Apart Together

Highly compatible in business (if no longer in marriage), Chris and Sharon Egan spread happiness to patrons of their popular Irish pubs.

Photo by John Emerson.

The love story of Daryl Ferrara and Omni Kitts Ferrara, of Bloomfield, is an offshoot of the love story of Chris and Sharon Egan, of Montclair. Both are set within the tony but frenzied Montclair restaurant scene, though the Egans’ story, which dates to the 1980s, drew scenery from Boston and Dublin early on. And both are rooted in big dreams and smell a little like beer.

The Egans are no matchmakers, but they have built the framework for a great many relationships, some that last as long as a happy hour and others, like the Ferraras’, that lead to till-death proclamations. The Egans “changed my life, totally,” says Daryl Ferrara, 32, who met Omni in 2007 while working as a bartender at the first of the Egans’ three restaurants, Egan & Sons in Montclair (Omni was a waitress). They now have a baby—Isla Rose Ferrara was born in February—and a pair of thriving businesses in town: Carved, a delicatessen that opened earlier this year, and Yoga Montclair, which the couple bought in 2009.

“Without their support I wouldn’t be where I am now, not to mention that I never would have met my wife,” Ferrara says.

“Sharon made everyone at Egan’s feel like family when we worked there,” he continues. “She still supports us now. She was just at Carved for lunch. And it’s funny, but my wife said this all the time when we were starting the businesses, she’s like: ‘Think like Chris Egan. Every time you walk through the door, try to look at things the way Chris Egan would. Try to inhabit his brain.’ It’s his eye for detail. They’re totally inspiring people.”

Root around Montclair, and stories like the Ferraras’ turn up all over. They don’t all end in marriages, baby carriages, and entrepreneurial ambition, but they often contain crystals of inspiration. To work for the Egans, or even to perch on a barstool at one of their restaurants, is to find you’ve landed in a place where collective contentment can be manufactured as if by magic.

What’s surprising is that the couple still manages to produce that magic despite splitting up.

You can sense their special touch at all three restaurants: the original 6,000-square-foot Irish pub, Egan & Sons, which has 22 spigots of beer, four made off-site for the Egans, and award-winning plus-sized martinis; its 5,000-square-foot next-door neighbor, Halcyon, a more upscale Irish brasserie with another full bar and dishes such as cilantro-encrusted cod; and the newly opened Egan & Sons in West Orange, a 3,000-square-foot spin-off of the original pub. In this issue’s Readers’ Choice restaurant poll, Egan & Sons was the North winner in both Bar Scene and Beer Selection.

Chris and Sharon, who opened the original Egan & Sons in 2005, and who remain business partners in all the restaurants despite their 2005 separation (a divorce will be final by the time this article goes to print, according to Sharon), are not the types to go around with magic-generating shamrocks in their pockets.

Since they met in Boston in 1986—both in their 20s and working at the Commonwealth Brewing Company, the second microbrewery to open on the East Coast, says Chris, who grew up in London and followed a brother to the United States—they have been work-obsessed co-conspirators. That they happened to fall in love, have three children, and fall out of love along the way has not stopped them from nurturing their vision of the ideal neighborhood pub.

“A good Irish bar has nuances,” says Chris, 48, who sat for an interview alongside Sharon, New Jersey born and one year his senior, at a comfortable booth by Halcyon’s front window recently. So does a good partnership, they both recognize.

Chris and Sharon still talk daily, and there are thoughtful gestures in their conversation. They are careful not to interrupt or contradict each other. In food, Chris defers to Sharon, who masterminded the restaurants’ menus after studying farm-to-table cooking at Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork. Sharon similarly cedes the floor to Chris in restaurant aesthetics and day-to-day operations. And although the subject of their split makes Sharon uncomfortable—she doesn’t want their kids to feel exposed—she recognizes the need to address it.

“People are curious; I get that,” she says. “A lot of people know us in town. The important thing is, I have great respect for Chris, and I know he’s good businesswise for me. I’m passionate about this business, and I wasn’t willing to just give it up because our marriage was ending.”

“And I couldn’t afford for her to give it up,” adds Chris, who now lives in a condo upstairs from Halcyon. “There’s a yin and a yang there.” The Egans’ split may come down to standard-issue marital grievances: “No one came between us, so there’s no animosity from the point of view of someone splitting us up,” Chris says. “We annoy each other too much.”

The businesses, however, remain a source of mutual inspiration. And dedication. “The fact that we don’t have any great grudges makes it possible to work together,” says Chris. “We’re joined at the hip financially and by family, and our shared interests make it a successful, not just tolerable, working relationship. We see each other on a daily basis, and we’re very open with each other. We don’t walk on eggshells. We never did get bitchy or squabbly with each other anyway, and we carry that through the business. It’s our future, our pension. We’ll never jeopardize that,” he says, eyes cast downward.

Much easier is talking about the story behind Egan’s—which might never have been concieved, if not for Chris’s father, who owned the pub Bruxelles in Dublin when Chris was young. (His brother, David Egan, still owns the place.)

In 2001, Sharon and Chris moved to Montclair from Dublin, where the couple lived throughout the 1990s after marrying in 1989. “We always came here for the whole summer anyway, because my family is here,” says Sharon. “It was nice for the kids”—Robin, now 17; Peter, 16; and Milo, 14—“because they had cousins. Chris liked it here. It was just the right time.”

Chris, who had partnered with his brother David in several successful pubs in Dublin—the brothers are still involved financially—felt America harbored horizon-expanding possibilities.

“Practical stuff happens in France and Italy. Innovative stuff happens here,” he says. “America is at the vanguard.”

And Montclair wasn’t far off that vanguard. “It wasn’t a great compromise for me to work in town because there’s a city feel to it,” he explains. “It wasn’t a case where we couldn’t have cutting-edge stuff—there isn’t a product in Manhattan that we don’t get or can’t get here. And people appreciate it. For me, from an ambition point of view, I didn’t have to sell myself short.”

They also understand, at least intuitively, what makes an Irish bar so appealing. “Historically, the education level in Ireland was pretty high,” says Chris, who moved to Dublin when he was 16, before his mid-1980s stint in Boston. “Everyone who went to the bar, be it a window cleaner or a lawyer, had an opinion on something. No one was wealthy, no one had any money at the end of the day. So if you could buy a round, your opinion was valued. Which made Irish bars great places for debate and barroom wisdom and shenanigans. The décor didn’t have much to do with it. What makes a good Irish bar is a good, long bar where there’s interaction, and people are hovering around to talk.”

So, when Egan & Sons opened, “the thing was not to have a plastic Irish bar,” he says, citing McSorleys Old Ale House in Manhattan as a Stateside Irish pub that long ago got the pub ambience right—no shamrocks. “We wanted it to have nuances, so we brought in artwork from Ireland. Six leading artists are represented. Other than that, we didn’t feel we had to put too much of an Irish flavor to it.”

At Egan’s, Chris says, “what appeals to people is not the Irish decor, but the freshness of the food”—the fare includes homemade French fries and chicken wings as well as bangers and mash—“and that you can go have a chat at a place that’s casual, yet not so casual it’s a sports bar.” Another attraction, he says, is “a good selection of product with top-shelf whiskey and scotches and things like that. That’s what sets it aside from your average bar.”

Montclair, says Sharon, was in need of such a place. She is more than qualified to say so. Boston and Ireland aside, she has lived in town most of her life. Her mother, Doris Walsh, who lives with her and the kids on Midland Avenue, was formerly Doris Cummings. The Cummings family has been represented in the Montclair police department continuously for more than a century.

“If you grew up in town, there was Tierney’s as far as bars, but not much else. That’s a classic, and it will always be special to me because my parents had their wedding reception there,” says Sharon, who graduated from Montclair High in 1978 and counts a cluster of classmates who still live in town among her best friends. At Halcyon, she stopped mid-sentence at one point to wave through the window—one of her aunts happened to be walking by.

Despite Tierney’s, a certain urban atmosphere in local watering holes was absent in recent years, she says. “We had a lovely social life in Dublin—it’s really an extremely sophisticated and fashionable city. When I came back to Montclair, that just didn’t exist, you know, unless you went into the city.”

Montclair also needed a place that considered lady pub goers, says Chris: “Guys will drink in a parking lot. Women are more discerning, especially from a dietary point of view. And we wanted to give them a greater range of things.”

“I think people were definitely waiting for it,” when Egan’s opened in April 2005, says Sharon. Not only were they waiting, they were also intent on colonizing the place. On opening day, Chris says, Egan’s was mobbed by customers who were texting friends to tell them to come by. Within three hours of opening, every barstool and table was filled. On weekends, that is still typically the case at Egan’s, as Montclair residents well know.

“The only downside to Egan’s is that it’s too damn noisy and too damn crowded sometimes,” says John Deermount, chairman of Montclair’s annual Restaurant Week. Last January, Sharon hosted Restaurant Week’s opening-night party at Halcyon.

Mostly, Deermount has flattering things to say. “It’s an upscale bar with decent food, and that’s what people were looking for. You see kids 21 years old, you see families, and you see people my age—middle-age and higher. It’s a very warm, authentic environment. You can feel the effort that went into it,” he says.

You can also see the effort. In addition to the expensive-looking contemporary Irish art that lines the walls of Egan’s, the proprietors commissioned a local artist, Jackie Sanchez, to design a colorful, immense, light-catching woven mural that hangs from the ceiling in Halcyon’s alcove. The bars in both restaurants are marble, the floors are polished wood. Chris coaxed a Dublin craftsman out of retirement to reproduce the Irish-style lanterns that hang over Egan’s bar.

Halcyon, which opened in 2008, was dreamed up as a practical solution to a real estate situation. The building was for sale and came with an adjoining parking lot. (“We needed parking,” says Chris.) The restaurant, which sees fewer families with children than Egan’s, feels more formal, although both menus have similar price points. It has not been as quick to take off as the pub, despite its creative, thoughtfully executed dishes. But that was to be expected, according to Sharon.

“Halcyon is doing exactly what we thought it would do. We don’t expect to fill this big building every day of the week,” she says. For that reason, Egan’s is open seven days, while Halcyon is closed Sunday and Monday. Financially, says Chris, Halcyon has been a success, which is partly because of shared purchasing and a shared liquor license with Egan’s.

In West Orange, meanwhile, the latest Egan & Sons, which opened in January, is behaving largely the way the original Egan’s has. It’s hopping. “The town is really behind it. It’s been great,” says Chris. Maybe more important, “when you walk in, you know it’s ours.”

The Egans manage to attract hundreds of repeat customers from multiple generations—Chris estimates that 60 to 70 percent of their pub business is repeat business. That families constitute the bulk of the 5 to 7 pm scene; business people and couples dominate the 7-to-10:30 pm crowd; and twenty-somethings fill the place until last call inspires admiration in locals like Deermount.

“I’m sure I’m not saying anything out of school if I tell you they’re separated,” says Deermount, confirming Sharon’s suspicion that people around town are well aware of their personal situation. “But they certainly have figured out the right way to keep their personal issues away from professional issues.”

Sharon and Chris are equally modest, but they probably couldn’t help agreeing with Deermount.

“If one of us did this alone,” says Chris, “we wouldn’t have that sounding board that lets us know we’re on the right track, that we haven’t lost our way a little.”

“We keep each other straight that way, you know?” says Sharon.

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  1. Kimmy

    Hi! Sharon, Did your mother Doris Cummings have a brother named Charles?