Santa Monica, CA – 1982
In June 1979, a bar “with a magical theme” opened in Santa Monica. It was called Merlin McFly’s and was notable for its décor: nine stained glass windows depicting Merlin, Aladdin, Houdini, a fire-eater (below) and other notable names from the history of magic and sorcery. It was part of a chain of bar/grills across California, the other “family members” – Maxwell, Maestro, Maggie, Sly, and Sky – also offering imaginative décor (heavy on the stained glass windows of course) and definitely looking to entertain their customers.
I worked there in 1983, first as a food cashier for the kitchen. I’d take the food orders, ring up the sales, and pass the ticket to the cooks. I later was trained as a cook, and for the first time in my life started cooking meals. Before I came to Cali, I lived with my parents so all of my meals were cooked by my mom or I ate out somewhere. Usually fast food.
But this is really where I learned to cook. I still consider myself the “king of the fire pit grill.”
I remember there were two managers. I think their names were John and Renee. I don’t know if either of them had spouses but I know for a fact they were doing plenty of coke up in the office and were totally banging each other. (Caught on occasion ensures gainful employment)
Oh, there was this other guy that managed for a short time. He was a fat clown. I remember he went on a game show, called Dream House. You could win a house if you crushed all of the questions. He’s bragging to the whole staff about when he’s going on the show and tells us all to watch him win. We’re all like… whatever.
So the day comes, and we all crowd around the TV set in the office. He’s on there looking all goofy and cocky and they ask him this question: “If you fed a cow cocoa beans, she would give chocolate milk.”
Him: “I agree.”
And like that he was off the show. In and out. We ripped him apart when he returned to work.
There were roaming magicians in the restaurant and would come to your table while you ate or drank, and would do close-up magic for you and your guests. It was such a cool place to work.
The wait staff was all hot women, that were dressed all in black. Tight lycra low-cut bodysuits. Stockings, either fishnets or nude. They all wore black skirts that revealed one of their legs. (Of course, it was my mission to work there) They all looked like magician’s assistants.
I remember this especially hot one. Heather was a tall blonde that everybody loved. She looked like my ex-girlfriend Michelle but 24 years old and long blonde hair. It was my birthday and Heather walked up to me and French kissed me sensuously on the lips. I was shocked and stunned and turned on all in the same moment. Everybody loved it and laughed as I limped back into the kitchen. Nothing ever happened but it’s just something Heather could get away with any time she wanted. Like a tigress that couldn’t be caged and lived by her own rules.
One night I was emptying the dirty fat from the fryer. This was done by attaching a nozzle to an opening on the lower part of the fryer. Then I would get a big metal pot. Huge. Two feet tall. Like a huge metal bucket with metal handles on the side. I’d stick the metal pot under the nozzle and then turn on the spigot. This was done a few nights a week. The oil would get dirty and you have to change it so your fried foods don’t come out all brown and gross. Those fries need to be crisp and golden!
So I’m letting all of this hot oil empty out of the fryer and into the big pot. It’s the end of the night and the kitchen is closing. It’s after midnight. The fryer has been off for a bit so the 350-degree oil has cooled down. Plus it’s dirty, so it will cool faster because it’s not as pure as fresh fat.
As you know, metal is a great conductor. So when the oil enters the pot it heats up the metal. You have to put towels around the two handles on the side to carry the pot. When it’s full, you have to pick it up and carry it through the slippery floored kitchen and through the dishwashing section and out the back door to outside. This thing is very heavy, awkward to carry, and is filled with hot oil. I hate this part of the job more than any other part.
I get the pot outside and I have to pour the hot contents into a big metal upright barrel. Usually, that goes without a hitch.
But not tonight. I leaned the big pot against it and started to pour it in the barrel when the barrel tipped towards me and the contents of the barrel splashed back into my face!
I’m freaking out. It’s burned my face and gone in my eyes, and I call for help.
The good news is. It had rained earlier so there was a load of cool water down in the bottom of that barrel. So that cooled the oil down from whatever nightmarish temperature it was when I carried it out here. So I was okay, but I couldn’t see because the oil had gotten in my eyes. One of the Mexican dishwashers came out to help me get inside.
The manager and one of the waitresses, Holly came over and sat with me. They cleaned me up and asked if I was okay. I could see just fine but my face was a bit red but I’d live. They asked if they could get me anything. (Thinking about it now I think they were afraid I’d sue or something) I told them I wanted a 151 and coke. Done. I was all better.
We had this huge doorman named Mike. When the employee meal went out I always gave him an extra load of whatever was on it. Extra chicken, steak, or whatever. I would call his name to come to pick up his meal and he would always smile and drop a couple of joints next to the plate on the rack as he picked it up. It was like one fluid moment. Handoff the plate, joints dropped, snatched, and slipped into my pocket. Thanks to Mike there was never a shortage of weed.
I would do the same for a few of the girls that worked there and they would bring rum and cokes to me and the other chef. So even back then I knew how to get the hookup. Learned from the best…my Dad!
I’ll write in other posts about my celebrity meeting at this fun establishment.
The great thing about doing a bunch of different jobs in your life is, it gives you a different perspective on life and you really do learn a lot of skills in a variety of environments.
A Merlin McFly’s advertisement promised it was a place of “madness, magic and friendly spirits” and that their menu offered the delights of their “mystic burgers” and “wizard ribs”. “Fun is the password,” said another in 1984, which had a hand-drawn picture of “P. Eye McFly” and report of the “The Great Restaurant Mystery”, an “investigation” into the McFly’s family tree and their restaurants.
By that time though, Merlin McFly’s was having some trouble. (I was gone by then so I missed all of the trouble.) There were local problems with drug dealing, the city of Santa Monica had an ancient licensing rule about “Dance Halls” that meant McFly’s theoretically had to impose a cover charge, and then there was the issue that hit many singles bars very hard: the rising awareness and fear of HIV and AIDS.
When the bar closed, there were dozens of calls when it was announced that the windows would be on sale – at a price of $325,000. Steve Spill at the nearby Magicopolis magic theater bought the windows a year or two later and then sold them to a collector who put them in a stained glass museum in Washington, DC.
Today, Sly McFly’s in Monterey is the only one left, and their website’s amusing “story” of aspiring race car driver Sly mentions how he finished second at the Trophy Race in Ulster – a connection to Finn McCool’s Irish Bar, which is owned by Belfast-born Geraldine Gilliland and is now at that spot on Main Street.
Geraldine wears funky glasses and has long red hair, and originally started out working at a restaurant in her native Northern Ireland. She grew up during the early days of “The Troubles” – “I used to fall to the kitchen floor when the bombs started going off” – and like many others she moved away, eventually finding herself in Los Angeles:
“I found LA very exotic – they spoke a different language, even though it was English! It was very scary actually – I didn’t know anyone at all, (but) I fell in love with Santa Monica after I drove from New York. When I saw the beach I cashed in my Greyhound bus ticket and my return ticket to Ireland too.”
As soon as she arrived, she started working over the grill and has continued ever since. Gilliland’s Cafe opened its doors in 1984, and she began her own catering company soon after. It was an immediate success, providing Christmas puddings to Bloomingdales, Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s in New York, but it was her mix of California and Irish cuisines that really established Gerri’s reputation on a national scale.
The cantina-style Lula Cocina was next in 1991, and 1994 saw Jake and Annie’s American-Irish Café, which eventually become Finn McCool’s and officially opened under this name a few days before St. Patrick’s Day in 2002.
As for any ghosts or strange stories, Spill hadn’t ever heard anything about Merlin McFly’s, but Gilliland – who has now been here for nearly 20 years – had:
“There were ghosts in the bathrooms. It was said that every time you washed your hands and looked in the mirror, an apparition appeared.”
The bathrooms at Finn McCool’s are in the same place as they were when Merlin was weaving his spells, but after emailing John Forbes at Bonny Doon Art Glass I found out exactly where the ghosts came from:
“The bathrooms had special effects in them; the mirrors were one-way and when the lights in the bathroom dimmed, the light behind the mirror came on illuminating the figure of the “ghost”. It made for startling looks on people’s faces as they saw the ghost figure appearing in the mirror!”
There was no further archival evidence of any strange events or stories here, so it seems that since this ghostly story has an earthly explanation, you’re safe in the smallest room. Still, it’s kind of a shame that the “ghost” special effect isn’t there anymore.
Forbes also recalled the Merlin stained glass image:
“The back bar had a stained glass image of Merlin and at midnight lasers would turn on, shooting red beams across the room – it looked pretty cool as it pierced through the drifting smoke. Wow, that took me back! Merlin’s was a really fun project, a lot of creative energy.”
Here’s a pic of an original menu done by the great AWEST.
I’ll never forget my time at Merlin McFly’s!
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