On the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day 2001, I have an important millennial question:
What happened to the leprechauns?
Used to be, the begorra buggers were dancing their happy jig on every other barroom wall, splashing mugs of green beer amid meadows of marshmallow shamrocks. The height-deprived imps were the official symbol of the blessed holiday.
This year, though, when you stop in for a quick one at any of the 20 or so Irish pubs between the rivers in Center City, you’ll find hardly a one of the lucky charmers.
It’s as if they never existed!
In fact, leprechauns are a dirty word inside the city’s new breed of Irish pubs. At woodsy, handcrafted bars where the staff speaks with a brogue, the dancing demons have been summarily banished with the brutal efficiency of the Taliban militia.
I’m not even sure you’re allowed to wear your old Notre Dame sweatshirt at some of these new Irish pubs.
“You won’t find any leprechauns on our walls,” proclaims Ken Merriman, general manager at Fad (pronounced f’doe), the beautifully appointed Irish theme pub at 15th and Locust streets. “It’s just not part of the true Irish pub experience. ”
Likewise at the Black Sheep, on 17th Street near Spruce, co-owner James Stephens proudly says leprechauns and shamrocks were never a part of the bar’s design. “We were mainly looking to create a comfortable place, with good food,” he says. “Not a bar with shamrocks on the wall. ”
But even as these bars and others turn their noses up at those kitschy, old symbols, they’ve adopted a whole other set of Irish cliches.
At Fad, it’s ceramic tiles and woven Celtic patterns. At Black Sheep, it’s shepherd’s pie and a dark-stained bar.
At the Irish Bards (2013 Walnut St.), it’s whiny Irish music and a solemn homage to Joyce and Shaw. The Plough and the Stars (2nd and Chestnut streets) was supposedly based on the 1,400-year-old Book of Kells.
“It’s the latest Irish formula,” says Fergus Carey, who owns Fergie’s (1214 Sansom St.). “Ten years ago, it was Houlihan’s. Today, it’s ‘authentic’ Irish.
“You staff the place with Irish people, serve an Irish breakfast and serve a pint of cider,” he says. “It’s all just a formula. It’s like, once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. ”
Whether it’s faked or sincere, the new breed of Irish pub is today’s hot barroom concept – bigger than sports bars, trendier than brewpubs.
Several companies will sell you an entire pre-fab Irish pub (“Today’s special: the Galway”), from the stucco walls to the properly yellowed photograph of Brendan Behan. Fad, for instance, was built by the Las Vegas-based Irish Pub Co., which offers an entire catalog of Gallic signs and fixtures.
No leprechauns and shamrocks, of course.
They’ve been firmly replaced with another fabled image from the misty isle:
The perfect pint of Guinness Stout.
In a measure of success that even beer giant Budweiser must envy, the rich, dark stout has emerged as the singular symbol of the classic Irish pub. Its nitrogen taps and carefully manicured foam are a familiar part of the landscape. Its signs and mirrors are so inescapable that some bars that don’t even carry the brand still advertise it gladly. (The Irish Bards would be nothing more than bare walls and empty glasses without Guinness merchandise. )
Much of that is a tribute to the marketing geniuses at Diageo PLC, the London spirits firm that also owns Baileys Irish Cream, Gordon’s gin, Johnnie Walker whisky, Smirnoff vodka and Cuervo tequila. Twenty years ago, Guinness was a quaint Dublin brewery with a small but devoted following outside of the U.K. Today, it’s a behemoth brewed in 51 countries, accounting for 80 percent of all the world’s stout production.
Unlike Anheuser-Busch, which sells most of its product in bottles and cans, Guinness is largely a draft brew. That means it must be consumed in a bar.
Thus, Guinness spends millions advertising a distinctly Irish pub culture. It trains bartenders in the “art” of the so-called proper pour – a mesmerizing cascade of tiny bubbles forming a creamy moonlike head perfected by the publicans of Dublin. It promotes hugely popular barroom events, like the Great Guinness Toast. Each year, it gives away an Irish bar to some lucky drinker.
Guinness, in other words, puts customers onto barstools. And Irish pubs put money into Guinness’ pocket.
It’s a kind of synergy that last year led a handful of Center City bar operators to boycott Guinness. Upset over the brewery’s apparently close business relationship with newcomer Fad, the independent owners have switched to smaller, competing stouts, like Beamish and Murphy’s.
“I think we’ve discovered that you don’t need Guinness to be an Irish pub,” says Michael Driscoll, co-owner of Finnegan’s Wake (3rd and Spring Garden streets, Northern Liberties). “Guinness is just a stout, and there are other stouts that are just as good. ”
Driscoll, who is president of the Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia, doesn’t bad-mouth Fad, but others do.
In one advertisement, O’Neal’s (3rd and South streets) owner Tom Mooney heckled, “Fadon’t be fadooled by the new Fadennigan’s! ”
And Mark O’Connor, who runs a pair of competing Center City joints called the Irish Pub, says, “They’re contrived. It’s nothing more than the Planet Hollywood of Irish pubs. ”
On its surface, though, I think Fad pulls it off. This is a handsome bar, featuring comfy nooks and quirky antiques. It feels like you’re in Dublin. The beer is silky smooth.
But when you try to examine one of those quaint, “authentic” glass medicine bottles, you discover it’s been epoxied to the shelf.
The decor – like the Guinness itself – is just a prop, just like the leprechauns and shamrocks of yesterday.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Victory Storm King Imperial Stout.