my favorite,” he said.
“What about the BLTs?” said the woman standing beside us. It was Liz Duguay, another regular.
“Oh yeah,” Ralph said. “They brought me BLTs from here when I was in the hospital.”
What are they like?
“A lot of ‘B,’ he said, stacking his hands to mimic sandwiches that come piled high with bacon.
(Pictured above with Ralph Durant)
Liz Duguay was working in an office building downtown when she decided to step inside Bello’s one day four years ago. “I was surprised at how nice it looked on the inside,” she said, noting that the outside – this is before the building got its facelift – had “little windows” that didn’t suggest the nice interior.
“I come inside, and it had good music, nice people, and attentive bartenders, so I started coming back.”
As the weather got better, Liz started making Fridays after work a regular affair. Before long, “I started making friends,” she said.
Liz recalled a moment when she realized how in sync she was with her fellow Bello’s patrons. “One Friday night, I was standing right here looking down the bar,” she said. We were positioned at the end of the first floor bar. “And there were a bunch of us sitting here. And I thought, ‘These are all really good friends of mine.’ And everyone was singing the same song from the jukebox. That’s when I realized we’re all really a family. It was a beautiful moment,” she recalled.
Holding court at the end of the bar was Tim Cash, who’d been mingling occassionally among the other regulars for the past hour and a half. Five years ago, Tim started stopping inside Bello’s before hopping the New Jersey Transit train back to Metuchen, and has been coming consistently ever since.
“This is kind of like a neighborhood, friendly place – like Cheers,” Tim mused. “For me, this is the afterwork spot.”
Tim said he’d never attempted to become a member of Bello’s Century Club. “I like to drink what I like to drink,” he said, punctuating the sentiment with a swig of his Amstel Light.
A few minutes after I finished my brief chat with Tim, in walked Paulie Cunningham, just off a train from New Brunswick, where he runs a smoke shop near Rutgers’ campus. A 10-year veteran of Bello’s given to walking into the bar and demanding, “Give me my beer!” Paulie can often be found engaged in lighthearted verbal sparring with Manny.
His favorite dish? “A southwest Cobb salad after I’ve had 12 beers,” he said, adding that enjoying a salad after that volume of beers makes him feel like he’s not a portulent gentleman. (Paulie used an unprintable, alliterative version of the phrase when we spoke.)
Paulie said the craziest thing he’d ever seen at Bello’s was “pinball guy,” a man who walked in off the street so inebriated that he bounced off of every table and chair on the first floor on his way from the bar’s entrance to the bathroom in back.
What would Paulie call the Bello’s type? He put his unique spin on describing the bar’s much-touted diversity: “It’s a combination of upstanding citizens and shady cats.”
Bello’s is located at 376 Market Street in Newark, NJ, just across the street from the eastern entrance to Newark Penn Station.
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