But please, avoid green beer. That’s just wrong.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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 ($13.00). 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fish and Chips and Corned Beef photos by Michael Wessel; County Clare photo by John December.