Restaurants and bars have come and gone in L.A.’s South Bay over the decades, but one name has stood the test of 45 years: Hennessey’s Tavern. Creating an eponymous restaurant, however, wasn’t owner Paul Hennessey’s initial plan.
“I had to apply for the liquor license, and I thought I would come up with some clever name like Pub by the Beach. However, they needed a name for the place, and I hadn’t really had time to think of one,” shares Paul Hennessey. “I just put Hennessey’s Tavern on it, and I figured I would change it down the road. I realize now that the name was golden.”
Walk through the downtown areas of Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, and you’ll see a Hennessey’s Tavern in a prime location. The first Hennessey’s opened in 1976 in Hermosa Beach—just a few feet from the pier in a 1,500-square-foot space. The next opened in Redondo, followed by Manhattan.
“All of the restaurants and bars are four walls. It is the employees who make it different. That’s what makes customers remember the experience.”
Throughout the years, Paul has keenly recognized when and where to invest in property with an ambitious vision of what it might become. When the Hennessey’s in Hermosa Beach opened, it was before the Hermosa Promenade existed and many of the locations surrounding the restaurant and bar were boarded up. Back then, the area’s moniker sarcastically boasted “where debris meets the sea.” But Paul still saw the potential for a successful location.
The same can be said for Redondo’s H.T. Grill. The previous owner never utilized the outdoor patio space, so when it became available, Paul jumped at the chance to move the restaurant a block away—tucked into Riviera Village for a Napa Valley feel.
He began with a simple vision for the original Hennessey’s: Make great drinks and sell deli sandwiches and hamburgers in a basket. With his tight budget in mind, Paul realized that this menu wouldn’t require dishwashers or even plates. Eventually, as Hennessey’s became more popular, he was able to buy more equipment and expand the menu.
“I still didn’t have a lot of money but was able to make a down payment,” he recalls. “I was the only employee for about six months. Once we got bigger, I took some of that money and opened it up so you could see what was going on outside. Things began to evolve rather quickly, and when next door became available at our Hermosa location, I jumped at the chance. We built the second floor later, but when we did I remember thinking, ‘This better work.’”
Taking chances and coping with pressure is something Paul had known well before he moved to California. Growing up in New Jersey, Paul later worked as a stock trader on Wall Street. But when stress and weather began to take their toll, he made the decision to move to California. But the beginning didn’t go exactly as planned.
“I figured I’d stay a year or two and be a bartender,” he says. “I got hired by a restaurant named Victoria Station. On that first day I was ready to get behind the bar, but I was being shown where the tablecloths and coffee machine were. After a little while, they told me it was a position to be a busboy—not a bartender. I had $60 in my wallet for the next two weeks without any other interviews lined up. I had to take the job and did it for about a year.”
Paul steadily worked his way up the food chain, going from busboy to bartender and then into management. He helped open a few restaurants, including one in Torrance. After temporarily moving back to the East Coast, Paul realized that his dream was to open his own place in Southern California.
Working his way up the ladder at Victoria Station is something Paul looks back upon as a benefit. He may be far past the point of bussing tables, but if he has nothing in his hands while walking through one of the restaurants, he can’t help but pick up an empty cup or plate. “Once a busboy, always a busboy,” he says with a smile on his face.
As recently as 10 years ago, Paul was doing a little bit of everything. Now, with 10 Hennessey’s Tavern locations spanning all the way down to San Diego as well as the popular H.T. Grill, things have become much more of a group effort. He continues to speak with managers at each location to iron out details—from large-scale strategy to which meals would make the best specials.
One value that has stuck with Paul since his introduction to the restaurant industry is that a successful business is all about the people. “All of the restaurants and bars are four walls. It is the employees who make it different. That’s what makes customers remember the experience,” Paul says.
As decades have gone by, Hennessey’s has created important memories for many customers. Whether enjoying St. Patrick’s Day, celebrating a birthday or meeting old high school friends for Thanksgiving, customers never forget these experiences.
“Every once in a while I will look back, and no one celebrated St. Patrick’s Day until we got there,” says Paul. “We gave out buttons and hats, and over the years it has become bigger. It is one of our biggest days.”
Other days are even bigger. When Paul visits the establishments he’s built from the ground up, he sometimes hears a type of story that has become widespread in the South Bay. “One night I was down at H.T. Grill talking to some of the customers around the firepit outside, and during our conversation all of them began to mention that they met their significant other at one of the places,” Paul remembers. “It is pretty amazing.”
While the landscapes around Hennessey’s Tavern locations in the South Bay have changed due to an abundance of new bars and restaurants popping up at rapid speed, Hennessey’s Tavern and H.T. Grill are still going strong. Paul Hennessey’s consistency over several decades has kept people coming back and has made each location a local landmark.
“After opening up the first Hennessey’s, I realized how expandable it was,” says Paul. “That simple idea has allowed the business to grow more than I could have imagined.”
The Half Moon Bay hot spot is getting its biggest breaks in years.