Al Chowanec, commonly known as “Captain Al,” didn’t set out to own a historic Hudson County political hangout. It just happened.
Chowanec, a mechanic for U.S. Trucking in the 1960s, actually took over ownership of a gas station in downtown Jersey City.
“I bought a Shell station on Grand Street and ran that,” he said. “A year later, I hit the lottery. So I bought the [liquor] license [for Harbor Casino] and my brothers ran it.”
His father gave him the building in which Chowanec opened Harbor Casino.
When his brothers went onto other careers, Chowanec sold the gas station and he and his wife, Olga, ran Harbor Casino for the next 39 years.
The old Harbor Casino was a wooden fronted establishment with a nautical theme, a timepiece straight out of the 1950s and 1960s. Chowanec keeps a picture of the old place in the front window as a reminder of what it once looked like.
Outside the old Harbor Casino, you didn’t always need to look at the paper plate posted outside with the daily specials. You just had to sniff. Kielbasa was a popular dish. So was the variety of seafood.
“My wife, Olga, used to do all that,” Chowanec said. Inside the old place was a piece of history, something that might have come out of harbor tales of Melville’s “Moby Dick,” filled with heavy smoke, laborers from construction and other jobs, and of course, political figures.
People often sat shoulder to shoulder, hovering over beer or chowder, as bar maids weaved between the tables. Joanne and Annie, both bar maids, were very much like family to the customers.
Harbor Casino always felt like an English or Irish pub, which may explain Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s occasional singing there.
Off duty police officers, local municipal workers, construction workers from the developing waterfront, and young professionals from the nearby offices often came to sip the beer and eat the food.
As others have pointed out, the name Harbor Casino is a bit deceptive, because it was never on the water and never a casino.
A tavern and restaurant, Harbor Casino was one of those places where you could order crab year-round and know they would have it.
While the place attracted a host of people from the area, Harbor Casino rapidly became a political hangout, especially after Chowanec got involved with local politics.
Opened in 1967, Harbor Casino hosted the notorious political boss John V. Kenny and his cronies, known as the Hudson Eight, in the early 1970s prior to their going off to serve their sentences in federal prison.
“For the last few days before they were to go off to jail, they hung out here,” Chowanec recalled.
Harbor Casino became the happening place for politicians around Hudson County, especially from Jersey City.
As the world around his establishment changed with the boom in waterfront development and the move toward more upscale facilities, Chowanec accepted an offer from a developer to sell his building as part of a whole block renovation in exchange for a new restaurant and a couple of apartments above it.
The reopening, of course, comes with some other changes, such as a new partner, Steven Lapitzki, who becomes manager of the new place.
“I’m going to be semi-retired,” Chowanec said.
“I feel as if I’ve been coming to Captain Al’s place since I was born,” Lapitzki said. “He’s been like an uncle to me.”Reopened in January
Closed for three years, Harbor Casino reopened in early January on Warren Street, in a brand new upscale-looking establishment 25 feet for the original site.
We moved 25 feet after being in the same spot for almost 40 years,” Chowanec joked, as a host of politicians crowded into the new place for the grand opening, including Healy, who made political history in 1997 when he sang “God Bless America” in the old place after learning that he was in a runoff for mayor against then incumbent Mayor Bret Schundler.
Along with an assortment of off-duty police and political leaders like Mayor Healy, Freeholder Chairman Jeff Dublin, and Freeholder Bill O’Dea joined in the ribbon cutting. “What we have is an upscale place, but not upscale prices,” Chowanec said. Comments on this story can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org