Barring a handful of borderline offensive stereotype-reliant Irish sports bars, we’ve never had a bad time at an Irish pub. In fact, the quickest way to get us out the door is telling us some friends are off to the local Irish place, especially if that place was started by someone from Ireland. Here are a handful of bars from across the US we think are the best examples of an Irish pub.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House
McGillin’s opened in 1860 as The Bell in Hand Tavern, which the clientele promptly ignored and unofficially renamed McGillin’s, after the bar’s founders: Catherine and William McGillin. There’s a distinct sense of continuity at McGillin’s, which we would attribute to three factors. The first is that the bar is still family-owned, though by Spaniaks, not by McGillins anymore. The second is the massive collection of signs from defunct Philadelphia businesses that adorned the walls, either as trophies of places McGillin’s has outlasted or as memorabilia of all the iterations of Philadelphia McGillin’s has enjoyed. The third is every single liquor license the bar’s had since 1871.
It might seem unusual to recommend a chain restaurant on a list of “authentic” Irish pubs, but let’s consider the history of Fadó. In 1997, a group of Irish businessmen came to Chicago with the intention of spreading the Dublin pub experience. Twenty-five years later, they have locations across the country, including Annapolis, Philly, Washington D.C., Columbus, two in Atlanta, and one in Abu Dhabi. We’ve been to a handful, as well as a whole bunch of Dublin pubs and we have to say, they kind of nailed it. The interiors of the pubs are all designed and manufactured in Ireland, then shipped to the US for installation.
The Dead Rabbit
New York, New York
You’ve probably already seen this name on every bar award list ever published, but just in case this is your introduction, let us give a little background. The Dead Rabbit is a cocktail bar in downtown Manhattan owned by two men from Belfast, Northern Ireland. To hear them tell it, they were essentially using the inviting atmosphere of a traditional Irish pub to trick people into coming to a fantastic cocktail bar. Obviously, it worked.
The unusual name is rooted in the Irish language and the Irish gang that controlled the bar’s general area in the mid 19th century. Ráibéad means big, hulking fellow. Dead is a little harder to track down, but Irish slang has used “dead” as an intensifier for a long time. Put them together and it becomes a reasonably intimidating, albeit unusual, name for Irish gangsters.
McSorley’s Old Ale House
New York, New York
We’re conflicted about including McSorley’s. On the one hand, it’s the oldest continuously operating pub in the United States with a distinctly Irish name and a long history of Irish ownership, employment, and patronage. On the other (and forgive us for sounding like hipsters here), we don’t really want to contribute to the ongoing effort to turn it into a tourist trap. On the other other hand, it’s always been burning in the back of the public consciousness, constantly popping up in paintings, poems, and literature since its 1854 beginning. That means our belief that everyone should experience its unapologetic existence is winning. So you know what to expect when you walk in, they didn’t install (or need) a women’s restroom until 1986 and you can only get light or dark beer. Don’t come in dropping brand names.
The Plough and the Stars
The Plough and the Stars’ name is a reference to some intense Irish republicanism (remember, not the same as our Republicans) of the early 1900s. James Connolly, a major leader in the Irish republican movement and founder of the IRA precursor, the Irish Citizen Army, once said that a free Ireland would control its destiny from the plough to the stars. His quote, along with the ICA Starry Plough flag unfurled during the Easter Rising, created an image that stays prominent in Irish national pride. Drop all that on a Cambridge (Boston) area pub that was originally founded in 1969 and you have a venue that’ll probably have you learning rebel songs by the end of the night.
The Golden Ace Inn
Virtually every city in the United States has some kind of Irish enclave and Indianapolis is no different. John and Ann McGinley came to Indianapolis from Donegal in 1934. Since its opening, the pub routinely garners praise and awards, as well as hosts a massive St. Patrick’s Day celebration every year and music the rest of the year. Plus great food every day you go. Overall, it’s an inviting place, which is exactly what you want in a good pub.
The Irish Bank
San Francisco, California
One of our favorite things about Irish pubs in Ireland is their outdoor seating. More often than not, an Irish pub’s seating is a full takeover of whatever lane, alley, corner, or lot they occupy, seemingly without paying any mind to seating efficiency or optimizing comfort. The Irish Bank in San Francisco keeps that tradition. The inside is inviting enough, but the outside looks like organized chaos. Benches line the exterior walls and tables and chairs occupy the entire alley, with an awning covering both to at least keep the rain off. They accomplished the impossible task of making the outside cozy.
John D. McGurk’s
St. Louis, Missouri
We’ll admit we were first drawn to this place because of the name. John D. McGurk sounds like a rugged socialist who bare-knuckle boxed in between staring down Pinkerton agents and slugging whiskey from porcelain jugs. While that’s all historical fantasy, we will say the reality of the place is a good one. Irish musicians from across Ireland are constantly in and out of St. Louis, often with the primary focus of playing at John D. McGurk’s. It’s also one of the few places we’ve found that honors the Irish pub tradition of expanding the facility into whatever random room or space happens to be convenient with little to no regard paid to sensible floor layouts or convenience.
The Old Shillelagh
One of the foundational aspects of a pub is that it can be a gathering place for the community. That’s been underutilized in recent years, but some places are keeping the tradition alive. The Old Shillelagh is a great example. They have a massive St. Paddy’s Day celebration that spans a full week leading up to the 17th and bookends Detroit’s parade. During the rest of the year, the pub serves as a sort of base of operations for the community, with the best example of their services being a complimentary shuttle bus to and from Lions, Red Wings, and Piston games. Also, the pub was founded by a tried and true stereotype. John Brady is an Irish immigrant turned Detroit cop turned bar owner.
A major temptation when the inexperienced open an Irish-style pub is trying to do too much. They have massive menus, overproduced decor, and have a bursting calendar with anything and everything Irish adjacent. Sligo remembers that the simplicity of the pub is the real draw. There isn’t a ton of stuff crammed onto the walls, there isn’t a different hacky “Celtic rock” band on stage every other night, and the menu isn’t a bunch of forced puns made out of the names of men shot for rebelling against British rule. They focus on making good food, pouring good beer, and letting the experience speak for itself. It’s genuinely one of the only pubs in the US where we forgot we weren’t in Ireland.