I'm sitting at a bar. I have a beer in my hand, a half eaten burger on my plate, and eighty years of history on my mind. "The best little bar in Indianapolis," says a jovial voice two seats to my right.
The Golden Ace Inn is an Indianapolis landmark by any standards. The McGinleys have been running the family-owned establishment since March 1, 1934. For those history buffs out there, you'll recognize that is just short of four months after the repeal of Prohibition. John and Ann McGinley, two immigrants from the Irish county of Donegal, saw an opportunity. "He thought this bar stuff was really going to take off with Prohibition ending," says Charles "Chuck" McGinley of his father John. Chuck is the middle child of seven McGinley children; two girls, five boys. He continues, "He talked it over with my mom, and they decided to take a gamble." Their gamble paid off and they created a beloved institution, a place that keeps their family close-knit and where the people of their community have come together for over eighty years.
The bar sits just off Washington Street; today it's a desolate area, surrounded by now defunct businesses and factories. Many of the homes in the area are shuttered up. Despite the bright yellow sign and the two green shamrocks on the outside, you could pass by the place and not even know it's there. But in 1934, the area was a bustling part of the city, and came with an almost built-in clientele. The trolley ran from the downtown center — right in front of the bar. Factory workers, ready for a drink and a meal after a long day's work, would stop in the Ace for a braunschweiger sandwich or a cheeseburger (more on these in a bit). They would be sharing the place with people of the neighborhood, out for a family meal. Folks would chat about the neighborhood, the city, and their lives over a beer or two. It truly was a public house, or better, a public home.
As I step through the door, my ears are greeted with the sound of an unfamiliar Irish rebel song and a friendly smile from an older gentleman at the bar. The man is William "Joe" McGinley, one of John and Ann's five boys; he's proudly wearing his Notre Dame Irish hat. Though John and Ann have passed, the Golden Ace Inn still rests in the hands of their children; this includes Joe, and his living siblings Chuck, Jimmy, Mary Ann, Mike, and Dan. Chuck is standing behind the nearly empty bar in front of an array of black and white family photos. He waves to me, "How we doing?"
Joe and Chuck's nephew, Jimmy McGinley, met me in the parking lot on my way in. After introducing me to his uncles, he makes his way behind the bar, "You want a beer?" He passes in front of the cash register, a relic of the past. I'm staring at it when Jimmy sits a bottle of Harp and a chilled glass in front of me. "We've only had two cash registers ever," says Chuck, making his way over to it, "that's the second." "Not much has changed here has it?" I ask, rather rhetorically. The answer is obvious — from the menu to the 1968 Wurlitzer jukebox it hasn't. Joe answers, "My dad ran the place until he passed in 1967, and then my mom took over until she died in '78. All we want is — if they came back today — they'd be happy, they'd see it hasn't changed."
That's a big part of the charm of this place, and the McGinleys like it that way. For them it's an homage to their parents. For me it is a step back to a simpler time, a time when a pub was a place to have a drink and chat with people. The beer selection is pretty much what it would have been if my dad had stopped in when he turned 21. The jukebox is filled with music that my grandfather would have listened to as he sat in front of the family radio (I listen to that music, too, but now I can carry it in my pocket). Can you feel nostalgia for a time period you never lived in? I feel it here. I think it's called anemoia, if I'm not mistaken.
Chuck, Joe, and I move from the bar to a round table in the quieter dining room. As we sit, the first customer I've seen — a veteran who looks to be in his seventies — walks through the door and takes a seat at the bar. The majority of the light in the dining room comes from a buzzing, yellow (golden) neon sign that looks like an ace playing card. While I'm still nursing my half-full (I'm always the optimist) Harp, Jimmy stops by to see if either of his uncles would like a drink. They both politely decline. Covering the window on the back wall is a stained-glass McGinley family coat of arms. I'm looking at it when Joe starts off, "You know, you see that bar," he gestures to the spot where Jimmy is talking to the single, Diet-Coke-drinking patron, "in the '50s and '60s there wouldn't have been an open seat. People didn't need a reason to be at a bar, they didn't need live bands or even televisions — they just enjoyed company, friends were their entertainment."
The place still does get packed like that at least one day a year. If you've heard of the Golden Ace Inn, there's a good chance it was tied to their St. Patrick's Day festivities. It's no surprise USA Today named the Ace in its list of Ten Best Places In the Nation to Party Like You're Irish on St. Patrick's Day. They have the longest running St. Paddy's party in the city. "We've always had a St. Patrick's party," says Chuck, "it was entirely different then, we had a family from Ireland that would ask for the back room and they would have a family get-together. It was just a nice way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. It wasn't like the craziness you have today." Joe adds, "Then about twenty years ago it got to the point where we almost couldn't handle the crowd. It used to just be inside, because the lot next door was a house, but now we have the tents outside and you're still lucky if you can walk through the door."
They don't hide their slight disdain for how much the neighborhood and society have changed. And yet, while they obviously have fond memories of the earlier years of the Ace, they're quick to show optimism for the future. They're hopeful for their neighborhood, Englewood, and they should be; look at areas like Fountain Square and the Old Northside, these neighborhoods are getting facelifts and yet they're able to maintain their character. It's a positive trend for our city, and no one notices it as much as people like the McGinleys; people who have their entire livelihood tied to an institution that has seen the best and the worst of times.
"Holy Cross, which is just about ten blocks away, was going through some major troubles for a long time and now they're making some big changes in that area," says Joe. Chuck cuts in and points out "People think we're in a rough area here, but we're not. Maybe we were about ten or fifteen years ago, but it's become more stable, and I think it will continue to get better, and we will be here to see that change." While they recognize the positives of modernization, they acknowledge that the Ace has been — and still is — a haven of a time gone by.
"Even though the neighborhood has changed, we try and be the one thing that stays the same for the people. We want our customers to feel like friends, to come in and just feel at ease," says Chuck. This is why people keep coming here. "Just yesterday," says Joe, "a young girl, just turned 21, was sitting up there at the bar. She looked over at one of our regulars and asked, 'How long have you been coming here?' He looked at her and said '47 years' and it's true. He started coming here when he was 21, and now a new generation will be making this their bar too."
We're lucky that a family like the McGinleys, in the words of Jimmy, "have all worked very hard throughout their lives to keep the family together, keep the family pub open and keep the Irish spirit alive here in Indianapolis." We're lucky that we can walk in the Ace and even if our last name isn't McGinley (mine's damn close) and we aren't of Irish heritage, we're still a part of the family when we walk through the door.
I ask Chuck and Joe if they could come back in 80 more years what would they hope to see. "Still standing," Joe says. They both laugh. "In all honesty that's it, you know. The kids have a loyalty to it, and I truly think we will always have a McGinley at the Golden Ace. That's what is going to have an impact more than anything else. It's going to be passed down through the family. It will always be a family run bar, and not to steal from the show, but a place where everybody knows your name."
The conversation is over, I've ordered a perfectly prepared burger. The Golden Ace is known for its burgers, cooked in cast iron skillets that have been used for over 60 years. They're not flashy, just straightforward burgers, made with never-frozen beef; and possibly the best in the city. I top mine with pickles and mustard, like I always do. Chuck hands me a Guinness and commences talking to a woman at the far end of the bar. The veteran is sitting two seats to my right, finishing his second Diet Coke and a braunschweiger sandwich with cheese.
I'm sitting at a bar. I have a beer in my hand, a half-eaten burger on my plate, and eighty years of history on my mind. "The best little bar in Indianapolis," says a jovial voice two seats to my right. I take a sip of my beer, "It is," I respond. "Yes, it is."