Dan Clark Balances History and Modernity at Roache & O’Brien

A new owner looks to continue—and improve on—Roache & O’Brien’s formidable dive-bar legacy.

Monday’s aren’t typically high-volume days for bars. But on this balmy Monday, Dan Clark has a lot on his mind. Sitting at a table in Haverford’s venerable Roache & O’Brien, he discusses his plans for the tavern he acquired in early May. Clark faces a unique challenge in maintaining the soul and spirit of a 91-year-old landmark, which opened right after Prohibition was repealed. He also operates restaurants in Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr and Avalon, New Jersey—and he knows he’s inherited something special in Roache & O’Brien. “The place has been around almost 100 years,” he says. “They did something right.”

Roache’s—as it’s known by many regulars—sits next to a Lexus dealership and across the street from a jeweler that sells Rolex watches. With its come-one, come-all atmosphere, it has cultivated a rare vibe on the Main Line. At Roache’s, attorneys, college students and landscapers line the bar, along with the diehards who’ve occupied the same barstools four nights a week for 35 years or more.

“Longtime owner Franny O’Brien, who ran Roache & O’Brien for 50 years and passed away in October 2022, wanted to “keep it comfortable”—and his fiercely loyal clientele wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s rarely any trouble. Longtime owner Franny O’Brien, who ran the bar for 50 years and passed away in October 2022, wanted to “keep it comfortable”—and his fiercely loyal clientele wouldn’t have it any other way.

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If this were simply a matter of a makeover, Clark could handle it easily. But this is different. Clark must balance his instincts to move Roache’s forward without corrupting the feeling that’s been there since John O’Brien opened the bar in 1933. “There’s a fear of major change,” he says. “But time will tell. As we get to know each other, trust will build.”

Clark grew up in Moorestown, New Jersey, and holds a degree from Princeton University. He and his wife, Laurie, live in the Rittenhouse section of Philadelphia. They’ve enrolled their two children at the Haverford School, so it’s likely they’ll move closer to Roache & O’Brien before long. Clark’s family has been in the restaurant business for three generations, and his portfolio includes Philadelphia’s Pub & Kitchen and Trattoria Carina, Avalon’s Diving Horse, and Bryn Mawr’s Carina Sorella, the latter opening in May. He views Roache’s much the way he does Pub & Kitchen at 20th and Lombard Streets. Both have a strong bar component, though the menu at Pub & Kitchen offers a few more refined dishes. Still, it’s tough to imagine the Roache’s crowd ordering the Arctic char.

Clark believes Roache’s will benefit greatly from some new menu items. He’s adding wings, for example. Roache’s is already known for its burgers, and Clark will likely add another version of the standard. There will be other new food entries, in an attempt to attract customers who might want something lighter. You can also expect the wine and spirits list to grow and improve.

“He doesn’t have an interest in changing it,” says Kevin Diehl, who’s bartended and cooked at Roache’s for 22 years. “He wants to upgrade certain things, but he wants to keep the sense and heart of the place. People treat this place like it’s their family home.”

“It’s never been a place where you feel you have to impress anybody.”

Patrons can expect to see bigger TVs, and the two-bedroom apartment that sits atop the bar will likely be converted to a space for events or overflow dining. “I don’t think too much change can happen at first,” Clark says.

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Change is, no doubt, needed—and 12-year Roache’s employee Bryan Johanning has confidence in Clark. “Dan knows what works,” he says. “The guy is smart and successful.”

When members of the O’Brien family met with Clark during the sale process, they advised him to embrace the bar’s vision—but they also want him to have success. One of Franny’s three children, Pat O’Brien had “mixed emotions” about the sale, and he’s expressed gratitude for the “patrons who’ve become friends and staff who’ve become family.” It’s all part of the overall familial vibe Roache’s has engendered for so long. “It’s never been a place where you feel you have to impress anybody,” O’Brien says.

It’s Clark’s place now, and he should be able to win over its loyal following with a hybrid that celebrates 91 years of history while looking ahead to at least 91 more. “I hope when people come in, it feels like they remember it—with a little something different,” Clark says.

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