McMenamin’s owner PJ McMenamin had to close his family bar for the first time it would ever miss a St. Patrick’s Day in 83 years. (Photo by Francesca Cantarini)

by April Lisante

As St. Patrick’s Day unfolded last Tuesday at McMenamin’s Tavern down on Germantown Ave., there were no revelers packing the bar, no one seated to eat the annual corned beef and cabbage or shepherd’s pie.

The annual day of celebration came and went last week, and perhaps no one felt the grim reality of our region’s battle with COVID-19 more than tavern owner P.J. McMenamin.

Instead of serving hundreds of customers from lunch through dinner for the typical all-day party, McMenamin spent the day with a skeleton staff of five, cleaning out the kitchen and freezing the 125 pounds of corned beef and 50 pounds of lamb that never got cooked. The day prior, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney had ordered every restaurant closed to seated crowds, with an option only for take-out, to avoid the spread of the deadly virus.

McMenamin sent staff home with what food he had left: lettuce, burgers, some chicken. Then he found himself alone that evening, thinking about the bizarre week, and circumstances, that cancelled St. Patrick’s Day for the first time in the tavern’s 83-year history.

McMenamin’s grandfather started the place in July 1936, but not even WWII put a damper on St. Patty’s festivities. McMenamin has run the bar himself for the past 31 years and has never seen such a dismal St. Pat’s.

A social distancing walk led Sonia Leounes and Francesca Cantarini by a closed McMenamin’s when luck of the Irish struck and they were invited in by P.J. to have a toast to shutting down the taps on St Patrick’s Day. (Selfie by Francesca Cantarini)

“I was just cleaning out food and things,” said McMenamin. “Everybody left and I was having one last beer. Usually there are people here all day, from lunch ‘til dinner. We don’t have music, but we have a packed crowd and food.

“I said to myself ‘So this is St. Pat’s Day at McMenamin’s’,” he recalled.

The neighborhood bar and resto seats a cozy 64, with seating for another 20 outside. With its chicken wings, burgers and fish and chips, it’s a local hot spot.

“This is a neighborhood bar,” he said. “We’ve been here the longest and the neighborhood has been good to us. I’m fortunate the neighborhood supports us.”

He was hopeful throughout last weekend that St. Patty’s celebrations would go off without a hitch, but that was before the city ordered the new sanctions on Monday, March 16. He said it was packed with people Friday, Saturday and Sunday prior to the St. Patrick’s Day holiday.

“I was happy the Mayor kept everything going until Monday,” McMenamin said.

But even as other Chestnut Hill restaurants began the week by pulling the plug on their entire operations, even scrapping the idea of doing take-out, McMenamin had hoped for a different outcome.

“Now I’m hoping everything is going to end in two or three weeks,” he said. “I have no clue.

“I could have stayed open for take-out, but we really don’t do a ton of take-out. I don’t want to put people on the front lines for delivery, either.”

Now, like so many other businesses, McMenamin must deal with the inevitable: employees on unemployment.

“Let’s give it a week and see,” he said. “At least everybody is home and safe, that’s the most important thing.”

When he does open back up, he promises a rain check on the corned beef and cabbage, and the shepherd’s pie.

“You better believe it will be on the menu,” he laughed.

Next year, he said, St. Patrick’s Day will fall on a Wednesday, and he’s ready to reignite the tradition.

For now, he is waiting for the nightmare to end.

“I’m hopeful every day.”