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Meet Martin Whelan: Carrying on His Parent's Legacy at Maggie's Place

Naomi Banks | 15 April, 2024

            Meet Martin Whelan: Carrying on His Parent's Legacy at Maggie's Place

2024 marks Maggie’s Place’s 50th year in business, after opening in 1974. In celebration, we sat down with Martin Whelan, who took over his parent’s legacy in 1992. Evolving from a traditional Irish spot to a modern American eatery, Maggie's Place adapted to changing times in Manhattan. Anecdotes from the early days of his leadership, including renovations during Hurricane Gloria and buzz during the 1994 FIFA World Cup, showcase the restaurant's spirit. While embracing new craft beer and cocktails, Maggie's Place preserves classics like chicken pot pie. Whelan’s commitment to hospitality ensures Maggie's Place remains a beacon of in-person dining joy in Midtown.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity. Prints of John Donohue’s pen-and-ink drawing of Maggie’s Place can be found here. Check out a clip of the interview on Instagram and TikTok by clicking the hyperlinks.

Could you describe the culinary philosophy behind Maggie’s Place and how it sets your restaurant apart from others in the Midtown area?

Whelan: We're 50 years old and opened as an Irish restaurant. That set the original tone. I took over in ‘92, from my parents and my brother came on board in ‘96. He went to the Culinary Institute, so that was a big change. To be honest, previous to that it was frozen french fries, instant mashed potatoes. I mean, it was the 70s. In New York, fine dining existed, but not to the extent that exists now. We still have some Irish classics on the menu. But I would say more modern American cuisine now. We change with people's tastes. Nothing's written in stone.

Maggie’s Place opened 50 years ago in 1974. Can you share any memorable stories from the early days that embody its spirit and atmosphere?

Whelan: It was opened on a wing and a prayer. My parents were immigrants and didn't have a lot of money. When they opened, it was kind of just put together. I don't think many things that were built in the 70s were built to last. I was 12 when it opened. This place was open Monday to Friday. My mother would not let my father work weekends.

New York was a very different place. Every once in a while, we'd go to Fifth Avenue during the Christmas season, to look at the windows, like everybody does today, but back then there were more windows and a lot less people. Nobody came to New York for Christmas, because New York was a dangerous place. That was set in stone in the 1970s. Every year, as a child, when I walked along Fifth Avenue, my father would run into somebody that he knew. He'd be like, “I could run for mayor of this town.”

When I renovated it in 1995, I did not have a lot of money. I was living in Stuyvesant Town at the time. The East River overflowed with Hurricane Gloria and swamped my car. I took the insurance money and I put it into the renovations. I couldn't afford to close, so we did major cosmetic renovations without closing. We don't own this building, which is a story in and of itself – to be with the same landlord (now I'm dealing with the landlord's son) for 50 years, 8 leases, and we're still here.

I couldn't afford to close the doors because I had to pay the rent. I wasn't getting free rent from the landlord. I wasn't a new tenant. So every night they come in and work. My waitstaff would be brushing dust off suit jackets. As the gentlemen were leaving, people started working. They're saying “What's going on here? This guy is renovating a restaurant as he's opened?” My kitchen wasn’t being renovated and was up to code.

We started to get busy before we reopened, but I did run out of money to finish stations. Then the World Cup came to town and that put me over the top. I was on Irish TV because they got wind that this bar that was half finished was open. I got interviewed on Irish TV, that gave us some press. People were calling their friends, “Hey, I'm still in New York, you gotta go to this place, it’s being built.” We made a lot of money during the World Cup. It gave me enough to finish the renovations.

Who was responsible for the interior design?

Whelan: During the pandemic, I hired Ben Kay to redesign it. As I referenced before, nothing was classically built in the 70s. You go to the McSorley's and the Old Town, with those big bars, and they're never going to change. They’re the lucky ones that don’t have to change. We change with the times. We adjust with people's flavors. The demographic changed in the neighborhood, so we changed with what we see we need to do. A lot of places close, places that couldn't change. This was a big leap of faith for me.

It was my idea to extend the bar because going out to lunch slowed down. That's one of the changes – people aren't in the habit of going for sitting down and having a two hour lunch. That doesn't happen when people go too fast casual, bring it back to the desk. So, I made the bar bigger up here to go for the happy hour crowd after lunch.

Before we renovated, it was all family pictures on the walls. We just wanted to change it up a little bit. The wallpaper upstairs was the designer's idea. The items hanging on the wall are just stuff I've collected over the years. My grandfather was a writer in Gaelic. Down the back hallway upstairs, those frames are his book covers from the 1950s.

As for the big painting on the wall coming up the staircase – I invested in a steakhouse in Tribeca. It went belly up. I got into partnership with an absentee partner when he shouldn't have been. I said, “I'm taking this painting.” It cost me a lot of money.


Since 1992, how has Maggie’s Place evolved in terms of cuisine, ambiance, and clientele?

Whelan: When I was a little kid, I'd walk into the office, which doubled as the liquor storage, and all I saw were shells of Dewar’s scotch. Now, it's a shelf of Tito's. People's tastes change. We are an original Guinness draft account in New York. We were also the original Brooklyn Beer draft account in Midtown Manhattan.

When Brooklyn was becoming hip in the early 90s. I saw that craft beer was coming up. If you went to any other Irish bar, or any bar for that matter, they’d have Bud on draft, Miller on draft, not a lot of selection. I started putting Brooklyn on. 

Cocktail culture is very popular right now. When I started here in the 90s, vodka soda was a cocktail. Now, we're very cocktail forward. As for wines, we are very conscious of our price points, but we try to find the best wines. Wine sales are down though, because cocktail culture is so popular.

In what ways have you kept the era of your parent’s ownership alive here?

Whelan: We still have chicken pot pie, shepherd's pie, and fish and chips on the menu. My father is 94. He lives back in Ireland. I don't think he ever gave it a second thought that this place is still open. But it is still open and people have a lot of memories here. My mother is Maggie. My oldest daughter's name is Maggie.

There's nobody in Midtown that is still here. Will it be around forever? I don't know. I don't push my daughters to go into this business, but I won't close as long as my father is with me. I'll tell you that much. I know my father is very proud of me. We don't own real estate in Manhattan, but we have 14 bars and restaurants in the group. I think that's a testament to anything.

What lessons do you intend to pass down to your daughter Maggie about restaurant life and hospitality?

Whelan: Both of my daughters are in high school. I try to have them work, not here, but at one of my other restaurants – one day a weekend, as a host. If you're a shy person, it's a great way to come out of your shell, when you have to deal with other people.

I was a very shy kid. I was in the advertising business, there was a recession in 1987, and I decided, I want to be my own boss. I opened a delicatessen in Queens and I opened a pizzeria. I was dealing with the public. I just liked being in business. I didn't have to answer anybody. And then, when my mother passed away, I decided to come in here and my father's like, “The lease is up, go talk to the landlord.” I talked to the landlord, got a new lease, and the rest is history.

How does Maggie’s Place carry on the cycle of joy that in-person dining carries?

Whelan: I mentioned how people go fast casual these days, take their lunch, and go back to their desk. When you're in a restaurant, you're talking to somebody, interacting with people. I think our societies produce a lot more people on their phones these days. You're getting some questionable facts on your phone, when you could talk in person to people. Restaurants, bars, taverns – if people were in them drinking or not drinking, instead of on their phone, the world would be a better place.

Maggie’s Place is located at 21 East 47th Street, New York, NY 10017 and is currently open on Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., from Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (212) 753-5757.