Cover Story continued

Old name, new place
Image: Joana Gonzalez

A Pub for the ‘Publican’

Ferguson’s Irish Pub in Honolulu is half-bar, half-memorial

I hit up a bar based on its personality, not looks, especially if I want an (albeit an American version of one) Irish Pub. I don’t want to feel like I gotta dress up. Going to Fergy’s old place in downtown Honolulu, now owned by Don Murphy and the J.J. Dolan guys (James Niebuhr and Danny Dolan) is a conflicting experience. I want to relax, but it’s so damn nice I could never take my coat off, so to speak. It’s tucked nicely in the Dillingham Transportation Building, with a new bar top and fancy vaulted ceiling. Businessmen in aloha shirts unloading after a long day of whatever grown-ups have to deal with, scotch, and women who like to drink scotch (the best kind), all fill the slender room on any given pau hana, and Murph himself might be out on the back lanai, cooking up whatever he feels like grilling. But it’s so fresh and crisp, I don’t know whether I should untuck my shirt or go get it dry cleaned and pressed and come back tomorrow. John Ferguson was by all accounts a humble man who spent many moons in Chinatown as a bartender, boss, employee, customer or owner. And Jay Niebuhr knew him in all capacities. “I knew him in every relationship you could have with a guy, and you always knew where you stood with him. He was steady across the board.” Both Murphy and Niebuhr speak fondly of Ferguson, saying he was witty, devoted, consistent, loyal. A dedicated bar man. “He made his bones in New York City, you know,” Jay told me between beers at Dolan’s. “Then he came over here, got mentored by Ed Green [of Jameson’s on the North Shore], and set up shop in Chinatown.” He owned the old Royal Hawaiian Saloon on Merchant Street before he sold it to Don Murphy in 1987, who changed it to Murphy’s Bar and Grill. Ferguson came with the idea that he wanted to have the perfect American Irish Pub in Chinatown. Unfortunately, he died last year at 61 from a heart attack, so his wife went to his friends to see if they could help. “She knew that John would prefer to go to people he knew to keep it going,” Dolan explained. “It was both an emotional buy and business buy.” Murphy elaborated. “We said, ‘Somebody’s going to get in there and do it wrong; why not carry on Ferguson’s name ourselves and do it right?” Reopened earlier this month after a full remodeling, the 800 square-foot Ferguson’s isn’t big, and it isn’t warm and fuzzy, but as long as it has Fergy’s name on the window and pours Harp from the tap (one of the few places on the island that does), it’s a much prettier monument than a bunch of dead flowers on the side of the street. And trust me, after a few gulps of Laphroaig 10 or Tellamore Dew, you’ll forget about the upper crust. “This part of town needs a classy joint,” said Dolan. “We’re three bar guys. We built it to our idea of what a classy bar is.” Niebuhr said, “He wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican, you know. He was a ‘Publican’. Gave everybody the equal chance to party. He was a mentor, he was a friend, but more importantly, he was a bar man. Between the three of us, we wanted to build a bar he always wanted to have. We’ve built a cathedral to the pub, the man.” Honolulu is a city that ranges in bars that give you $9 sugar liquor and strobe lights in the bathrooms to bars with ceiling tiles falling from the roof. Ferguson’s, with it’s Irish tendencies and honorable backstory, falls respectably somewhere in between.