October 8, 2012
I finally went for a drink at Tom Bergin’s recently; they’d been closed for what seemed like an eternity for renovations…
No matter where in the world you go, there seems to be an Irish pub. In Los Angeles they’re a little thinner on the ground – the Irish/American population is very spread out here – but Tom Bergin’s, which looks like a quaint old cottage, is one of the most famous Irish pubs in America. One of the oldest continually-operating bars in L.A. (until those renovations anyway), lawyer Tom Bergin first opened the doors of “Tom Bergin’s Old Horse Shoe Tavern and Thoroughbred Club” (his uncle had a tavern with the same name in Boston) on February 12, 1936.
Over the years the “Thoroughbred Club” and then “Horse Shoe” were dropped from the name, though the horseshoe-shaped bar is still here. It was considered such an important part of the place that during the move from its original location a few blocks away in 1949, some of the loyal patrons carried it themselves, to make sure things carried on the way they liked it.
Tom Bergin’s also made an everlasting contribution to television when the look and the atmosphere (allegedly) inspired Les and Glen Charles to create the comedy “Cheers”. The early series character of “Coach” in “Cheers” was modeled on head bartender Chris Doyle, who usually works Friday daytime (and you can also see him in the Ben Stiller/Drew Barrymore movie The Duplex, which filmed in here).
The idea of a bar “where everybody knows your name” probably came from all the shamrocks with customer names on them that plaster the walls. In fact, even though this is the home of the Oscars, getting your own hand-painted shamrock in Tom Bergin’s is right up there as the biggest honor in town: only 7000 or so (including Cary Grant, Ronald Reagan and Keifer Sutherland) have been selected since the tradition began in 1950.
Tales of banshees, giants, leprechauns and fairies are everywhere in Ireland, and there were online stories of a couple of ghosts in this little piece of the Emerald Isle: the figure of a woman walking through the bar and then disappearing, and a mysterious man standing by the fireplace in the restaurant in the back area. Talking by phone from Tom Bergin’s, former owner and current consultant T.K. Vodrey (“the K stands for Kelly”) laughed these off:
“I was the owner since 1973 and I’ve never heard any stories or seen any ghosts, though we have had a horse in the bar.”
This strange sight really did occur on St. Patrick’s Day 1978 when an Irish coffee-drinking horse trotted up to the bar to help promote the movie Casey’s Shadow, a tale about a no-hoper horse who becomes a drag-racing champion.
My advice? Try their famous Irish coffee. Last St. Patrick’s Day they served over 5,000 and the old “House of Irish Coffee” sign outside stakes a claim to be the first place in America that served the warming combo of whisky, coffee, cream and sugar. You can get a proper pint of Guinness here too (drinkers will know what that means), there’s a daily Happy Hour from 4-7pm, and if you’re hungry, go into the small back alcove and try to snag Cary Grant’s favorite booth or walk on to the Dining Room with its high ceiling and that notable fireplace.