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Thursday, January 15, 2009

How to create a great Irish bar

By Jason Sheehan

As I note in this week's review of the Celtic Tavern, Denver doesn't have a truly great Irish-American pub. But having spent some time working in good ones and a lot of time propping up the long oak in same, I have a few ideas on how to create a truly great Mick bar. My simple step-by-step plan:

Step one: Be Irish — or, at the very least, of Irish descent. If you're going to call your place Murphy's, you'd do well to actually be a Murphy. And if you're not Irish? Fake it. My people are spread far and wide these days, so having a bar opened by Chang O'Leary would not be the most unbelievable thing in the world.

Step two: Location, location, location. Great Irish pubs don't open in hot neighborhoods. They don't open on pedestrian malls or in any district with the words "Historic" or "Quaint" or "Olde" in their title. They don't open in a nightclub area or where the hipsters have their weekly meetings or on any block with more than one coffeehouse. Great Irish pubs open in the sketchy neighborhoods near the hot neighborhoods because the rents are cheaper and the crowds less likely to demand schnapps or jalapeño poppers or, you know, bathrooms. LoDo is not a good place for an Irish bar, nor is the middle of Highland. And the Riverside Downs development at 2620 West Belleview Avenue in Littleton, where a second Celtic Tavern opened last March, breaks just about every rule there is.

Step three: Serve Guinness. Yes, I know that Murphy's products are Irish. But Sir Arthur's black is what a boy has in mind when he steps up to the taps and orders a pint of plain, so you'd be wise not to disappoint him. Also, serving Guinness means serving Harp, and that makes me happy. I've never been a stout man, but I am partial about my lager, and since I'm writing these rules, I get to choose the brew. And while we're on the topic, have a bottle of Jameson behind the bar. Have ten. Have several varieties. Have a whole bunch of other whiskeys — fancy and unpronounceable ones, ancient and new — but don't forget that Jamo's, okay? It is the second-finest export of the Emerald Isle (behind the Pogues) and deserves a place of honor in your well and in my glass.

Step four: Once you've got the right beer, learn how to pull a proper pint. Six inches of foam on top? I'm going to "accidentally" spill that short pull all over the bottles in your freshly cleaned well. Try to pass me an American pint (16 ounces) rather than an Imperial (20 ounces) and I'm going to thank you kindly, drink it in peace, and then slag you to all my friends for the rest of time. Also, pour heavy with the hard stuff. It costs a little more, but you know what's gonna hurt worse than losing a few bucks in overpours? Losing all your customers when word gets out that your tenders use a jigger or are stingy with the trade. Jiggers are fine for cocktails where a certain amount of art is required, but not with straight pours. Also, any cocktail more complicated than a blank-n-blank has no place in an Irish pub. Save your cosmos and martinis and lemon drops for ladies' night at T.G.I. McFunster's down the street.

Step five: The name. Personally, I like Chang O'Leary's, but there are two ways to go here: the Apostrophe or the Ampersand. With the Apostrophe method, you just take your already Irish name (see step one) and make it possessive. My bar? It would be called Sheehan's. Simple. The Ampersand method is only a little more complicated: You take any two things and stick an ampersand between them. The Hawk & Dove works fine. The Fox & Hound. The Pig & Whistle. Anything more witty or clever than this, and you're running the risk of becoming twee; you might as well hang lace curtains from the windows and start serving tea.

Step six: The interior requires a bar, some tables, some chairs, lots of booze — and that's it. Do not, under any circumstances, break out your grandmother's collection of Emerald Isle tchotchkes and stick them all over the place. Don't hang up Gaelic road signs or distance markers or "My Goodness, My Guinness" posters or neon shamrocks. There's a phrase I learned from some off-the-boat friends and relations back in the day: "Plastic Paddy." It means any dolt who wears Fighting Irish or Galway United gear everywhere and has a leprechaun tattooed on his ass — an eedjit who wears his St. Paddy's day costume all year 'round. Don't be the barroom personification of that guy. Start simple and spare and let the good stuff — the photos, the signed pictures, the police blotter listings — accrue naturally.

Step seven: I'm strongly in favor of live music at a proper pub — a couple of nights a week, maybe, tucked away in one of the corners. On other nights, I like Irish music at my Irish bars. Buy a jukebox, stock it up and start pouring drinks.

Step eight: Finally, I would suggest that you serve no food at all. While Irish cuisine of late has made wondrous leaps and has always had some very good dishes (coddle and colcannon, boxty, farl and champ) that are never served in any Irish pub, the food of Ireland still has a rep that forces all kitchens in Irish-American restaurants to serve crap like "Killarney chicken" and corned beef and cabbage and shit lamb stew. I'd be happy to just get a good Irish bar in this town; a good Irish restaurant is way too much to ask for.