Tom Bergin's: The Story of an L.A. Icon

Tom Bergin's - The House of Irish Coffee
Photo courtesy of Tom Bergin's, Facebook

It might be easier to get into Harvard than it is to earn a shamrock at Tom Bergin's — but you'll probably have more fun trying to achieve the latter. "It doesn't have to do with how much you drink or how much you spend," says Michael O'Dwyer. The man should know. He's worked at the Fairfax Avenue bar longer than anyone else: 26 years and counting.

How can you join the likes of John Wayne, Julia Roberts and Cary Grant and get your name on one of the roughly 1,300 shamrocks that line the interior of the pub? "It's a consensus of the bartenders and waiters. If we like someone personally, we put them up on the wall," O'Dwyer says.

"Whenever anybody asks me," O'Dwyer says, "I always tell them, 'These shamrocks are all the people I slept with. This here's the way I keep track.' And they say, 'Aren't there a lot of guys?' I say, 'What's your point? It's California.'"

About to turn 80, O'Dwyer came into the world the same year as the bar where he works. It was 1936 and Tom Bergin, a former aviator and practicing lawyer, wanted a watering hole that reminded him of the Boston pubs of his youth. His family had left Ireland's County Kerry for Boston, where they opened the Commercial Brewery and the Old Horseshoe Tavern in Haymarket Square.

Tom Bergin and Bing Crosby at Del Mar in 1937
Tom Bergin and Bing Crosby at Del Mar in 1937 | Photo courtesy of Tom Bergin's

In 1936, after securing what is supposedly the second oldest liquor license in L.A., Bergin opened Tom Bergin's Old Horseshoe Tavern & Thoroughbred Club. (A horseracing fan, he briefly oversaw the fine dining restaurant at the Del Mar racetrack at the request of his friend Bing Crosby.) The bar was originally located at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. In 1949, Bergin decamped for bigger digs and moved the bar south on Fairfax, where it still stands.

"You have a great, eclectic crowd that comes here," O'Dwyer says. "Young people, old people. People with money, people without money. White, black, brown, yellow. You make new friends here. It's just got that vibe to it. It's a great mix. It's also a great mick's, I like to say."

Over the years, Tom Bergin's has had only a handful of owners but plenty of regulars. One of them was O'Dwyer. In 1977 he was a Chicago actor shooting a movie in L.A. He and his pal Dennis Franz — they were both playing police officers in The Fury, a thriller about kids with paranormal abilities and the government agents trying to control them — when they stumbled into Tom Bergin's.

"I said 'Man, if I don't make it as an actor in this town, I'm coming to work in this place.'" O'Dwyer says. Thirteen years later, he did just that. You'll still find him behind the bar, three nights a week: "Customers who were there when I started working there still come in. A lot of them have become friends, not just acquaintances at the bar."

Booths at Tom Bergin's
Photo courtesy of Tom Bergin's

Being a regular also helps if you want to run the joint. In 1973, Tom Bergin retired and passed the shillelagh to tavern regulars Mike Mandekic and T.K. Vodrey. After 39 years, Vodrey sold the place to restaurateur Warner Ebbink, who runs Dominick's, Little Dom's and the 101 Coffee Shop. The pub underwent renovations and eventually reopened with a more upscale menu and a newer look — but without many of the patrons who had kept the place afloat.

"They tried to take a place that was pretty much a neighborhood saloon, a place that was very Cheers-like, and make it into a five-star restaurant," O'Dwyer says. Tom Bergin's closed in June 2013. Again, it was a customer who picked up the torch.

Longtime regular Derek Schreck, an actor with a handful of small movie roles, had dreamt of opening a bar. He bought the place and revamped the interiors and exteriors as well as the menu while trying to recapture the bar's original ambiance. In January 2014, Tom Bergin's reopened and, according to O'Dwyer, many of its regulars have returned.

Irish Coffee at Tom Bergin's
Irish Coffee | Photo courtesy of Tom Bergin’s

The horseshoe-shaped bar remains. The "House of Irish Coffee" continues to pour its signature drink. The vibe is still low-key, except on St. Patrick's Day, when it's a zoo. But Schreck has added a few things. A rotating selection of craft beers to satisfy discerning hop heads. A menu that features Brussels sprouts with goat cheese and a seasonal black kale salad to go along with staples such as shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash. And Schreck, a whiskey obsessive, has curated a selection of nearly 200 Irish, Scotch, Canadian and American whiskeys.

He also revamped the building’s attic, which used to be a private office, into Vestry, a members-only whiskey club. It requires a $1,000 annual buy-in but reportedly comes with a personalized seersucker jacket and access to a collection of ultra-rare American whiskeys.

Shamrocks at Tom Bergin's bar
Photo courtesy of Tom Bergin's

On the eve of its 80th birthday, Tom Bergin's, once again, feels like the ultimate neighborhood watering hole. "To me, Bergin's is the closest thing to an authentic Irish pub in L.A.," O'Dwyer says. "There are a lot of pretenders but here you get what you get." Keep coming back and everybody really will know your name. It’s just that kind of place.