At 7:30 p.m., people begin to stand two bodies deep at the bar, popping out through knuckles of space like olives in a fist. It's an impressive draw for a weekend night, let alone a Thursday. It's just short of amazing when you consider that this particular bar opened one week ago.
The word is out. O'Niell's Pub is back.
“It's nice to be an independent [business] and see the support that we opened up with,” says the eponymous pub's owner, Robert O'Niell. “It's phenomenal.”
But it's not surprising. Not to his customers, anyway. The original O'Niell's Pub built its reputation as a Nob Hill hangout, where it enjoyed a decade of loyal patronage from the neighborhood. When Robert O'Niell's lease wasn't renewed for another year, the pub found itself without a home.
“We had the best two months after we announced our closing,” he says. “People poured in because they wanted to get their O'Niell's fix before it went away.” O'Niell's last day in the building came exactly 10 years after he first moved in; from December of ’94 to December of ’04.
“I wouldn't have moved out of choice,” he says with some pensiveness, working through the words internally. (The details of the closing remain a touchy subject for those involved. Still, O'Niell says it's all water under the bridge now. No sniveling, right?) He had tried to open an O'Niell's Uptown in the past—a replication of the pub set between Albuquerque's twin Northeast Heights malls--but didn't like the result. It just wasn't the same. The identity of the place was too clearly linked to its location.
So a few questions resurfaced on the morning of Jan.1, 2005: Was O'Niell's Pub transportable? Or had the pub's greatest blessing suddenly become its downfall?
So far, the answers seem to be yes, and no, respectively. You can find the new pub on Central, several blocks east of its old home, in the lingering gray area between Nob Hill and East Central. The neighborhood is, as some say, “up and coming.”
“I'm a little confused about what I should be calling it. I call it East Nob Hill for the lack of a better term,” Rob admits in his typical laissez-faire style. The building he settled on is now both barely recognizable (for what it used to be, a colosseum-themed gay club) and very familiar (for its many similarities to the original pub).
He describes the new space as a maturity of the old one. Some of the new features include a sizable Central-facing patio and a much larger kitchen to accommodate it. All the remodeling work was done by O'Niell and his brother, both contractors by trade. “It was an exciting process,” he says, but admits, “I'm glad it's coming to an end, because it was a lot of work.”
Despite its newness, there's already a rhythm to the room. The swell of conversation, clinking glass, laughter, sighs of indignation (real or feigned) and loose, wagging fingers—plus memories from a decade’s worth of nights just like it—swaddles the bar’s patrons like a blanket. To Robert O'Niell, that sound is as much a part of the pub as the furniture or the beer. It's what makes his job worth doing.
“One of my favorite things to do is just stand aside, watch the tables from afar and listen to the conversations of the group,” he says, smiling out into the room. “It's like they would be at home, like a family. When I see the restaurant filled up with that, [I know] that's the reason why I came back--the customers. They needed a place to do that.”
And they needed a place to eat, too! Of course, there are all the old standouts like fish and chips and the “Burger in Paradise.” They're still here and as good as they ever were. But I liked coming back to the pub's less-famous fare even more. Tractor Brewing's O'Niell's Irish Red is a perfectly balanced beer drunk by itself or with everything from chicken wings to chocolate cake. Or the “Lucky Seven Stuffed Potatoes” (which, to my knowledge, is not related to the Alibi's “Lucky 7” calendar): boiled red-skinned potatoes which are halved and scooped with a melonballer, filled with horseradish mashed potatoes and topped with melted cheddar cheese. Taste and bar-friendliness make this dish work well. But look closer--a smooth, tangy mash crowned with golden yellow on a white, waxy ellipse. These spuds are harboring an inside joke ... about deviled eggs. Ingenious! They're comforting, a little cheeky and unapologetically Irish-American. Just like O'Niell's Pub.
It's telling that immediately upon walking up to the bar the next night, I fall into a conversation with a woman I've never met. Like an angel from Bacchanalian heaven, she hands me a fresh cocktail. “Do you want it?” she asks, explaining that her friend had to leave before she could enjoy it. I'm almost half her age and dressed like it's laundry day. She's fresh off from work in a nice, tailored suit. It doesn't seem to make a lick of difference. “That's why I like it here,” she says as we toast martini glasses. “It's a really diverse group of people, all just hanging out together.”
“It's fun to be back because the customers are so eclectic and everyone's nice,” echoes O'Niell. I ask him how he's been able to maintain such an ideal client base, but he can't quite put his finger on it. He offers a few possibilities, from a staff that stretches into years of employment to the lack of televisions. I'm surprised to see he's right: There are no televisions to be found anywhere. It's an important but barely perceptible detail. Without the distraction of television, people are encouraged to talk to each other. Imagine that.
Whatever it is that makes this place special, Robert O’Niell is not in a hurry to figure it out. “It's funny how in life things happen for a reason. Maybe an unfortunate set of circumstances will turn into a big win for O'Niell’s and this neighborhood.” Perhaps, with a little Irish luck, it can.