Our Jim McLauchlin is as Irish as they come, as evidenced by his fondness for beer, Black 47, and turn-of-the-(last)-century baseball. And his opinion on Irish food is: Don’t bother. It wasn’t just the potato famine that drove the Irish out of Ireland. It was the cooking.
There’s a reason why Guinness was pitched to the Irish for years as a “food drink” that provides caveman-like strength. Guinness isn’t really naturally “foodier” than any other beer. But it was closer to food than just about anything else the Irish had on their plates.
We are not the people to say Mr. McLauchlin is wrong in his pronouncements on Irish food. However, we have a deadline and a column to write and a rather hardy constitution when it comes to foodstuffs, and we are not yet ready to chuck into the dustbin all Irish cuisine and subsist on Guinness and the occasional bracer of Jameson from now until St. Paddy’s next. McLauchlin maybe, but not us. We’d rather plunge ahead and make this recommendation: Okay, maybe you don’t want to eat Irish food every day of your life. Maybe you restrict it to a couple of meals in mid-March, and supplement your diet with the occasional Guinness the rest of the year. But you should definitely try some of these Irish eating (and drinking – this is Irish food we’re talking about, after all) establishments, and judge for yourself.
Franklin Café, Boston, corned beef and cabbage: Perhaps a better rule of thumb for Irish food is not to eat Irish food where the Irish eat but to eat Irish food where other cooks eat. In Boston that would be the Franklin Café, and not just because the bartenders are among the city’s best. The menu is innovative in some very Bostonian ways – especially with the St. Patrick’s Day staple, corned beef and cabbage. At the Franklin Café the beef is corned – brined, basically—right on the premises, spiced dramatically, and cooked to a sweet spot of tenderness and flavor (check out the recipe here). The atmosphere is just right, too, Irish-ish without being pub Irish. And if that doesn’t make sense, it will once you step inside.
Marlay House, Atlanta, fish and chips: Maybe you find it hard to swallow an Irish pub that has shrimp and grits on the menu. Maybe you give an Irish pub extra credit for having shrimp and grits, and extra extra credit for stewed okra. Whatever. But you know when an Irish pub has stewed okra and shrimp and grits on the menu you’re in the south – and not southern Ireland, either. The Marlay claims to be a little bit of Dublin in the middle of Georgia, but it’s more like a little bit of Georgia in the middle of Dublin. That’s okay though, especially because the fish and chips are fresh and tender, with hand-cut potatoes and hand-breaded cod. With live Irish music, dancing, and face painting to go along with more than 20 beers on tap, St. Patrick’s Day at the Marlay sounds like a hoot. But if you hang over (so to speak) until Sunday, the traditional roast lunch sounds like even more like a keeper: a roast with Yorkshire pudding, potatoes, two fresh vegetables, and lashings of gravy, with a special chef’s dessert to top it off. And yes: Lashings of gravy sound like our kind of lashings.
Mick O’Shea’s, Baltimore, Irish breakfast: Whatever else you care to say about Baltimore’s favorite Irish pub, say this: They know what’s coming. The St. Patrick’s Day schedule at this Charm City favorite goes like this: Irish breakfast at 10 a.m., St. Patrick’s Day parade around noon, live music at 4 p.m., and then the next day the bar is closed for repairs. The breakfast is what you want, with eggs, bangers (sausages), rashers (bacon), pudding (pudding), oatmeal, and more. And of course, you’ll want to get it before they start boarding up the windows.
East of Eighth, New York, shepherd’s pie: A good shepherd’s pie is one of the world’s great comfort dishes. Half stew and half pie, with mashed potatoes over everything, it’s warming and soothing like few other dishes in the lexicon. This neighborhood restaurant east of the Garment District isn’t Irish per se; like the Franklin Café, it’s Irish-ish. And the person sitting next to you may be wearing a yarmulke. Doesn’t matter: Once the shepherd’s pie cools sufficiently for you to take a bite – which takes a while – the waters calm, the Guinness adds its own creamy note, and New York’s bustle is reduced to a murmur in the background. Timeless.
McNamara’s Irish Pub, Nashville, uh, the music: Not that the food is at all bad, mind you, but this is Nashville, and the best dish in the city tends to be wherever the best music is. In the specific case of McNamara’s, it’s the house band, Nosey Flynn, a super-tight whirl of fiddles and bohdrans and Irish bouzoukis led by Sean McNamara, the McNamara in McNamara’s. You could come for the music alone and be perfectly content, but it makes sense to eat something, too. Let us recommend the steak-and-Guinness pie. Steak and gravy and Guinness in a pie crust: How can McLauchlin say Irish food is useless when confronted with that?