BY MICHAEL STAHL
Sit at the end of the bar at Donovan’s Pub long enough and you might learn the names of every resident in Woodside. Each time the swinging doors squeak and a patron passes beyond the signature stained glass windows, they find themselves part of a welcoming roll call. “Hey Bobby… What’s going on Sammy… Good afternoon Mrs. Sheeran…” The ritual is nothing if not natural; after all, at any given time the bartender on duty could have gone to grade school with most of their present company.
On a gorgeous December Sunday, Donovan’s regulars forego what might be their last chance to enjoy a daytrip to a nearby park until spring, and instead seek the lair that is, as its website calls it, a “landmark gathering place.” The recently mounted flat screen TVs inside will most prominently feature the all-New York football contest of the Jets vs. Giants, and by a quarter to 1 p.m. each seat at the bar is filled, a clear line of demarcation in the middle separating the green- and blue-clad boosters. A husky, silver-haired former fireman named Charlie defiantly dons a Dolphins jersey behind the bar. He’ll take care of the greetings, along with the pouring today.
More of the thirsty and the hungry stream in throughout the afternoon, occupying tables in the restaurant’s three main rooms, adding to the pleasantly raucous atmosphere where ribbing, that’s not always gentle, will persist.
“Oh, no,” one man with a shaved head and a gray-peppered goatee says upon entering and observing Charlie in his stead. “You again.”
The bartender retorts: “What do you think I think when I see you coming through the door?”
Soon celebrating 50 years in business, Donovan’s—traditionally pronounced with no discernable stress on any syllable and short u’s on the o’s—has long since been established as more than a watering hole, but a local institution. Still, it took the subtle, yet daring efforts of two “neighborhood guys” to rescue the quaint corner bar from catastrophe.
“Any time that comes up I never want to throw [Joe Donovan] under the bus,” says Jimmy Jacobson, 46, referring to the founder, respectfully called “Mr. Donovan” by staff to this day. Jacobson and his brother-in-law, Dan Connor, 48, purchased Donovan’s pub from Joe three years ago this month. For years leading up to their acquisition, Jacobson, a long-time bartender at Donovan’s, and Connor, who deejayed there Sunday nights, noticed a number of needed infrastructure repairs that went unattended by the aging restaurateur who eased into retirement life without deferring responsibilities. The duo that half-joked about one day running Donovan’s themselves over Thanksgiving dinners also observed a decline in revenue.
Long-standing rumors that Mr. Donovan was going to put the pub at the cross-section of 58th Street and Roosevelt Avenue up for sale had been circulating throughout the neighborhood, and when they finally came to fruition, Jacobson and Connor devised a sentimental approach to their purchase pitch. “Donovan’s closing was going to be a big hit for the community,” says Jacobson, a Woodside native who first began working there as a busboy when he was 16. “We had to save it.” Unable to financially compete with another prospective buyer who planned to transform the space into a supermarket, the tandem put together a package consisting of family savings and a personal letter penned by Connor. A full-time IT worker for a management consulting firm who had dined at Donovan’s as a child—and even proposed to his wife on mic for all the bar to hear during a DJ set—Connor outlined what the restaurant represented for its regulars and workers, what Donovan’s stood for in the neighborhood, and a promise that he and Jacobson would maintain its integrity. “We had to put in his head that money isn’t everything,” Jacobson says. Still overjoyed, he adds, “And it worked!”
Jacobson and Connor assumed control of Donovan’s on January 20th—the Catholic calendar’s feast day of Saint Sebastian, a martyr who is honored by the church that bears his name right across the street, and by the associated school just a few steps beyond the adjacent Sohncke Square. Both Jacobson and Connor attended services at the church and were enrolled in the school as children.
Woodsiders heard that the recognizable tandem took over Donovan’s, prompting an immediate boost in business as locals returned to drink and dine in support of Jacobson and Connor’s ascension. Ensuring these customers would continuously come back—while also gaining new clientele—would take construction as well as some convincing though.
“Everybody loved the feel of Donovan’s,” Jacobson says, adding that many of the tried and true regulars begged him and his new partner not to alter the pub in any way. “We said we’re going to make the changes that have to be made.”
Connor stresses: “We promised everybody, ‘it’s still going to be Donovan’s.’ It’s going to be comfortable. It’s going to feel like Donovan’s. That’s why we’ve been slow with some of the changes.”
Over the past three years, upgrades to the dining space and infrastructure have been rolled out with quiet precision so as not to alarm Donovan’s devotees. Jacobson and Connor oversaw air-conditioning fixes and installations of new refrigerators, replacing handmade coolers put in by Mr. Donovan’s team more than four decades ago. They freshly painted the exterior and installed a few clear windows that opened up by the bar, seamlessly incorporating them with the stained glass and allowing a touch more natural light and air inside. An old friend crafted new woodwork dreamt up by Jacobson—then a full-time graphic designer—that transformed the stock shelves behind the bar. Connor spearheaded efforts to put in modern security cameras and an electronic cash register system so as to accept credit cards—one of the more observable alterations that recently prompted long-time customer Dan Grimes, 72, to wryly opine, “Joe Donovan never took credit cards. ‘Cash don’t bounce,’ he always said.”
According to Jacobson, upon handing over control of Donovan’s, Joe said, “Please tell me you’re going to put TVs behind the bar.” The duo did just that, introducing a more sizable sports-watching element to the space, while maintaining sensitivity to customers who simply wished to enjoy a sit-down dinner—units in the back dining rooms remain dark unless otherwise requested or a sure-to-draw game is being aired.
The strategic gamble immediately paid dividends as Donovan’s welcomed an abundance of Rangers fans throughout their recent extensive playoff runs, and then large swaths of the Mets faithful during that team’s push to the World Series this past fall. Football Sundays have become an attraction there as well, with Connor hosting a more bar-centric “Wheel of Fortune”-style raffle at the end of each quarter of a chosen game. Lucky Donovan’s customers can spin a color-divided wheel for a beer, an appetizer, a dessert, or—the most coveted prize of all—one of their burgers.
Time Out New York famously voted Donovan’s patty as the best in the city 12 years ago, and customers pleaded with the new managers to preserve its quality. “We’re not crazy,” says Jacobson, who never intended to alter the burger’s recipe. “We told customers we’re going to ‘improve’ the burger. We liked that word instead of ‘change.’” Case in point, Connor recently introduced Donovan’s burger to an array of trendy toppings—like mac ‘n’ cheese—and pretzel bread buns. “You need more than three choices,” he says. The burger perhaps epitomizes the efforts he and Jacobson have made to integrate the cutting edge with the traditional, in the ever-diversifying landscape of Woodside.
“Clearly the neighborhood’s changed,” says Connor, who lived on 58th Street and 39th Avenue as a child. “When I grew up it was 90 percent Irish and 10 percent a little of everything else. Now we have a strong Latin community and a strong Asian community, specifically Filipino, and we’ve gotten some of that business too.”
Peruvian-American Maspeth resident Nelson Piña, 44, discovered Donovan’s through a friend of Charlie the bartender, a couple months ago. “Overall I like the fact that it adheres to the Irish tradition,” he said while not-so-ironically wearing a green jersey in support of the Jets. “Everybody loves the Irish.” Citing the “amazing” food and the “more homely, familiar atmosphere,” the fire safety worker has holed up at Donovan’s every Sunday since his first visit, bringing an increasing number of family and friends each instance.
“People are telling us things like ‘I’ve been coming to Donovan’s for 30 years and it’s better than ever,’” Jacobson says with palpable pride. “We have to make everybody happy, which is a hard thing to do. It’s great to see that it’s working.”