O'Connell's Pub has its own beer. Who knew? Get pumped. They've had it for, "Shit, over a year now," says Bob Van Uum, bartender. He's quick to burst the bubble, though, on O'Connell's Amber Ale. "Go over to Schlafly's and order an English Ale. It's the same beer." Maybe so, but who cares? This is O'Connell's, solid as a rock, at the corner of Shaw and Kingshighway, one of the city's landmark drinking establishments, a pub that will outlive us all. If they're serving beer, it's bound to be good.
Saddle your belly up to the bar. Sit, and you're now fully in your role: human alone at bar with book and beer, reading, enjoying a pint, drinking, peeking up to see who's watching him, drinking, contemplating a mayoral run, watching them, asking for some water, gulping it and staring at the picture hung at the center of the bar mirror of a man, cross-armed, who's staring back at you. That man is Michael Collins, hero of the 1919 Irish rebellion. He was "the powerhouse of the revolution," according to the laminated info sheet that O'Connell's stores near the cash register (bartenders long ago tired of telling the story). Michael Collins was killed in an ambush in his native County Cork a year after the rebellion ended, a martyr to the cause of Irish independence. He looks like a hero: stone face with simple, carved lines, a furrowed brow and huge, presidential ears. A man's man, who lords over the pub.
O'Connell's, which proprietor Jack Parker opened in Gaslight Square in '62, has been at this location, which has always been a tavern, since '72. The building celebrates its centennial next year. Anheuser-Busch built it -- and returned to film a couple of commercials at the pub a few years back. They tried to vanquish the Michael Collins photo for the day (not wanting to appear to take sides), but Parker stood his ground and the photo remained. "So when you see those ads, you'll always see that photo of Michael Collins," Van Uum says proudly.
On another wall, Bullwinkle, or at least Bullwinkle's species, represented in the form of a huge moose head that hangs next to the big menu sign above the wait stand. The moose seems to be glancing at the menu out of the corner of his eye: Salami. Turkey. Hamburger. Frank. Those meats and many more are sold at O'Connell's, creator of one of the best burgers in the city. To boot, if you're lucky enough to be celebrating a big birthday here, the dining room features one hell of a table, about the size of a lap pool, around which you can celebrate mightily with lots of pints and hooting and joy.
But not tonight, because you are alone. If, by chance, your cell phone rings, walk away from the bar and find a neutral space. There is nothing more annoying than the ass-end of a cell phone conversation while someone's trying to read. Plus, if you need to giggle while talking, you'll retain your dignity among the men. In fact, there should be a rule: All restaurants and bars should begrudgingly acknowledge the reality of a cell phone-infested world and consider creating a cell zone, the 21st-century equivalent to a phone booth. It's a win-win: It extricates insipid tele-banter while providing an area safe for insipidness. Said neutral space at O'Connell's is a standing bar in a front corner where, on the wall above, hang ancient photos of dirigibles in St. Louis, 1910. The balloons are participating in the Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race, and in the photos they rise like bubbles in an amber ale, dancing within one of this lovely world's most exquisite liquids. Finish the call and get back to the stool, and your book (called, fittingly, You Are Not a Stranger Here), and the beer, which covers you in comfort like a quilt.