Are you drinking in a real Irish pub?
On St. Patrick's Day, nearly every bar pours Guinness and cloaks itself in shamrocks. But is that enough to be an Irish pub?
This is no matter for idle pondering while the foam drops from your stout. In fact, it was the central theme of the first American conference of Irish Pubs Global, held in Philadelphia last spring.
That's right, Irish pubs now have their own industry association, and why not? Scribble these figures on the back of your beer coaster: $2 million a year in revenues for an average Irish pub, multiplied by 1,200 full-blown Irish pubs in America.
I'll do the math for you. It's an astounding $2.4 billion in annual sales — which means that, if it were one company, Irish pubs would be around the 700th largest business in America, about the same size as the New York Times or Sirius XM Radio.
That's a lot of bangers and mash. Which is where I started when I attended the conference — the food.
Obviously, the menu is a big factor in Irish pub "authenticity" (a word that gets tossed around a lot by pub owners, despite critics who say many of them are phony and contrived).
Sysco, the giant food services company, was on hand with a line of Irish products, including pre-cooked bangers (sausages), Cashel blue cheese and John McCann's steel-cut Irish oatmeal. Other companies offered samples of Irish ham and assorted jams.
Yet outside of Shepherd's Pie and Guinness Beef Stew, your basic Irish pub menu looks like it could be from any American sports bar: heavy on mozzarella sticks, wings and nachos.
That's because "Irish cuisine" is a contradiction of terms, for all a good Irish pub really needs is unpretentious, hearty food that soaks up the alcohol.
There should be plenty of that, too: Bottles of Jameson, Bushmills, Tullamore Dew and John Powers should be front and center.
From the taps, there's still only one true option. "Guinness should be your number one seller," said Dave Magrogan, one of the convention organizers who runs the Pennsylvania-based Kildare's Irish Pub chain. "If Miller or Bud are your number one seller, you're probably not an Irish pub."
Not all Irish pubs are the same. Dublin's Classic Irish Pubs, one of the many international firms that sell Irish pub designs, offers several flavors, including The Country Style, The Victorian and The Celtic, with decorative floor tiles and murals that capture "the essence of the Irish people, their roots and their attitude to life."
"Décor is number one," Magrogan told me. "You can't just put a shamrock on a wall and say it's Irish. You need antiques, posters and authentic Irish items."
Next is the staff. "Your people have to be genuine and warm, not fake or scripted," Magrogan said. "You can have a pub that looks beautiful, but it's boring and not inviting. You want a staff that welcomes guests like long-lost friends."
And then, there's the name. The Guinness-branded "Irish Pub Concept" has an online list of more than 400 (Durty Nellie's, The Cliffs of Moher, MacCarthy's) and helpfully suggests "to create the illusion of history, '& Sons' can be added to the name."
Still, that's not enough, so I turn to Bill Barich's wonderful "A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub" (Walker, 2010). His perfect Irish pub embodies "the virtues traditionally associated with Ireland: kind and gentle, polite, good humored and devoted to the spoken word in all its base and exalted forms."
Sounds nice — and, yeah, a pint of stout and a shamrock for St. Patrick's Day works for me, too.