Every St. Patrick’s Day, scores of bar-goers don green, pretending they’re Irish for a night. Incidentally, plenty of bars claim Celtic roots 365 days a year, and what determines an “authentic” Irish pub is a grayish-green area. From the whiskey selection to the ideal Celtic date night, we’ve scoured Milwaukee’s Irish bars to see what makes them stand above the rest on that holy green day. Although there are many more solid options at your disposal March 17, pick one with good craic (more on that later) and enjoy a day of Irishness. But please, avoid green beer. That’s just wrong.
Irish pubs such as Brocach are far easier to find in Milwaukee than that elusive four-leaf clover.
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
Celtic Cultural Center
On the occasional Tuesday night, O’Donoghue’s Irish Pub (13225 W. Watertown Plank Rd., Elm Grove) offers Gaelic language instruction. On Wednesdays, it’s traditional dance lessons from the Milwaukee Set Dance Club. And Sunday means Irish music sessions. If you like your Irish pub to provide more than just culture in bottle form, then OD’s is the place to be. Luckily, good Irish whiskey, excellent corned beef and Guinness are everyday occurrences. (DM)
Irish-Inspired Bar Gimmick
According to legend, if you kiss the gray Gilly Stone that sits proudly in the middle of the back patio at McGillycuddy’s (1135 N. Water St.), you’ll have good fortune. The legitimacy of it hasn’t been confirmed, but if you’re sipping drinks in the popular beer garden, you’re certainly off to a good start. (DM)
Bartender with the Gift of Gab
Jamie O’Donoghue has seen a lot during his 33 years in the bar business. And he’s got enough stories to hold court over the thirsty patrons perched atop barstools at O’Donoghue’s Irish Pub (13225 W. Watertown Plank Rd., Elm Grove). All that experience (and surely, his Irish ancestry) has made the affable O’Donoghue the James Joyce of the Milwaukee pub scene (without the deep and cryptic symbolism). (DM)
Although the Irish have a hard time defining “craic” (pronounced “crack”), we understand it to be their word for a fun atmosphere. Fittingly, Mo’s Irish Pub (142 W. Wisconsin Ave.) is more entertainment destination than quaint Irish pub. But that’s OK. Say what you will about Mo’s, but know that the massive space Downtown is a rare lively spot on Wisconsin Avenue after the work whistle sounds. The place bustles when it hosts live music as well as before and after shows at the Riverside Theater. It’s big and bold (and looks like a big Guinness billboard), but it certainly isn’t boring. (DM)
It takes more than a few Guinness posters, a smattering of Gaelic phrases and a bodhran hanging on the wall to make a bar an Irish pub. Champion’s Pub (2417 N. Bartlett Ave.) nails the pub feel because it isn’t trying too hard to do so. Bartender Tom Mills welcomes you with a warm “hello” whether you’re a regular (the place teems with them) or not. Bar banter is friendly, and the atmosphere is welcoming. Plus, Mills knows Gaelic and used to live in Ireland. Score two more for Champion’s. (DM)
Fish and Chips
They say you can’t cross Dublin without passing a pub. The same may be true for Milwaukee and Friday-night fish fries. But only one Third Ward establishment serves up homemade fish and chips daily with an Irish inspiration. The Irish Pub’s (124 N. Water St.) offering consists of Harp-battered North
Atlantic cod, thick-cut pub chips, rye bread, curry slaw and tartar sauce. Add lashings of salt and vinegar, and you’ll feel closer to Galway Bay than Lake Michigan. ($13) (LM)
Corned Beef and Cabbage
The popular dish at Taylor & Dunn’s public house (10365 N. Cedarburg Rd., Mequon) requires batches of brisket weighing 150 pounds that spend eight hours in an oven absorbing plenty of liquids. After overnight refrigeration, each batch is reintroduced into a simmering pot of the original cooking juices before being piled onto a plate. “We pride ourselves on taking the extra time,” says owner Andy Sylke. With a half-pound of meat and a quarter-head of boiled cabbage, portions rival those of a Dublin carvery. Andrew Dunn, an Irish immigrant who owned the property in 1842, would be proud. ($12.99) (LM)
Water of Life
When a friend of The Pub (114 N. Main St., Oconomowoc) returns from a trip to Ireland, fans of rare Irish whiskey have reason to celebrate. The place, whose owners hail from Sligo, offers more than 25 different Irish whiskeys, but Green Spot is one of several that can only be bought in Ireland. It occasionally finds its way onto The Pub’s shelves, but check back often because the bottle might be empty before you can say uisce beatha (whiskey; literally, “water of life”). (LM)
A Harp and the Sun
There’s nothing quite like the iconic back deck at The Harp Irish Pub (113 E. Juneau Ave.). On warm weekdays, Downtown workers escape their cubicles and head to the outdoor oasis overlooking the Milwaukee River. The Harp’s attentive servers make sure your pint is always full. All you have to do is sit back, soak up the sun and watch the sea of humanity as it files in. (DM)
Built for Gulliver
BuBs Irish Pub (N116 W16218 Main St., Germantown) claims that it “might be” the world’s largest Irish pub, with 15,000 square feet to back up the boast. So who are we to argue? Plenty of space makes it a popular spot for pints and cover bands with big followings. Plus, BuBs is also the only Irish bar we’ve seen that has Skee-Ball. That has to count for something. (DM)
The Corned Cure
The folks at McBob's pub and grill (4919 W. North Ave.) are kings of corned beef. And that juicy, flavorful stuff creates arguably the best Reuben in town ($8.75). The corned beef hash? Ridiculous. It’s no mushy concoction begging for an egg to make it edible. Nope, the hash at McBob’s is the chunky variety that retains the deliciousness of the original brisket. This slightly greasy manna is a surefire cure for any post-St. Patrick’s Day “flu.” (DM)
Short Attention Span
The beauty of Trinity Three Irish Pubs (125 E. Juneau Ave.) is that if you’re not digging the Celtic vibe where you are, all you have to do is stroll a few feet for a different scene. The place is three separate, but connected, bars. Foy’s is a large space with a long rectangular bar and plenty of wooden booths. The smaller Duffy’s is a cozier pub with a fireplace and bookshelves. Gallagher’s connects the two and is the place to go when the bookend bars get a little too crowded, which they often do. (DM)
Guinness was meant to be poured into a pint glass, not a pot. But when it comes to introducing the age-old taste of Ireland to a dish, it’s hard to argue with BrocacH Irish Pub’s (1850 N. Water St.) Guinness-steamed mussels. The Prince Edward Island shellfish are cooked in Dublin’s signature stout with fresh herbs and a touch of cream. It’s a refreshing change of pace from weighty Reuben rolls and corned-beef covered nachos. The perfect pairing? Guinness, of course. ($13) (LM)
Fiddles of the Future
On Friday and Saturday nights, you’ll find the likes of Celtic-inspired duo Frogwater, Belfast guitarist and singer Ian Gould, and Irish Fest regulars Reilly and Jeff Ward making Waukesha’s House of Guinness (354 W. Main St., Waukesha) a hotbed for contemporary Irish music. The place often fills up, so when ticketed events for big names such as U2Zoo come across the bill, act fast. (LM)
Before Red Bull and vodka, there was Irish coffee – a balance of energy and inebriation. There are three simple ingredients, but Brocach IrisH Pub (1850 N. Water St.) gets it right. John Powers Irish whiskey is mixed with coffee and topped with hand-shaken cream. The cream is thick enough to pass as whipped, but soft enough to mix, which we recommend to tone down the bite. Brocach isn’t shy on the whiskey. (LM)
Celtic Date Night*
Couples hoping to cuddle up to a Guinness or stare lovingly into each other’s bloodshot eyes while downing large amounts of Jameson never have a hard time finding a cozy spot in Paddy’s Pub (2339 N. Murray Ave.). The dark lower level has more nooks and crannies than the Cliffs of Moher, but the atmosphere is decidedly more hospitable.
The Reel Deal
Come Friday night, you won’t find a mundane stage, microphone and “Molly Malone” singalong at County Clare Irish Inn & Pub (1234 N. Astor St.). Its weekly music sessions start at 9:30 p.m. and fuel the tapping of toes into the wee hours. Musicians gather around a table near the bar, wield their fiddles, wooden flutes, tin whistles and bouzoukis, and churn out reels, jigs and hornpipes. As in Ireland, it’s about melody, expression and conversation. A few tunes in, you’ll forget about that “Whiskey in the Jar” cover from the night before. (LM)
Burke’s Irish Castle (5328 W. Blue Mound Ave.) owner Sean Burke has kept much of the décor that’s been there since Derry Hegarty’s Irish Pub opened in the same spot in 1972. The Celtic artifacts adorning the walls include a map of Ireland that hung in an elementary school classroom in Cork and old street signs that were acquired (stolen?) in Ireland. Burke took ownership in early 2012 and has big shoes to fill. He’s running one of the most iconic pubs in town. Derry, a founding father of Milwaukee’s Irish pub scene, passed away in 2011. But he keeps an eye on the place from his grave across the street in Calvary Cemetery. (DM)
There are plenty of reasons to try Tuesday trivia at Lucky's (789 W. Layton Ave.). The winning team gets a $30 gift certificate, it’s free to play, and there’s a good crowd – usually around 10 teams. The kicker: Trivia night is also 39-cent wing night, and – brace yourself – Lucky’s won the 2012 WingFest Milwaukee “Flaming Lips Award” for best-tasting spicy wing. (LM)
It’s the name of the burger challenge at MUlligans (8933 S. 27th St.) that’s part Irish, all glutton. Eat a 3-pound burger with a pound of corned beef and a half-pound of cheese in an hour (a pound of fries, too), and you get the burger free, plus a Mulligans gift card. Not into burgers? Try the 8-pound shepherd’s pie. (DM)
Scrum On In
John Duggan used to be a player and, later, head coach for the Chicago Lions Rugby Club. Now, he co-owns The Irish Pub (124 N. Water St.) and takes pride in its atmosphere, which he says is sport-savvy and social. On its five TVs, the pub offers the big rugby and soccer matches, and it opens early for the rugby matches that start on Irish time. “It’s not about shoving yellow and green shots down the bar when the Packers play. It’s about more civilized people enjoying the finer things." We’ll toast a Guinness, pinkies raised, to that. (LM)
Fish and Chips and Corned Beef photos by Michael Wessel; County Clare photo by John December.
*The "Celtic Date Night" blurb was accidentally excluded when this story was originally uploaded online.