That Halcyon Bar of Yore

UVA’s iconic Coupe’s has become a source of urban legend.

If you spend enough time in Charlottesville, Virginia, there’s a chance that you’ll hear the tale about the drunk kid who tried to hitch a ride home from Coupe’s on a freight train. Some say he was a fraternity brother in Zete or DKE; others insist he was a GDI who was headed back to upperclassmen dorms. Nobody really knows much about the passenger, other than that he (it’s always a he) got drunk at Coupe’s and went for a ride. Urban legends aren’t usually rich with supporting details.

What I do know, is that the train would have been a CSX hauler coming east through the Blue Ridge Mountains, traversing Charlottesville on the rails behind the bar with its horns blaring and safety bells clanging. As the story goes, the guy just walked right up to the lumbering machine, grabbed the rung of a boxcar’s ladder as it drifted slowly by, and off he went into the night. The tracks run right by a big section of student housing, and he didn’t feel like walking, so it makes a certain amount of sense. At least as much sense as a drunken college legend could possibly make.  

I first heard this story waiting in line for the same bar’s bathroom on a Thursday night in 2007. Appropriately, it was being sloppily recounted from one frat guy to another waiting in line in front of me for the men’s room. I listened intently but pretended to zone out, staring past their polo shirts, into the middle ground between us and the bathroom door. I eavesdropped on conversations a lot that semester, my first as a University of Virginia transfer student. I didn’t know a soul. I’m still not sure how I ended up at Coupe’s in the first place; an upperclassman in a discussion section must have told me out of pity. Whatever my Coupe’s origin story, I ended up becoming a regular.

Hidden down a steep flight of stairs across from a bustling side street on The Corner, Charlottesville’s main drag, Coupe’s was popular with UVA undergrads for the two reasons any college bar is popular: an easy door, and cheap drinks therein. Like the apocryphal train tale (more on that in a bit), the bar itself sits at an intersection of tradition and fabrication. On the outside wall, there’s a swooping, sexy, 1960s-era Cadillac DeVille painted hot pink on the black bricks. The bar’s actual name, though, is Coupe De Ville’s, which doesn’t quite match up. Not that it matters. Even the cops, who occasionally stopped in to write underage citations, just call it Coupe’s.

Inside, a series of upright wooden booths that could pass for church pews line the wall. There’s a truly decent back patio outside where the most inexperienced barbacks exchanged cash for beer, and a locally beloved barroom singer named Benny wailed solo renditions of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” to a yard full of co-eds sweating it out in the sticky Virginia night. I eventually made some friends, moved out of the sad transfer dorms and joined a fraternity. Through it all, I kept going to Coupe’s, where I developed a special affinity for the booth in the bar’s back left corner. It is indisputably the best seat in the house, and I came to love it deeply. It’s where I played drinking games with a girl named Katie, who would later become my girlfriend. I love her deeply, too. 

Despite its stature as the campus local—the place that has the same handful of songs playing over and over as the soundtrack to a cavalcade of students experiencing their first nights of really drinking—Coupe’s had its surprises. For one, it wasn’t until junior year—or what UVA people call “third year”—that I realized Coupe’s served a full dinner menu. At a certain point in the evening, once the crowd was uncomfortably over capacity and “Wagon Wheel” had slammed through the aging sound system a few dozen times, a short-order cook would materialize behind a decrepit grill and begin slinging flame-broiled cheeseburgers for a dollar apiece. I’d later find out that this was a precautionary measure to stay on the right side of Virginia’s byzantine liquor laws, which require that a specific percentage of the night’s take at certain bars comes from food sales. They were greasy and searingly hot. On good nights, there was ketchup, but on great nights, flavor was the last thing on your mind. You were eating for sustenance.

The fact is simply that the bar from my college days is hardly a remarkable place. I’ve been back to Coupe’s a dozen times since graduating and moving about seven hours away to Brooklyn, mostly in big groups after weddings for former classmates held “on Grounds,” the only name for the campus UVA alumni recognize. The cumulative experience of these returns has convinced me that there are only two things that you can do with college memories of long drunken nights slugging watered-down Bud Light and scarfing down questionable burgers. Dueling schools of thought that say so much about the person you became over those formative years.

The first is that you can eye them in a bourbon haze, declare them profound and strike out in search of them. This is how you wind up staggering down Coupe’s stairs in black-tie towards the shouts of youth below, looking like a parody of a character out of a Whit Stillman film, far too drunk to care. Or, you can examine the nostalgia of your young adulthood with candor, and realize it isn’t as meaningful as you thought. This will feel both practical and slightly sad, which are basically the same thing.

Whether you opt for the former or go with the latter reveals plenty about your capacity to accept change and level of post-grad cynicism. As for me, I guess I’m bummed that subsequent visits haven’t yielded the halcyon bar of yore. But what’s the alternative? Pitching myself on the gravitas of “Wagon Wheel,” plastic pitchers of whatever is cheapest and the resonant paradox of immortal youth?

Speaking of which: Let’s return now to the immortal legend of youth in motion, borne on the rails behind Coupe’s. The freight train was headed east, and our drunk hero was hanging on. What he didn’t know—what very few blind-drunk UVA kids would know, until they’d heard this tale for themselves—was that trains are required to roll this stretch of track at 10mph. By the time they disappear from view of Coupe’s back patio, though, they’re already picking up speed again. Past that, they’re moving too fast to bail. Virginia air whipping through his hair, our man had no choice but to hang on until the train stopped in Culpeper, or Richmond, or DC. Who knows how he got back to Charlottesville. Who knows if he ever did.

It’s almost certainly a myth. But maybe it isn’t. Every story has to start start somewhere, and every legend has an origin. Who could have known how much faster the world moved once Coupe’s was out of sight? I certainly didn’t.

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Tagged: bars, deep dive, essays

Dave Infante is a freelance journalist and video producer in Brooklyn.