The Irish Pub location at 1123 Walnut St. has closed after 38-plus years, as managing partner Mark O’Connor seeks balance in his life by running only one restaurant: the Irish Pub across town at 2007 Walnut St.
The finale was July 18.
Townsend Wentz, the chef and restaurateur who operates Oloroso next door as well as Townsend on East Passyunk Avenue and A Mano on Fairmount Avenue, is buying the building. Wentz said he would operate it as a bar in the short term starting in early August to coincide with the run of Hamilton at the Forrest Theater. He is keeping long-term plans close to the vest.
Wentz said he would take possession in three weeks. Veronica Blum and Kenneth Mallin of MPN Realty brokered the deal.
In 1980, O’Connor was 23, a graduate of Rutgers, and working at the Irish Pub in Atlantic City when owners Richard and Catherine Burke decided to open in a former millinery shop in Center City Philadelphia. They signed O’Connor and Mark Grabowski, another longtime employee, to operate it — but not as managers.
“It was a huge risk. They wanted us to have skin in the game,” O’Connor said. “He asked me how much money I had. I told him and he said that would be enough.” Grabowski left the business in the late 1980s.
Center City was a much different scene in 1980. The neighborhood pubs were few, notably Doc Watson’s, now closed, and McGillin’s Olde Ale House, still open after 159 years. The Irish Pub became a hangout for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which was nearby.
“I see these guys on the street now, and I say to myself, ‘He looks old,’” O’Connor said. He paused. “So do I.”
Decor featured a beautifully carved wooden back bar, brass appointments, and old newspapers and playbills as wall decoration. The early menu offered a “steerburger” with melted cheese, coleslaw, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion and a side of fries for $2.50, a $1.75 BLT, and a $2.75 Reuben. That steerburger is $9 now.
The 20th and Walnut Street location opened in 1984. O’Connor and his wife, Susan, have operated both since the late 1980s. (Seven of Susan O’Connor’s eight siblings have worked at the pub, as have three of the O’Connors’ four children.) Rick Burke, son of the Burkes, has also been a part of the restaurants.
Mark O’Connor settled into a life of frequent seven-day workweeks. Not that he is complaining. “I was OK with that,” O’Connor said, admitting to workaholism. “It’s actually good for me to work all the time. The last time I had four days off [in a row] was before my son [Colin, 24] was born.”
The work ethic is one reason that O’Connor and the Burkes simply didn’t hire a manager. “Younger people want more balance," O’Connor said. “They want two days off.” The three sons — Colin, Gar, and Aidan — have worked at the pubs but are not following in the business, he said. Their daughter, Sabrina, 12, has shown interest and helps Susan with the pubs’ charity work.
Since 1987, the pubs have sponsored the Ben to the Shore Bike Tour, which benefits the families of fallen first responders and needy children to the tune of about $1 million a year. The pubs also back the Police Youth Alliance.