Robert McGrath at Spencer's Ali "closing the deck party"

Longtime Port City business owner Robert McGrath, pictured above, is walking away from the popular, open air bar Spencer’s Ali after more than two decades at the helm. McGrath plans to continue operating the adjacent Club House Tavern. 

OSWEGO — One of the Port City’s longtime popular watering holes is getting sold.

Robert McGrath, proprietor of the adjoining Clubhouse Tavern and Spencer’s Ali on West Second Street, announced this month a sale of the popular summertime bar and music venue Spencer’s Ali is in the works, and another local business owner is set to acquire the longtime open air venue. McGrath, who plans to continue overseeing Club House Tavern, said his plan is to shift focus to that business, which is expected to reopen in the near future.

“Spencer’s Ali was fun, there was live music and drinks others were not serving,” McGrath told The Palladium-Times this week. “The atmosphere of this place was successful and it met all the aspirations of what I wanted to give here.”

McGrath said one of the driving factors toward selling the venue was to free up more time to spend with his family and other activities, noting the “bar business takes a lot of your life.” Though the sale of Spencer’s Ali will free up some of his time, McGrath won’t entirely eject himself from the bar business and plans to continue operating Club House Tavern, a business that predates Spencer’s Ali.

Club House has been closed as of late to allow McGrath and staff to focus more time on Spencer’s Ali, but McGrath said following the transfer in ownership his focus would shift back to the original business.

McGrath said his passion for working a bar started much earlier, however, when he served as a bartender in the 1970s while trying to “make some extra money” living in Colorado. The Club House Tavern opened in 1996 and has operated as a “small Irish pub,” for more than two decades.

Following a few successful years, McGrath said his aspirations grew and he looked to expand and provide the community with a new, unique-for-the-area venue.

 “My idea of Spencer’s Ali was when you walk in, you’re on vacation,” McGrath said, noting the idea for the space rose from various vacation destinations, ranging from Florida to Mexico and Costa Rica. “After a couple vacations with my wife, I realized Oswego was missing a fun place with open air… We brought that (vacation) feeling back and tried to provide that feeling six months out of the year instead of just a two week vacation.”

McGrath and his wife Liz opened Spencer’s Ali in 2000 and, compared to its status today, it had humble beginnings.

“When I first opened there was nothing here, the walls were brick to brick and there was no roof,” he said.

The bar’s roof was installed in 2016, according to county property tax records, and made Spencer’s Ali a nearly allweather venue. McGrath stuck to his plan to create a vacation-like environment, and created an unforgettable space featuring music and a unique atmosphere for Oswego in the early 2000s.

“What made us popular was that we filled a time slot for music from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.,” he said. “(Live music like that) was not a thing back in 2000, people had a guitar player that started at 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. for dinner music, but we brought in eight-piece brass bands and six-piece rock and roll bands. We filled the need for live music.”

Since opening, Spencer’s Ali has hosted local and regional talent on weekends with music playing late into the night. Popular acts have included, but were not limited to, Syracuse-based acts Brass Inc. and REV and various local musicians throughout the last two-decades — a piece of the Spencer’s Ali culture that McGrath said is among the top things he will miss.

“I’ll miss the music I provided for the city of Oswego,” McGrath said. “There is nothing like walking into your own place and hearing a 10-piece brass band.”

In addition to providing the community with entertainment and a unique, open air watering hole, McGrath also aided local charitable causes over the years, including the local United Way. United Way of the Greater Oswego County Executive Director Patrick Dewine said the McGraths were frequent supporters of the organization and regularly hosted the annual Stuff-A-Bus breakfast at Spencer’s Ali.

Through their support the fundraiser generated more than $3,000 annually for the Stuff-A-Bus campaign, according to Dewine.

“They stepped up and provided a venue for the public to contribute to Stuff-A-Bus events all while enjoying camaraderie and fellowship in the community,” Dewine said. “I would like to thank him for his years of being a host and doing a lot of the hard work behind the scenes and working with United Way to build it up to where it got to.”

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