In Irish rain, 163 Drimnagh Rd. gleams more than anything on the block.
Framed by gold light, the jet-black building is conspicuously upscale on a street that, according to cab drivers, divides a “good” and “not so good” part of Crumlin. Fifteen minutes outside of downtown Dublin, The Black Forge Inn looks a little out of place next to a Paddy Power and a fluorescent-lit takeout joint, like a club in a strip mall tends to be.
I arrive at Conor McGregor’s gastropub at an interesting moment for the ex-champ, both literally and figuratively. Eight months after suffering a broken leg that offered another unflattering look at his vulnerabilities in the octagon, he is still not quite battle ready, and yet, he remains the most talked-about fighter in the game. These days, he is as much a spokesmodel as he is a fighter, tending to ventures in the restaurant, Proper 12, and various fitness and wellness projects. Unable to ply his fighting gifts, he relies on his ample verbal ones.
A few months ago, this jewel of his empire was almost burned to the ground. According to reports, two men on scooters launched firebombs at The Black Forge Inn in a drive-by. Irish police Gardai said they’re “particularly keen for anyone with camera footage” to step forward to help their investigation. It’s been two months and no arrests have been announced.
Like every one of his conquests, McGregor has talked a big game about The Black Forge Inn, its stout, and his whiskey. So being, a) an amateur connoisseur of all, and b) in the neighborhood, I stop by to see if the glossy branding matches the reality. From the one-shot drone promo and Instagram highlights, I expect to walk into a music video.
It’s impressively chic, to be sure. From the stained wood to the herringbone-patterned floor and coffered ceiling, you can see every bit of the 1 million euros McGregor put into renovating the neighborhood bar he says he haunted in his younger days. It’s also a ghost town, the bartender in mid-sip of coffee with one hour to close on my midweek visit.
Is it a bad time? Probably. Most places do their biggest business on the weekends. But still, I can’t help wondering about the location, which is a decent haul away from the city centre in what appears to be a fairly sleepy neighborhood. Then there is that whole attempted fire-bombing thing.
A polite call let me know several weeks earlier that the kitchen was closed on that day for renovations, so there goes my food review. I resolve instead to sample his most prized projects: Proper 12 and Forged Stout. Tough gig, indeed. But first, I stroll around a labyrinth of spaces off the main bar, all of which are decked out with McGregor memorabilia and bottles of his whiskey.
On the back patio, where a wall stenciled with McGregor’s tiger tattoo is the subject of many selfies, I arrive just in time to hear a very drunk American declare, “I only had sex four times today.” The young man receiving this confession is a bartender on his night off. He says all the people he’s met today are from America. Wearing hi-fi headphones and a track suit, he swears the Forge is jammed to the gills most nights, ever since “we got a Michelin star.”
“You’ve already got a Michelin star?” I answer, hearing the incredulity in my voice.
“A Michelin-starred chef,” he corrects. ... “We just got voted best restaurant in Dublin, so, ya get me?”
Seeing few other interview opportunities, I sidle up to the bar. “The Madison” arrives first. It’s their take on a Manhattan with Proper 12. But to call it a take is generous — it’s cloying and smoky in a way that doesn’t at all evoke the vintage cocktail. I switch gears and go for a glass of Proper 12 on the rocks. The vanilla and caramel notes of a whiskey aged in bourbon barrels are there, but there’s a harsh, almost chemical burn on the finish. Most people don’t drink it straight, the bartender explains; he asks if I want a Fanta or ginger ale on the side.
“It’s not bad,” he says. “It’s good for mixing. ... I tell Conor to make a nice whiskey, age for 15 years.”
The outlook gets way better with Forged Stout. The inky beer has a solid head, loads of roasted coffee notes and a lighter mouthfeel that’s a pleasant departure from the ubiquitous Guinness, Beamish and Murphy’s. There are plenty of similar products in the States; coffee stouts are extremely popular in the Pacific Northwest, my neck of the woods. But in Ireland, it stands out in a marketplace with comparatively fewer drinking options for beer over whiskey. These days, everyone is getting into the spirits market, from Jay Z to Josh Barnett. A lot of the product is actually produced by someone else.
Content and moderately buzzed, I sit back, almost alone in the gleaming bar, listening to a 70s playlist as the bartender sips his coffee. When Conor McGregor arrives, he says, “we tell [guests] to go, and they won’t go.”
Hunger pangs motivate our departure, and soon, we’re out the door into the Crumlin night. I run into the drunk American on the street; he had ended our first conversation to tell his wife that I had visited their home town in Hayward, Calif. Sporting an oversized UFC hat and waist-length braids, she is less impressed with this feat than her stumbly husband. They came all this way to see their hero, and they seem happy, with or without McGregor. The only problem is the hangover that awaits.
Bat and ball stars love to get into the restaurant business. In combat sports, the list is considerably shorter. The main reason, of course, is that most fighters don’t make enough money to start. There’s also a ton of overhead, multitudes of variables completely out of your control, and a fickle customer base with insane competition for their dollars. Even if you put your whole heart and soul into it, odds are you’ll eventually fail.
Beloved heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey might be the best example of a restauranteur/fighter. For 39 years, he ran “Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant,” located for most of its lifespan across the street from the old Madison Square Garden on 50th and 8th Ave in New York City. Every night, the heavyweight boxing champ reportedly sat in a corner booth for dinner, “signing autographs and shaking hands” with well-wishers, the New York Times wrote. “Nearly all are middle-aged, and most are from out of town.” In 1964, you could get a Manhattan and a slice of his famous cheesecake for $1.35. The restaurant far outlasted “Sugar” Ray Robinson’s spot uptown in Harlem. When it eventually closed in 1974, the victim of a lease dispute, Dempsey’s wife feared for her husband’s well-being.
Former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks remembers the moment he knew it was all over. Nearly one year into a lark as the proprietor of Bigg Rigg Steakhouse in Midlothian, Texas (a chalkboard sign inside bore Hendricks’ trademarked slogan: “Go Beard or Go Home”), he took a good look at his bank account and realized he was $150,000 in the hole. He enjoyed eating there and trying something new. Online critics weren’t as kind.
“I am not impressed by the performance of this restaurant,” wrote one snarky Yelp critic.
“We did everything right, but you find out how hard it is, hiring and firing people,” said Hendricks, now a full-time police officer in Midlothian. “It was something that I did not really enjoy that much.”
Most MMA fighters have gone much smaller in food service, opting for quick-in, quick-out joints. Daniel Cormier invested in a small poke chain. Rich Franklin, Seth Petruzelli and T.J. Dillashaw got into juice and wellness, with Dillashaw’s “Clean Juice” a particularly ironic choice in light of his performance-enhancing drug positive in 2019.
A few months removed from his second loss to Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen opened Mean Street Pizzeria on the mean streets of West Linn, Ore. In the wake of an ill-fated attempt to fight Jon Jones at UFC 151, the two-time title challenger jabbed his future opponent with a pizza “loaded with chicken and full of cheese” for sale until “our chicken runs out and we have to cancel.” The pizza came with a six-pack of beer and was available for delivery, said the poster, so people could “avoid a DUI.” By 2014, Sonnen had sued his business partner for embezzlement. The restaurant later rebranded to Island Sam’s Pizza, the new owner said, “because Mean Street did not sound like a place you wanted to go and eat.” Plus, he added, the pizza wasn’t great. “In the community we demand a certain quality, and this quality was not being met in Mean Street,” Terrence Samuel told a local high school paper.
Former UFC middleweight Tim Boetsch was in a training camp with fellow octagon vet Marcus Davis in Raleigh, N.C., when he ran into some guys on the competitive barbecue circuit. He had already worked in the food service courtesy of his wife’s uncle, who cut them in on a mobile shaved-ice franchise that did swift business in the summer. He had no experience with smoked meats other than eating them. But there was something about the craftsmanship involved, the variables of temperature and time in delivering the perfect product, that appealed to his inner martial artist. Thus, “The Barbarianq” food truck was born.
“There’s definitely an element of stress,” he says. “It was terrifying at first when you have a line around the corner, and you have to provide good service to every single person there. It can be a marathon at times, just making sure you’re in the zone and doing everything right. You see that line forming outside, it can be very stressful. At the same time, you’re doing something right if a lot of people coming out to eat your food. It’s gives you an adrenaline rush, and there’s certainly an art. ... You want to be at the top of your game, whether it’s fighting in the cage or serving people food.”
So far, Boetsch says, he’s doing something right. When he posts the truck’s location on Instagram, people show up. More catering orders are coming in, and that means more stable income. Like every other restaurant, costs and supply-chain issues are a constant tug on business, but he’s still in the fight.
He has no desire to own a restaurant.
“The commitment of owning a restaurant, you basically live there if you want things done your way,” he said. “Some people will get managers and go that route, but it’s never the same as the passion of the original person. I don’t have any interest in being at a restaurant every day for the rest of my life.”
Boetsch’s goal is to continue slinging delicious barbecue “on my time” with the freedom to work when and where he wants. For all its challenges, the food business is nothing like his previous job.
“When you’re locked in a cage and you know somebody’s going to try to punch your face in, there’s not a whole lot of things in life that will be more challenging than that,” he said.
My wife and I return to The Black Forge Inn two weeks later, hopeful the kitchen will be open. On Instagram, the food advertised is upscaled pub fare, with steaks over hot stone plates and spheres of different purees painted around proteins. I had been told the kitchen should be up and running a couple days after my first departure. When I walk through the door, however, the same bartender greets me with a smile and a slight grimace. No food.
It’s three days after St. Patrick’s Day; strings with the Irish tricolor still hang around Dublin, and street sweepers have missed a few messes outside bars. Again, not great timing. McGregor had an all-day blowout for the holiday and had just given a sit-down interview in the Forge to his website, The Mac Life. But on this day, the place is dead again, a few locals in the corner and a couple from Ohio next to us taking a break from a destination wedding. They, too, were hoping for food but settled for drinks. I continue my quest to find a good cocktail with Proper 12, ordering the “Fighting Irish” drink I’d seen in the video that was finished by blowtorch. Boozy cinnamon lemonade is the result, a pleasant if odd combination. I try a whiskey sour with IPA syrup. I miss the stout.
I notice a guy walking through the bar whom I’d seen around McGregor on social media. I follow him outside, intent on talking to somebody, anybody, about this place. Is it restaurant? Is it a pub? Is it a club? As I catch up to him, I notice a black Bentley parked outside. And there is “Notorious,” all traps and shoulders. He nods to me as he walks in.
The Ohio couple’s eyes widen back at the bar. “He’s here,” the man stage-whispered. “Oh my gosh, is that him?! I’m cool, I’m cool,” she says to no one in particular.
In Dublin, McGregor’s reputation is far different from Jack Dempsey, who in 1950 won an AP poll of the greatest fighter of the past 50 years. Almost nine years into his UFC run, he seems to have squandered most of the goodwill he built as Ireland’s biggest fighting export, prompting a string of expletives from locals I ask throughout my trip who cite his repeated brushes with the law. There’s a big whiff of classism in their critiques, like city folks looking down at working-class Crumlin. When the former two-division champ walks through the room, though, he is the king in his castle, the don of this family. He flashes a veneered smile and works the room, shaking hands.
Taking a seat in a corner, McGregor buries himself in his phone, cracking jokes and singing along to Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson”; he asks a server to bump the music. He hops on the bar with a pint of Forged Stout and a blow torch and cackles as he gives the beer a smoke halo (too much smoke, as his ensuing coughs reveal). “Happy Monday!” he shouts, then retreats back to his perch and his phone. Even the bartenders who aren’t in uniform are at the bar. Everyone is trying not to look at the famous guy in the corner.
McGregor declines an interview request, saying he just wants to eat and relax. But a few minutes later, my bartender plunks silverware on the bar in front of us. Along with sizzling steak delivered to “The Notorious,” the chef has made us a meal. It’s a version of the restaurant’s butter roasted corn-fed chicken, a supreme of chicken over a bed of root veggies, dotted with specks of ham and covered with a chicken jus. Pre-made, microwaved versions of Irish classics are common at many of the local pubs. This is scratch cooking from a classically trained pro.
As it turns out, the pro, Ed Raethorne, has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens and cooked for presidents and celebrities alike. McGregor, he told me, is just another boss, and he’s just another chef trying to hire competent and reliable help amid a global shortage in talent. He’s not sure if everyone appreciates the The Black Forge Inn’s food.
“I don’t think anyone in Dublin is doing what we’re doing right now,” he said. “It’d be nice to get some attention from the press.”
We thank Ed and Conor on our way out, full and a little buzzed. I’m still not entirely sure what the Black Forge Inn is. Listening to McGregor’s interview, I’m not sure he knows either, and I’m not sure it really matters. The Black Forge Inn is his place, his whiskey, his legacy, his statement to the world. Whether it’s packed to the gills or blowing tumbleweeds, it’s his passion. And passion, in restaurants as in fighting, is needed in ample supply to survive.