A few months ago, after chef Brandon Boudet toured his newly acquired Mid-City pub Tom Bergin's, a man and his daughter stopped by to reminisce. As the man walked his 30-ish pregnant daughter around the wood-paneled room, he told her a secret.
"He told her 'This is where I proposed to your mom,'" Boudet said. "And she just started crying. She said her mom had just passed away six months beforehand. There are some serious stories in this place."
For 63 years, the Irish cottage pub Tom Bergin's has stood out as a winsome incongruity amid the stone palaces of Museum Row near Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue (the original Tom Bergin's was built in 1936 and moved to its current location 13 years later). Lovers met, celebrities like Cary Grant and Bing Crosby dished about horse racing with Bergin, and a once-sleepy neighborhood grew up around it.
When Boudet and his business partner Warner Ebbink bought the place — adding to their stable of vintage L.A. haunts like Little Dom's and the 101 Coffee Shop — part of their job was to update the kitchens and replace old beer taps.
But a much bigger part was to make a place where memories thrive.
A few weeks before their late-April target opening, the changes are subtle inside Tom Bergin's. But they're essentially the first updates since the bar went to its second owner T.K. Vodrey in 1973. Vodrey sold to Ebbink and Boudet "even though we aren't Irishmen," Ebbink joked.
The back lounge, a neglected dining space known as the Thoroughbred Club, has been tastefully revamped with old Bergin's menus and horse-racing prints. The U-shaped bar — which gave the original Tom Bergin's Old Horseshoe Tavern and Thoroughbred Club its name — sports a new copper top. And the hundreds of paper shamrocks tacked to the ceiling were taken down, dusted off and reapplied over a new coat of paint.
"The place was actually really well built and held up with essentially no maintenance," Ebbink said. "Our intention was to keep what was great and enhance it. The ambience of a place is as important as everything else. I spent a lot of time sitting in every seat here and thinking about how this place feels."
The one major difference is probably a welcome one: the menu. Boudet crafted a new contemporary Irish menu including cottage pie croquettes and fried Cooleeney cheese, upgrading pub staples with quality ingredients; a smoked trout and red Ogo seaweed salad explores fresher facets of Irish cooking. The centerpiece breakfast (served all day) of black and white puddings, sausage, soda bread with rashers, sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes and fried eggs will sop up several days' worth of Bushmills.
"We were looking at a lot of the old menus, and saw how this place got started as a steakhouse for the Wilshire Boulevard advertising executives," Boudet said. "We wanted to get back to that along with Irish classics and good Irish cheeses, but definitely go to the farmers markets for the freshest produce too."
Bergin's is a natural fit for L.A.'s revamped masculine beer and whiskey scene, and the two brought on liquor curator Aidan Demarest (of Seven Grand and the Roosevelt's Spare Room) and bartender Marcos Tello (a beloved fixture at downtown's Varnish) to helm a menu of Irish whiskeys and imported beers. Don't worry, red-eye-shift types: the staple Irish Coffee spiked with whiskey, sugar and whipped cream remains.
By nudging Tom Bergin's into 2012, the new owners ensure that it can stay lost to time in every way that matters.
"L.A. doesn't respect its history," Ebbink said. "Back when this was built, you could build places with themes. The architecture alone was worth saving, and it has this super-rich history. We knew it was a special place."