By Aaron Blevins, 7/11/2013
Tavern owner addresses Mid-City West audience
Supporters and patrons of Tom Bergin’s Tavern on Tuesday expressed their grievances regarding the closure of the 77-year-old hangout to the Mid-City West Community Council.
The restaurant and bar, known for its atmosphere, history and the shamrocks hanging from the ceiling and walls, closed on Sunday, less than a week after its owner announced his decision.
Marisa O’Brien, a New York native, was first brought to Tom Bergin’s by her brother after she moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago. She would eventually go on to work there as a bartender and server.
“That’s how I was introduced, and it just felt like home,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it in L.A.”
Among her group of friends, three marriages and six babies have their roots at the restaurant and bar. O’Brien said regulars and staff members also came out in droves to support her fight against breast cancer.
“It was family,” she said. “It was home.”
Patron Matthew Meltzer said the relationships that he has created at Tom Bergin’s have “enriched my life immeasurably.” He called on the council to do what it can to retain the tavern.
“Please don’t let them turn that bar into a Verizon store or condos or anything like that,” Meltzer said. “Any regulatory hurdle you can throw their way, please do it.”
Michael O’Dwyer said he had bartended at Tom Bergin’s for approximately 23 years. He told several stories, most notably one about a divorced woman who was “husband hunting.” One day, a man sat down near her, and O’Dwyer said he could tell something was not right about the individual. The woman asked the man if he was OK, and he admitted that he had just killed his wife, the bartender said.
“And she said, ‘So you’re single?’ Little things like that go on at Bergin’s all the time,” he said, generating lots of laughs. “We want more of it. We don’t want anybody else killed, but we want more of that fun. So do whatever you can; keep this freaking place open. I need a job.”
Warner Ebbink, the current owner of Tom Bergin’s, also spoke. He said he agreed with the sentiments already expressed by the other 12 speakers, but the restaurant could not sustain itself.
Ebbink said he put $4 million into the renovations, and since the restaurant and bar re-opened a year and a half ago, he was losing $20,000 to $30,000 per month.
“I’m sorry I went out of business,” he added. “It was never my intention.”
Whether it was the economy or that the patrons didn’t like the changes that were made, the business wasn’t enough, despite people’s enthusiasm for the tavern, Ebbink said. He referenced his dentist, who called him the day of the closure. His dentist said he loved Tom Bergin’s, but he had only visited the tavern once since college.
“I said, ‘You’re 63 years old. You haven’t been back in forty years, but you love it.’ I think that’s great, but it doesn’t translate into a business,” Ebbink said. “For that, I’m sorry. I thought it was a slam-dunk. I thought for sure it would happen. And I apologize that it didn’t happen.”
Some in the audience were pushing for the council to consider working to have the restaurant and bar designated as historical. Ebbink said the designation will only retain the building, not what is inside. He said he is actively searching for someone to take over the operations.
“Nobody’s in escrow to buy it right now,” Ebbink said, adding that Tom Bergin’s is not involved in the nearby Shalhevet High School project proposal. “There’s a lot of people who want to buy it, and I’m looking at those people. But I want it to be an operator who’s going to continue Tom Bergin’s. I didn’t sink $4 million into it to tear it down.”
Tim Deegan, chairman of the Mid-City West Community Council, said Mid-City West would refer the historical designation proposal to the council’s land-use committee if stakeholders requested it. He said the committee would request that any new owners come before the committee to discuss their plans for the property.
“It’s just good business in any event,” Deegan said during an interview. “If the stakeholders ask Mid-City West to have a hearing at the land-use committee, we would certainly try to do that at the July 22 meeting.”
While several Tom Bergin’s patrons showed up at Tuesday’s meeting, even more visited the restaurant and bar over the weekend. On Friday, many mourned the loss of the tavern while remembering the good times.
“I have faith that maybe something good will happen, you know? Somebody will buy it and make it historic or reopen it or something like that,” patron Steve Judge said on Friday, when many came to Bergin’s to pay their respects. “It’s sad. I can walk here from my house. It’s quiet on the weekends. You can sit and read and write, and nobody bothers you.”
John Kephart had been visiting Tom Bergin’s for the last 33 years, and he has a shamrock on the ceiling, as many regulars do. On Friday, he came to visit employee Chris Doyle, whom he befriended at the tavern, on Doyle’s last day of work.
“It’s really a tragedy,” Kephart said. “This place was an icon.”
He said his office used to be nearby on Wilshire Boulevard, and Tom Bergin’s was a great place for lunch or an after-work drink. Over the years, its employees and regulars have become like family, Kephart said.
“It’s just so sad,” he added.
Kephart has many memories of the tavern. He recalled when the tavern was owned by former USC football player Mike Mandekic, and a drunk and upset patron grabbed Doyle by the tie. Mandekic punched the man in the chest, sending the man backpedaling about 10 feet until he hit the door and fell outside, Kephart said.
“That was pretty memorable,” he added.
Kephart also mentioned when actor Pierce Brosnan entered the tavern and ordered a Harp, an Irish lager. He told the “GoldenEye” actor that he would have bought his drink had Brosnan ordered a martini — shaken, not stirred. Kephart said he spent the rest of the night drinking and socializing with Brosnan.
He said several celebrities, such as actor Kiefer Sutherland, also frequented the tavern. Many were “very approachable” and “very friendly,” Kephart said.
As far as the menu, he will miss the Bergin Burger, which was made with a secret ingredient — peanut butter.
“It sounds horrible, but it was actually really good,” Kephart said.
Larchmont resident George Plato had been visiting Tom Bergin’s for 40 years. He too was among the patrons to visit the tavern one last time, though many hope that is not the case.
“This was our hang-out,” Plato said. “We came here after basketball games. We came here after dates. We’d all drop off our dates and meet here for the last round. Barney was our bartender. He was great.”
When he married his wife, Marion, she also became accustomed to the tavern. She said many people in the community have fond memories of Tom Bergin’s.
“It’s like a ‘Cheers’ bar, where you go in and everybody knows you,” Marion Plato said.
In fact, according to the Tom Bergin’s Facebook page, the tavern’s horseshoe bar was the inspiration behind the bar in “Cheers”. Since 1949, Tom Bergin’s has been located on Fairfax Avenue, and in 1973, it was sold to T.K. Vodrey, who then sold it to Ebbink.
The restaurant and bar had closed for renovations in 2011 and reopened more than one year later. George Plato visited after the reopening, and noticed a big difference.
He said the food was “bad,” so he called the owner to share his concerns. George Plato said the owner promised him a gift card, but he wasn’t interested in using it.
“It was not good the night we were here,” he added. “It was disappointing. …Maybe they were just going through changes, and you always give people in restaurants second chances [but it was] a bummer. I hope they can sell it to somebody who can take it over. …I hate to see it go.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, 4th District, was not a regular at the tavern, but he’s had its Irish coffee and has dined there with family several times over the years. He’s hopeful that new owners will take over and retain the tavern’s appeal.
“I do believe there’s an opportunity to open up, if the right person comes along,” LaBonge said, adding that he and his seven brothers had dinner there approximately three years ago. “Everybody loves Tom Bergin’s.”
As Steve Judge sipped his beer, he said although he is a new regular, he hoped it wasn’t his last beer at Tom Bergin’s.
“If this is forever, like a permanent close, then rest in peace,” he said.