St. Patrick’s Day
The Five Most Influential Irish Bars in America
From New York to Chicago to San Francisco, we picked the most important Irish bars in the U.S..
America without Irish bars would not be America, so deeply have they woven themselves into the fabric of our national life.
Their history has yet to be written (although here’s a preliminary stab at a piece of it), but it’s surely as broad as it is deep: there have been Irish bars in America almost since the beginning, and they spread to every part of the country. Many of them became institutions. A place such as, say, Doyle’s, in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, or Harold Donnelly’s in Iowa City, was where the real business of the town was conducted; where the consensus was formed; the deals got hashed out, the rumors started and quashed.
America, however, is often cruel to its cultural institutions. Donnelly’s fell to urban renewal in 1974, after 40 years. Doyle’s is still there, but plenty of other Irish standbys have been cut off in their prime. As I write this, it is being debated whether Tom Bergin’s in Los Angeles, the city’s most iconic Irish bar, will be preserved as a landmark or sold for development.
When a beloved bar closes, it leaves a hole that only memory, and hazy memory at that, is left to fill. I spent many a great night at O’Donnell’s, the Glocca Morra, and O’Connor’s, three New York Irish bars where I was a regular; where I knew the bartenders and they knew me; where every third drink was on the house and they gave me free plays on the jukebox. Their closings left a gap in my life and in those of a few dozen other regulars, but beyond that their passing went essentially unmarked.
But there are some bars that don’t affect just those who drink there. These somehow manage to affect the whole culture of which they are a part. Here are five—okay, let’s call it six, with the extra one on the house—transformational Irish bars; six bars that built the institution of the Irish bar in America and, in some cases, are continuing to build it.
James McGarry was born in Ireland in 1830 or thereabouts. By 1862, he was running a bar on Clark St. in Chicago. He moved a few doors up around 1865, and then around the corner to Madison St. when he was burned out by the great fire of 1871. Finally, he settled on Dearborn St., just above Madison, where he ran his saloon until he retired in 1898 (even the building is long gone; now, the Chicago Board of Education occupies the site). His bar was always a popular one, with a clientele that ran to politicians and newspapermen, but that’s not what made it influential.
McGarry was born in Ireland, had the brogue to prove it, and had an endless fund of quaint Irish expressions, along with a few of his own. He didn’t mind using these to express his opinions on the events of the day. In 1893, a young Irish-American newspaperman by the name of Finley Peter Dunne wrote up one of McGarry’s colorful rants, preserving the brogue—as well as one can do in print, anyway—and changing McGarry’s name to “McNeery” for deniability. McGarry was known to have a temper and to not be afraid of displaying it.
The column was a success and Dunne was pressed for more, which he provided. Rather than trouble Mr. McGarry for his opinions, he generated them himself, coming up with things like “I’d be afraid to enther upon a crusade again vice f’r fear I might prefer it to th’ varchous life iv a rayspictable liquor dealer” (the anti-prostitution crusaders of the day kept getting caught displaying an unhealthy and somewhat dedication to the undercover aspects of their work).
McGarry didn’t like that, or any of this business, and made sure that Dunne knew it. Dunne changed his character’s name to “Martin Dooley” and moved his saloon out of the Loop to Archer Road (“Archey Road,” in Dooley’s dialect), out in Chicago’s wild west. That done, he kept on writing, and writing.
Mr. Dooley was a hit. Dunne’s columns, with Dooley applying his rough, colorful Irish country wisdom to the topics of the day, ran nationally and were collected in best-selling books. In the process, they greatly helped to transform the image of the Irish bar in America from being a low doggery where drunken plug-uglies loitered around waiting for corrupt political bosses to assign them deviltry to do, to a low-to-the ground, no-bullshit working man’s academy, where the drinks are plain and the talk is, too.
James McGarry died in 1901, by which point he had become reconciled with Dunne’s portrait of him. He might not have set out to do it, but he began the great age of the Irish bar in America.
I think more has been written about McSorley’s, and for longer, than any other bar in America. Lord knows I’ve done my share of jabbering about it. While there are a few bars in America older than McSorley’s—the Old Absinthe House, in New Orleans, for one—and others almost as old, such as McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Philadelphia, none has stuck as close to its roots or fought change as doggedly.
Sure, the beer costs more than it did in 1854, or whenever it was that the bar opened (its location was a vacant lot in 1853, but at least something was built there by 1857; the current building dates to 1864 or 1865), but there’s still only beer, and that beer isn’t Bud. The two rooms are not televisioned to a faretheewell and the kitchen does not know that you can fry sweet potatoes or that kale can be eaten by human beings. There are no stools at the bar. Despite all the tourists who check in there, there are still regulars from the neighborhood and the bar is still a refuge from the hard-charging, future-chasing city that surrounds it. As such, it offers a living example, immutable and iconic, of the Irish bar as it was first planted on these shores.
San Francisco has its share of fine Irish bars, old (e.g., the Little Shamrock, on Lincoln Way in the Sunset, which dates back to 1893, and Harrington’s Bar and Grill downtown on Front St., from 1935) and new (the Irish Bank in Mark Lane and Foley’s on O’Farrell St. are a pair of personal favorites). The San Francisco Irish bar that changed the world, however, is not an Irish bar at all, at least not by birth. The Buena Vista Café opened on Hyde St. in North Beach, right where the cable cars end. That was in 1917. The guy who founded it was one William Niemann, born on the banks of the Elbe not far from Hamburg. His bartender back then was Kurt Kaufman, also a German. In 1936, he hired one Jack Koeppler, also as a bartender. Koeppler wasn’t born in Germany, but his father was. In any case, by 1940 he was a partner in the bar, and after the war he became full owner. In 1951 or so, Koeppler brought in George Freeberg as a partner. Freeberg wasn’t German at all—he was a Minnesota Swede.
Until late 1952, the only thing the Buena Vista was known for was its exceptional list of imported bottled beer. It had a whopping 26 kinds, including nine from Germany, five from England, and one or two each from nine other countries, including Japan and the Philippines. They did not, however, stock one from Ireland.
Then one night in November of that year Stanton Delaplane, a regular, brought in a bottle of John Powers Irish pot-still Irish whiskey and a dream. The dream was to figure out just exactly how they made the drink you were greeted with at the airport at Shannon, Ireland, where all United States transatlantic flights stopped for refueling. It was a little thing called “Gaelic Coffee,” and it was just plain delicious. So Delaplane and Koeppler mixed and drank and mixed and drank and finally they got it down.
Koeppler, no fool, began selling the drink. In 1953, he brought an actual Irishman, local TV personality Lu Hurley, into the business, but Hurley cashed out after a year. In the meanwhile, the “Irish Coffee,” as they called it, began passing over the bar in ever-greater volume, due in very large part to Delaplane. Stan Delaplane was the most popular travel writer in America, and Irish Coffee was his catnip. He wrote about it, and the Buena Vista, frequently and glowingly, and his column was nationwide. By 1955, the Buena Vista was selling 5,000 Irish Coffees a week. It wasn’t the first bar in America to serve it, or even the first in the Bay Area—the restaurant in Oakland Airport was managed by Patricia O’Regan, sister of the man who ran Shannon airport and for whom the Dublin barman/chef Joe Sheridan had invented the drink; you can bet her joint served a good one. But nobody was doing numbers like the Buena Vista.
Over time, the Buena Vista found itself becoming an Irish Bar by gravitational attraction. In 1957, it took out an ad congratulating Herb Caen, the San Francisco Examiner’s legendary local-color columnist, on his new book—in Gaelic. In 1958, it launched, or at least copyrighted, its own brand of Irish whiskey, in collaboration with Tullamore Dew: “Tully O’Dew’s Pot Still Irish Whiskey.” By the 1960s, it was hosting annual St. Patrick’s Day parties of truly epic proportion. In 1962, it was going through 12,000 cases of Tullamore a year—that’s about 6,000 Irish Coffees a day. Erin go bragh!
If nothing else, Jack Koeppler and George Freeberg proved that the Irish bar in America is its own thing; that its Irishness is of the mind, more than of the blood—particularly if there’s a buck to be made by it. Although, for the record, the Buena Vista’s Irish Coffees are still strictly according to Hoyle, made without compromise or shortcut.
Ireland, of course, is not all thatched roofs and peat fires; hedgerow-hemmed lanes, whitewashed country pubs and garrulous old farmers who scatter pearls of wisdom with their quaint, charming talk like a salt-spreader preparing the highway for eight inches of snow. It’s also Dublin, where every time you bend your elbow in a pub you’re likely to jab it into a writer of note. It’s William Butler Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and James Joyce, Brendan Behan and Seamus Heaney, and so forth in almost endless profusion.
When Peter and Padraig O’Malley founded the Plough and Stars, back in 1968 or 1969 (memories differ, as they would around then), they signaled its bent by naming it after Sean O’Casey’s rousing, tragic play about the Easter Rising. The bar has been dedicated to literature and politics ever since, with a whole mess of music thrown in (Ireland has a fair amount of that, too). Indeed, its regulars have included Seamus Heaney himself, along with a host of other literary figures and musicians. And yet the bar is no salon, no more than McDaid’s or the Palace Bar in Dublin are. It’s a bar for people who like to talk and drink.
Boston has no shortage of truly great Irish bars and indeed anyone who has a weakness for a pint and has spent any time in the city will have his or her own list of favorites. (Mine, for example, includes the aforementioned Doyle’s and the magnificent J.J. Foley’s, in the South End, the other—less magnificent, but damn useful—J.J. Foley’s, downtown, the sometimes-frightening Croke Park, A.K.A. “Whitey’s,” and a couple of others.) But everyone’s list has the Plough and Stars on it, to remind them that it’s not all about the booze.
If McSorley’s represents the immutable past of the Irish bar in America, the Erin Rose represents its future. Its influence is still building, so let’s call its presence on this list speculative.
The Erin Rose’s exact origins are hazy. James Monaghan, an Irish-American metallurgical engineer from Ohio, heard Orson Welles advertising flights to New Orleans for Mardi Gras one cold Chicago day in 1967 (Mardi Gras fell on February 7th that year), said what the hell, and took one. It was a one-way flight. He began bartending around the French Quarter before opening Molly’s, an Irish bar, on Toulouse St. just off Bourbon (he moved it down to Decatur St., across from the old French market, a few years later; it’s still there today), and then a whole lot of other bars. At one point, he was running eight of them at the same time.
In 1975, Monaghan began his involvement with another space, on Conti St. in the heart of the French Quarter and next door to Broussard’s, one of the city’s old-line Creole restaurants. That space went through many incarnations, with Monahan attached in some way to most of them, if not all. The list of names for which liquor licenses were applied is an odd one: “Bumpy’s Column,” “Macho & Mike’s,” “Macho Mo,” “Carlina’s Mexican Café,” “Nugent’s,” and, finally, “Monahan’s.” By that point, it was around—well, I’m not sure exactly when it was. The earliest mention of it I’ve seen is 1999, but it had been around for quite awhile by then. Also by then, Jim Monahan had become a Noted Local Character. A raconteur, a holder-forth, an opinionated son of a bitch, the “crusty old Irish anarchist,” as he liked to be called, was also a generous giver and the organizer and presiding deity of the annual French Quarter St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Monaghan’s Erin Rose, to give his Conti St. bar its full name, wasn’t as well known as Molly’s at the Market, but it had its own rough charm. After Monaghan’s death in 2001, it went to its general manager, Troy Koehlar, and his wife Angela, then one of the bartenders there. Under the Koehlars, the Erin Rose has come into its own. Sure, it has Irish roots, and is proud of them. But it’s an Irish bar for the American future. It has Irish Coffee, but they freeze it in a slushie machine and it’s utterly, instantly addicting. It has food, but rather than Shepherd’s Pie or Fish & Chips, wouldn’t you rather have a Po’ Boy? Sure you would. It has its crew of regulars and barflies, but they’re younger and far more diverse than the stereotypical red-faced old Irish-bar crowd.
If you go to the Erin Rose after midnight, you’re going to find a significant portion of the city’s bartenders and servers there. They know.
Since the Dead Rabbit has been written about at least as much as any cocktail bar in the world today, I won’t dwell on it, other than to note that this list would not be complete without it, no matter how many other bars I threw in. Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry set out to build the best bar in the world and, at the same time, to make it as Irish as possible. That means ultra-sophisticated cocktails, served with elegance and style in a second-floor lounge that recalls New York’s great nineteenth-century show bars. But it also means a perfectly-poured pint of Guinness, or as close as they can get (they’re studying the Dublin masters and constantly refining their procedure), served in the more informal, jovial first-floor saloon.
The Dead Rabbit is an excellent reminder that the modern American craft cocktail movement has plenty of Irish DNA in it, but its also a reminder that those whitewashed Irish country pubs know something about making a great bar, too. If I had a time machine, one of the first things I’d do is set it for New York, 1872. Then I could have one of Jerry Thomas’s Improved Whiskey Cocktails, walk downtown for 20 minutes, and follow it with a big mug of dark ale from John McSorley’s hand. In such a device’s absence, the Dead Rabbit will do just fine.