In the six years of Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Bars Taverns and Pubs, I have found that while there are some bars which leave a bit to be desired (such as my last visit to Portland’s Slow Bar), there are none for which I regret my visit(s). Most of the bars or breweries are admirable small businesses, which radiate warmth, character and are replete with stories of the owners, regulars or the trappings of the watering hole itself.
Such is the case with Northeast Portland’s “T.C. O’Leary’s – A Little Irish Pub.” Located on 29th and NE Alberta, the pub has interesting space, an excellent patio, innovative music and activities, and the background of Thomas Christopher O’Leary, the owner/manager, including the story of how he got to Portland and his PDX connections, could fill a small book.
Some people will remember this space as the former Branch Whiskey, which was also managed by Tom and was a favorite neighborhood spot known for its classy selection of hard liquor which Tom has retained. As one Yelp reviewer opined in May, 2016, “Branch is an amazing spot for sophisticated food and cocktails in a casual atmosphere.”
Tom has a strong background in managing bars and hospitality based on years working in bars in Ireland, New York City and Los Angeles. When the opportunity arose in 2016, he with the advice and financial help of family connections who had confidence in the investment potential, became the owner and changed the name and theme to that of an Irish Pub. The bar would be a family-friendly neighborhood gathering place and would not serve pub or bistro grub, but authentic Irish food.
And those “family connections” are some of Portland’s finest citizens ranging from his wife, Siobhan’s, mom and dad – Anne Kelly Feeney and Dick Feeney to uncles Tom and John Kelly and aunt Susan Kelly – all individuals celebrated for their sustained community and public service and entrepreneurship.
(Tom is the President of the Neil Kelly Co. started in 1947 by his father with a $100 investment and which is now nationally recognized for its award-winning design and innovative practices in home remodeling).
Anne was the Multnomah County Auditor for two terms and later served as CEO of Loaves and Fishes. I remember Dick when he was the Public Affairs Director for Tri-Met and a skilled and effective lobbyist for the agency in the 1970’s and I worked for the Clackamas County Commissioners.
Besides being an investor, Dick has stopped by the bar almost every day since its opening. He stuck his head into the Snug that day to say “hello” to our group. The couple now devotes much of their time to charitable work. http://www.catholicsentinel.org/Content/Faith-Spirituality/Living-Faith/Article/Faith-fuels-their-ongoing-public-service/4/29/18615
In the short time since the bar’s “soft opening” – the day after Thanksgiving in 2016 – Tom and Siobhan O’Leary have taken big steps in achieving their goals for the bar. Let’s look at two other Yelp reviews which reflect the overall sentiments of those commenting on the social media site:
“This establishment is pretty fantastic….Ever changing specials, Guinness on tap and entertaining live music including a fiddler! You’ll find it here. The fish and chips are delicious. Their Shepard’s Pie is delectable and the service is outstanding. It is nice to know that you aren’t just a customer here, this is your friends and family. ” (7/10/17)
“Sweet addition to the Alberta neighborhood! Really nice genuine people own the place and their actually Irish- full accent and all! I have never eaten Irish food before. I really enjoyed the Vegetarian Blaa beet sandwich on soda bread and the fresh garlic and herb fries were pretty damn tasty!” (6/30/17)
And on my first visit with retired Portland lawyer, Chuck Mitchell, who had not been Beerchasing since our 2012 visit to 1856 – a NE Bottle Shop. We both concurred that the fish and chips – one of T.C. O’Leary’s specialties – was superb. Just looking at the menu with items such as Guinness Braised Beef, Bacon and Cabbage, Shepherds Pie and Haddock Chowder made my mouth water and made me come close to addressing Chuck as “Paddy…”
Besides those mentioned above, Tom talked about the compliments they receive on their bread roll and baked beans. Their Saturday and Sunday brunch (Irish breakfast) is a neighborhood favorite with pork sausage and black pudding (pig) as favorite menu items. They also have a good Happy Hour menu from 4:00 to 6:00 and all food items are $5, including a new offering of a half order of fish and chips and the “new O’Leary’s hot dog.”
Adding to the Irish authenticity on my second visit was our server, a wonderful young woman named Caoiimhe (that’s the Gaelic spelling for Quiva) who is a third-year Trinity College student visiting and working in the US for three months before her final year in college. Trinity is the oldest (1592) and most prestigious university in Ireland.
Besides Guinness, the bar has nine other beers on tap, (I tried my first Feckin Bewing beer – a tasty “Top of the Feckin Mornin”) several wines, a cider and numerous specialty and classic cocktails plus an amazing selection of liquor – try a shot of Whistle Pig Farm’s 2012 Boss Hog Rye for $48, which will allow you to see if you want to invest in an entire bottle which runs between $100 and $200…..
Our group on the second visit, besides my wife, Janet, comprised a number of Beerchasing regulars including the Faust clan (Jack and Alice, daughter Amy and her husband, Kevin) Jim and Janet Westwood (the combination of Faust and Westwood meant that we had two of the most respected appellate lawyers in Oregon on our side in the event of post-visit litigation….) and intellectual property lawyer, John Mansfield.
Mansfield, preoccupied with establishing his new practice at Harris Bricken, had not accompanied me to a watering hole for some time although he had made his mark at three noted dive bars – The Ship in Multnomah Village, the Slammer in SE Portland and Billy Ray’s Neighborhood Dive Bar. (click on the names for a link to the posts)
He also Beerchased at the classic Mock Crest Tavern and finally at Church – a great SE bar where he tried to emulate Martin Luther by posting 95 patents on the entrance to commemorate the renowned theologian’s 95 Theses at Wittenburg.
Westwood and Mansfield, both Ivy League law graduates (Columbia and Cornell respectively), obviously did not talk about their law schools’ undergraduate sports teams, but we all harkened back to Mansfield’s more creative undergraduate days at the University of Oregon where he played in a rock band and majored in music composition and theory. He is a talented musician.
The picture below (I think taken by one of his clients) shows he is not a traditional, staid member of the Bar.
It also is evidence that Amy Faust, who is a co-host on the Mike and Amy Show on 99.5 The Wolf, will not be spinning any of the tunes on his Pandora playlist on her stint at the crack of dawn each weekday morning. (She and Mike just received the 2017 Country Music Association 2017 Broadcast Personality of the Year for a Major Market.) Interestingly enough, Amy and John played together in a band for their respective daughters’ school event where Amy dusted off her mandolin and they both sang.
It should also be noted that both Jack and Amy Faust and Westwood have been prior Beechaser-of-the-Quarter “honorees.” To see their stories, click on the licks here.
Tom had kindly reserved one of the distinctive features of his bar for us – The Snug – a comfortable and fabulously quirky little alcove at the front of the bar which is a tradition in Irish pubs. It accommodates about twelve people and provides a wonderful small-group nook that allows a modicum of privacy while still facilitating enjoyment of the T.C. O’Leary ambiance. (Call ahead to reserve it)
Although the bar with its fifteen authentic whiskey-barrel tables, historic family pictures and memorabilia is a cool place to sit, another good place to congregate is on the patio at the back, which T.C.’s essentially shares with the adjoining bistros on either side.
Speaking of décor, I noted the red athletic tool that looked a little like a hockey stick hanging above the bar. Tom said it was a “hurling stick” and I didn’t hear him, so naively asked if he said it was a “Curling broom,” to which he replied, “God no!” Probably the reason for the vehemence of the response was that the pace and action of the sports are total contradictions. “Hurling is an outdoor team game of ancient Gaelic and Irish origin and is the fastest field sport in the world. It is administered by the Gaelic Athletic Association. The game has prehistoric origins, and has been played for 3,000 years.” Wikipedia
Of course, the theme of this bar begs the question, “What is it like on St. Paddy’s Day?” Tom said they had about seven times the number of patrons on the first celebration of this “sacred” event since their opening, and it was kind of a three-day celebration. They also moved a separate bar out to the patio and there was a line down Alberta Street.
And Tom, like many of the owners or bartenders I have met so far on this six-year journey, has a great story. Of course, the most unusual aspect of it was the notoriety he accrued in his six years starring as Dr. Brendan Daly on Ireland’s most popular soap opera, Fair City.
Tom grew up in Killeny. “During years working as an actor in Dublin – from small theatres to six years playing Dr. Brendan Daly on Ireland’s most popular soap opera, Fair City, Tom and fellow performers communed at local pubs, drinking pints like they would never age.
For his wedding reception, a magical pub in the West of Ireland suited him and his new wife better than any hotel.” (T.C. O’Leary’s website)
“Fair City is the most watched drama in Ireland, with average viewing figures of 550,000….. tackling many controversial and taboo issues previously unseen on Irish television, such as rape.” Wikipedia
Siobhan, his wife of ten years, first met Tom in Ireland when she spent nine months at Trinity College. Tom knew her sister, Catie, and agreed to show Siobhan around Dublin. Tom had a girlfriend at the time, but he and Siobhan had an “instant connection.” Tom lived in a big house with extra rooms and offered (partly as a gesture to her sister) to let Siobhan be a boarder. Her sister told Siobhan somewhat jokingly, “You will fall in love with Tom.”
Catie was correct . Tom broke up with his current girlfriend. Siobhan in the subsequent term, got her lowest grades at Trinity. They decided to pull a practical joke and Siobhan told Catie that she detested her landlord (Tom) and couldn’t wait to leave. For the next month, the fiction gained momentum until her mom, Anne, insisted that she was going to fly over to Dublin to rescue her “baby.” As with many practical jokes, after Siobhan revealed the truth, the family was not amused although fortunately, they approved of the relationship.
They moved to New York City where Tom had some acting gigs and worked in bars on the Lower East Side. That’s where the dream of owning an Irish pub first crept into his consciousness.
With family on the west coast, they moved to LA for three years, where Tom worked in high-end bars, working two jobs six nights per week with the goal of building collateral to own his own Irish Pub. And now they had a little girl in the family……
Moving to Portland in the summer of 2014, Siobhan labored at an office job while Tom worked construction. (Contrary to the popular belief, good bartending jobs are not that easy to get in the Rose City.)
Anne Feeney knew the manager of Branch Whiskey, and with his extensive experience in bars, he hired Tom immediately which began a two-year stint until the owner announced he was closing.
Tom got good advice from his investors and negotiated successfully. After only a three-week interim closure, they were back in business with some new trappings thanks to a great work by their general contractor Megan Beaver of Eight Penny Nail, and T.C. O’Leary’s “Little Irish Pub,” has become a neighborhood fixture ever since.
I was somewhat critical of the last bar visited on Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Bars, Taverns and Pubs i.e. Slow Bar on Grand Avenue. While it is known for its great hamburger, I questioned whether the bar lived up to its potential by simply relying on its notorious burger and a juke box known for its collection of Heavy Metal selections.
Let’s examine some of the activity Tom has orchestrated at TC’s compared with Slow Bar’s “hot” juke box as a comparison:
On Tuesday nights, TC’s hosts a James Joyce book club in the Snug and they plow through about fifteen pages reading Joyce’s classic Ulysses with each participant reading his or her selection until the egg-timer rings for the next reader to start. (Maybe it takes longer because James Joyce, according to one recent article I read, is an “exclamation point fanatic.”)
Of the ten authors with the most prolific use of exclamation points ranging from Elmore Leonard – 10th place to Virginia Wolf – sixth place to F. Scott Fitzgerald – 4th place, Joyce came in first with 1,105 exclamation points per 100,000 words in his three novels!!! — What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt, published March, 2017. (Read the book and you will also learn stuff like Nabokov’s favorite word was “mauve.”)
Every second Monday night, they have Irish music with a fiddler with the other Mondays devoted to other local musicians. On Thursday evenings patrons see a specialty act – Michael Sheridan, a unique and nationally recognized singer-songwriter who has packed them in according to Tom. https://www.facebook.com/events/1917437525206189/
If my two visits are typical, you should definitely drop by TC O’Leary’s where Tom will greet you as he does every patron at the door. This personable Irishman, entrepreneur and former actor can give you advice on which draft beer or one of their specialty cocktails will enhance your visit.