Irish Pubs of DC: A rant, and a guide. Part one: McGinty’s, Ri Ra, Harp and Fiddle

I’m routinely hard on the faux-Irish pub phenomenon that so consumes the American bar culture.  It’s one of those things where, when confronted by the legion of faux-Irish pub apologists, I always end up pitching into an argument. Largely because they, those mad zealots, insist that certain pubs in the DC area are “authentic” Irish pubs.

This issue plays into a deeper part of the American psyche.  Part of it is the inability to embrace who we are.  The blind, insecure, and somewhat lonely desire to become a hyphenated American.  To find some sort of ancient touchstone instead of old Hugh McDonald who came over on a raft of reeds in 1847 with only one potato to his name. There’s this – frankly insane – need to create a modern identity based on the lives of forgotten ancestors.

The romanticism of Irishness (and please pronounce that word with your worst fake accent — Oyrishness) has always held a weird fascination in our minds.  Hell, America’s the country that has cheerfully funded the world’s formerly worst terrorist organization…um, up to this day.

You see this Irish obsession everywhere.  The people who claim the mythical “Scots-Irish” descent (a slang term used to describe the shantytown folks waiting for openings in steerage class to make the Atlantic crossing), the American tourists in Ireland who ask after the health of family members who lived centuries ago, the put-on accents and revisionist family history…

So it makes sense that, as we create a fantasy land for our own personal histories, that it’s populated by “authentic” Irish pubs.

But let’s come down to reality.  Here are the facts:  Just because a pub is owned by an Irishman, it is not an authentic Irish pub.  Just because the pub is decorated in deep wood colors and features vintage Guinness posters, it is not an authentic Irish pub.  Just because the menu items have Irish names, and there’s a popular Irish drink on tap, it is not an authentic Irish pub.

Do you know why?  Because you’re in America.  Because you’re an American.  No matter how much the owners and employees and regulars want it, the one, central fact is that the pub has to stay in business.  It has to adopt a business model that is American.  We have different expectations when it comes to service.  We expect a courteous wait staff, a hostess at the door.  We expect a group of guys in the corner practicing folk songs, we expect soccer nights and pub quizzes.  All these quaint little things which, in our weird childish pantomime, we believe to be Irish.  Inside the Irish-American pub, there’s this general sense that, if you drink enough, you’ll walk outside and find yourself in Brigadoon.  Which, yes, I know, was in Scotland.  But you know what I mean.

The food has certain expectations as well.  Americans are bad about that.  We make fun of British cuisine, yet come to the Irish pub and crave said cuisine, but really just expect to receive some bland, watered down, inoffensive dish with a suitably Irish name because Americans don’t understand that you can get happiness from food.

Our general sense of community is woefully stunted. Americans have moved away from the social trappings of neighborhoods and towns.  We’ve all become islands. Don’t touch us and don’t encroach on our space.  A crowded bar becomes a jostling, competitive mess instead of a jovial gathering of strangers who could be friends. Sighs and rolling eyes as our credit card culture ties up half the wait staff.

I argue these points, and the zealots argue for the Irishness Fantasy, but there really shouldn’t be an argument.  See, I don’t really have a problem with the faux Irish pub. The Irish-American pub is, really, just a more civilized version of a sports bar.  It’s a sports bar that serves better beer, provides a richer ambience, and tends towards a more family-friendly and grey-hair friendly clientele.  An authentic Irish pub, however, would go out of business within a year, no matter what the regulars and the zealots insist.

What confounds me is when the zealots have travelled and still stick to their guns.  Trust me kids, I’ve been to many pubs in the UK and Ireland.  On the tourist path, many of them, sadly, are adopting the faux-pub Americanization because they, too, like money.

But leave your fellow Americans and your safe tour groups behind and go to the local joints.  How anyone can compare the pubs over there to the pubs in America is beyond me. We lack the artery-clogging food culture, we lack the beer culture, and we certainly lack the ability to sit quietly and drink and appreciate the moment without phoning 14 people and making rodeo hoots.

More and more, the pubs over there are being Americanized.  It’s actually a social concern for many folks. Maybe that’s what gets my goat.  Not just the blind insistence of authentic Irishness, but the fact that such feverish fantasies (along with the rest of America’s empty culture) has started to infect the world.

The day is coming when we will lose that pub culture forever to loud TV’s, pestering waiters, invasive hostesses, cliques of regulars, and mutual suspicion. Just because that’s what we, the American abroad, now expect.  Such is the power of our empire.

So let’s look at a few Irish-American pubs in DC and Maryland.  I slight Virginia because it’s across the Potomac Ocean and, as far as I know, nobody has journeyed to the other side and lived to tell about it.  There be dragons.

Montgomery County, Maryland.  The bustling DC suburbs that are (not so) quietly urbanizing and sapping workers and residents away from the city.  Not that I care, but it does allow for the breeding of interesting drinking and dining spots where, once, there were only Hot Shoppes, the last remnants of the diner culture, and weird bars with dirt floors.

I’ll just pick pubs out of my hat – in no way covering all of the faux-Irish joints.  Just the ones that I can tolerate.  Occasionally.

In Silver Spring, the premiere faux-Irish drinking establishment is McGinty’s, a cavernous, dim bar which just about successfully hides the fact that it’s a shopping mall bar.  The greatest enemy Mankind has known.

Thanks to the size, McGinty’s is quite comfortable for the drinker.  There are corners to hide in upstairs, and outdoor seating if you want to drink obsessively at 11am and scare suburbanites.

Dining-wise, McGinty’s prides itself on the authenticity of the menu, but actually presents the worst mock-Irish food I’ve had. Not that it tastes bad – I actually enjoy their dishes, and love their burgers – it’s just not the real thing.

Let’s see if we can create an Irishness scale. One to five, one being the worst, in three categories. Service, food, atmosphere.

In service, points are removed for fake accents, and the dominance and/or encroachment of American-style table-service seating as well as other examples of faux “authenticity,” such as pub quizzes and soccer nights playing, largely, to a clueless audience.  Points are awarded if there’s a lean towards bar service, or the place is just generally cool on some level. Points are removed for weak pours.

Food points are awarded on whether or not the food is close to what you could get overseas. That doesn’t mean you get a point for rasher bacon and blood pudding.  You only get points if you know how to actually prepare and serve it.

Atmosphere sort of plays into the service category, and vice versa. Points are awarded based on the nature of the clientele (frat boys, families, and the Temperance Union are negatives), as well as the general mood of the bar (e.g., servers who don’t bedevil you, the noise level produced by music or TV, the quality of live music, etc.).

A note on wait-staff:  I’m not opposed to wait staff, I just don’t like being trapped.  If you want to relax at a table by the bar, then it should be up to you to get up and order from the bartender.  With a waiter, you’ll go wanting.  You’re beholden to them.  You have to wait if your drink runs out, or they’ll pester you during a conversation about dessert, or they’ll vanish for a break when it comes time for the check.  All of this designed, in my opinion, to be a sub-conscious drive to flip the table and get rid of the pissheads like me.

McGinty’s Silver Spring, then: A 2 for service.  You have to face a hostess at the door (though they’re always easily dismissed), and you can’t sit at a bar table without collecting a waiter. I’ve encountered several put-on accents from wait staff, as well.  Perhaps an influence from the nearby Piratz Tavern, the Role-playing Games Club bar. Mixed drinks are always weak, and I’ve not noticed any regulars (as regulars tend to get better treatment in that department).  I’m sure they exist, but McGinty’s falls victim to its size and its shopping mall location.  There’s never a sense that you could become a regular there. McGinty’s gets a 2 for food.  It’s good, but it’s not at all close to the real thing.  At best, the “authentic” dishes are Irish-inspired designer cuisine intended for the gentrified Silver Springer.

They get a 2 for atmosphere, explained above.

That’s the best you’ll do in Silver Spring, so the next Irishness stop is Ri Ra, in Bethesda, MD.  There’s a loyal warrior-class of suburbanites who support Ri Ra, and I feel the need to tread carefully because I call many of them my friends.  But, as an “authentic” Irish pub, the place is sadly lacking. The “lower” bar is dominated by table-service seating.  It’s an island along the far wall with barstools and a precious few bar tables, which a waiter attends. The food is lacking and, outside of their excellent burgers and other American staples, bland and tasteless and, occasionally, eccentric beyond the level of enjoyment (I’m looking at you, “Irish Curry”).

The “upper” bar is the hangout spot. Though, again, the bar tables have waiter service. There’s some love that’s gone into the design of the upper bar, though, and I appreciate being separated from the regular diners. There’s a sense, in the upper bar, that everyone is there to drink and have a good time and not fucking order the children’s macaroni meal and, gosh, honey, those people over there are drunk.

Ri Ra, thanks solely to the upper bar, gets a 3 for service and a 4 for atmosphere.  They get a 2 for food. They’d move up in service if the upper bar went bar service only, as it’s obviously designed for. But, alas, you filthy yuppies like your slaves.

The only real competition for wincing, migraine-inducing Irishness in Bethesda is the Harp and Fiddle, the former Flanagan’s.  Flanagan’s was a somewhat centrally located basement bar that embraced drunks, mold, and rats.  And was secretly awesome.  The Harp and Fiddle is now a much higher brow establishment with patio seating serving north Bethesda.

In the move, both physical and towards greater respectability, the Harp and Fiddle has lost almost 100% of its character. The patio is nice, if you like slow service.  Otherwise, it’s become woefully generic.  Harp and Fiddle gets a 1 in every category.  It’s not a terrible bar, it’s just entirely unremarkable and not worth the hike from the Metro. The ultimate in generic Irishness.

I’ll continue tomorrow!

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