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Luck of the Irish: O’Doherty’s Grille downtown celebrates 30 years of Reubens, Guinness, songs and $1 bills

May 11, 2022 Updated Wed., May 11, 2022 at 7:54 a.m.

To meet husband-and-wife Tim O’Doherty and Sandra “Sam” O’Doherty, owners of O’Doherty’s Irish Grille, is to feel immediately at home with their warmth, Irish comfort food classics – Reuben sandwiches, fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage, stew and shepherd’s pie – and Tim’s infectious social gregariousness.

Tim and Sam opened O’Doherty’s on May 2, 1992, with Tim’s brother Shannon O’Doherty and their business partner Terry Best just prior to Bloomsday in the space that was originally the historic Coeur d’Alene hotel.

Known as the place to stand on the bar and sing a song to put your $1 bill on the wall, O’Doherty’s has been host to thousands of customers celebrating weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and graduations.

The Hooligan & Hannigan, named for the long-gone restaurant of the same name, has been voted the best Reuben in the city. During the anniversary month of May, the O’Doherty family would like to invite people to stop by and share a story about their history at the pub or email stories to timodoherty6@gmail.com.

They hope to compile these memories, along with their own, in a book commemorating 30 years. Tim and Sam, who have lived in Spokane for more than 40 years, answered questions at their restaurant on Friday morning, where regulars commingled with soon-to-be college graduates and their families:

Congratulations on O’Doherty’s 30th anniversary in downtown Spokane. Take me back to Day 1. What prompted the two of you to start O’Doherty’s 30 years ago?

Tim: I talk a lot, so I’m going to let my wife start (laughs).

Sam: Thirty years ago, we met at Milford’s and had dated and worked there for 11 years. Our partner there had opened another Milford’s in Boise. It didn’t do well, so he was returning to Spokane. At that time, Tim said he was ready for something else more casual.

One day, he came home and said, “I quit my job today” (laughs). We had done research about Irish pubs with Tim’s Irish heritage in mind. This was C.J. Timothy’s during the World’s Fair. It was a restaurant with a comedy club in the basement. The stage is still down there.

When we came to look at it, it was all closed up. At that point, we did a lot of book learning and research, because we didn’t have the money to go to Ireland, to work toward opening the pub. We worked really hard to get it open for Bloomsday in 1992, so that was our first weekend open.

Did you want to open an Irish pub in Spokane because of your heritage?

Tim: I went to college in Fresno State, so I used to go into the city (San Francisco) and hang out in the Irish bars on Geary Street. I was an English major, so I would pretend to read “Ulysses” in the bars. I was really into my heritage, and when my business partner said he wanted to make Milford’s more formal, I didn’t think that I would fit in because I’m a more casual guy.

I’m one of seven kids, and my dad’s a football coach and teacher. I felt like I needed to be somewhere where I could just be friendly because I put 7-Up in my wine (laughs). I felt at the time that the Irish community in Spokane was big. I don’t know if it’s Gonzaga or what?

Sam: I think the history of the mines brought a lot of people to the area. There are a lot of people here who are proud of their Irish heritage. That’s why the St. Patrick’s Day parade works so well – people want to celebrate.

Do you remember your first day, your first week, your first year?

Sam: Some of it (laughs). The original menu was a placemat, and we were going to do a combination menu with half grilled chickens, and we could not get those suckers cooked (laughs)! They kept getting sent back because they weren’t cooked all the way. We’ve definitely evolved.

We had a wide variety of people help us build this when we were trying to get it together. We really did this on a shoestring and a prayer.

What have been your bestselling menu items over the years?

Tim: The Reuben has been the star over the years along with the fish and chips. And still on Fridays, the Catholic community eats the fish and chips even though the rule of no meat on Fridays has long been rescinded. They’re in the habit of doing that.

And the much-maligned shepherd’s pie is probably the third most popular item.

Sam: And it’s truly a cottage pie because we don’t use lamb because a lot of people don’t like lamb. Someone tells us at least once a month. Yes, we know, but Americans don’t love lamb – it isn’t widely received. We make a lamb shank, which is delicious. Our shepherd’s pie is hamburger, ground beef, and it is well-loved.

What has been the secret to your 30 years of success?

Tim: I really want to emphasize that O’Doherty’s is the combination of efforts of so many people and a good number of blessings from the Lord, too. … It’s also kismet, and you’re thankful for it and recognize that it’s luck and a lot of help.

Sam: I will tell you that 95% of our success is Tim and his natural ability to make people feel like they’re his best friend. His brother and I have worked with him for 30 years and have watched and studied him. You either have it or you don’t. He genuinely loves people and is interested in people, and people are drawn to him.

People want to come here for the camaraderie and friendship. In our original business plan, we wanted O’Doherty’s to be like “Cheers,” a place where people know your name and you feel like it’s your second living room because that’s what the pubs in Ireland are.

How did you survive the pandemic?

Sam: Day by day. It was the most ever-changing landscape anybody’s ever seen. We tried things – some of them worked, and some of them didn’t. We opened for to-go because we were shut down right before St. Patrick’s Day. To be honest, our food doesn’t travel well, so we quit to-go.

Every time they allowed us to reopen, we reopened. We did seating on the patio in December, which I would’ve told you we would never do in a million years. But we did it, and people sat outside.

Tim: We shouldn’t have – it was awful (laughs)! It wasn’t fun being crammed in a tent.

Sam: We just had to reinvent day by day. We did limited menu after limited menu after limited menu.

Tim: It was very helpful that we were established and debt-free.

So … 30 years – what’s next?

Tim: That’s a good question (laughs)! Personally, I’m still invigorated by what we do here. The hours we work are shorter, and we vacation more. See more of the world maybe? But we’ve seen a lot of the world.

Sam: I don’t know. I would’ve told you five years ago that at 30 years, we would retire. But now that it’s here, the answer is we don’t want to retire. We really enjoy the work. It’s really satisfying at the end of the day when you go home and feel like you did a good job.

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