Jim Kenney is co-owner of the Harp Raw Bar & Grill.
PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
In an era when the beer garden and the roof-top bar have come into their own, the Harp Raw Bar & Grill has offered something distinctive – the retractable roof.
The 2nd-floor area covered by the roof is somewhat smaller than that of a beer garden or a rooftop bar, but rather more spacious and impressive than your average balcony.
It’s why the Harp is an unusual Manhattan inn that boasts as a feature views both up and down Third Avenue.
Co-owners Bruce Caulfield and Jim Kenney were keen to do something very different when they took over the space at 729 Third Ave., which had been a Midtown Irish favorite in its earlier guise as O’Neill’s, owned by Ciaran Staunton.
They declared themselves very happy in the summer of 2014 with the results of a year’s work on the interior.
Most conversations on the subject veer towards details like the brick wall with the distressed wood.
The fact that the interior can be viewed from the street, and the front is opened up in fine weather, is another indication that they’d planned a departure from the traditional bar.
“We wanted a newer Irish gastro pub,” said Kenney, “but one rooted in the traditions. We wanted to create a menu with Irish specialties, but also one that was a step higher than your normal pub fare.
“The chef takes pride in the detail,” he added.
Caulfield, who dropped out of college 40 years ago to begin his entrepreneurial career, knows all about the traditions.
“The bar business is in my blood,” he said.
His grandfather was the proprietor of Caulfield’s, the Irish bar on First Avenue at 53rd Street, which nowadays is Parnell’s.
“It skipped a generation. Dad was in the navy for World War II and then worked in Met Life for 32 years,” he said of John Caulfield who died before Christmas.
Bruce Caulfield’s father wasn’t too pleased that he’d shelved plans to be a history teacher, but he went on to have great success in a series of Manhattan businesses, such as Tracks at Penn Station.
Jim Kenney is Italian on his mother’s side, and Irish on his father’s. His grandfather was from Kiltamagh, Co. Mayo. The family, though, knows of no connection with the Mayo-born taoiseach, who uses the more conventional spelling.
The Harp’s co-owner is getting married for the first time on May 21 to fiancé Gigi in St. Agnes Church. He got a message from the church recently asking clarification about the baptismal documents submitted. Was the baby or the priest named James Kenney? Both, he said. His uncle was a prominent monsignor in Manhattan.
Caulfield and Kenney, who’ve been friends since their school days at Xavier on West 16th Street, have made music a big part of the mix that draws in professionals of all age groups. The bar continues O’Neill’s Saturday night trad session and also has music every Wednesday and Friday night.
There is the occasional Sunday special, like when last August Wexford’s Pierce Turner packed them in and raised the roof — the metaphorical one rather than the retractable. Turner will be back for another couple of Sunday evening gigs in April.
County Kilkenny’s Enda Keegan alternates Wednesday nights with Rick McDonald, who has been popular on the East Side music scene for 35 years.
His brother Danny McDonald, one of New York’s best-known Irish restaurateurs, is a friend of both Harp owners.
“I’ve known Danny since he poured his first pint in New York,” Kenney said. “He’s a great mentor in the business.”
If bar owners have been supportive, so have their fellow Xavier alumni.
José Saá was delighted when he heard that Caulfield and Kenney had opened a bar across the street from his job. “So convenient and very friendly,” he said.
“A unique experience on the East Side,” said another alumnus, Michael Blecha, “Tremendous food, extraordinary people.”