When Willy O’Sullivan speaks of Santa Monica, he speaks of it with reverence. It’s a city that gave him a new home and a city that has also given a home to many fellow Irish ex-pats, many moons ago. It’s a city he sees himself in for the foreseeable future. It’s a place he and his business have served Santa Monica residents and more for 25 years.
O’Brien’s Irish Pub celebrated its quarter-century anniversary Tuesday, April 23. O’Sullivan, owner of the pub, says his business has survived so long in the city due to being a lot like its owner — thriving, changing things up when times get tough.
In 1987, O’Sullivan moved to Santa Monica from Cork City, Ireland. The coastal Ireland city was in dire straits at the time, a “place with zero opportunities” as O’Sullivan recalls. This led him to migrate to Santa Monica, another coastal city that housed many Irish ex-pats and felt home-y to O’Sullivan.
“I always kind of described it as baby bear porridge,” O’Sullivan says, his Irish accent still present in his speech. “Not a typical beach town, more of a city, more diverse. All kinds of people, but it wasn’t like Hollywood, it’s not as edgy. It had the kind of tone that people are attracted to.”
He worked at various restaurants and bars, such as Irish Rover in Santa Monica and Molly Malone’s off Fairfax. He bartended at one and managed another, somewhat unsatisfied with how things were done. This is how his path to bar-ownership began.
“It came from the fact that I came here, got a job as a bartender, and didn’t actually drink,” he said with a laugh. “I was working for people that had a lot of problems and were not as competent and organized as I thought they should be. They drank a lot, which was the least of their problems. I thought, I do most of the work at the place I managed; if the owners are making money doing this, I could and I could do it better.”
In ‘94, he bought a French restaurant for $72k and turned it into a mecca for Irish, Brits, Scottish, Welsh, anyone willing to call America — and now his pub — a home.
After renovations, he opened the pub’s doors and was a success. Seats were filled nearly perpetually according to O’Sullivan and business boomed.
However, after openings and closings of area restaurants and changes in the housing market, attendance dipped for the pub. Demographics changed and O’Sullivan realized food was important to Americans. He “became an accidental restaurateur” due to this and added food to his pub.
O’Sullivan says demographics have changed over the years many times for more or less the same reasons — popular restaurants close, killing bar business hours, and rent goes up, killing spending.
“2009, 2010, even before that, what happened to Main Street happened to Wilshire. Every Friday or Saturday there was a ton of 25-year olds filling bars. Then, it evaporated. Things closed and changed. We had to focus into adjusting our business at times. When that strikes, you lose business.”
To adapt, again and this time with staff decamping for more stable work, he jumped behind the bar himself, working 7 days a week.
He made his bar sports-oriented, adding 15 TVs to its walls. It became a home for New York Giants and eventually UFC fans, too. A giant mural of fellow Irishman Conor McGregor, by muralist Jonas Never, now adorns the side of O’Brien’s. It began to regularly fill up for those events, especially the ones with McGregor, O’Brien added.
O’Sullivan says he’s grateful for staff and his landlord for allowing him to thrive in the city for so long, adding he and his staff have all worked hard to service customers and their interests.
In addition to NFL, UFC and other sports, the bar has weekly Irish music sessions and a well-regarded Pub Quiz night, a night which regularly attracts Jeopardy! game show champions for an intense night of trivia.
“It attracts a great deal of attention,” O’Sullivan said. “Our ability to adjust over the years, to realize trends and host new things…even this phone call came about because I learned to tweet! I’m getting more savvy. It’s to keep people coming, keep ‘em happy.”
These days you’ll still catch O’Sullivan manning the bar five days a week, willing to tell a myriad of life stories and bar-related stories, too (feel free to ask him how Star Trek influenced the bar’s name).
He says he’ll be here for as long as he can, serving the changing demographics. Though he bemoans the changing nature of the city (“I wonder if regular people will all be priced out soon. It’s all tech people.” He notes they do tip well, for what it’s worth) and says and he’ll continue rolling with the punches because, well, he just loves doing it.
“One of the wise guys I worked with at a restaurant taught me that people go to restaurants for an experience, not just food and alcohol. They can go to the grocery store and get that if they wanted. I tell my staff that, people need an experience to feel engaged. If you give them that, they’ll come back. They’ll remember that good time they had at O’Brien’s.”
O’Brien’s Irish Pub is located at 2226 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403