Wander into Roache & O’Brien on a late Friday afternoon. Use the back door, like most of the regulars do. It was the original main entrance in December 1933, when the country finally shook free of Prohibition’s clutches. Back then, beer was five cents a glass, and a shot of liquor cost a dime.
You’ll likely hear him before you see him. Thomas Francis “Franny” O’Brien, owner of the Main Line’s most unique tavern, will be sitting at the bar, a Canadian-Club-and-water nearby, regaling all with an unending string of unprintable jokes, hilarious stories, the news of the day, and a dash of hatred for Villanova that he earned honestly by graduating from St. Joe’s. He often says the worst day of his life was April 1, 1985, when the Wildcats won the NCAA championship. “His personality tends to make you feel like you belong in the place,” says Hank Nichols, a patron of “at least 30 years” who spent 36 years teaching at Nova and more than 40 involved in NCAA basketball officiating.
Nichols is right. You do belong at Roache’s, no matter what you do. Lawyers sit beside landscapers, who bump shoulders with college kids. They talk sports, movies, politics and nonsense, with rarely a whiff of trouble. “The people police themselves,” O’Brien says.
It’s a genuine neighborhood bar, the kind you’d find on a corner in Bridgeport or Ridley Township, yet it sits right in the middle of Haverford, with a Lexus dealership next door and a jeweler across the street advertising Rolex watches. You can smoke there. The burgers are the best anywhere. If you want to turn up the music and sing, go ahead. Couples settle into booths in the wood-paneled Oak Room, while others follow whatever game is on. “I’m just trying to keep it comfortable,” O’Brien says. “I don’t want to see people once a month or every two weeks. I want to see people four or five times a week. The customers are loyal to me, and I’m loyal to them.”
A brief history lesson: John J. O’Brien and Tom Roache, who married O’Brien’s cousin Catherine, opened one of the few Main Line-area bars in the wake of Prohibition. It had one keg of beer and two bottles of liquor. The two men ended up owning a few other bars, including the Paddock in Wayne and the Trappe Tavern. They also held the liquor license at the Main Line Golf Course.
Franny was born in 1948, two years after the bar had been remodeled to its current state. There have been subsequent improvements, but the look is frozen in its post-World War II grandeur. Franny started working there when he was in eighth grade, cleaning up on Sundays. He graduated from St. Joseph’s Prep in ’65 and, after a stint in the Army National Guard, earned a degree in business administration from Saint Joseph’s University in 1970.
When John O’Brien began to succumb to lung cancer in late 1971, Franny O’Brien abandoned his job as a Dow Chemical salesman to run the bar. “I figured I would take it over for a couple years and then sell it,” he says. “I’m still here.”
It’s provided a good living, one that put three children—John, Cassie and Pat—through college and paid for Cassie’s wedding, even if O’Brien did find the prospect of spending $4,000 for flowers obscene.
Open 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday, the bar sees shift workers and night nurses coming in for breakfast sandwiches—and maybe an eye-opener during the early hours. After that, there’s a steady flow of folks. No matter who comes in, the constant is O’Brien. “I am something of an entertainer,” he says with a smile. “I have raunchy jokes that some people seem to appreciate.”
But O’Brien is more than just a raconteur and colorful local character. Those who work for him describe a generous, caring man behind the banter. Tim McCloud, a Haverford School graduate and guidance counselor at Pennfield Middle School in Hatfield, has bartended at Roache & O’Brien since 1996. At one point, he was working six nights a week, but he now mans his station primarily on Friday nights. He enjoys the late-Friday-afternoon “O’Brien Revue” and admits that the night “dies down a little bit” when his boss finally heads home to his astoundingly patient wife of 33 years, Sally.
But that’s not what’s kept McCloud there for over two decades. He refers to O’Brien as a father figure and says his boss will do anything for his employees—but he will also “be the first one to kick you in the ass when you mess up, and never let you forget it.” “One thing [the people who work at Roache’s] talk about is that most waiters and bartenders are out for themselves,” McCloud says. “We’re all for Franny first. We want to make money, but we love him so much that how he does is more important than lining our own pockets.”
Bartending at Roache & O’Brien includes time in the kitchen, from which the beloved Roacheburger emanates. The secret? Hand-pounded beef with “the perfect fat-to-meat ratio,” cooked on a surface that’s at least 50 years old and has been cured with residue from eggs, bacon, ham, hot dogs, cheesesteaks and other pub fare. “You can’t duplicate that,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien enjoys his work at Roache’s, but it’s not without headaches. He’s on the job six days a week, doesn’t take sick days, and has battled through knee injuries and other musculoskeletal issues caused by hauling cases of beer and kegs from the basement. He’s also survived kitchen mishaps. Once, he spilled a pan of boiling fryer oil on his leg, taking off the skin to the muscle. Rather than seek medical assistance, he wrapped the limb in a towel and moved forward. “I’ve never seen anything so disgusting,” McCloud says.
O’Brien’s biggest nuisance is policing the underage folks who try to gain admittance. Thanks to fake IDs purchased from forgers in China, college kids have cards that can flummox even the most seasoned eye. “The day they come out with a machine that can figure out the cards are fake, the kids have a card that can beat it,” O’Brien says.
Despite the occasional frustrations, O’Brien loves what he does, and at 69 years old, he figures he has at least 10 years left. It’s not like he has a bunch of hobbies he wants to pursue in retirement. “I play golf two or three times for a few months,” he says. “Other than that, I like to drink and gamble.”
So if you want to behold the consummate host in his natural habitat, leave your thin skin at home and head over to Roache & O’Brien on a Friday afternoon. Franny never disappoints.