The Best Irish Pub in America: Introduction

Opening time is Guinness Time.

Opening time is Guinness Time.

I have not wanted to focus overmuch on alcohol on this blog, in large part because I do not want to encourage the misconception that drinking is the defining experience of the Irish people.  That’s not to say the subject should go undiscussed, but it gets a bit exhausting seeing the Irish-American world reduced to a punchline about drunkenness on the back of a green t-shirt.

This project will offer a growing list that explores what Irish pubs have offered, and what they might offer. It is meant to be a resource for existing Irish pubs, potential Irish pubs, and imaginary Irish pubs.
But one cannot write about the Irish-American experience without writing about the Irish pub. This has long been one of the crucibles of Irish-American identity, and it’s hardly surprising. Firstly, the Irish-American pub is a direct descendant of the long tradition of Irish public houses, which has a storied history as being a sort of cultural center in Ireland, often serving multiple functions, including grocer, hardware store, and even undertaker.

Secondly, the American bar has a similar history. American drinking establishments have long been a part of the American democratic process — the American Revolution itself was fomented in bars — and more than a few American groups used bars as venues for creating and maintaining their identity. Gay bars might be one of the most famous examples of this; after all, the Stonewall Riots began in a bar. But America has also produced an endless collection of German beer gardens, Mexican cantinas, biker bars, and Japanese saki bars, among many other examples. There are few ethnicities or uniquely American cultures who haven’t had their own bars. In America, you find your identity with a drink in your hands — or not, as there were even Temperance bars that served only soft drinks.

The Irish pub serves many different functions, and there are many different Irish bars. It is not my intention to review them and decide which one is best, but instead to offer a growing list that explores what Irish pubs have offered, and what they might offer. It is meant to be a resource for existing Irish pubs, potential Irish pubs, and imaginary Irish pubs.

This blog typically addresses the Irish-American experience, but this project will expand that somewhat to look to Ireland itself, as one of the functions of an Irish pub is to act as a sort of a portal through time and space, providing visitors with an experience that is identifiably Irish. Admittedly, this experience is often a fanciful version, based more in the American sentimental imagination than in the real Irish experience. But, then, if it provided a perfect recreation of the Irish experience, it wouldn’t be an Irish-American pub — it would just be an Irish pub.

I go into this recognizing that there are all sorts of Irish-American pubs, and, for convenience sake, I will simplify them to three categories. They are as follows:

  • There is the dive bar, which probably represents the majority of Irish pubs in America. They are, for the most part, unambitious places, perhaps with an Irish name above the door and with a few shamrocks on the wall, and they might offer an Irish beer or two, but otherwise they are like any other American watering hole where unfussy drinks are served inexpensively to hard-drinking and sometimes loudly sociable clientele. They will sometimes offer events or entertainment, but these aren’t always Irish-themed, and tend to be a bit raucous.
  • There is the casual drinking bar. Think of the pub from Cheers. It’s tidy, has a good choice of drinks, and tends to wear its Irishness on its sleeve a little more. It may be a bar/restaurant, but its food selections typically will consist of (sometimes Irish-themed) bar food, and not fine dining. These are the bars that are most likely to have Irish-themed events and music.
  • There is the upscale bar or gastropub. These will sometimes be built in Ireland and shipped to America. Their drink selection will be wide and often have quite expensive offerings. Their food selection will tend towards fine dining and sometimes offer a selection of authentically Irish recipes. These venues may or may not offer Irish-themed events.

When it seems proper, when I write an entry for this project, I will identify what sort of venue it is right for, and if there are variations that might be considered for different pubs.

Until next time, sláinte.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.