He will never show up on the cover of Fortune, but Gerry Mackey just may be the most shrewd businessman in the county.
He has found a way to get his customers to work for him and to pay him for doing it.
The result is that most rare of modern institutions: a bar without a gimmick. While the rest of Southern California is peppered with bars that offer cut-rate guava daiquiris on Thursdays to women wearing aqua leotards, or laser big-screen stereo broadcasts of the immortal games of the World Football League on Fridays with complimentary saltines, Mackey--or, rather, Mackey’s customers--offer one simple, self-renewing, non-perishable commodity: sparkling conversation.
It washes gracefully around the room, appearing in the forms of expertly told anecdotes, Byzantine jokes, lengthy digressions, familiar kidding, smooth arguments, witty ripostes.
It isn’t so much social intercourse as it is a sport.
Others might call it blarney, but to the dozens of native-born Irishmen (and women) who visit Mackey’s Harp Inn in Costa Mesa, it’s known as “the crack,” and it is to them as baseball is to Americans; it’s their national pastime.
Perhaps the best way to describe the Harp Inn is to say it is an Irish bar. A real one, modeled quite intentionally on its thousands of counterparts in Ireland, where the local pub fills the role of bar, social club, living room, landmark, home base and news disseminator.
Mackey--a native of county Armagh who formerly worked for a chemical company--and his American-born wife, Pat, opened the Harp Inn, a former French restaurant, in March.
“There was a need in Orange County for an authentic Irish bar,” he said. “Something without leprechauns painted on the walls. A sort of a meeting place, which is what a pub is at home. People come here because they know other people they know are going to be here. In Ireland, the pub is a mainstay of life. It’s like an answering service in many respects.”
Mackey estimated that up to 75% of his customers are native-born Irish, particularly on weekend nights, when small bands arrive to play slightly amplified Irish music on a small stage in one corner of the room. On those nights, the place is usually full, with the customers often singing with the band. There is also a dart board.
American customers say they often find themselves swept into conversations and carried inexorably along. Very few people remain closed mouthed or isolated.
“It’s the mood,” said Capt. Garrison Daniel, a Marine Corps fighter pilot and legal officer who lives on the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (his pilot’s call sign--which is also the name by which he is known to friends--is “Irish”). “It’s not the decorations or the way it’s set up,” he said. “An Irish bar is very friendly and everybody knows everybody and they want to know who you are too. You don’t hear, ‘What’s your sign?’ You hear, ‘Where are you from? I’d like you to meet some friends over here.’ At this place, people come to talk, and on any subject.”
Grainne Ward-Hardiman (her first name’s pronunciation rhymes with Tanya), a lawyer originally from County Donegal who lives in Costa Mesa, said that “there’s a nice banter you can have with the Irish. It’s a great stress-alleviator. Also, it’s OK for females to go there by themselves. There’s more conversation because it’s not a pickup joint. It’s more like a hearth than a bar.”
Because any good conversation needs fuel, the full bar serves pints of imported Harp lager, Bass ale and the ubiquitous Guinness stout on draft, as well as domestic beer.
One caution: If you get absorbed into a conversational circle at the bar, it helps to be thirsty. Among several Irish regulars, the tradition of “round buying” is honored, in which each person in the group ends up buying at least one round of drinks. No one loses favor by teetotaling, however.
Or by listening, for good listeners are prized almost as highly as good talkers. Sometimes the opening what’s new? is all it takes to hold up your end. “At other bars, you see people looking into the mirrors, and there’s no talk at all,” Mackey said. “But here, there’s always a lot of conversation. And wit. It’s a way of life.”
THE HARP INN AT A GLANCE
Where: 130 E. 17th St., just east of Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa.
Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday; Noon to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Entertainment: Live Irish music Friday through Sunday from about 9 p.m.
Food and drink: Cornish pasties (meat and vegetable pies), imported and domestic beers on draft, full bar.
Information: (714) 646-8855.