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Dining

Michael McCourt: The quintessential Irish bartender

McCourt brothers: Malachy, Alphie, Michael, and Frank

It’s good to live in a city whose foremost citizens include a bartender. We refer to Michael McCourt, the Irish superstar behind the plank at Original Joe’s in North Beach, who will celebrate his 78th birthday Feb. 24. McCourt’s birthday should be a national holiday, and we hereby so proclaim it. 

In an age that bestows meaningless celebrity on politicos, tycoons, movie and TV personalities, and social twits, a bartender with skill, wit, and wisdom is to be highly valued.

To judge Michael McCourt as simply a bartender is to miss the point. He is a populist philosopher and storyteller who almost incidentally dispenses drinks. He’s variously an impish leprechaun or a grumpy and disgruntled warlock with an Irish choler. McCourt offers strong opinions on just about anything, along with strong drink — when it is required — and does so with style and self-assurance. Then, there is his near encyclopedic knowledge of his daily communicants’ favorite topics: old movies, old actors, legendary drinkers, football picks, baseball batting averages, and a remarkable store of other valuable but arcane information.

ANGELA’S ASHES

McCourt can be affable, with a crooked smile creasing his Irish mug when holding an audience before supplicants reveling in his presence. But, at times, he can be arch and acerbic when his patience is tried by the arrogant and the pompous. He can deliver a knockout punch without raising his voice.

The silver-haired McCourt is from a high-profile Irish family. One brother, Frank McCourt, now deceased, was the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of a miserable Irish childhood, Angela’s Ashes, which described growing up in the Limerick slums with a ne’er-do-well father who spent his occasional wages and the official dole money in the nearest pub. Another brother, Malachy, 82, has been an actor, TV talk-show host and bartender. He also wrote a memoir, A Monk Swimming. The Catholic Hail Mary prayer includes a line “Blessed art thou amongst women …” As a youth in Ireland, Malachy heard the line “amongst women” as “a monk swimming.” Logical! Alphie, 72, is the youngest of the McCourt brothers and lives in New York.

MALACHY’S SALOON

When the late San Francisco writer Ron Fimrite once asked McCourt if he intended to write his memoir, the Irish wit said: “If I do, I will write of the difficulty we had in hiring decent help, of the decline in the quality of watercress sandwiches, of the trouble we had keeping our palm trees trimmed and the shamefully low price we received from selling our polo ponies.”

McCourt was one of seven impoverished children, three of whom died in their first three years. He came to the United States from Ireland in 1954 when he was 18, and after his discharge from a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, he joined his brother Malachy, who operated a New York saloon, and worked as a bartender there for three years. It was his first experience behind the bar, and he found it agreeable. Then he did a few years at Chez Jay’s in Santa Monica. There, McCourt says, he was privileged to pour drinks for — and to drink with — pros like John “Duke” Wayne, Lee Marvin, Howard Duff, and Neville Brand who became his buddies.

A GYPSY BARTENDER

When he came to San Francisco in 1969, he was hired as a bartender for the classic retro saloon, Perry’s on Union Street. He remained there 21 years honing his saloon persona. He moved to Monroe’s on Laguna for a while, and then to the Washington Square Bar & Grill in North Beach, Seal’s Cove on the Embarcadero, the Buchanan Grill in the Marina, and then to the reopened “Square,” as regulars always called the Washington Square Bar & Grill. “I was your gypsy bartender,” he says now.

When it was announced in 2012 that the benevolent Irish terror Michael McCourt (not Irish tenor by the way), would be behind the bar at Original Joe’s, his disciples rejoiced. It was viewed as a return to the glory days, which in a sense, it was. “There has been a terrible epidemic of healthy living that has put a dent in the saloon economy. This, in spite of the fact that the medical journals are reporting that a little of the spirit is good for you,” he says.

RANDOM ‘McCOURTISMS’

McCourt admits he was a hell-raiser when he was younger. “I thought I should be part of Sinatra’s rat pack,” he says now with a note of regret. Today he’s a family man and lives in North Beach with his second wife, Joan. He has four children, two by his first marriage. None are bartenders.

Many of McCourt’s distinguished acolytes have followed their man from one San Francisco saloon to another. These include politicians, lawyers, police officers, dockworkers, bartenders, authors, editors, reporters, musicians, advertising execs, and retirees from all the above pursuits. Trading sage McCourt utterances has become a sport among them, a kind of cottage industry. Each new gem is polished and weighed carefully for its lasting truth, shock value, and humor. Here are a few random McCourtisms on life, love, politics, death, taxes, and other important subjects:

Saloons: “Saloons are us. Those of us left are the keepers of the flame. Saloons are drinking establishments for what is left of the drinking establishment. They are places to go to find out who has died.”

High society: “It seems to me that those we call high society in San Francisco are just the descendents of carpetbaggers, saloonkeepers, miners, and other opportunists. They were born with silver spoons in their mouths. Some of their ancestors mined that silver from the Comstock Lode. Now the hoity-toity are born with cell phones in their mouths so they can call their stockbrokers.”

Politics and government: “The old politicians had a sense of humor. The new ones seem to have only a sense of their own greatness. Perhaps if they took a little glass of something each day it would improve their humor.”

The church: “When I grew up in Ireland the church was at its zenith. We didn’t dare to question anything. We were scared witless.”

Death and dying: “What a shame; people are dying these days that never died before.”

Taxes: “Taxes are OK for the rich. We should really have a special tax that just benefits the disabled and the homeless.”

The mai tai: “The other day a woman came in, sat at the bar and asked me for a mai tai. ‘Do you see any palm trees in here?’ I asked her. She settled for a shot of bourbon straight up.”

Wine experts: “I call them cork sniffers. A while back a guy came in and said he wanted something woody and grassy. I asked him if he wanted to start a fire or did he want a drink.”

They’re not making bartenders like Michael McCourt anymore. He’s an original at Original Joe’s.

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Our columnist Ernest Beyl, a Michael McCourt acolyte, may be reached at [email protected]

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