No Blarney

These pubs aren’t stereotypical knockoffs laden with leprechauns, four-leaf clovers and green beer. They’re bona fide Irish.

The Irish author Brian O’Nolan (pen name Flann O’Brien), in describing the early-20th-century Dublin that inspired James Joyce’s Ulysses, sardonically wrote that, “No genuine Irishman could relax in comfort and feel at home in a pub unless he was sitting in deep gloom on a hard seat with a very sad expression on his face, listening to the drone of bluebottle squadrons carrying out a raid on the yellow cheese sandwich.”

How far the Irish public house—or “pub” for short—has come, both here and in its country of origin.

Today’s menu options are certainly more palatable. One now finds traditional fare such as corned beef, blood pudding and potato…well, everything…alongside trendy dishes such as grilled calamari and lamb nachos (a reflection of the global culinary influences on the new Ireland). And the mood is reliably merry, bolstered by live Celtic music sessions, trivia contests and karaoke nights.

At the same time, the handful of thriving pubs that have laid down roots in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean have an authenticity that can’t be denied—from the genuine brogues of their proprietors and staffs, to their imported furnishings and ingredients.

The whiskey and Guinness are ever flowing, of course, but these welcome taverns also offer plenty of other delicious reasons to become a regular. Sláinte.

Ireland’s Four Courts

2051 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-3600, www.irelandsfourcourts.com

General Manager Dave Cahill has seen a lot of changes in Courthouse since Four Courts opened in 1996. “We have customers [who started coming here as singles] who now have families of their own,” says Cahill, who came to the States nearly 20 years ago by way of Newcastle West. “They are looking for fresher menus. We are more focused on that experience.”

Regulars also appreciate what Cahill brings to the table—especially the cheeses made by his family in Ireland. A porter cheese tops the restaurant’s Guinness-marinated beef burger, while another, made with whiskey, is stuffed into Chicken Kilbeggan, a dish of chicken breast wrapped in Irish bacon and finished with a tomato cream sauce.

Kids eat for free during the week from 4 to 7 p.m.—from a children’s menu that includes fish and chips and mini shepherd’s pie—as well as all day Saturday, when soccer (make that football) is on the tube. Fans are known to pour in as early as 8 a.m. for a pint with their ham-and-cheddar Hogan’s Breakfast Sandwich, topped with béchamel and a fried egg.

In the summer, regulars gather on Four Courts’ sidewalk patio—one of the most coveted seats in Courthouse—to drink cider with ice from engraved pewter mugs. Made in Mullingar, the birthplace of Four Courts owner Jimmy Fagan, the mugs are sold for $70 apiece. Many patrons store theirs alongside the more than 2,000 other mugs that live at the bar. Some have even been known to leave messages in others’ mugs, asking for dates, via helpful bartenders. The bar regularly gets retraction calls the following morning when secret admirers’ liquid courage dissipates, although last year, mugs played a key role in two marriage proposals.

In addition, a number of mugs have been dedicated to fallen soldiers buried at nearby Arlington National Cemetery. Family members and friends request them, often on holidays and birthdays, placing them beside their own drinks at the bar. “It seems to bring them comfort,” Cahill says.

Samuel Beckett’s Irish Gastro Pub

2800 South Randolph St., Arlington; 703-379-0122, www.samuelbecketts.com

Owner Mark Kirwan confesses that he hates the term “gastro pub,” but says it’s an apt descriptor for Samuel Beckett’s—a bar that also serves high-end food.

A native of County Tipperary, Kirwan is on a mission to evangelize the Emerald Isle’s culinary reputation. The former Guinness employee (he worked in business development, helping to open various upscale pubs throughout the U.S.) consulted Bord Bia—the Irish Food Board, which promotes Irish food and beverage companies—in developing the menu for Samuel Beckett’s. Dishes swing from traditional bacon and cabbage, featuring Jameson mashed potatoes, to a Tipperary Tart made with blue cheese and fresh leeks.

In preparing for the pub’s January 2011 opening, Kirwan recruited many of his employees from Ireland, taking the time to interview each in person before bringing them to the U.S. The bar’s interior and exterior millwork—painted red in honor of his favorite rugby team, Munster Rugby—was sourced in Ireland, as were the lighting fixtures, furniture, flooring and the bar’s draft system.

The pub features live music several times a week, including twice-monthly performances by its D.C.-based house act, The 19th Street Band, led by County Wicklow native Caolaidhe Davis.

Later this year, Samuel Beckett’s will host an Irish Festival, complete with visiting Irish bands and cloggers. The bar’s namesake playwright, whose works have been performed at nearby Signature Theatre, also holds a special place in Kirwan’s heart.

“He [was] a bit of a lunatic, and I love a good lunatic,” he says.

O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub

3207 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-812-0939, osullivansirishpub.com

General manager Patrick Doody met bar owner Karen O’Sullivan and her future husband, Anselm Griffiths, seven years ago, shortly after Doody moved to Virginia from Limerick City. O’Sullivan, who hails from County Kerry, was working at Four Courts at the time, and Doody was looking for kindred spirits.  

The two hit it off, and soon were working to create a new Irish experience: O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub in Clarendon. Doody has spent the last few months overseeing the bar’s expansion into the adjacent former Fragrance World and Sam’s Corner spaces. He says the extra square footage will allow O’Sullivan’s to better focus on what comes out of the kitchen. Plus, it will include a new, intimate dining area and a second bar spotlighting unique whiskeys.

Hearty items such as a half-pound angus burger, smothered in fresh spinach and fried onions and served over mashed potatoes with Guinness gravy, are joined by entrées such as crab-stuffed salmon and Chicken Tullamore, which pairs poultry with a rich Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey cream sauce. Doody plans to expand the brunch offerings by introducing an omelet station, a Bloody Mary bar and carvery options.

The bar’s music program will also benefit from the added elbow room, which will now accommodate two bands simultaneously. Doody envisions authentic session tunes in one room while more-contemporary bands entertain in another.

Ireland’s Four Provinces

105 West Broad St., Falls Church; 703-534-8999, www.4psva.com

Ireland’s Four Provinces owner Colm Dillon knows his role.

“This place belongs to the regulars. They come back because we mind it, don’t change it and don’t screw it up,” says the proprietor of the popular Falls Church watering hole, a County Cork native who formerly served as general manager of The Dubliner in D.C. But unlike his previous post, he says, the Four P’s doesn’t attract many tourists. It’s more of a local spot.

“We see kids born, baptized and come back to work here when they’re in high school,” says Dillon, citing the longevity in his staff, some of whom worked there long before he bought the place in 2004 (and many of whom are Irish born).

Loyal customers return for the varied menu, which includes coastal Irish dishes such as Kinsale seafood stew, brimming with shrimp, scallops, salmon and mussels in a clam cream reduction. The dessert menu features daily sweets from Chocolate Passion Pastry in nearby Vienna, as well as a decadent Baileys mousse and bread pudding that is made in-house.  

If you visit, keep an eye out for uncommon Irish bric-a-brac, including an 1820 print of Cork Harbour that Dillon snagged at an auction house during a visit to his birthplace. The image hangs at the far end of the bar, away from the main door.

McKeever’s Pub

6625 Old Dominion Drive, McLean; 703-790-9453, mckeeverspub.com

In 1984, Lori McKeever presented her then-boss with a proposition: How about I buy this place? He initially scoffed at the idea of the 20-something waitress acquiring his British-inspired establishment and recasting it as an Irish bar. But after some convincing, he relented, and George’s Public House became McKeever’s Pub.

“I think people feel at home here. Many customers I’ve known for 30-plus years,” says McKeever, who began working there as a server in her teens (she grew up in Falls Church), and can still be found on site almost every day. Her small staff now includes her 30-something daughter, Shelby, whose 7-year-old, Kyler, is often spotted greeting guests.

With only two tiny TVs, the pub doesn’t try to compete with local sports bars. It’s a family-friendly meeting place serving seven unique bur-gers, along with Irish classics such as corned beef and cabbage with mustard sauce. McKeever and her husband, Jeff Judge, also own Eagletree Farm in Leesburg, which specializes in pick-your-own blueberries, a fruit that finds its way into crepes and cobbler on the pub’s dessert list. Nestled next to several vineyards, the farm also grows grapes. This year, the couple released their first vintage under the Eagletree label, with help from fellow Virginia vintner Lori Corcoran at Corcoran Vineyards. So if you’re not in the mood for a Harp or Smithwick’s, you can opt for an Eagletree Tannat with your shepherd’s pie, and know that both the drinks and dinner were made locally.

Siné Irish Pub

1301 South Joyce St., Arlington; 703-415-4420, www.sineirishpub.com

Siné (pronounced “shin-ay”) is tucked into a corner of Pentagon Row, but you’ll feel worlds away once you slide into one of its roomy, private booths—known as snugs—or grab a pint by the fireplace. The dark wood and hammered-copper interior, crafted by Irish builders in the U.S., feels warm and uncluttered, as does the menu.  

Creative culinary touches include nachos with a base of fried, thinly sliced potatoes instead of chips, and a Guinness-barbecue pulled-chicken sandwich topped with Irish bacon, known as rashers.

The corned beef is brined in-house, and one finds HP sauce (a malt-vinegar-based condiment popular in the U.K.) on every table. The black-and-white pudding—a traditional blood-and-oatmeal sausage dish—is imported as well.

Soups are standouts. The chunky potato soup—made from a recipe passed down by the Irish grandparents of Siné owners Skip and Tom Condon—is a cold-weather favorite, as is the Irish white bean. Order a bowl with some freshly baked brown bread, keep your jacket on and sit on the patio overlooking the outdoor skating rink. A Bushmills neat will keep you warm long after the bowl is empty.

P. Brennan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant

2910 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-553-1090, www.pbrennans.com

“We want the bar to reflect Ireland, and in Ireland we’re doing pretty well for ourselves,” says County Offaly-born Eoghain (pronounced Owen) Clavin, the bar manager at P. Brennan’s on Columbia Pike.

“I hold my head up high because I’m proud to be Irish.”  

Clavin also boasts a personal honor that does his homeland proud: In 2012, he won the D.C. region’s Guinness “Perfect Pint” competition, showcasing his perfected pouring technique in serving one of the world’s most exacting beers. According to the manufacturer, it takes six steps over the course of 119.53 seconds to deliver an ideal glass of 42.8° F Guinness.

The spacious pub, which celebrates its third birthday this spring, presents its own take on Irish menu staples. Irish Boxty—a potato cake topped with smoked salmon, horseradish cream and crisp, salty capers—is a pretty and delicious starter. The kitchen also offers traditional beer-battered haddock fish and chips, as well as a lighter salad version with root vegetable chips and avocado. A gluten-free menu is available.

Patrons enjoy live music from the bar’s house piano, as well as sessions featuring traditional Irish tunes on harp and fiddle.

P. Brennan’s rustic floors and 20-foot wooden bar were built by Irish carpenters from KingCaire Construction in Silver Spring. The firm is owned by Billy Mulcaire, who was born in County Clare and has built bars in Ireland and across the U.S. Mulcaire brought in one of his sons, who specializes in flooring from Ireland, to lay and stain the oak floor; traffic on Columbia Pike was shut down when the bar was delivered.

“The Pike is growing, and we’re all working together to promote it,” says P. Brennan’s co-owner Greg Whelan.

Rí Rá Irish Pub

2915 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-248-9888, www.rira.com/arlington

The bar of this popular Clarendon watering hole was built in Ireland, using salvage material from a 100-year-old Dublin pharmacy, before it was shipped to Arlington. Hand-painted, pre-Raphaelite-style artworks, inspired by Irish folklore such as the mythical land of Tír na nÓg, adorn the panels above the open bar.

Rí Rá (which means “king of good times” in Gaelic) is the Arlington outpost in a small chain of pubs that stretches from Portland, Maine, to Las Vegas.

That’s where general manager Mark McElkerney was working before he relocated to Clarendon in the fall of 2012.

As part of an ongoing apprenticeship program, each location brings over Irish workers on J-1 work visas and trains them in all aspects of the business, so you’ll hear plenty of brogue when you order a Harp. The goal of the visa program is to give Irish workers tools to further their careers when they return home, and Rí Rá takes its hosting duties seriously.

McElkerney’s parents are from Northern Ireland, and he “grew up” in pubs. Building on the shared-community experience he remembers so fondly from his youth, he plans to showcase more session players in 2013, including live music during the pub’s popular weekend brunch, featuring brisket omelets and Irish breakfast rolls stuffed with bacon and sausage.

Rí Rá’s chipper menu, available until midnight during the week and until 1 a.m. on weekends, allows you to douse your fries with imported McDonnells Curry Sauce until the wee hours.

Rí Rá is located in the middle of the Irish triad of Arlington’s Orange Line: Four Courts is a few blocks to the east down Wilson Boulevard, and O’Sullivan’s is a few blocks to the west. McElkerney feels he’s in good company.

“We want to be a complement to the others,” he says. “When folks come over [from Ireland], the first thing they do is look for a good pub. We’re happy to be part of a neighborhood that has become a second home for so many.”

Ballston resident Jessica Strelitz takes her Irish coffee with an extra dram of Jameson’s and brown sugar—no cream.

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