It's no New York, but Newark's alright (if you like eating at punk nostalgia traps before you fly).
CBGB was established in New York City in 1973. Its legacy as the birthplace of punk, the epicenter of the New York hardcore scene, and the locus of the nation's most notoriously filthy bathrooms has been meticulously detailed in documentaries, books, and one lamentable feature film.
The venue shuttered its doors ten years ago, its passing commemorated with a final performance from Patti Smith, one of the stars who helped cement CBGB's place in the firmament of American music. At the close of her set, Smith passed out lapel pins bearing a hopeful phrase: "What remains is future."
Here in the future, CBGB has been reborn as CBGB LAB, a restaurant, bar, and record shop in Newark's Terminal C. The open-air beer garden, with prime views of an Auntie Anne's pretzel stand, opened late last month. The main dining area, set to open in February, will be adorned—if the renderings are to be trusted—with life-sized, black and white photos of Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, and Sid Vicious performing onstage. As of this past weekend, travelers can browse LPs in a kiosk adjacent to the beer garden and across from restaurants called Nonna's Meatball Kitchen and the Lobster Pod. In addition to vinyl, the store boasts a tiny, immaculate replica of CBGB's iconic awning; the real one is safely tucked away in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The vibe of CBGB LAB appears to be that of an upscale, vaguely edgy hair salon. Those who come seeking grit won't find it, though they will be able to console themselves with a Dirty Ashtray, a $9 specialty cocktail the menu describes as a can of Tecate "dressed up" with salt, pepper, and a lime wedge.
The place was populated by your typical array of travelers—families, 20-somethings, the elderly, and a tipsy, middle-aged couple sitting next to me (one of whom I swear I heard say "Nancy Spungen"). A support beam that appeared to be covered in graffiti and stickers was, upon closer inspection, covered in graffiti-print wallpaper.As is customary of many airport restaurants, customers ordered their meals off of iPads.
Small, white, round speakers played a steady stream of punk and New Wave music, but unlike the deafening volumes you would have heard them at the original CBGB, they were set at such an innocuous volume that the playlist blended in with ambient terminal noise. I will say that "Blitzkrieg Bop" sounded particularly mournful, but that had nothing to do with the sound system, and everything to do with everything else.
A battered grand piano covered in actual graffiti sat on a stage in the beer garden. When I asked a waitress if she knew anything about its provenance, she told me she had no idea, nor did she seem to care.
Did the piano come from CBGB? How did it get there? More pressingly, why is there a CBGB in the Newark Airport in the first place? At present, the answers to these questions remain mysterious, as mysterious as what the tired-looking septuagenarians I saw lunching beneath a picture of Sid Vicious might have thought of him if someone told them who he was and what he did.
This much is clear: the restaurant is part of a $120 million renovation of Terminal C, a measure overseen by a food service company called OTG, whose website vows to "transform the airport experience." CBGB is one of 55 new restaurants in the terminal and not the only culturally appropriative one; there is also a BBQ spot in the food court called Notorious P.I.G. OTG representatives did not return several requests for further information, forcing me to wonder if their decision to open a restaurant named CBGB was the unlicensed result of a marketing executive gone rogue.
The restaurant's appearance is the latest twist in CBGB's curious afterlife—a fate complicated by court battles between founder Hilly Krystal's surviving family members. In 2008, upmarket menswear designer John Varvatos opened a boutique in the Bowery space the club once occupied and preserved one original, graffiti'd-up wall. The store also carries a collection of original punk photographs, many retailing in the low five figures.
With the Bowery clean and the club gone, the CBGB name had a good chance of becoming a random collection of letters emblazoned on Hot Topic t-shirts, an empty symbol of shopping mall rebellion. But in 2012, a group of investors purchased the club's assets. They soon launched the CBGB Festival of Music and Film. They hoped, they told the Times, of relaunching the club in a new downtown locale.
As it turns out, CBGB President Tim Hayes had bigger plans. In the fall of 2014, he hired the branding, marketing, and licensing firm Epic Rights in the hopes of initiating CBGB's "global brand expansion." In an interview with Billboard, Hayes explained he was drawn in by Epic's successful launch of Kiss' Rock & Brews, a family-friendly chain of Kiss-themed restaurants specializing in craft beer, with more than a dozen locations across the U.S. Hayes hoped Epic would help CBGB open clubs worldwide.
It certainly seemed possible. In a 2014 press release, Epic Rights lauded CBGB as a brand "synonymous with groundbreaking music, youth, adventure, rebellion and extreme expressions of individuality...the most valued symbol for rebels, misfits and music fans around the world." Their first order of business was to announce the CBGB Music and Film Festival's 2015 move from Times Square to the beaches of Fort Lauderdale—the result, Florida tourism officials said, of "great synergy." But, to the chagrin of spring-breakers everywhere, CBGB FTL never materialized; the last CBGB Festival took place in 2014 in Times Square.
This brings us to the present day, a time when the the sole incarnation of rebels' and misfits' most-valued symbol manifests, as if by magic, in Terminal C of the Newark airport.
Is CBGB LAB a good idea? Is their Build Your Own Bloody Mary synonymous with music, youth, or adventure? Does Grandma want to contemplate extreme expressions of individuality as she noshes her $12.50 turkey club?
As I chewed a Meatball Parm Sandwich ($11, excellent bread), sipped a She's So Modern cocktail ($12, made with Jim Beam, Amaretto, and Orgeat, and probably named after a song by the Boomtown Rats), and avoided a disconcertingly salty order of Disco Fries ($9, served with a sprinkling of desperate-looking parsley), I tried to parse the level of ironic distance and / or total obliviousness required to fully enjoy the meal. Which, for the record, I didn't.
Follow Eugenia Williamson on Twitter.