WHAT qualifies a New York bar as Irish? Irish ownership is good; Irish accents behind the bar are better. Multiple ever-flowing Guinness taps with skilled, patient pourers are good; supplementing them with Smithwick’s ale and Magners cider on tap is better. Irish flags and Guinness signs are O.K.; old posters from County This and County That are really cool.
Even with those qualifications, though, there are dozens if not hundreds of Irish bars to choose from should you be in New York for St. Patrick’s Day (or any time). Narrowing the choices is beyond the capacity of a mere American, so this column turned to a group of Irish — and Scots — who paid $20 to gather at McCormack’s on Third Avenue on a recent Saturday and watch Ireland beat Scotland in the Six Nations rugby tournament.
The survey was flawed in just about every way possible: it gave McCormack’s a home-bar advantage; it allowed a few Scotsmen, there supporting the opposition, to muddle the sample; and it was limited to 30 people. At least the votes were not made under the influence: orange juice and (surprisingly bracing) coffee were as common as ale among the noontime crowd.
McCormack’s may have won unfairly (with six votes), but there was something to it: it would be hard to imagine a more Irish atmosphere in New York than during that game.
The pub has friendly, easygoing bartenders with lilts in their voices and calmness in crowds. It has wood: dark, and lots of it. It shows big Irish sporting events via satellite. And it serves Irish food — most notably an Irish country breakfast of sausage, ham, black and white pudding, potatoes, eggs and sautéed mushrooms — which stands little chance of catching the eye of the Healthy Choice R & D team, but beats a greasy American diner any day.
A problem with Irish bars in New York is that they can degenerate on weekends into headquarters for the postcollege crowd to recreate frat parties. The second-place winner — Molly’s Shebeen Pub & Restaurant, with four votes, doesn’t have that problem.
It is a place to have a pint by the fire or, even better, to have a meal in the back under the glow of warm orange lighting from chandelierlike fixtures, and walls with dusty memorabilia that the warm orange lighting doesn’t quite allow you to make out. Shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, chicken pot pie, lamb stew are all served in a homey style that even the most non-Irish person in the world (say, a Bangladeshi farmer) would recognize as comfort food.
Much as Americans might like to believe that every pub in Ireland is musty, dark and ancient, two bars that got multiple votes were decidedly more modern — though still Irish-accented, Gaelic-named and easygoing and friendly, even as they’re cool enough to fit in the Village. Lunasa in the East Village is named after the August pagan festival of the same name. Though real Irish bartenders serve real Guinness there, the Irish theme is minimalist: the copper and bronze tones (like the lamps hanging from above the bar) and the soft lighting are supposed to recall Ireland at summer harvest time. The music, however, leaps to the modern era, ranging from the Dubliners to U2.
Slainte, on the Bowery, is the other place, and though it is slick on the surface, it is also more traditional, sort of old-school-in-the-making: wooden stools, exposed brick and dark wood, and broadcasts of Irish “football.” If it’s still around in another 30 years or so, it will look like an old Irish bar.
Finally, one Irish bar that does tend toward the fratlike also garnered multiple votes: Puck Fair. Named for the goat-themed festival held every August in Killorglin, County Kerry, and coincidently near the Puck Building, it has drinking at three altitudes — an balcony, a crowded main floor, and a room downstairs called the Gate Bar, enclosed by barred gates, giving it the feel of a jail cell. (A cell in a crowded, coed prison where drinking is encouraged, that is.)
Though the survey covered only Manhattan, those willing to travel a bit will find that both the Bronx and Queens have strong Irish populations with strong bar traditions.
In the Bronx, the Irish neighborhood is Woodlawn, but locals recommend An Beal Bocht in nearby Riverdale, with live Irish music on weekends in its crusty, old, memorabilia-covered main room, and an art-filled second room that is brighter and more modern.
Better is Woodside, Queens, where the Irish congregate in bars that congregate around the 63rd Street stop on the 7 train. Saints and Sinners and Sean Og’s are very Irish looking and serve good food, but if you really want to be surrounded by an old-school Irish immigrant crowd, try the smaller, less glamorous Starting Gate. It sometimes has live Irish music, and it always has the kind of food menu you’re most likely to find in an Irish pub in Ireland: none at all.
OUR ALL-IRISH FIRST STRING
McCormack’s, 365 Third Avenue between 26th and 27th Streets; (212) 683-0911; www.mccormacks.net.
Molly’s Shebeen Pub and Restaurant, 287 Third Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Streets; (212) 889-3361; www.mollysshebeen.com.
Slainte, 304 Bowery between Bleecker and Houston Streets; (212) 253-7030; www.slaintenyc.com.
Lunasa, 126 First Avenue between Seventh Street and St. Marks Place; (212) 228-8580; www.lunasabar.com.
Puck Fair, 298 Lafayette Street, at Houston Street; 212-431-1200.
An Beal Bocht, 445 West 238th Street, Bronx; (718) 884-7127. Take the 1 train to 238th Street (and be prepared to walk up some steps).
Starting Gate, 59-10 Woodside Avenue, Woodside, Queens; (718) 429-9269. Take the 7 train to 61st Street-Woodside.