A weathered shamrock sign overlooks the patio at Tim Flanagan’s Restaurant & Lounge, but displays an incorrect address: 2100 Ingersoll Ave. rather than 2120.
Then there’s the random par-four sign that migrated all the way from the ninth hole of Palmer Hills Golf Course in Bettendorf, a gift from a greenskeeper pal.
At least the white-and-gold letters as large as 2 feet tall that spell out “Tim Flanagan’s” on the wooden fence along Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway make plain sense: The larger-than-life personality of the bar’s namesake has been the driving force of this staple Irish watering hole since May 1985 — a bar that a dozen years ago relocated next door from 2100 Ingersoll (explaining that old shamrock sign) to make way for the parkway’s expansion.
The letters will remain, but the man is bidding farewell. Flanagan, 57, who has spent more than 40 years in the bar and restaurant business in Des Moines, is selling his bar and retiring from the nightlife grind.
“It was kind of an Irish wake, but nobody had to die for it,” Flanagan said of his final St. Patrick’s Day last weekend, when both sad and happy tears were shed into cups of green beer.
Earlier this week, a beer distributor driving by honked his horn as we chatted on the patio. A former Flanagan’s bartender now clad in another restaurant’s uniform ran over to give “Timmy” a big hug, saying she wished he was still her boss.
Kerri Allen, Flanagan’s niece as well as bar manager the last five years and an employee for 24, arrived for her evening shift but deferred comment because she didn’t want to start bawling.
The short story is that occasional Flanagan’s bartender and current Gateway Market manager David Clemens is heading up an investment group (Ingersoll Sports LLC) that’s buying the bar in a deal expected to close within weeks.
“We love Tim and wanted to honor him with that,” Clemens said of retaining the Flanagan’s name.
Flanagan, meanwhile, gets more time with longtime girlfriend Lauri Hellickson, his three adult daughters and two toddler grandchildren.
He also “felt just a humongous weight taken off my shoulders” to put recent business turmoil to rest. His brief run with Timothy’s Steakhouse and Pub near Merle Hay Mall in 2009 and 2010 turned out to be an insurmountable financial drain that helped to trigger retirement. “It was just bad timing — the economy and the location,” Flanagan said. “It didn’t work out.”
His lifelong dream had been to open a more sophisticated, old-school restaurant in the vein of Christopher’s in Beaverdale, where he launched his career in 1969. But Flanagan’s oldest daughter, Andrea, 33, who runs her own law firm in Des Moines, said that her dad forgot he wasn’t a twentysomething entrepreneur anymore.
So after he spends a summer with grandkids and golf, Flanagan is serious about finding a low-key job. “I wouldn’t mind driving a cab,” he mused.
Even if Flanagan won the lottery tomorrow and could pay all the creditors, taxes, banks and lawyers, he says he’d still retire because he’s become a different sort of social animal.
“I still want to be around people,” he clarified. “I just don’t want to be around 40 to 50 drunk people at midnight anymore.”
Illness forces an end to his drinking days
Flanagan tends to make matter-of-fact course corrections, just like when after a career of continuous social drinking he quit the screwdrivers and cigarettes cold turkey five years ago.
He was suffering from liver disease, internal bleeding and a “torn up” esophagus when he ended up in the hospital for a week.
Andrea was at his side when the doctor asked Flanagan if his daughter was married yet. She wasn’t. Well, if you plan on giving her away at her wedding, the doc said, you can’t have another drink. Otherwise, you’ll be dead in less than a year.
Flanagan from the start was the gregarious sort of bar owner who reveled in thrifty ingenuity: He painted the snow green with $90 worth of food coloring by the gallon and a borrowed paint sprayer.
For nearly two years he gave out about 400 roses per week to women at lunchtime — fibbing that the flowers were leftovers from the funeral home behind his bar. But it was another sly marketing ploy: The roses were purchased cheap from a wholesaler friend. Customers would take them back to office cubicles and help spread his lunch menu via word of mouth.
The headquarters for 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis down the street ordered gallons of cheesy potato soup, so Flanagan renamed the menu item “Dukakis soup.”
Fun-loving times, but heartaches, too
Flanagan, who lost his own dad at age 9, began as a high school busboy at Christopher’s, where owner Joe Giudicessi became a surrogate father.
He also was a classmate at Holy Trinity and Dowling with Brian Cooney, who became another of Des Moines’ iconic Irish bar owners with the opening of Cooney’s in Beaverdale in the months before Flanagan’s. (Flanagan and Cooney also happen to share two of the most distinctively deep, gravelly voices in town.)
“Those poor nuns,” Cooney shook his head, thinking back to schoolkid days.
Cooney recalled one particularly raucous mid-1980s Halloween when Flanagan dressed up as Lady Godiva and rode through both Christopher’s and Cooney’s atop a white horse, decked out in a long blonde wig and full body stocking.
But Flanagan acknowledges that not everything has been laughs. He and his wife divorced shortly after the bar opened, and he missed dance recitals and other fatherly milestones while working nights and weekends.
Every other Friday night, Andrea and her sisters would order steak de burgo, twice-baked potatoes and house salads for dinners at Flanagan’s. Then the girls would return to the bar with their dad for Saturday morning chores — scraping gum off the bottom of tables, but also keeping whatever spare change they found on the patron side of the bar. (One of Andrea’s sisters once discovered a $100 bill, but was forced to split it among all three siblings.)
Andrea wrote the final paper of her undergraduate English degree at the University of Iowa about her father and the demolition of the original Flanagan’s as a “metaphor for the change I saw in him.”
As times change, it’s time to sell
A self-reflective Flanagan observes that he began serving cocktails at Christopher’s when he considered old men to be 35, and is getting out of the biz when the kids are 40. The slang of younger generations has stymied him at least since the advent of “phat,” and drinking now seems more popular as a power sport than a social gathering. So it’s his time.
But customers have become friends, “and if you’re there for a long time, it’s your family, it’s your life.”
Some sort of summer going-away shindig is pending, but Flanagan already has had his Irish wake.
Andrea gets married next month. Her wedding party doesn’t get to stop by the family bar for shots like she always envisioned, but it’s more important that Dad is on hand to give her away.