Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, March 13, 2003
Where’sthe Green?

Local lad bemoans Fort Worth’s dearth of Irish pubs and pub food.


When I moved here about 10 years ago, I lamented to a friend that I really missed good deli food. Not that Cleveland, Ohio, is known for great delicatessens, but we had a Jewish neighborhood in town (known as the “Gaza Strip”), and I used to enjoy a real pastrami sandwich or some matzo ball soup. But the food is only part of the deli experience: you wait in line for a counter seat, listen to loud political arguments, and hear waitresses running around asking, “Ya gonna take that with, hon?”

My friend, a native Texan, looked at me kind of funny and suggested that if I wanted a deli sandwich there was a Subway sandwich shop down the street. It wasn’t his fault — he really had no idea what an authentic Jewish deli was. His advice, I told him, would be akin to telling him to get a McRib sandwich if he wanted good barbecue.

Which brings me to the discussion of the Irish pub. At this time of year, all manner of people claim to be Irish and all manner of bars claim to be Irish pubs. But much of it is like the Subway sandwich shop calling itself a delicatessen. When Tipsy McStaggers wanted to buy out Moe’s Bar on The Simpsons, Moe called the chain a “family restaurant with crap nailed to the wall.” Too often, the U.S. version of the Irish pub is just that: some burgers, some wings, Guinness on tap, a neon shamrock, and plenty of manufactured Irish cheer. In other words, Bennigan’s.

To understand what an Irish pub is, you have to understand its history. “Pub” is short for “public house,” and in every neighborhood and every town in Ireland, the public house occupied a highly respected place in local culture. The “publican” (pub owner) — who lived above his establishment — provided money for weddings, funerals, and christenings and acted as de facto banker. Selling groceries, libations, and prepared food was only a small part of his job. His status in town was second only to that of the parish priest. And the publican’s job also was to make sure that everyone, regardless of class or income, was made to feel welcome.

A few years ago, six of us Yanks were visiting friends on Achill Island on the western Irish coast. That night we visited Ted Lavelle’s Pub, which besides having a bar and restaurant also housed a convenience store, a gas station, the only ATM on the island, a dry goods store, and a funeral home. The joke on the island is that Lavelle’s is going to get you in the end, so you might as well drink there at night. We spent the afternoon and evening watching soccer matches with old men who kept referring to the players on their team as a bunch of “fooking fooks.”

But I’ve never felt more comfortable anywhere than in that pub when the owner stood on a chair, quieted the crowd, raised his glass to me and my friends, and stated: “We’ve been sending people to America for 150 years, and here’s what they send us back.”

It’s been said that the Irish would rather talk and tell stories than eat. The cuisine has sometimes reflected those priorities. Given the country’s history of occupation, war, famine, and blight, food was more often about survival than pleasure. Still, an island with some of the best fishing in Europe, where fresh vegetables and meat are seldom more than a field or two away, and with great baked goods and cheeses, sometimes does turn out wonderful food.

In the 1990s, traditional Irish cuisine was rediscovered — in Ireland and elsewhere. Part of this had to do with the heating up of the Irish economy during the tech boom, which brought stability and stopped the tide of emigration. The new Irish pub cuisine still features traditional favorites like shepherd’s pie (a meat stew covered with mashed potatoes, browned on top), boxty (a potato pancake stuffed with meat or seafood), and fish and chips. But now you will also find smoked salmon or chicken with a sauce of Cashel bleu cheese or lamb medallions with leeks.

It’s quite odd that a city the size of Fort Worth has no pub that serves Irish food. There are some very good Irish bars: Matt McEntire’s Shamrock Pub on West Seventh Street and his Blarney Stone on Houston Street downtown are great places to drink and sing along to “Danny Boy” or “Whiskey in the Jar.” O’Dwyer’s Irish Pub on Trinity Boulevard is another great place to drink and catch up with friends.

But for traditional Irish food you must go to Dallas, where several traditional Irish pubs dish up old-school fare, the best being the Tipperary Inn on Live Oak. The “Tip” will have hurling and rugby on the satellite tv, live Irish music on the stage, and items like shepherd’s pie, boxty, and corned beef on soda bread on the menu. But the “Tip” will also experiment a little — it offers Guinness-based queso dip, oak-smoked salmon, and braised lamb shanks. All in all, a pretty good Irish pub.

I would hope that some restaurateur here in Cowtown might see a hole in the market and open a place that serves Irish food. It would need a lively owner, music from the Pogues and the Saw Doctors on the juke, and good burgers and sandwiches, but it would also be a place that is willing to liven up old favorites. Of course, there would be an eclectic mix of personalities and ages, a conviviality of characters under one roof.

Actually, that sounds a lot like Fred’s Cafe. If only they would put some Guinness in the beef stew and open up a funeral home next door.

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