Irish catering successes are going against the grain and staying away from the classic Irish-bar model
All weekend in Manhattan, the Irish pubs which have helped define New York City, happily cashed-in as the annual Fifth Avenue parade brought hundreds of thousands of revellers through their doors.
It was an important weekend for bar owners, because the good old days are long gone.
The Emerald Inn, for example, has had its last hurrah — the Upper West Side institution, which opened during World War II, has been pushed into extinction by exorbitant rent and will close on Apr 30.
This may go someway to explaining why a growing numbers of Irish catering-industry successes are going against the grain and staying away from the classic Irish-bar model.
Cobh-born Rúairí Curtin operates five popular New York pubs, along with his business partners Mark Gibson, from Dublin, and David Mohally, a Midleton College classmate, who grew up in Youghal.
While risk-taking in Manhattan is more often rewarded than not, the approach taken by the Dublin City University friends is rare in this industry. The pubs are intrinsically Irish, but not visibly so, their subtle approach ensuring that most of the Manhattanites who frequent them will never understand the authenticity unless they bother to check.
It all began a few years ago with Bua, in the thriving East Village thoroughfare of St Mark’s Place. Then came Wilfie & Nell (named after Gibson’s grandparents) in the West Village, followed by The Sweet Afton (the old tobacco product, which, in turn, took its name from the Robert Burns poem) in a culturally rich Queens district called Astoria. After that, in late 2011, The Wren opened up on the trendy and formerly seedy Bowery, the name chosen as a nod to the St Stephen’s Day Wren Boys.
Finally, last summer, Curtin et al brought a bit of Cork to the nightlife wasteland that is the Upper East Side, taking the biggest risk of all by opening The Penrose, in the middle of an area more synonymous with expensive apartments and Starbucks.
There was one other problem: the monstrous Second Avenue subway line project ploughing its way gradually though the hardened rock of the island and leaving a trail of roadworks and chaos for beleaguered residents.
“Instead of ignoring all the nonsense that’s going on outside the door, we decided to pay homage,” Curtin told the Irish Examiner on a recent Friday morning, as the city braced itself for a major blizzard.
Inspired by 19th century pioneering, train stations and railroads, the interior of The Penrose is full of recycled and reclaimed treasures that the three friends gleaned from flea markets and antique stores.
Light fittings from the 1930s hang from a ceiling made of wood salvaged from an old dam built in 1812, stained darker in the places where minerals were deposited over the course of a century.
“We came into the business with an open mind. We were, basically, clueless. The three of us sat around a table and figured out how much money we needed and who we needed to speak to. We had no clear idea of where we were going.
“But, in those nine years, we have found our niche. For us, it was about building bars that we’d like to hang out in ourselves. It was just about creating a warm, welcoming environment with good food, good drinks and pleasant staff.”
First-time restaurant owner, Cillian Ó Brádaigh, from Dublin, always wanted to invest in the industry and he has high hopes for his stylish French bistro, Bakehouse, which is located in the fast-developing western section of the already popular Meatpacking District.
The Morgan Stanley executive partnered with French-American chef Phillppe Bonsignour last year to create the restaurant and adjoining wholesale bakery.
“It’s frequented by people from the neighbourhood at the moment, which gives it a nice vibe,” Ó Brádaigh says. “There isn’t much foot traffic, yet, but the new Whitney Museum, next door, will change all that. Eventually, they’re expecting 1,000,000 visitors a year to come through.
“I bought my apartment, four blocks away, in 1999 and you wouldn’t dare walk around here. It’s all changed now, so we’ve been happy to play the long game as the epicentre of the Meatpacking District moves west towards the river.”
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, long-time bar owner, Pat Burke from Schull in West Cork, saw an opportunity in an under-developed section of the popular Williamsburg neighbourhood.
When he and his business partner completed the purchase of a corner of Kent Avenue late last summer, the Kent Ale House was open within four days in anticipation of a music festival down the street.
“I’ve always wanted to stay away from the Irish-bar thing,” Burke says. “I feel it’s important to be open to everybody.
“But especially with the demographic that lives around Williamsburg. It simply wouldn’t work.
“That ship has sailed to a certain degree. It still works and there’s a place for it, but it’s not like it was.”
His passion for craft beer is his main driving force, and it has started to pay dividends, with the nearby Brooklyn Brewery sending beer enthusiasts his way after tours.
The other benefit of being in Brooklyn is space. Burke has more outdoor seating than most Manhattan bars dare dream possible. Added to that is a view of the island’s skyline that is the envy of almost every outlet buried beneath the skyscrapers on the other side of the East River.
Across the street from the Kent Ale House’s doorway, there remains a disused factory building, which serves as a reminder to current residents of Williamsburg’s past.
“That’s all zoned for parks,” Burke says, “and they’re saying they’ll be demolished, which will make this corner really incredible. The view will be improved no end.
“That’s what we’re preparing for by setting up all our outdoor seating.
“We’ll see if the city pushes that plan through. In this business, you have to be ready to adapt, and if it doesn’t work out, so be it.”