Extra! Extra! Finn McCool’s (formerly Merlin McFly’s) – Santa Monica

October 18, 2012

In June 1979, a bar “with a magical theme” opened in Santa Monica. It was called Merlin McFly’s and was notable for its décor: nine stained glass windows depicting Merlin, Aladdin, Houdini, a fire eater (below) and other notable names from the history of magic and sorcery. It was part of a chain of bar/grills across California, the other “family members” – Maxwell, Maestro, Maggie, Sly and Sky – also offering imaginative décor (heavy on the stained glass windows of course) and definitely looking to entertain their customers.

A Merlin McFly’s advertisement promised it was a place of “madness, magic and friendly spirits” and that their menu offered the delights of their “mystic burgers” and “wizard ribs”. “Fun is the password” said another in 1984, which had a hand-drawn picture of “P. Eye McFly” and report of the “The Great Restaurant Mystery”, an “investigation” into the McFly’s family tree and their restaurants.

By that time though, Merlin McFly’s was having some trouble. There were local problems with drug dealing, the city of Santa Monica had an ancient licensing rule about “Dance Halls” that meant McFly’s theoretically had to impose a cover charge, and then there was the issue that hit many singles bars very hard: the rising awareness and fear of HIV and AIDS.

When the bar closed, there were dozens of calls when it was announced that the windows would be on sale – at a price of $325,000. Steve Spill at the nearby Magicopolis magic theater bought the windows a year or two later and then sold them to a collector who put them in a stained glass museum in Washington, DC.

Today, Sly McFly’s in Monterey is the only one left, and their website’s amusing “story” of aspiring race car driver Sly mentions how he finished second at the Trophy Race in Ulster – a connection to Finn McCool’s Irish Bar, which is owned by Belfast-born Geraldine Gilliland and is now at that spot on Main Street.

Geraldine wears funky glasses and has long, red hair, and originally started out working at a restaurant in her native Northern Ireland. She grew up during the early days of “The Troubles” – “I used to fall to the kitchen floor when the bombs started going off” – and like many others she moved away, eventually finding herself in Los Angeles:

“I found LA very exotic – they spoke a different language, even though it was English! It was very scary actually – I didn’t know anyone at all, (but) I fell in love with Santa Monica after I drove from New York. When I saw the beach I cashed in my Greyhound bus ticket and my return ticket to Ireland too.”

As soon as she arrived, she started working over the grill and has continued ever since. Gilliland’s Cafe opened its doors in 1984, and she began her own catering company soon after. It was an immediate success, providing Christmas puddings to Bloomingdales, Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s in New York, but it was her mix of California and Irish cuisines that really established Gerri’s reputation on a national scale.

The cantina-style Lula Cocina was next in 1991, and 1994 saw Jake and Annie’s American-Irish Café, which eventually become Finn McCool’s and officially opened under this name a few days before St. Patrick’s Day in 2002.

As for any ghosts or strange stories, Spill hadn’t ever heard anything about Merlin McFly’s, but Gilliland – who has now been here for nearly 20 years – had:

“There were ghosts in the bathrooms. It was said that every time you washed your hands and looked in the mirror, an apparition appeared.”

The bathrooms at Finn McCool’s are in the same place as they were when Merlin was weaving his spells, but after emailing John Forbes at Bonny Doon Art Glass I found out exactly where the ghosts came from:

“The bathrooms had special effects in them; the mirrors were one-way and when the lights in the bathroom dimmed, the light behind the mirror came on illuminating the figure of the “ghost”. It made for startling looks on people’s faces as they saw the ghost figure appearing in the mirror!”

There was no further archival evidence of any strange events or stories here, so it seems that since this ghostly story has an earthly explanation, you’re safe in the smallest room. Still, it’s kind of a shame that the “ghost” special effect isn’t there anymore.

Forbes also recalled the Merlin stained glass image:

“The back bar had a stained glass image of Merlin and at midnight lasers would turn on, shooting red beams across the room – it looked pretty cool as it pierced through the drifting smoke. Wow, that took me back! Merlin’s was a really fun project, a lot of creative energy.”

Bathrooms aside, Finn’s certainly feels far more welcoming than a chain “Irish” pub. Not only is everyone working behind the bar from the Emerald Isle, it’s literally the same pub Geraldine has been pulling pints in since she was 10 years old.

Back then it was called Flynn’s Corner House and was in a small village near Newry, County Down. When her stepfather retired, Gilliland had the teak bar and its furniture shipped piece-by-piece to America via the Panama Canal, then re-named it after the legendary Irish giant.

If you’ve just spent a day on the beach and fancy a great pint of Guinness (or one of their 75 whiskies) then “Finn’s” is the place. From the menu you can try some traditional “fayre” like Irish Stew, fish and chips in a “newspaper” wrapper (just like the old days) or several dishes that take an unusual twist on some Irish/California favorites: Celtic Quesadillas, Galway Wings and Finn’s Blarney Skins (the Blarney Skins feature real Irish bacon, which is leaner and less salty). There are also mini-Yorkshire Puddings with a topping of roast beef available as a “Wee Bite” – I’ll leave you to figure out what they are!

One of the most popular dishes here is boxty, an Irish potato pancake that comes with delicious fillings like seafood, chicken, beef or curried vegetable (perfect for brunch). Add in a basket of soda bread and you have a real taste of Ireland (and of course there’s traditional Irish music and dancing too).