The Irish pub is one of many of the Emerald Isle's great gifts to drinking culture, and it's no surprise that its stylings are emulated all over the world, though few, if any, countries have embraced them with the fervor that America has. However, the notion of the "Irish bar" has become so ubiquitous that it can often take a wrong turn towards chains, nouveau gastropubs, and other choices sure to offend the sensibilities of anyone with even passing familiarity with what a true Irish pub feels like. In an effort to steer you in the right direction, our writers and editors (some of whom are upwards of 50% Irish!) assembled this lineup of serious drinking dens that deserve to carry the "Irish pub" mantle.
Proving that Doyle's doesn't have hegemony on the Irish pub scene in Jamaica Plain, the Behan is, as it so eloquently puts it, a "talking bar" with no TVs, games, or any other distractions to clutter up conversation. Sure, it has live Irish sessions, and other music, but the point of a place like Behan's is to have a couple of pints and hash out your issues. Or just sit quietly by yourself and sing "The Parting Glass" by The Clancy Brothers as you settle your tab.
Everybody loves The Burren: older Tufts students, Irish expats, dudes who just moved here from Cambridge to save money on rent even though it's not really that much cheaper. Everybody. For one, it checks all the Irish-pub boxes (hearty Irish eats? Proper pours of Guinness? A lot of Irish music?), and for two, it was opened by a pair of Irish musicians (Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello) and truly tries to honor its roots in song by featuring live traditional Irish music every night alongside a veritable smorgasbord of other genres.
Since 1933, this pub up in that frigid town where Rob Konrad played football has attracted a crowd. Though it takes its Irish knickknacks pretty far (the telephone booth for leprechauns outside, for one), the history of the place, free live music on the weekends, proper drafts, and Guinness-battered onion rings keep it on the list. Plus, it exists in the neighborhood of Tipperary Hill, in what used to be an almost completely Irish section of 'Cuse that includes a traffic light with green up top and red at the bottom, a result that came after Irish kids in the 1920s, angry that "the British red" was above the "Irish green," continually broke the light until the city switched it up. So that's pretty much the coolest story ever.
County Clare takes its Guinness very, very seriously -- to the point that the legendary brewery’s brewmaster says they pour the best pint in the whole of Wisconsin, which is no small feat. The pub itself is at once sprawling and cozy, with a main dining room offering up a stellar cottage pie and Guinness pot roast, while the Saint’s Snug offers up a tighter drinking experience and the main bar features a steady roster of Irish music. And if you down one too many pints, well, there’s a very nice hotel room waiting for you upstairs.
Not so much a cafe as it is a legendary local hangout, Doyle's has been around in one form or another since 1882 and is filled with more history than a particularly engaging episode of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, thanks to its pre-Prohibition bona fides and the revolving cast of Boston politicians and other known locals who frequent it (Mayor Menino even has a banquet room named after him). And, on top of choice Irish and local beers, Doyle's just happens to sit next to the Sam Adams Brewery, so you can often find it serving special, new, and different styles of Sam that no other places have.
Technically opened in 1996 by a couple of firemen, the building itself has a much more extensive history involving secret underground gangster escape tunnels and an ill-fated robbery attempt in the '80s when it was called O'Sullivan's (a couple of shotgun-wielding dudes didn't get the memo that it was a cop bar -- it didn't work out for them). The modern incarnation is a touch more subdued, but Jameson on tap and plenty of pints of Guinness at the ready make sure things remain interesting.
With all due respect to the great Kerry Irish Pub, Finn's gets the nod in New Orleans partially due to the fact that it was started by a couple from Belfast, but mainly because it's just an amazing place to watch English football and hang out and have a pint. Also, you should watch the video on its site of how its own football club came together after Katrina and helped link up and connect people who'd lost so much. It's damn (Mc)Cool.
From the fenced-in stone patio overlooking Lake Erie to the eye-catching stained glass backdrop behind the bar, The Harp is one pretty pub. Kind of like harp music, in pub form. But there's substance behind the style, like the live Irish music (not necessarily harp-based), the lineup of boxty (an Irish potato pancake-like concoction -- get it filled corned beef Reuben-style and be happy), and the glorious bit of Irish-American fusion that is a Black & Gold (half Guinness, half Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold).
When no less than Martin Scorsese takes a look at your bar and says to himself "this would be the perfect setting for Jack Nicholson to smash Leo's hand in my upcoming film about Irish gangsters," you know you have a fine establishment on your hands. Of course, on normal days you won't find many A-listers bellied up to the massive oak bar, but you will find plenty of shift workers and regulars who've been coming there for decades trading barbs with brogue-sporting bartenders. And that's how it should be.
Named for some moderately successful Irish writer, Baltimore's James Joyce continues in the grand Irish tradition of combining great literature and even greater drinking. You'll find plenty of the standard Irish brews to combine within the wood-paneled walls (or outside on the sunny patio -- SPF up all you fair-skinned folk!), but don't sleep on the house brew, James Joyce Golden, brewed for them by local craft mainstay Heavy Seas. They also know their way around a plate of bangers and mash, but consider saving room for the house ice cream, a vanilla base augmented with Bailey's and caramelized brown bread, doused in chocolate sauce.
Started as a one-room pub in 1978, McGurk's has grown into 20,000sqft of all-out Emerald Isleness, with a series of interconnected dining rooms and bars echoing with live Irish music nightly (as in, people come from Ireland to play here) as patrons mow through corned beef & cabbage, bangers & mash, and Baileys cheesecake (American fatness innovations FTW!). Oh, and if that wasn't enough room, it also has a 15,000sqft outdoor garden with a freaking waterfall. And three more bars, naturally.
Kells has been a fixture of downtown Portland since 1983, establishing itself as an essential spot for watching soccer in the morning long before the Timbers took over the town. It’s also been one of the most popular bars in the city for decades, with crowds packing into the cavernous, sprawling space for a taste of their Irish nachos while the night progresses from mellow to debaucherous with each sip. That popularity has springboarded into a sister brewery across town, but the real draw here is the city’s biggest St. Pat’s celebration, which transforms one corner of the City of Roses into something of a clover-hued Mardi Gras. Still, go in at the right time (Saturday morning), and you’ll still find the city’s most dedicated soccer fans sipping pints as the sun comes up. It’s a bar that wears a lot of hats, and wears them beautifully.
If the Hill was an ’80s comedy (stick with us here), local institution the Dubliner would be the straight-laced, lovable family man who’s been a respected fixture in the neighborhood for years. Kelly’s is the slovenly, lovable, rowdy, boisterous neighbor who moves in next door much to his neighbor’s chagrin, and wins everyone over with his gruff charms and killer parties. It’s a longtime rivalry, but we’re giving the edge to Kelly’s: it’s the Dub’s tipsier, divier, sweatier, more unpredictable frat brother. It’s got cheap pints, pork-slab sandwiches, and cheesy tots, but it also gets bonus points for its wall of Dublin Police patches, old-school beer bottles, and other ephemera you could spend hours staring at if you’re not too preoccupied with making out with a stranger. And when you’re done, well, you can go next door to resume being a respectable member of society.
Now well into its fourth decade, this Savannah institution with an enviable riverfront view is named for an 18-year-old Irish republican fighter who was executed in 1920 for his involvement in an incident that killed three British soldiers. There are no televisions. There is no Wi-Fi. There is, however, a steady rotation of Irish troubadours and folk musicians who play here on the regular in the pub's aptly named "Listening Room." There's also a strong military current running through the bar, with the upstairs "Hall of Heroes" paying tribute to servicemen. Don't leave without having a look around. Also, don't leave without having a whiskey.
One of those ornate, gorgeous Irish pubs that looks like a tornado hit County Clare and dropped a fully formed, lived-in, and beloved bar somewhere it didn’t belong, The Local is the real deal. In fact, it seems as if the place was full when that hypothetical tornado hit, as evidenced by the fact that that place has consistently sold more Jameson than almost any other bar in the world. The place is a woodworker’s dream home, with ornate decor and an elaborate bar keeping things homey. The fish & chips help the whiskey go down, as do the honey- and whiskey-glazed chicken shots, which are thankfully closer to a chicken finger than some weird-ass, salmonella-laden shot people take to prove they’re tough.
OK, so yes, it has been open since 1860. And yes, it was named after the Irish dude who ran the place and raised his 13 children above the bar. And yes, it does serve the only stout brewed in Ireland (no, not Guinness: O'Hara's Celtic Stout!), alongside two of its own beers (Real Ale and Genuine Lager) brewed special by Stoudt's. But what we're most excited about is the fact that it's got an entire 500-word paragraph in its "History" that just consists of the names of famous people that've been there, including "Brian Krause of Charmed" AND "Kerry King, lead guitarist, Slayer."
At New York's oldest bar (open since 1854), Light and Dark are your only beer options, the cheese plate comes with a very classy sleeve of saltines, and the wishbones high-wiring it above the bar were piled with so much dust the health inspector insisted they be sanitized. The service is perfectly uncaring and brusque, and yet, if you order one beer, you get two. So they are nice, or something. And since 1970, the place has even allowed women in. Crazy world!
Opened in the mid-'70s by a Dublin-raised retired Detroit police officer, The Old Shillelagh has remained a Motor City staple ever since. Now under a third generation of family ownership, the massive, tented St. Patrick's Day party is legendary, and the free shuttles to all the major Downtown Detroit sporting events and concerts make sure it stays appropriately rowdy the rest of the year.
Like most bars, one enters O'Malley's from the ground level. Unlike most bars, entering takes you down a succession of ramps as you descend into a series of cavernous limestone cellars that date to before the Civil War as part of the Weston Brewing Company. The main cellar of Missouri’s oldest bar reaches 55ft below ground and is large enough to accommodate multiple levels of seating and a stage for live music. Today, it's back to brewing its own beer in addition to pouring the expected Irish staples. You will not have any cellphone service. You will not care.
Sure, there are bigger and more well-known Irish pubs downtown in SF, but once the fog starts to roll in at dusk, you'd swear you were in Ireland when inside the Plough, thanks to its dark-wood interior, strongly Irish clientele, and a good chance that -- when there isn't someone playing traditional live Irish music -- someone will have just put on Christy Moore singing a Pogues song.
Given that the South Side Irish throw a separate parade to call their own, it naturally follows that there would be plenty of fine Irish bars on that side of town, but few can match the sense of history conveyed by Shinnicks. The impressive mahogany back bar was constructed in the late 1880s, and the Shinnick family has been running the joint nearly as long. George and Mary Shinnick bought the place in 1938 after the dust settled from Prohibition. These days their nine bartending grandchildren are still running it, as the Irish know how to be fruitful and multiply. Bring your thirst. Just don't bring your Cubs gear.