“It’s like a home away from home,” says Sara O’Neill, 39, an expat from Derry who’s been tending bar here for 14 years. “You could always spot an Irish person that was in awe of the city, coming over for the first time. That was their first stop-off. And they were made to feel welcome.” Oftentimes, the hospitality went even further. “Paddy had a good link with the Irish Immigration Center, so we would take phone numbers off people if they were stuck looking for housing or jobs. And we’d give ’em a call if we found out anything that’d help them.”
The Littlest Bar is real. Its Irish bona fides come naturally. No need to boast of being reconstructed brick-by-brick from some pub transported from the land of the leprechaun and shamrock, no desire to play host to the Great Guinness Toast. Here, the nods are subtle. A faded Irish tricolor wind-wrapped around the flagpole outside. A tiny sign above the bar reading FOIGHID ORT A MHAC! (“Patience, lad!”). The provisions are simple, but cater to the tastes of the customers. Tayto crisps. Black-currant juice for the girls to sweeten their Guinness with.
“At the Littlest, there’s no pictures of Guinness, or shillelaghs, or all the typical stuff you see at an Irish bar,” says O’Neill. “That doesn’t make an Irish bar. To me, it’s the feeling that you get when you come in, and the welcome you receive. A bartender actually giving you time. Which is rare. I find that most places you go, bartenders don’t even talk to you now. But at the Littlest, it’s just always one-on-one.”
As one-on-one as things can be in a place this crowded, at least. At night, everything is different. The jukebox is loud with Echo & the Bunnymen and the Stranglers. The chatter is louder. People cluster around the bar and over to the right, tucked snug in front of the windowsill. More people huddle behind them, arms outstretched, thrusting money forward or reeling in precarious pints. People stand in small bunches around the ice machine, or step backward gingerly to make room for the solitary bathroom door.
It’s a diverse crowd. Shaggy hipsters grip pints of Newcastle. Gel-haired Irish guys with crisp shirts tilt back longnecks. A gaggle of good-looking girls shrieks and hoots, clinking their vodka and Cokes.
An African-American woman leans over and grabs the shoulder of a guy in a black New Zealand rugby shirt.
“Excuse me? Excuse me?! Can I please say I love you?”
He grins, mutters something inaudible.
“Well, your shirt says you support the All-Blacks, and you sure don’t see that too much, so I gotta give props.”
It’s the sort of pub mood you don’t see much of anymore, the kind of boozy enforced intimacy that all but forces stranger to befriend stranger.
They call this progress.