Inner View: The Emerald Jewel of Ohio City Turns 20:
Celebrating Two Decades at The Harp Restaurant & Pub
By Mike O’Malley and Moira Horn
Karen O’Malley opened The Harp Restaurant & Pub in Ohio City in 1999, serving traditional Irish fare to the Irish near and far. At the time, the area was rundown and crime-infested, but Karen had a vision; she saw the potential for a local institution. Through her tenacity and hard work, she transformed that dream into a reality.
Now, twenty years on, The Harp is a pillar of the community, and has been recognized repeatedly as one of the finest Irish pubs in the nation. In celebration of The Harp’s 20th Anniversary this month, now is the perfect time to reflect on its success.
Born and raised in Lakewood, Karen moved back to the area in late 1998, with the aim of realizing a dream five years in the making. “I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become an entrepreneur,” said O’Malley, a first-generation Irish American. In order to accomplish this, she honed her craft while working in a number of highly regarded restaurants and pubs across the United States and Ireland. She developed her skills, business acumen, and most importantly, a plan of action.
She named her pub after one of the most ancient and recognizable associations of Ireland, the harp, which is the national symbol of Ireland; the only country with a musical instrument as their national symbol.
The Harp was designed by the renowned architects of Frank Ennis and Associates, of Dublin, and evoked the style of pubs in Ireland, featuring carved wooden walls, stained glass, and murals crafted by Irish artisans.
It was constructed by The O’Malley Building Company, owned by her father, who, along with her brother, donated hundreds of hours of labor to the project. Karen took a risk, choosing to locate her pub on the 4400 block of Detroit Avenue, overlooking Lake Erie.
“At the time the neighborhood was not in the greatest shape,” said O’Malley, “but I took a chance on the area and have been rewarded many times over for that, as the neighborhood has grown up around us.”
The Harp opened its doors on May 1st, 1999. In its early days, The Harp faced challenges inherent to the restaurant industry, such as staffing and the difficulties of acquiring a customer base. However, these issues were eventually surmounted through dedication to service and attention to detail fostered under Karen’s leadership, as well as the loyalty of her staff, some of whom have been with The Harp since its opening. Indeed, The Harp is now an institution that anchors the neighborhood, and provides excellent food for a strong base of loyal customers in an authentic pub atmosphere.
For example, Jeannie Vall has worked at The Harp for sixteen years as a server and bartender. Before joining The Harp staff, Jeannie loved going to The Harp as a guest. In reflecting on some of her fondest memories at The Harp, she said, “I love working every St. Patrick’s Day and 4thof July. It’s always fun seeing regulars bring their families and enjoying the holiday together…I’ve enjoyed interacting with guests over the years and forming friendships beyond the traditional bartender-customer relationship.”
Vall also cited the compassionate leadership of O’Malley as one of the primary reasons that she has worked at The Harp for nearly two decades, “…because she’s not like a boss, she’s one of my best friends. She genuinely cares about her employees and welcomes you in as family. She views customers as guests coming into her home and treats them as such.”
It wasn’t until six years in, after she had developed a following amongst Clevelanders and business grew steady, that Karen felt confident in the venture. Two of The Harp’s favorite regulars, Cathy Farrell and her husband, Mike, have been coming to The Harp every Friday night for fifteen years.
Mrs. Farrell looks back at some of her fond memories at The Harp, calling it a “home away from home…our second kitchen…If friends and family need to find us, we’re at the Harp on Friday. We have spent so many life events with The Harp staff, and have become close, like family. We even stopped by between our son’s wedding ceremony and reception.”
In response to the increasing popularity of The Harp over the years, it has expanded, including three additions to the patio. The Harp has grown to become the emerald of Ohio City; beyond entrepreneurship, Karen’s leadership extends into service and care for others.
The Harp is deeply ingrained in the local community, hosting a yearly fundraiser benefiting Father O’Donnell’s Little Brothers and Sisters of the Eucharist, a ministry for low-income and marginalized children in Cleveland, as well as funding local athletic clubs and supporting musicians and charities in the Greater Cleveland area. According to O’Malley, this endeavor has been as rewarding as it was challenging: “I am blessed and grateful for our success as well as the opportunity to serve the community as it has developed; provide employment to a staff of thirty-seven; the ability to be a part of special events,” she continued. “I have had the privilege of watching generations come through; I’ve gotten to watch kids grow up and get married and build families of their own.”
In addition to being named one of the Top Ten Irish Pubs in the United States by Fox News in 2013 and 2014, The Harp has been featured in numerous publications, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland Magazine, Scene Magazine (Best Irish Restaurant in 2017) and the Ohio Irish American News. O’Malley and her staff are grateful for this recognition and look forward to providing an authentic Irish pub experience for at least another twenty years to come.
Join the Harp in celebrating two decades of service and community on Saturday, May 4th, featuring music by The Portersharks at 8pm. Along with the congrats, say hello to Karen if you don’t know her. There is plenty of room to join The Harp family.