Wine bar just the tonic

IN A case of new wine in old bottles, multi-pub owner Benny McCabe this weekend opens a city wine and food bar in one of Cork’s oldest retail buildings, one that served as a pharmacy for close to a century.

And the time-capsule is a repository of city family medical histories and secrets, bound up in old ledgers, from who was prescribed what, to things like what visiting musicians called by for the next best thing they could legally get to illegal substances.

But, no names. “I’m marrying my publican’s Hippocratic Oath to a pharmacist’s one,” notes bar creator and curator McCabe, as he puts the old ledgers with names, ailments, prescriptions and predilections on display behind steel bars.

Arthur Mayne’s on Pembroke Street, in a building dating to the early 1700s, is going to create a stir — it’s a museum piece, where the aim in its make-over to bar use is to change nothing, bar its use.

Just taken over from long-term lease-holder, octogenarian pharmacist Jim Byrne, Mayne’s is a visual feast, a treat, and an eye-catcher. It will be a magnet for photographers — it even includes a display room of old cameras, from Zeiss lenses to Box Brownies, Instamatics and Polaroid cameras. It’s camera buffs’ nirvana.

But, it’s also an astute business move by a man (hereafter to be knows as the Mayne man?) who instinctively knows how to create an atmosphere in a bar, and who bucks the gloom and doom in his chosen trade.

Benny McCabe owns some of Cork’s best-know heritage bars, from the Bodega on Cornmarket Street to the Oval on South Main Street, the Mutton Lane Inn off Patrick’s Street, as well as the Crane Lane which backs onto his new Arthur Mayne venture, plus his favourite, the McCabe-family owned Sin É on Coburg Street. He’s steeped in the business, grew up in his father’s Leo McCabe’s Sin É, and now the mix of family-owned bars include the input of Leo senior and Leo junior, Patrick McCabe, in-laws and more.

Arthur Mayne’s with its 1950s mosaic facade and remounted camera sale signage, is next to Canty’s bar, opposite the Imperial Hotel and a few doors away from the just-opened Pónaire (Bookshop) cafe in the 1790s old library building: it seems that the street which is book-ended at the other side by the GPO is going back to its past.

Benny McCabe is leasing Mayne’s from the Byrne family, and is impressed at Jim Byrne’s long tenure and pharmacist’s service here, since the 1940s, and reckons he himself is in Mayne’s for the long haul.

With six pubs under the McCabe family belt, and a brewery bar on the way for June with the launch of his own brewed stout MiDaza, his flair has always been in creating, or preserving, atmosphere, creating a venue for conversations to take place.

“I’ve visited a number of other bars in places that were pharmacies, in England and in Germany where the conversion is popular, and there isn’t a single place that is as complete, that has the authenticity and collection of original goods in original cases like this,” he says.

Now, display cases are full of the unsold stuff of decades past, from collections of Old Spice aftershave bottles to powders and physiks, headache tablets, hair dyes, and dusty old bottles that in their day held (and still might do) ether or laudanum, as well as lotions, lozenges, acetone and spirits, corn plasters to condoms and more. Some items will actually be offered for sale, prescription-free.

But the main business will be bar sales, coffees, food to go with wine (Benny McCabe dislikes the word tapas) and there’s a state-of-the-art wine Italian Enomatic dispenser (the second such in Ireland, and seen in Gordon’s 1890 wine bar in London) for special bottles, operated by a credit card mechanism, that will give tastes, small or large glasses, of selected wines, all of them kept absolutely fresh by the use of nitrogen gas — all very medicinal, surely.

Due to open this weekend, there’s a palpable sense of excitement building around Arthur Mayne’s; it’s going to be different, themed without having to be themed, frozen in aspic.

Benny McCabe is almost more interested in the building and its old contents (“I could fill three or four premises with what was left here,” he remarks) and phase II will include an art gallery upstairs. This space was home to Munster’s busiest photo processing lab 50 years ago, says McCabe appreciatively, predicting, “this place is going to create a wave of nostalgia.”

Handily, there’s a rear access to Mayne’s that links to the private outdoor lane serving the late night venue Crane Lane, so the former pharmacy is going to be a circulation booster in more ways than one.

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