Monkey Business: At the Iron Monkey, Change is the Only Constant
Steve McIntyre had a distinctly short-term goal in mind when he first conceived of the Iron Monkey. “I was walking down the street, and there were no restaurants in this whole area,” says McIntyre, who moved to Paulus Hook around 1990. “And I was hungry. That’s why I opened the restaurant.”
The three-story building at the corner of Greene and York Streets was for sale. It had previously housed a shot-and-beer bar for the Colgate crowd, with apartments upstairs. McIntyre bought the structure outright, despite the neighborhood’s rather barren nature. “My friends and family laughed at me for opening this restaurant,” he recalls. “But I knew they would develop here. They had to; it was the only piece of land near Manhattan that wasn’t developed.”
His prognostication proved accurate, as corporate office towers and luxury hotels have since sprung up, along with one of the city’s most sought-after residential zones. The Iron Monkey, which opened in 1996, seems more popular now than at any point in its history. Chalk up the lasting success to the restaurant’s willingness to change with the times.
Of course, McIntyre has adapted to new circumstances since his earliest days in the food-service industry. Around age 16, he was a dishwasher in his hometown of Collingswood, New Jersey. McIntyre was suddenly promoted to sous chef after the prior employee attempted to pass off a thawed steak as “rare.” Though he had no real cooking experience, McIntyre took to it quickly, and has never looked back.
While attending college at Rutgers, he was a cook at a Mexican restaurant, and tended bar as well. Then, after dabbling in philosophy in graduate school, McIntyre spent two years living in China, Tibet, Thailand, and Nepal. An experience there inspired his restaurant’s name. “I was climbing a holy mountain in China’s Shaanxi province, and a monkey jumped on my shoulder,” McIntyre remembers. “He ate my metal glasses and ran away.” (A slightly more fanciful version of the tale can be found on the Iron Monkey’s website.)
After Asia came three years in New York as a commodities trader, before McIntyre’s move to Jersey City. Artist friends from the surrounding area pitched in to design his restaurant.
Noted street artist J.J. Veronis (then a relative unknown) used an old muffler to create the iconic iron monkey perched above the entrance. Reused metal figures are featured prominently in the establishment’s distinctive look. The artists originally followed a “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory” framework: the bar level— flames and lots of red—was Hell; the second- floor dining room Purgatory; and clearly, the popular year-round roof deck was Heaven. (That heavenly roof deck was featured in the 2011 music video “No Future Part Three” by nationally renowned rockers Titus Andronicus, as directed by WFMU’s Tom Scharpling.)
The Iron Monkey began life as a fine-dining establishment, with an early positive review in the New York Times. The economic downturn of 2001, however, caused the restaurant to shift gears. “We just couldn’t make enough doing fine dining here, even though we had a great reputation,” McIntyre says. “So we switched it over to a full-blown beer bar.”
As for so many businesses, the crumbling economy of 2008 presented an even greater challenge. “We got destroyed in 2008,” McIntyre admits. “The only thing that kept us alive was the ‘firing parties’ from all these different companies.” So the Iron Monkey narrowed its focus even further, emphasizing a wide sampling of craft beers. The bar now features 39 beers on tap, and about 450 different bottled beers. Each is personally selected by McIntyre.
The strategy was successful, as the Iron Monkey has become more and more a destination for craft beer enthusiasts. “They’re the greatest customers in the world; they really know their product,” McIntyre states. “And we go the extra nine yards. We put everything in the proper glass. That’s really important for how a beer tastes.” McIntyre spent four months studying different varieties of beer glasses, and how their sizes and shapes affect the release of air bubbles into beer, development of aroma, and speed of temperature change.
The Iron Monkey is on the forefront of what McIntyre believes will become a major trend in the beer world. “We age beer, like people age wine,” he says. “A lot of these beers, when you age them, they get sweeter, smoother. They get better.” About 200 of the higher alcohol- content bottled beers in inventory are currently in the aging process.
Since the 1990s, the bar has held beer-tasting events, with brewmasters flying in from around the country, and these have been occurring more frequently. Another popular recent offering are the “growlers”—half-gallon jugs filled with the customer’s choice of tap beer to bring home. Some are kept as souvenirs, but most are exchanged for a freshly filled growler. The Iron Monkey sold 5,000 of them in the past year.
Several new players have recently entered the city’s craft-beer market, which doesn’t seem to bother McIntyre one bit. “Jersey City is known for its craft beer now. Five years ago it wasn’t,” he says. “I love the fact that Barcade opened up, and HopsScotch, and Light Horse—I helped those guys open. The more bars selling craft beer, the better it is for everyone in Jersey City. It becomes a destination spot.”
Though the white tablecloths of the fine- dining days are long gone, food is still a major component of the Iron Monkey experience. Local businesspeople flock to the second-floor dining room for weekday lunches of burgers, sandwiches, salads, pasta, chicken, seafood, and more. (Steak frites, with a 12-ounce New York strip, is the menu’s priciest item at $23.) Casual dinners, late-night pub fare, and weekend brunch are also quite popular.
The menu will be a bit different on November 28—but don’t expect to make a reservation. “Since we opened, every Thanksgiving, we shut the whole restaurant down, and we feed anybody who walks in the door for free. A full sit-down dinner,” McIntyre says. “And we bus people in from the outer areas who can’t get out of their houses.”
McIntyre displays his care for the community year round by regularly supporting a wide assortment of local causes. These have included the Bike JC Ward Tour, the York Street Project (for disadvantaged women and children), and the Jersey City Pride Festival (for the LGBT community). “My parents raised us to give back,” he explains.
What’s ahead for the Iron Monkey? More change—and more Monkey. “We’re expanding the restaurant,” McIntyre declares. He also owns the two adjoining buildings along Greene Street and says, “We’re going to break through the walls.” (After approval from the Planning Board, of course.) The anticipated layout would feature a bar on each floor and a total of 96 taps.
The larger restaurant might require an extra server or two, but Karen McIntyre will certainly be around to help out. Steve’s sister, also a Jersey City resident, is primarily a branding and web-development specialist for prominent New York City restaurant groups. But three days a week she can be found tending bar at the Monkey, and also training bartenders. “It’s a lot of fun,” Karen says. She’s been working regular shifts the past four years, but has been lending a hand since the very beginning. “I painted the outside of this restaurant with Steve,” Karen recalls, “so I’ve always been involved.”
From behind the bar, Karen gets a great sense of the customer base, which she says is incredibly diverse: “It’s all different ages, and every ethnicity.” (Part of that mix are the McIntyre siblings themselves, who are Chinese-Irish.) Karen believes the casual atmosphere and menu is what draws such a wide range of clientele: corporate; post- collegiate; folks from around the block and travelers from overseas. “People have come here from other countries, shown me their smartphones, and the Monkey logo was their screensaver,” she says.
Karen has enjoyed watching the changes in customer demographics as time goes by. “You really do get a pulse of what’s happening in Jersey City,” she says.
So it truly seems that all are welcome at the Iron Monkey. Right, brother Steve?
“Everybody,” Steve McIntyre agrees. “Except racists or bigots. I throw them out.”
And that’s about the only thing about the Iron Monkey that isn’t subject to change.
Photos: Josh DeHonney, Top photo: Iron Monkey growlers can be filled with tap beer and taken home