The owner of The Brass Door, which recently reopened after a short hiatus, says Memphis is in his DNA.
Seamus Loftus has that look in his eye. An inscrutable Irishness, such that you can’t really be sure what’s going through the mind of the voluble proprietor of The Brass Door, an Irish pub in the heart of Downtown Memphis. He might be about to tell a dirty joke or offer you a pint of Guinness as unspools the long version of his provenance—the story of how an Irishman in his 50s found himself in possession of an Irish pub, serving up brews and traditional pub fare in the homeland of Elvis and barbecue.
On this day, we get the storyteller. The drinks have just been poured and Loftus settles in behind a table upstairs. All the seats are packed at the long bar below. Mixed in with the cacophony of the late afternoon crowd that’s music to his ears, U2’s “Pride” blasts from the speakers. In front of us, a few pints. All of them, in Loftus’s reckoning, a thing of sublime perfection. The best you’ll find outside Ireland, he swears.
Loftus’s pub has just reopened its doors after a few months’ haitus, an interim period of tweaking the operation around the edges. After temporarily shutting down, the pub tightened up its workflow and infrastructure behind the scenes, and tweaked the menu a little. All of it an attempt at shoring up the operational aspects you don’t necessarily see as a customer but that are necessary to put a place like this in a better position to pull off one of the toughest feats: actually sticking around. And customers apparently missed it, because on this day, at least, every seat is full. It’s a little hard to be heard above the din. When Loftus surveys it all, his Irish eyes are smiling.
So why is an Irish guy here anyway, in the heart of the fried-food loving south? In a business of a thousand dreamers for every success story, of low margins and capricious fate, Loftus will be the first to tell you he never set out to open a pub under the delusion he’d be taking home fat stacks of money at night. This is a guy who once took a multi-stop trip around the world just because, supporting himself here and there doing odd jobs. Until a friend told him about a job opening for a soccer coach at a school in Memphis. He took that job and eventually found himself declaring to a friend, "You know what this city could use? A genuine, real-deal Irish pub." And here we are. Loftus is that kind of guy.
And here’s the thing about him: He loves Memphis. Like, really loves this city. Almost as much as he loves whiskey and telling stories and making sure you leave his pub satiated with a copious amount of food and drink. “I grew up in a fishing village in the west of Ireland,” he once mused to a friend, “and I knew where Memphis was before I ever knew where London was.”
“When I left Ireland,” says Loftus, who hails from the village of Killala in Ireland’s County Mayo, “I was a cannonball without a destination. Just like, all this energy, going … somewhere. I got to America with $239 and a bag of soccer gear.
“In Killala,” Seamus pauses. He takes his time with stories. “.... the fishermen would always be coming back with American music. To think of it now — it’s so funny, but there were fellas in Killala with cowboy boots. Right? We had all this American music. We had Johnny Cash and Elvis and Carl Perkins. So you kinda had Memphis in your mind. It was in the DNA.”
It was almost like — yes, he acknowledges the cheesiness of it — “I didn’t pick Memphis. Memphis picked me.”
But what is it, really, about a place that makes someone fall in love? Not the romantic kind. That rhapsodic feeling that you could have ended up anywhere, done anything, and here — here it all fits, makes sense. Everything works. Which is another way of saying — there’s something instructive about an immigrant’s love of a place. You, of course, have spent your whole life here. You’re tired of it all, the same boring crap, nothing changes. And then an Irishman gets to a place like Memphis, tastes its food, beholds its culture, finds himself a girl and declares with fresh eyes — ladies and gentlemen, this is the greatest city in the world.
Memphis, to be sure, is a place as much as an idea. Memphis the place is preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding next year. When outsiders talk about the place, outsized focus tends to accrue to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, to Graceland and barbecue, though that’s such a cartoonish version of Memphis the idea.
Memphis the idea is something else. Kind of like the geographic and cultural version of one of those indie bands that turns fans into devotees. “Nashville can work till it drops dead,” Loftus practically howls, “and it will never be the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
“I went round the world twice. I stayed here. The thing about Memphis is it has this kind of magnetic pull. It has these … odd levels of satisfaction. That touch the nerves of food and music and sports and culture. And not that many cities in the world supply all those things. Copenhagen does not supply rock ‘n’ roll and sunshine. If you want to market us and you have the time … we beat a whole lot of towns to death, man.”
A waitress materializes beside Loftus. He addresses his business partner, friend and fellow Irishman Patrick Reilly, who’s joined us — Reilly being the owner along with his wife Deni of the nearby Majestic Grille, a pair who’ve been helping Loftus behind the scenes.
“...Thank you. You want another pint? One more pint…”
“So, anyway, I found an expat community here,” Loftus continues. “I found, happily, the love of my life here. I found remarkable friends and business partners. Memphis is — if you took this riverfront and put it down in Perth and put a restaurant on that riverfront — you’d own your own jet. I mean, we gave birth to rock 'n roll! If anybody on earth gets laid on this planet, we made it possible. What more do you need?”
When you sit down for a drink with an Irishman, God knows what’s going to happen next. And two Irishmen? With Loftus and Reilly, the conversation meanders from Memphis to travels to opening a pub to ancient monks. There’s a lot of “..but I digress..” in the conversation.
All of a sudden, Reilly is extolling the virtues of a book called How the Irish Saved Civilization. During the Dark Ages, he explains, the monks from Ireland who were left over after the Vikings had sacked the country — “and the whole of Europe was dark and dreary, no writing, no art left”— were the same monks busy writing and educating themselves. And saving things.
Surely, there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. You can give an Irishman a dream and a chance and he’ll build something like an old-fashioned pub that — ok, maybe it won’t save civilization, but you’ve got to believe it’ll be a damn good port in the storm.
“We just wanted to build a platform for great whiskies,” Seamus says. “A great pint of Guinness. A comfortable environment. With a personalized welcome. You’re not just going to a pub. You’re going to our pub.
“The challenge for me was — go to America, work hard, use everything you’ve got. Don’t forget to compete every day if you can. I’ve been working since the day I got here. And I’m not done.”