Irish Pub in Atlantic City is straight from days of Prohibition

In front, oven baked meatloaf with mashed potatoes, homemade gravy and corn. At back, St. James potatoes. at the Irish Pub on St. James Place, near the Atlantic City boardwalk. May 8, 2011 (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
In front, oven baked meatloaf with mashed potatoes, homemade gravy and corn. At back, St. James potatoes. at the Irish Pub on St. James Place, near the Atlantic City boardwalk. May 8, 2011 (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 19, 2011

OOK, SO MAYBE the Irish Pub doesn't sit exactly on Atlantic City's Boardwalk. But it's just paces away from the Great Wood Way on St. James Place. Besides, it's hard to argue it isn't the coolest place in town.

Dating from the 19th century and owned - lock, stock and treasure trove of antique furnishings - since 1972 by Cathy and Richard Burke, the Irish Pub is a living, breathing (and totally accessible) portal to the Roaring '20s, when no place in America roared louder than Atlantic City.

It's not just the wall decorations - including framed photos (among them a 1929 Philadelphia Athletics team picture) and newspaper front pages proclaiming such events as Al Smith's re-election as New York governor in the 1920s - that make it historic.

The ground-floor bar and the 60-room inn above it are right out of "Boardwalk Empire." Heck, the HBO series could have been filmed there: The three foundations of Atlantic City's economy during the 1920s and early '30s - "booze, broads and gambling" - were easily available at what is now the Pub. And whenever anybody took a drink, placed a bet or had a roll in the hay, crime czar Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, whose life inspired the fictional HBO series, got a piece of the action.

But the most remarkable thing about the Irish Pub may be that it's still here, considering that only a handful of its peer structures avoided the bulldozer-happy redevelopment of Atlantic City after casinos were legalized in 1976. Its survival has everything to do with the Burkes, who assumed ownership in 1972 when the town was at its lowest pre-gambling point.

The first, failed attempt to bring legal gaming to Atlantic City was still two years away when the couple bought the property. Despite prevailing social and economic conditions, Atlantic City native Cathy Burke never doubted the Irish Pub, and her hometown, could succeed.

"It was just having a love for Atlantic City," said Burke, who also owns two Irish Pubs in Center City (at 1123 and 2007 Walnut St.). "As far as I'm concerned, Atlantic City is the most beautiful island in the world. I never saw [the decline]. I never saw what the outside world saw."

Today, the Irish Pub and its large, wooden wraparound bar sprawl around the property's first floor. There's also an outdoor patio. It looks the way an Irish saloon is supposed to look, with ambience and decor that Irish pub-style chains aspire to but never quite achieve.

Flanking the bar are two dining rooms where the bar-bites-heavy menu is anachronistically inexpensive. The priciest items are the fried fantail shrimp and lightly breaded sea scallops, both served with coleslaw and french fries and each costing just $8.50.

The Irish Pub, which operates 24/7 year-round, is a bona fide Atlantic City institution that will be the lunch stop on the soon-to-commence "Roaring '20s Trolley Tour" (see story on page 50). Burke believes it has achieved its exalted place in local culture because, in an increasingly polarized society, her bar is a true American ideal: a place where everyone and anyone can relax and mingle.

"We're representative of every walk of life and every ethnic background," she said. "You can find someone 21 years old and someone 90 years old sitting side-by-side having a great conversation. And people come in here because they like to get away from the corporate feel of the casinos."

The Pub engenders an almost cultlike loyalty in its regular patrons. Through the decades, regulars have included baseball immortal Joe DiMaggio and iconic boxing writer Burt Sugar.

As a talk-show host on Atlantic City's WOND (1400-AM) and operator of an Atlantic City-centric website (acpluggedin.tv), Marc Berman is out on the town almost every evening. But he's all but made the bar his headquarters.

"It is incredibly comfortable," said Berman. "You don't come in here and sit three or four times a week if it isn't like home. Cathy really makes you feel at home."

When Dallas native Tom Hawkins decided to move to the East Coast, he chose Atlantic City, and a place as close as possible to the Irish Pub.

"It's my home away from home," offered Hawkins. And he's away a lot. For the past 32 years, he's toured the world as singer Willie Nelson's piano and guitar tuner. "No matter who you are or where you come from, it's just like being at home."

Perhaps the ultimate testament to the Irish Pub came from the late Oscar-winning screenwriter ("On the Waterfront") and author Budd Schulberg.

Burke said Schulberg, who died in 2009 at age 95, once said he wished he could predict exactly when he would pass, "so I could spend my final hours at the Irish Pub."

Irish Pub, 164 St. James Place, Atlantic City, N.J. Open 24 hours daily, 609-344-9063, irishpub.com.

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