Monday is open mic night at the Great Notch Inn. Harmonicas blare and guitars scream through the open front door into the neon night. Drummer Rich Hempel plays like he owns the place -- because he does. "My grandfather started this place in the '30s," said Hempel, who tends bar when he's not playing. "Even as a kid he was sort of grooming me to be here. And I been here myself for 28 years now. And I grew up in here."
The Great Notch Inn is a proper roadhouse, a log cabin conspicuous for its complete lack of change over the last 78 years as the world around it has morphed. The bar even predates Route 46, the busy interchange in front that funnels thousands of cars east and west each day. "When it started back in the day this was a one lane dirt road in front of us," says Hempel, pulling a draught. "And now? It's one of the busiest stretches of highway in Northern New Jersey."
I had driven past the Great Notch Inn more times than I could count, but this was the first time I'd stopped to pay a visit. Rich says that's a story he hears nightly.
Good house bands aren't as common as they once were, and they're not to be taken for granted. Up until about a month ago, there had been a DOT expansion plan for Route 46 that would've used eminent domain to tear the old roadhouse down. That plan's been changed, and the expansion will now go around the Great Notch Inn.