McCarthy’s, a small, durable antique, is a microcosm of all that comprises a happy bar, and one which brings joy to a community of serious drinkers
By Dell Franklin
I have a love affair with bars, am a connoisseur of bars, have drank in the bowels of New York City and Chicago and everywhere in San Francisco, and in Dublin and small towns in Ireland, in London and Edinburgh and in country inns and pubs, in rousing beer houses in Munich, murky jazz and juke joints in Amsterdam, brothels in Barcelona, and in bistros in Paris and in small hamlets in Brittany and Normandy, and I have hit small town beer bars and snakepits and honkytonks throughout America, can smell out a good bar and a good crowd like a bloodhound sniffing after a wounded deer, and it also helps that I spent some 25 years bartending in privately owned street bars in Manhattan Beach and Morro Bay.
So, from experience, and this fondness of bars, of these care facilities for lost souls, unpaid storytellers and philosophers, wounded lovers and washed up jocks, and general partakers of the golden glow, I can state with sadness that possibly the best bar in San Luis Obispo is moving out of its beloved and strategic stronghold in the heart of downtown.
McCarthy’s, a small, durable antique, is a microcosm of all that comprises a happy bar, and one which brings joy to a community of serious drinkers. McCarthy’s appeals to every social strata, and plays no favorites. Lawyers, nearby city hall employees, business owners, manual laborers and students commingle in McCarthy’s in total harmony and are pleased to accept this institution as part of their everyday ritual and heritage. It is every man’s and every woman’s bar.
There is nothing fancy about McCarthy’s. It is small enough to never seem empty or forbidding, yet large enough to compress a literal throng into an unparalleled coziness. It is a basic bar, a wooden bar lined with stools visible from the front door, so that, when one walks in, one can scope out its entirety instantly to see if friends are there, or interesting women, or interesting people. Always an eclectic crowd.
In general, almost all bars in San Luis are devoid of interesting people and personalities. Sorry. Most college students are not yet interesting. Not enough hard knocks. But the college students who flock to McCarthy’s at night, who mingle with locals, are a different breed than the supergeeks on the conveyor belt running continuously through the cold, corporate campus at Cal Poly. They like nothing better than to nudge up against serious rascals in McCarthy’s and sample some authenticity, perhaps allowing some rascality to rub off on themselves.
The bartenders at McCarthy’s have always seemed supremely mature and gifted in handling drunks, and trouble, of which there is usually very little. There is no snobbism among them. A bottom feeder gets the same respect and service as big spender. These bartenders are content to be part of an establishment that could be placed on the main street of any small town in Ireland, as well as downtown Dublin. There is a certain pride and tradition to be maintained at McCarthy’s. Bartenders stay for decades (old Duffy stayed until his eighties) because working at McCarthy’s seems, to these bartenders, not a job, or even an occupation, but a passion, a way of life, like owning your own bar and working to protect and maintain its general welfare while at the helm.
Shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, McCarthy’s will move to a new location. The tripling of its rent after the retrofitting of its current building is driving them off. Nestled beside what was once a parking lot but is now a chichi corner hive of Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic, etc. (ala Santa Barbara), McCarthy’s will relocate a block or so off the beaten track. Everything will move, seemingly, but the walls, floor, ceiling the ridiculous restroom, and, of course, the particular aroma and character that filters in and inundates the confines with a trademark pungency, like, say, Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, or any structure that becomes a legacy to a city or small town after a half century or century of nonstop business.
You cannot move history.
There is, of course, the philosophy that everything changes, so go with the flow, and adjust. I say hogwash to that. You can move books into a new bookstore, clothes into a new building, even food into a new restaurant, but a bar is different. A bar is a landmark, a congregation, a romance, a personality, a bad habit and a good habit, headquarters for celebrations and reunions. I have worked in bars like McCarthy’s where marriages were started and lifelong bonds established.
Driving a cab in San Luis Obispo, I have picked up people who have ordered me to take them to McCarthy’s, where they “drank 30 years ago while a student at Cal Poly.” The world famous Welsh Choir (dozens of them) were lined up at the Holiday Inn, requesting our line of cabs take them to McCarthy’s after doing their act at the Performing Arts Center.
There is a bar like McCarthy’s in almost every small town or big city neighborhood in America, and when such a bar dies, something in the town dies. So now, with McCarthy’s moving to a new location, it does not mean this bar will die. But something else far more valuable is dying with its move—San Luis Obispo.
Down in Manhattan Beach, I saw numerous bars like McCarthy’s die, until a funky old party town was transformed eventually into a gated community without gates, the new drinking establishments meathouses with fancy themes catering to throngs, the music so loud no one can think. Gimmick bars. Body exchanges. Corporate owned. No sense of intimacy. A frantic grab-bag for money and sex and the asinine. A place to get lost in and feel lonely, left out, or besotted with overkill. Gone from the old beach town were the serious drinkers, the characters, the personalities, the storytellers, the philosophers, the idiots, the losers, the bottom feeders, the hilarity.
Look out San Luis Obispo—it's not McCarthy’s we’re worrying about. It will live another day in another part of town, perhaps, some day, as the last durable antique, while the rest of the community takes on the trappings of a gated community without gates. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.