The Grand Central - rebirth of a major icon in the heart of Derry

Rachel Parkes, pictured at the Grand Central Bar. (1104SL14) Photo: Stephen Latimer
Rachel Parkes, pictured at the Grand Central Bar. (1104SL14) Photo: Stephen Latimer

So few buildings in the city epitomise old Derry, but the Grand Central Bar on the corner of Strand Road harks back to a bygone age. While many locally still battle the recession, Rachel has managed to turn one of the city’s most historic watering holes into one of its most popular hotspots.

As one of the oldest bars in Derry, the Grand Central was originally established in 1922. Now, over 90 years later, Rachel Parkes has worked hard to bring the bar back to life and into a new era.

“We opened in December, just before the Christmas rush,” Rachel recalls. “I didn’t plan to open at Christmas but it was actually genius because loads of people were home for Christmas and everyone wanted to come in and see it, it turned out to be an amazing time to open. It’s been brilliant.”

With over a decade working in the pub industry, Rachel was well prepared to venture out on her own.

“I always wanted to run a bar after working in them for so many years, it was all I really knew how to do,” the 29 year-old from Pennyburn admits.

“Loads of people around me and in the industry encouraged me to go out on my own, but I don’t think I ever took them seriously. But I’d worked in the Forte Inn before it closed and I loved it. I loved the people and the food and working with the chefs. I managed Masons for a while too, so that gave me experience of the management side of things too, so I suppose the time was right.”

“We did look at the Grand Central a few years ago but there was no heating in the place and we forgot about the idea. But then I saw the ‘To Let’ sign outside again and just thought, OK let’s do it - it’s worth a try. Of course I was a bit sceptical, but then, look around you - it’s beautiful! I loved the bar itself, it’s stunning, I loved the stained-glass, I loved the floor. The place was cold and really needed a woman’s touch, but that was OK, I could handle a good clean,” she laughs.

“Tina McLaughlin helped me with all the upholstery and we got all our furniture upstairs from a wee bar in Tamnaherin that was closing down, and so many others helped us kit out the place to get it ready for opening, it all came together in the end.”

With so many decades of history behind it, the antiquated Strand Road bar has undoubtedly had its fair share of owners and managers over the years.

“There are a million stories about this place, “ Rachel reveals. “From what I hear, the men used to sit to the front of the bar, and the women were kept separate from them in the back area.

“They were partitioned off and they rang a bell for a drink! Isn’t that mad?

“Felix Mulhern was the first owner, I think, and he actually lived upstairs in the attic. He used to come down in the morning and hang the key on the end of the stairs for the barman.

“The name Mulhern on the sign outside is actually part of the deeds of the building, we’re not allowed to touch that – even if the king himself bought the bar he couldn’t change that sign outside.

“It’s the first owner’s request and we can’t ever change it. It’s a lovely old sign too...

“The history of the bar is amazing, I’d love to find out more,” she goes on.

“I know it was blown up during the Troubles, maybe more than once. And when we started cleaning and sorting we found old ornaments from the 1920s or 1930s and beautiful old scales hidden away up in the attic, there were loads of old photos of people working in the bar too. It’s quite exciting. When I was getting the electrics done, we found the original brass fittings from the 1930s that used to light up the bar sign outside too. It would be great to get them put up again.”

“The floor and the bar and the features are all original too,” she adds. The bar’s carved wooden ‘showcase’, as it’s known, dominates the entire downstairs bar and has surprising origins, as Rachel reveals. “That was all handmade by Derry inmates on day release who carved it all by hand, apparently. From what I’m told it was once brighter and more beautiful, but I think it’s stunning. We’re not allowed to touch that either, or the bar, or the sign outside. This is a listed building and all very precious, to be honest.”

But there are some drawbacks to managing a 90-year-old pub.

“One of the big negatives is that there’s no cellar here, which is really strange for a bar. But we had it checked out and they reckon there must have been one underneath at some time, it’s too old a bar not to have a cellar. But in the meantime, we’ve had to get creative and keep the kegs under your bum in the seats and under the stairs!”

Outside the bar, scaffolding has been erected to facilitate a major face lift as part of Derry City Council’s 2013 Improvement Scheme.

Rachel says: “I think because the bar is so central and so old that they decided to fix it up for the Culture year, which is great. It really needed it! So they’re cleaning up the exterior, painting it and fixing up the windows, every little helps! We want to have seats and tables out the front to make it look pretty for the Jazz Festival and the Fleadh too.”

With the subtle changes Rachel and her team have introduced, the Grand Central Bar has once again become a talking point and a vibrant destination for locals and visitors alike.

“We’ve changed the old pool room upstairs and now it has a fire and tables, and we’ve got a kitchen going again for the first time in years,” Rachel says.

“We have a proper Italian pizza oven and are doing food like real rustic stone-bake pizzas, steak burgers and steak and Guinness pie and daily specials. So far, everyone’s loving the food.”

To maintain the pub’s recent successes, Rachel knows she has to stay ahead of the game. “It’s hard work running a bar and because beer is too expensive now for people to just come in to drink, you have to give them more. So I have to keep on top of the entertainment and we have good DJs, good music, quizzes and sessions. We have live music on Fridays, Rio and Dave Doherty are our resident DJs on Saturday nights and a piper on Sundays. The Murder Balladeers played in the downstairs bar recently and, believe it or not, their drummer had to sit in the cupboard – and it was OK!”

Rachel has a small but dedicated staff and during these first few months, spends most of her time at the bar. “So far, I’ve done a lot of hours myself, but I really think you need to be there yourself in the early days, to make sure everything’s alright and keep up with what’s happening. For the first few years, I want to be here as much as I can.”

The feedback has been fantastic. “I’ve got loads of support from other girls and women because I’m a woman starting up the business, which has been really nice.

“We’ve got a great crowd coming in too, good ambiance and people keep coming back so really we can’t complain - we’ll just keep keeping the customers happy!

“We didn’t plan it as such, but with the Culture year happening, it really is a brilliant time to open a bar. Let’s hope it carries on for a few more years.”

In Derry, most local folk know and admire the Grand Central Bar - now is the time to venture inside its historic doors. Once inside the listed local building, it’s not difficult to imagine Grand Central in its heyday in the early 1900s, when Strand Road was a busy, vibrant thoroughfare in the city.

One thing’s for sure, with one inspired new manager and legions of new customers, the Grand Central has now cemented its place in the 21st Century.