Sunday, June 16, 2019

Tom Bergin's: Rest in Peace

Much has been written on these pages about my barhopping days, the ones that lasted from my college years into early middle age. The fact is that I like bars and I can lay the responsibility for such nonsense at the feet of my late and not so revered father. He gave me the pub crawl gene. I can bear witness his proclivities since he started taking me to his favorite LA haunts before I was of drinking age.

This story is prompted by a Los Angeles Times article by Jenn Harris with the headline Tom Bergin’s closing Sunday: But what about the shamrocks. As you may gather Tom Bergin’s on Fairfax was one of my father’s favorite watering holes along with Skandia on the Sunset Strip and some faux Hawaiian joint on La Cienega. Mai Tai. Mai Kai. Who the hell knows? He’d put on his snap-brim fedora and we’d pull up to various bars in his black Buick LeSabre convertible. Funny thing. I don’t remember seeing him drunk. Apparently, he was a sipper not a power drinker. Apparently, I was the latter.


Of the Los Angeles bars I frequented way back when Tom Bergin’s is the one I remember most fondly. It’s the place that my father took my new girlfriend Peggy and me for Irish Coffees and then to Skandia for aquavit. To say she got tipsy is to be generous. We laughed about that evening a day or two ago when I reported that Bergin’s closed.

A few years later when we had moved to LA, I fell into a boys night out routine where on Fridays after work buddies and I would barhop. Tom Bergin’s was a major part of the bacchanalia. First, it was a Mexican restaurant around the corner in Burbank, then the Tam O’Shanter on Los Feliz in Los Angeles and finally Tom Bergin’s. Even when I opened a restaurant in Brentwood in the early eighties I repaired to Bergin’s for Irish Coffee with a beer back. The drive back to the westside was quite unwise given my intake but so too were several hundred other drives in several dozen cities across the country. As I told my buddy Bill a couple of weeks ago, I’m not particularly proud of those misadventures but, lord, I had fun.

The very idea of drinking with the boys every Friday night looks juvenile and very Mad Men to me now. That ritual lasted from the late sixties to the mid-eighties when I got a clue and stopped drinking to excess and curtailed the drunk driving that could have done me in many times over. It creeps me out looking back.

In something of a testament to the staying power of real saloons, many of my favorites are downright old. The Tam O’Shanter is almost 100 years old. Tom Bergin’s opened in 1936. PJ Clarke’s in 1884. My DC choice, Clyde’s, opened when I came of age but seemed older. San Francisco’s Tadich Grill is California’s oldest restaurant. It opened in 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush. Saloons are timeless according to me. I love a good saloon.

The demise of Tom Bergin’s has been foretold for years. It closed briefly in 2013 when former owners Brandon Boudet and Warner Ebbink shuttered the bar and eatery after extensive renovations didn’t pay off. Then an ardent customer, an actor named Derek Schreck, gave it a go till he announced in January 2018 that the old bar would close and that the decision “has proved to be almost impossible to reach, and the culmination of deliberation and grief.”

In March of this year Bergin’s was back in the news when members of the local community gathered before the Los Angeles Cultural History Commission to support saving the building as a heritage site. Dissenters, primarily the restaurant’s last owner Derek Schreck, argued that such a designation would make the property impossible to sell and that the building is not architecturally significant in the first place. He's right on both counts though it was a landmark.

Schreck’s father who was serving as his attorney spoke before the commission saying that his son had invested his family inheritance in the property and now it has become his financial nightmare.

Despite the plea the commission voted 5-0 to award Tom Bergin’s historic monument status. If approved by the Planning and Use Management committee and the Los Angeles City Council Bergin’s would be saved from demolition and the Schreck’s would take it the hit since the building would be untouchable for demolition, development or sale. It seems patently unfair. Not to mention that if a well intentioned owner who really cared about the place couldn't make it who will. The idea of a shuttered bar sitting empty for eternity isn't much of a landmark.

The late and much revered LA Times restaurant critic said Tom Bergin’s was home to a great whiskey selection and the best colcannon (an Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage) in Los Angeles.

He wrote, “When you walked into Tom Bergin’s on a Sunday afternoon, through the front door of the fragrant Irish pub and past a half-dozen people screaming at a Saints game on TV, you were likely to come across the restaurant’s true regulars, white haired guys, wearing suspenders and ties even when it was a bit warm, having lunch with their families the way you expect their fathers had with them. It was plain, hearty food enjoyed with maybe a pint of Guinness or a Rob Roy-the kind of cooking we have mostly forgotten about in Los Angeles.”

That’s as good a tribute as any.

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

Your last two blogs, Steve, featuring diners and pubs/bars have really brought up some interesting memories. And made me wonder if the Millenials and those younger have favorite places they haunt. Surely they do, since most people eat out these days. It would be wonderful to know the haunts of all the young uber-kind politicos and journalists. You know they have to have their places that provide comfort after work days ending around 10 in the evening or later. Diners and pubs have been gathering places for clans and tribes of all sorts for centuries. I am happy you highlighted Tom Bergin's and others that have filled that need in the past and continue to fill that roll for new generations! Nice writing, Steve!