Every morning a predictably loyal congregation assembles to join its minister in thanksgiving for traditional, and frequent, libations. The members of the flock begin to drip in at 8 (or 7:30 on the Sabbath). Thatâ€™s when they saddle up, to bow at the altar of McCarthyâ€™s, just as they have for nearly 50 years.
- Photo by Christopher Gardner
- THE MCCARTHY ERA: Joe McCarthy started the Gold Room in the early 1950s, which eventually became McCarthyâ€™s. Here a photo of the founder remains at McCarthyâ€™s.
Â In this case, the altar is a dark brown bar rumored to have been carried, by the patrons, from The Gold Room on the corner of Morro and Monterey in the 1950s when Joe McCarthy grew unhappy with his then business partner. Behind the bar, with its bottles of holy water, is the most prominent feature: four sultry women etched into the mirror. Above the temptresses is a shelf of random dusty bric-a-brac, odd figurines with odd stories, and a picture of Dan Connors, the second owner of McCarthyâ€™s, in his Raiders uniform giving a referee a little bit of the business.
Â When the regular flock arrives, one of McCarthyâ€™s many fathers of all things liquid will be ready to greet them with a cup of the sacrament, already mixed or at least opened, but nonetheless, a holy beverage waits, ready to be imbibed.
Â This Saint Patrickâ€™s Day, the regulars of McCarthyâ€™s will not be attending their morning mass in such tranquil bliss though. Some haveâ€”as they do every yearâ€”threatened not to show up at all, because the heathens who do not drink from the holy cup nearly as faithfully, will come in to enjoy a taste of true religion. As early as 6:00 a.m. they will come in to drink the green beer from plastic cups, to revel, and to be merryâ€”all likely having no idea who St. Patrick was, but at least the right reverend will be working, and he may, if they are lucky, impart some of his amber wisdom onto the newly converted.
Â St. Patrick, weâ€™re told, was born in Britain in the year 387, kidnapped from his native land when he was sixteen, and taken to the great green pastures of Ireland by marauders, where he was enslaved, and forced to tend flocks of sheep. For some six years the young man toiled feverishly, all the while praying to God, until he was greeted by an angel, who instructed the young gentleman to escape the tyranny of his captors. The angel told him that if left forthwith, safety would be with him.
Â The young man fled his bondage, making it safely back to the shores of Britain, when he decided that he must turn back to Ireland to bring Christianity to the Druids. In this mission he utilized the Celtic tongue he had mastered
The McCarthyâ€™s regulars are a fiercely loyal bunch. Some three years ago, during the nightshift, the toilet in the womenâ€™s restroom failed, spewing gray water up from the porcelain, where it flowed freely into the lounge. The bartenders immediately asked the patrons to leave. The regulars sitting ambivalent at the bar lifted their feet up and sipped their drinks.â€œNo really, weâ€™ll give you free drinks later, you have to leave,â€? the bartenders told the reluctant customers, as sewage slid under their barstools. But itâ€™s a sin not to finish a beverage at the chapel of McCarthyâ€™s.
- Photo by Christopher Gardner
- THE GATEKEEPER : Before you turn green at McCarthyâ€™s, you have to get past Jerry Bender.
Â And at this chapel, the unofficial drink is of course Jameson Irish Whiskey. The locals consume the amber spirit in staggering amounts. As the barâ€™s posters proudly attest, McCarthyâ€™s sells more Jameson than any other bar in the nation.Â
Â What is it about McCarthyâ€™s? The answer is simple for Colin Wenzl, McCarthyâ€™s bar manager. â€œItâ€™s the patrons and the staff,â€? he says matter-of-factly, remembering a recent conversation he had with a patron who asked him what McCarthyâ€™s sells.Â â€œThereâ€™s an old juke box. No drink specials, no dance floor, no pool table,â€? Wenzl says, quoting the suspect patron. Then he answers dryly, â€œItâ€™s the conversation. Thatâ€™s what a pub isâ€”a community meeting placeâ€”and McCarthyâ€™s definitely satisfies that.â€?
Â Â Â Â For Wenzl, a self-taught student of all history including Irish, the definition of a good a pub is simple. â€œI want to go to a place where I can ask a regular what there is to do around here, and immediately be caught in a three-hour conversation.â€?
Â Â Â Â McCarthyâ€™s is most certainly one of those places. Recently atÂ McCarthyâ€™s happy hour, an 85-year-old man recalled a life spent living abroad; among some of the places he remembered were Iraq and Sri Lanka. â€œThatâ€™s the thing about McCarthyâ€™s,â€? the man named Jack says. â€œYou can learn more here than you can most places just talking to people.â€?
Â Â Thereâ€™s another reason McCarthyâ€™s keeps such loyal customers, says Wenzl. â€œItâ€™s the third-place theory,â€? he says. â€œYou have your identity at work, your identity with your family. The third place is where you need your other identity. Itâ€™s where you go and shed all that other stuff.â€? And judging by Wenzlâ€™s theory, which he admits is not his own, there are a lot of people around San Luis Obispo who like to shed all that other stuff over a pint of Guinness or a glass of Jameson.
- Photo by Christopher Gardner
- YOUR INNER LEPRECHAUN : Everyone is a little Irish at McCarthyâ€™s.
Â Â Even though McCarthyâ€™s is physically the smallest bar in downtown San Luis Obispo, and its occupancy is capped at 49 (due to a single exit), the bar maintains a fiercely loyal following. â€œThe most loyal customer base that Iâ€™ve ever known or been involved with,â€? says Billy Hales, managing partner of ASH Management, the company that operates McCarthyâ€™s. â€œPer square foot, Iâ€™d put it up against any bar in the state. Itâ€™s been successful from day one.â€?
Â Aside from the great conversation and dusty clovers that decorate the walls, the loyal following might be attributed to the barâ€™s unparalleled hours of operation, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Sunday. Thereâ€™s someone at McCarthyâ€™s, including staff closing or opening the bar, during 20 hours of any given day. Just think about it. By the time many of us are delving into our second cups of coffee, the benevolent bartenders at McCarthyâ€™s are already dishing multiple rounds of Bloody Marys and Bud Lights.
Besides the fact that McCarthyâ€™s is open 18 hours of any given day, it also helps that $1.50 gets you a can of domestic during happy hour.
Â Hales attributes McCarthyâ€™s loyal following to its small size and superb staff. â€œThey take a lot of pride in it,â€? he says. â€œFrom bartenders like Duffy, whoâ€™s a living a legend, he was Walt Disneyâ€™s personal bartender, to Clem following closely behind in his footsteps, to some of the younger guys now. Itâ€™s always had a staff that takes pride in it.â€?
Â And while its small size might be a deterrent to some owners, Hales says thatâ€™s exactly what helps the establishment. â€œOn a cold day,â€? he says, â€œI want to go in and have a pint of Guinness in a small cozy bar, not some big drafty bar. Itâ€™s small, itâ€™s got energy to it.â€?
- Photo by Christopher Gardner
- INTO THAT GREEN NIGHT : McCarthyâ€™s bar manager Colin Wenzl serves up the amber wisdom.
Â McCarthyâ€™s appreciation has spread much farther then the county line. Wenzl recently received a call from a woman in Iowa, distraught over rumors that the bar will be shuttered because the building, like so many others in downtown SLO, must be earthquake-retrofitted. â€œIf I come in the next three months, is it still going to be there?â€? she asked. Wenzl assuredÂ her it would be, at least for a year. Hales adds, â€œUnfortunately the owners [of the building] havenâ€™t given us any clear indication, but itâ€™s not looking real good. Itâ€™s unfortunate. Weâ€™d like to stay, itâ€™s such an icon.â€?Â
Â But a move for McCarthyâ€™s has the potential to create even more tradition. Some are talking about giving homage to Joe McCarthy and the regulars of the 50s by gathering a group of regulars to pick up the bar and move it to a new location, should McCarthyâ€™s have to relocate. â€œJoe moved the bar once and he survived strongly,â€? says Hales adding, â€œMcCarthyâ€™s will be open. I can promise that.â€? âˆ†
When heâ€™s not at McCarthyâ€™s, Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at [email protected].
Â Well worth the wait
Itâ€™s icy-cold outside, one of those rare late-winter nights that bewilders climate-pampered Californians with sub-40â€™s temperatures, forcing them to take shelter from the cold wherever they can find it. Like heat-seeking missiles, many folks are pulled to McCarthyâ€™s, a strange sanctuary that promises the comfort of cozy company, a well-armed jukebox and, more importantly, generous pours of gut-warming Irish whiskey. But as on almost any other night, regardless of the season, thereâ€™s a line to get inside. The weather-weary are held at the door, asked to brave the elements as they wait for space to clear in the crowded pub. And wait they will, held tight by the ebullient buzz emitting from inside, and the sharp-witted banter that spills in endless streams from the lean, well-worn guard at the entrance, one Jerry Bender.
Â â€œHello there, sweetness. My, how youâ€™ve been missed,â€? croons Bender in his deep, gravelly baritone. â€œHold it there, youâ€™ll have to wait your turn.â€? He holds up his arm, a gentle reprimand.
Â â€œOK, Jerry, thatâ€™s enough,â€? smiles the forty-something blonde. She pulls out a cigarette and coyly asks him for a light, stomping her high-heeled feet against the pavement, and reminds him that she was in the night before. â€œDamn, itâ€™s cold out here,â€? she mumbles.
Â â€œIf you stand closer to me, I promise to keep you warm,â€? he offers with a devilish grin, and they both chuckle. Then itâ€™s onto the other patronsâ€”college students, downtown professionals, local artists and barfliesâ€”all of whom wait patiently for the go-ahead from Bender before they can escape the chill air. With each laugh itâ€™s clear that the party has already started, even before theyâ€™re granted entrance.
Â Well into his 18th year as McCarthyâ€™s keeper of the peace, Bender has developed a few trademark tricks for maintaining a happy crowd, both inside and outside the bar. He jokes, he flirts, heâ€™s even been known to recite a few lines of free-form poetry, made to order. Occasionally he grumbles, but get to know him long enough and you realize that deep down, heâ€™s all smiles. And a master at crowd control.
Â For Bender, a former corrections officer from Ohio, crowd control at a place like McCarthyâ€™s is a piece of cake. â€œIâ€™ve worked with people all my life,â€? he laughs, recalling the many area bars he has graced with his presence over the years. â€œYou stick around long enough and you realize that people are people, even when theyâ€™ve had too much to drink. I just try to make their time here as pleasant as possible. Thatâ€™s my job. Besides, Iâ€™m an old man and happy people make my job easier.â€?
Â More laughs, more shivers. Eventually the line dies down and Bender moves inside to clear tables and to crack more jokes with the now-toasty patrons. Itâ€™s a job he says time and customers have taught him to love. â€œIâ€™ve seen this place change over the years,â€? he says â€œBut itâ€™s still the same place itâ€™s always been. New faces, maybe, but enough of the old ones, too, to keep it worth coming back to.â€?
Bender makes his way outside again for a smoke. Passers-by wave to him and a group of young college students huddle up for their turn inside. Bender charms them with a wry remark and they laugh, and he rewards their good humor with a line from his latest poem, expertly created just for them:
Â Once youâ€™re inside youâ€™ll know more than most
Â Raise a glass and give it a toast
Â Hereâ€™s to your smiles and the Central Coast.
Hereâ€™s a short list of St. Pattyâ€™s Day events:
Oâ€™Reillyâ€™s: Grover Beach.Â St. Patrickâ€™s Day party. Drink specials all night w/ DJ & dancing.
Black Sheep: SLO. Opens 6 a.m. Beer specials. Irish Drink Special, Irish lunch & dinner specials.
Motherâ€™s Tavern: SLO. Open 6a.m.
Martiâ€™s: SLO. Open 7a.m. Serving breakfast burritos and sandwiches.
Frog & Peach: SLO. St. Patrickâ€™s Day Party. Beer specials and more.
Oâ€™Gradyâ€™s: Paso Robles. St. Patrickâ€™s Day bash. Open at 2p.m. Guinness, $3.50 Jameson shots, evening DJ/dancing.
Muddy Springs: Paso Robles. Open 8 a.m. St. Patrickâ€™s lunch, Irish food and drink specials all day and night
Crooked Kilt: Paso Robles. Bagpipers, Irish Band. Open 6 a.m.
Harryâ€™s: Pismo Beach. St. Pattyâ€™s party. Open 10 a.m.
Mr. Rickâ€™s: Avila Beach.Â KY Jelly wrestling,Â DJâ€™s.
McCarthyâ€™s: SLO. Opens 6 a.m. Green beer, much more.
For Youthâ€™s Interest (FYI): St. Patrickâ€™s Day Fundraiser and Teen Dance, Atascaderoâ€™s Pavilion on the lake. For more info call 461-5000.