Breath of fresh Eire
Smitty's hopes to revive Monahan's spirit this St. Patrick's Day
By Dan O'Heron 03/08/2012
Throughout history, it seems an Irishman has always been sick over something. First, it was the stomachache over the potato famine in Ireland. Next, the dry heaves of Prohibition in America. And finally, the heartbreak that occurred when Monahan’s closed in Pasadena.
Since Monahan’s was boarded up in 1993, St. Patrick’s Day has become just another long and thirsty night.
In the green years, from streets wide and narrow, near and far, the Irish and fellow travelers used to march down South Lake Avenue and line up outside of Peter Monahan’s place (now Smitty’s Grill). “And,” chides a jeering leprechaun, “before the state moved the decimal point on the blood-alcohol level, it was OK to get home in a wheelbarrow.”
Without the sarcasm of the wee person, Pasadena restaurateur Gregg Smith once put it to me another way: “Peter Monahan is a real Irishman. All he had to do at his restaurant was open the door and everybody wanted in. And they took so much good feeling away with them.”
Speaking over the phone to me recently from his winter home in Rancho Mirage (he summers in Coronado), Monahan remembered that the diving board for bar hoppers “was Club 41, moving on to the Peppermill, the Chronicle, Gregg’s Parkway Grill, and Maldonado’s — always ending up at my place.”
“Hey,” said the leprechaun, “in those days you could toast to another’s health at the expense of your own and still feel good.”
With traces of brogue giving weight to Monahan’s concern that the rush hour for St. Pat’s is over, he lamented, “Only old people seem to care about it anymore.”
Years back, in another conversation, Monahan suggested that merriment in general was losing face: “All the fine bankers and brokers and editors and cops used to come in to my place for two- and three-martini lunches. Now it’s one white wine and Perrier. They spend more but don’t have as good a time.”
At 84, Monahan shows no signs of watering down. “Lately, I’ve spent more time globetrotting with my wife, Yvonne, than I have playing golf with my buddy, Joseph Wambaugh.” Complementing frequent trips to Ireland, he said they’ve recently visited penguins in the Antarctic and ex-communists in St. Petersburg.
“Yet, my favorite memories in all the world,” said Monahan, “still come from Pasadena. I can’t forget about the couples who met at my place and later married, or the excitement when "60 Minutes" came in to interview Joe (author Wambaugh). But most of all, I miss little talks with customers who became friends. Give them my email.” It’s CoClaire@aol.com.
These days, while huge parades and crowds have hobbled to a halt, Monahan said that he’s glad that Smitty’s Grill still carries a torch. I’m sure he would enjoy contemplating Smitty’s Chef Gabriel Olvera’s corned beef and cabbage. It’s made from a whole, fresh brisket that’s been marinated all night in pickling spices. And the cabbage is braised from juices from the meats.
And he’d be at ease with Smitty’s regular menu of Irish-approved dishes that Americans loved back when they “liked Ike”: chicken pot pie, pot roasts, Kansas City steaks, iceberg lettuce wedges and buttery baked potatoes.
And how sweet it would be at the bar chatting with bartender Derrick Ford as he pours a single-malt Scotch whisky to one fellow and a Bushmill Irish whiskey to another, while keeping his eye on a mom and a pop who are crying in their beer over the lyrics of “Danny Boy.”
This St. Patrick’s Day, among patrons still crowding into the bar, although not quite five deep, there’ll be high fives and hugs, stories about cabbages and kings and, of course, impious limericks that begin: “There was a bishop from Rheims ...” And don’t forget the indecent jokes,” says the leprechaun, like “What’s Irish and stays out all night?” (Answer: Paddy O’Furniture).
More relevant of Irish character, is a story once told me at the bar in Monahan’s. A little man in a shabby waistcoat — flu bugging every seam — comes into a pub by himself and orders three beers. The bartender says it’s better to order one at a time or they’ll go flat. “But you see, Mac, I’ve been separated from my two brothers. When we left home long ago, we promised each other we’d drink this way to remember the good times we once shared.” This three-drink ritual kept up through the years, until one night the little man orders only two beers. “Condolences, I’m so sorry for your loss,” says the bartender. “Oh, not that,” laughed the little man,
“Everyone’s fine. I’ve just quit drinking.”