With wood from an old Dublin church, a contractor straight from the old country, and plans for an all-Celtic staff, Colin O’Toole is poised to open the most Irish of New Haven pubs—and complete the revitalization of a downtown public square.
When patrons belly up to the bar at O’Toole’s Irish Pub at Pitkin Plaza on Orange Street, their Guinness will be set down on a slab of 150-year-old pine taken from the rafters of a Dublin church that was recently demolished.
O’Toole, the 26-year-old former manager of Christy’s pub, pointed out that detail as he gave a tour of what he said he hopes will become the new neighborhood bar for 360 State and other downtown apartment buildings.
For the past several weeks, O’Toole and his business partner, former Playwright manager Damian Cashman, have been working on converting three separate retail spaces—former army recruiting offices—on Orange Street into one large Irish pub. O’Toole said they hope to open by Labor Day.
The main entrance will be just to the left of Pitkin Plaza, home of Bru coffee shop and the Devil’s Gear bike shop. With the blessing of city officials, O’Toole’s will offer outdoor seating in the plaza. That represents a final step in the reclamation of a once overlooked and underused public space.
Pitkin Plaza has undergone a renaissance in recent years, thanks to the creation of 360 State, Bru, Devil’s Gear bike shop, and the Ideat Village arts festival. By the fall it will be the home of Guinness-tipping pub-goers.
The Bar Of The Bar
On a recent afternoon, contractor James Lynch was at work fitting out the “snugs” that line the right wall of the pub. Lynch, who came over from Ireland to oversee the construction of the bar, double-checked with O’Toole on the proper height of the tables in the cozy, high-backed, six-person booths.
O’Toole has had his hands full converting three separate retail spaces into a single large restaurant. It’s required a complete gutting and cutting holes through a revealed brick wall.
In the center will be a large bar, dominating the middle room and accessible from the snug room through windows in the brick wall. The bar top will be made of the 150-year-old pine church rafters. O’Toole showed off a sample piece he had on hand. The rest is on its way from Ireland.
“The bar of the bar is coming from the old country,” O’Toole said.
In the rear of the snug room is a larger booth suitable for sessions of traditional Irish music. Up to 15 fiddlers and pluckers will be able to sit together and play over pints just as they do in pubs in Ireland.
In the back of the main room, there will be a stage with space for more music. O’Toole said he hopes to bringing in touring Irish rock bands from Boston and New York. He’s outfitting the rear wall of the stage to look like an old Irish cottage.
The last third of the bar, farthest from the plaza, will hold a private function room, and a new kitchen. O’Toole said he plans to offer customary Irish dishes—fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie. He said offer a “Sunday carvery,” at which a chef will set up a station Sunday afternoon out in the restaurant and people can order from a variety of roast meats carved to order. “All the pubs do it,” O’Toole said.
He said he plans to have an all-Irish staff “from the front door to the kitchen.”
“Nobody can cook Irish food like the Irish,” O’Toole said. Visas for Irish workers are easy to come by these days, he said.
O’Toole acknowledged that times are hard for the bar business given the recession. “It’s been tough for everybody.”
He said he was nonetheless confident that his new venture will find success. “I’ve been doing it long enough,” he reasoned.
O’Toole, who came to Connecticut from Dublin when he was 6 years old, has been working in Irish bars for his entire adult life. From 16 to 20, he was at the Playwright in Hamden. Between 20 and 22 he worked at Anna Liffey’s. Then he managed Christy’s from 22 to 26.
Although he’s been living in the states for two decades, O’Toole retains a Dublin accent, the result of summers in Ireland and frequent trips back. His family has always held on to their Irishness. His father was the president of the Irish club in New Haven for years. His fiancee, who played soccer at UNH is from Ireland, and so is Cashman, his business partner. Among the group of them, O’Toole said the new bar will be tapped into enough social networks to be successful.
He said he also sees promise in the influx of new residents downtown, particularly at 360 State, the new high-rise at the corner of Chapel and State streets. The building has an entrance on Pitkin Plaza.
The plaza will host new outdoor seating for the pub. Stepping outside, O’Toole pointed out an area he plans to enclose and fill with tables. The outdoor seating area will be accessible only through the bar, not directly from the plaza. O’Toole said he sees the Temple Grill as a model of the kind of plaza experience he’d like to create.
Tony Bialecki, the city’s deputy head of economic development, hailed the move into Pitkin. “The plaza, as we all know, has come from what had been an empty desolate place to a really active, well cared for and now well used public plaza,” he said. “It’s great to see so many people using the plaza.”
Bialecki said O’Toole’s outdoor seating would occupy a space of about 15 by 30 feet. “It’s doesn’t go out real far into the plaza,” he said. And it won’t interfere with the Devil’s Gear bike shop. O’Toole’s and the city are working on a one-year license agreement for the use of the plaza, as a kind of “test.” The outside hours will likely be limited to 11 or 12 p.m., at least for the first year, Bialecki said.
“We think they’re going to run a great operation,” he said. “It’s just so exciting to see the plaza re-activated.”