Photos: The Legends Behind Tom Bergin's Public House, Celebrating 80 Years
This week, one of L.A.'s oldest and most beloved bars celebrates 80 years of Irish coffees, loyal regulars, and plenty of legends.
Thursday marks the official 80th anniversary of Tom Bergin's Public House, the historic tavern on Fairfax Avenue, that for decades has been a favorite of locals and celebrities looking to grab a pint and a bite. LAist spoke to Derek Schreck, the current owner (or steward, as he prefers), to dig into the history of this storied and iconic L.A. institution. Schreck, who had been a regular himself, saved the bar from closure when he bought it in 2013.
"I was initially attracted to Tom Bergin's because of the history," Shreck tells LAist. "And a lot of places that are rooted in history, its just there in the walls, but Tom Bergin's is different in that it's been in continuous operation and it has a real human quality to it."
Known as "The House of Irish Coffee" for their signature drink reputedly brought to the bar from the Emerald Isle, the charming Tudor-style bar is also well known for the hundreds of green cardboard shamrocks featuring the names of regulars that cover the ceiling and rafters. From Cary Grant to Bill Murray, celebrities have joined the ranks of longtime fans of Tom Bergin's, who have covered nearly every inch with the lucky placards. Grant even had his own reserved booth, above which his shamrock hangs, and Ronald Reagan received his own shamrock while in the Oval Office for his many nights spent at Bergin's as a young actor.
Carey Grant's shamrock above his favorite booth (Photo by Perhansa Skallerup/LAist)
The first shamrock was placed in 1957 when regular Bud Wiser—yes, that's his name—was drinking with Bergin and suggested that his name be hung on the wall. An impromptu shamrock was created and so began a long-standing tradition where upstanding regulars can be nominated by a staff member and then the entire staff votes to determine if they are shamrock worthy. Meanwhile, Bud is still a regular customer.
Tom Bergin's walls are also home to quite a bit of sports memorabilia, including the original championship banner of the 1951 Los Angeles Rams. Bergin was an athlete himself and friends with many in the world of sports, including Dan Reeves, owner of the Rams at the time. After winning the championship in 1951, the team celebrated at the tavern and hung the felt banner there. The original Rams bar will surely be a destination for fans now that the Rams are returning to L.A.
The original 1951 Rams NFL Championship Banner (Photo courtesy of Tom Bergin's)
Bergin's family, originally from County Kerry in Ireland, moved to Boston where they owned a wine and port company and the old Commercial Brewery and the Old Horseshoe Tavern in Haymarket. In Boston, Bergin attended college, but school was cut short as WWI broke out and ended up in the Naval Air force as a Golden Eagle, one of the first pilots in the war. Following the war, he finished his degree and went to Boston University for law school. And in 1927, headed out to L.A. where he began practicing law.
One of Bergin's passions was horse racing, and he soon became a regular at the Del Mar racetrack where he quickly became friends with Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien. The two actors wanted a place to hang out in Hollywood while they were working, while at the same time, Tom wanted to open up a tavern like his dad's in Boston. So with that, Tom received a liquor license on February 11, 1935—considered second-oldest in L.A.—and a year later opened Tom Bergin's Old Horseshoe Tavern & Thoroughbred Club at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, where LACMA now stands.
The tavern was a big hit with the Hollywood crowd at the time as a fine dining destination. Bergin was eventually asked to head up the food program at Del Mar, but after a while he felt stretched too thin. Ultimately, Bergin decided to drop his law practice and Del Mar, and instead focus on his tavern and set his sights on expansion.
In 1945, Bergin bought the property where the bar now stands—one of the first sold on that stretch of Fairfax—in convenient proximity to plenty of homes, the Carthay Circle movie palace, and Gilmore Field—where The Grove now sits.
Bergin designed the new location so that nearly every single fixture, each booth and even the weather vane from the original bar could be relocated. And as legend has it, a group of 20 regulars helped to disassemble the massive oak, horseshoe-shaped bar and carried it down Fairfax on poles to the new location. It's amazing what a bit of liquid courage will do.
Bergin continued to operate his tavern until 1972, always the charming host to locals and celebrities alike, when he decided to pass the torch on to a pair of regulars who bought the bar. Since then the bar has passed through a few ownerships and briefly closed for periods of remodel and uncertainty, but is now as thriving as ever. And while Tom has since passed to the Old Horseshoe Tavern In The Sky, many employees and regulars have said that they still feel his presence. Schreck tells LAist that despite checking the wiring of the neon sign out front, when the bar is slow, the "Tom" of the light goes out, and when they're slammed, it comes back on. Cleaning crews have also claimed to have mysteriously heard their names called out late at night.
"People also smell cigarette smoke near Tom's old barstool, despite the fact that there's no smoking in L.A.," Schreck tells us. "So we leave a shamrock shaped ashtray that belonged to my great-grandparents there on the back corner of the bar just as a superstition."
Bergin's daughter and grandchildren still come into the bar on a regular basis. "It's become a real, true pub," Schreck explains Tom Bergin's ongoing popularity with a wide cross section of people. "It's the old regulars, the new regulars, and everyone gets along and everyone has a great time. And I can't think of another place where you can get that on a regular basis."
While there won't be any formal celebration this Thursday for the anniversary, Schreck encourages regulars and first-timers to stop by for an Irish Coffee and some of their classic beer-battered fish 'n chips. And this Saturday, February 13 from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., they'll be hosting their second annual S.A.D. (Single Awareness Day) Party with drink specials and a chance to throw old love letters from ex's into the roaring fireplace. You'll also want to stay tuned for their 80th St. Patrick's Day celebration, sure to be a big one, featuring a Guinness truck, drink specials and an special Irish breakfast to kick things off starting at 6 a.m.
Tom Bergin's is located at 840 S. Fairfax Avenue, Mid-Wilshire