Justin McManus looks like he walked straight out of an Ed Burns movie. There’s something very The Brothers McMullen about his newsboy cap and wool sweater as he walks through Peter McManus Café, the family-owned pub he’s been running since 2008. It’s fitting, of course. The shiny booths are emerald green; a Jameson-branded barrel sits in the window. He and the bar are 100 percent New York Irish.
Though he took off to study hospitality at Cornell and work for a few years with Danny Meyer’s company Union Square Hospitality Group, he’s never strayed too far from the family pub, working every single St. Patrick’s Day. “Aside from being the family business, this is like my living room,” he says. “I vaguely remember pouring some beers when I was 5 or 6. I guess it’s in your blood.” Since taking over, he hasn’t changed much—they started taking credit cards; the draft lines and TVs were updated.
The original bar opened in 1911 up at 43rd and Eleventh Avenue, “but it closed because of this stupid thing called Prohibition.” Peter, the namesake—and Justin’s great-grandfather— turned the space into a convenience store. It was so successful that instead of going back to serving booze following the repeal of the Volstead Act, he reopened farther downtown. McManus grew up just blocks away from the bar, now located at 19th Street and Seventh Avenue, and both he and it seem part of an old-school city—one you sometimes forget still exists.
On a recent packed Friday evening after work, it’s clear that many people haven’t forgotten this particular bar. But the busiest day of the year will come this Friday, St. Patrick’s Day, when Peter McManus Café will open at 8 a.m. and serve up about 700 pounds of their house-brined corned beef. “Our guys are nonstop making briskets for probably 24 hours straight for three days to get ready,” he says.
“For some people, St. Patrick’s Day is their number one holiday of the year, and they take off work,” he says. “If they can see straight by 9 a.m., they’ve done themselves a disservice.” Whether you’re one of them or just want a pint of Guinness and a plate of corned beef and cabbage, there’s an old-school bar in Chelsea waiting.