If there was one recommendation I could make to Irish pubs in America that would instantly and inexpensively improve them, it would be to offer British and Irish pub snacks. Many bars — especially dive bars — already have snacks behind the counter, including candy bars, potato chips, and sometimes ice cream. People belly up to the bar and after a drink or two often get the idea they might like to snack on something, and here’s your chance to take them on a culinary trip to Ireland.
Other flavors offered now and then include roast chicken, pickled onion, and wuster sauce.
There’s never been a better time, and there’s no better an option. This food is easy to order on line, inexpensive, and have a long shelf life. Let’s start with today’s example: Tayto Crisps. It is just now possible to get a 25 pack on Amazon.com for $32.50 with free shipping. Sell each for $2 and you’ve made yourself a tidy profit of $17.50, and the only work required is to clip them to your bar mirror and hand them to a patron when they get peckish.
I’ve started with Taytos because they are one of Ireland’s most recognized brands, and they are potato chips, so bar patrons are likely predisposed to eating them in a way they may not be with other snack food I will write about. Tayto offers something called Pork Scratchings as well, made of fried pork rind and sold in little packets, and that’s probably not going to be immediately appealing to American tastes.
Tayto crisps, however, are perfectly recognizable as potato chips, albeit they are typically offered in a range of savory flavors: Cheese & Onion, Salt & Vinegar, Smokey Bacon, and Prawn Cocktail; other flavors are offered now and then, including roast chicken, pickled onion, and wuster sauce. The texture is recognizable to American palates; its a bit like Pringles. But it is the selection of flavors that make chips from Britain and Ireland so unique, as they are almost always flavored in this way.
The snack originates in County Meath, and have proven to be so successful in Ireland that “tayto” is sometimes used as a general word for potato chips, and there is Tayto-themed amusement park in Ashbourne that, for some reason, has several Native-American styled attractions. The smiling, red-jacketed mascot proved recognizable enough that Tayto ran him as a candidate in the 2007 Irish General Election, and he has his own fictional biography, “The Man Inside the Jacket.”
A number of Irish venues in America have already started to experiment with offering Taytos, and seem to have had success with them. They are one of the snacks offered by the gift shop in the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago, which was a source of much amusement for Conan O’Brien when he filmed a visit to the center in 2012.
You don’t actually shut the box; you flip over the numbers.
I had not thought there was much of a tradition of classic pub games in American bars. Most I have been to, if they offer any sort of sociable entertainment at all, offer trivia games or those touch-screen computer games where you try to distinguish differences between near-identical photos of topless women.
Apparently Murph’s Backstreet Tavern in Sag Harbor, NY, offers a version of a game called Ringing the Bull which I would not have expected to find in America at all, and patron’s seem to love it (“Great drunk game inside!” one raves on Yelp.)
But there is more, so much more. Pubs in England and Ireland have a rich tradition of offering all sorts of games for their patrons, many with surprisingly ancient and international origins. And I am pleased to discover that there are American pubs that do the same, such as Leary’s Landing in Maine, which has a selection of classic pub games for their patrons. Apparently Murph’s Backstreet Tavern in Sag Harbor, NY, offers a version of a game called Ringing the Bull which I would not have expected to find in America at all, and patron’s seem to love it (“Great drunk game inside!” one raves on Yelp.) Brit’s Pub in Minneapolis has a rather active lawn bowling league, and I recall many happy hours sitting on their rooftop green watching patrons pitching bowls at jacks.
Omaha has just opened a bar dedicated to board games called Spielbound. It’s just a few blocks from where I live and has proven to be enormously popular — unsurprisingly, as Omaha has a long tradition of venues that offer board games to their patrons, such as the all-night Donut Stop, where it is possible to see senior citizens playing Yahtzee at 3 a.m.
But I would like to see more traditional pub games offered, especially at Irish pubs. In fact, I would argue that the mixture of conviviality and nostalgia offered by traditional pub games is ideal for an Irish pub. Best still, some of these games are meant for gambling, and so you can be a bit rakish about it.
Take, as an example, Shut the Box. Like many pub games, its origins are lost to antiquity, although National Geographic, who make their own version of the game, says the following: “After their sails were still for the night, Norman mariners would get out their dice and play Shut-the-Box. The simple and addictive game made its way around the world as trade increased among Europe, Africa, and China, and it remains especially popular in the U.K. today.” Masters Games says there is no evidence the game was popular on the British Isles until the mid-20th century, when a man named “Chalky” Towbridge brought it to the Channel Islands.
Wherever it came from and however it got there, its a deceptively simple game to play. Like many of the great games of chance, it finds a neat intersection between pure luck and player skill, although the real influence a player can exert is uncertain.
At its simplest, the game is a box with a series of numbered tiles. Players roll the dice and cover the appropriate number of tiles. When no more tiles can be covered, the turn is over and the uncovered tiles are counted up. The player with the lowest number wins; covering all the tiles produces an immediate win.
But this is a gambling game, with players throwing money into a pot that the winner keeps, and so there are seemingly endless permutations to the game. Typically, you throw two dice, but, in some circumstances, you can choose to throw one. There are variations to the way the tiles are counted. It can be played with two boxes, or with 20-sided dice. I won’t list all the possible ways to play the game here — I don’t know if I can, as I suspect that there are hundreds of regional variations.
I have played the game with its standardized rules, and can tell you that it is perfect for a pub. It’s flexible enough to accommodate anywhere from a pair to a dozen players, and the rules can be adapted for tournament play. It’s simple enough to be played after more than a few drinks, and, best still, most versions of the game are made in such a way that it is impossible to lose the pieces, but for the dice, which are easily replaceable.
Additionally, Shut the Box has a history in America, which makes it especially fitting for an Irish-American pub. Not only was the game apparently popular among Hudson Bat fur trappers, but it was also the basis for the TV Quiz show “High Rollers.”
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.
Igo 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.