There are basically two types of Irish bars, Michael Thompson says: "The college frat bars . . . and the authentic pubs where people go for conversation."
Thompson, 52, an ardent home brewer, says the place he's planted himself on this day, Bards, at 2013 Walnut St., is his favorite.
There are close contenders, says Thompson, a freelance editor and German-language instructor who lives in the Graduate Hospital area.
"I like Blarney Stone on South Street, Plough and Stars at Second and Chestnut. But I come here because it feels the most authentic."
"In fact, I think this is the best Irish bar in the city."
Everybody probably has a favorite. But in the run-up to St. Patrick's Day Saturday we pause to reflect on what makes an Irish pub authentic.
Irish-owned? Traditional dishes on the menu? Irish beers and whiskey? Dartboards? Loyal regulars?
Irish-accented bartenders serving Guinness and Harp, Celtic tunes on the sound system, and shamrock decor are optional add-ons. And every guy bar worth its testosterone must have wings, nachos, at least one lite beer on tap, and big-screen sports.
Bards has all of the above.
It's a cozy spot that seats 50 (80, standing) with oak tables and church pews and worn wooden floors. A replica of a thatched cottage decorates one wall and, throughout the place are Guinness ads so old that they attract bidders. (Sorry, not for sale.)
Dublin solicitor Patrick T. Whelan started Bards in 1995, endowing it with his mother's secret recipes for bread pudding, Guinness Irish stew, and a shepherd's pie made with real cream and thick butter in the mashed potatoes. These are recipes he solidly refuses to share, by the way, which is why we're offering recipes today from the cookbook by Darina Allen, Irish Traditional Cooking (Kyle Books).
On St. Patrick's Day, Bards will also offer those dishes, plus a corned beef and cabbage special and Eggs 'n' Kegs, which is a full Irish breakfast of eggs, rashers, Batchelors brand baked beans, black and white pudding, and toast for $10, with a pint of Guinness for $4. Temple University's Irish dancers will perform at noon.
But as Thompson wisely notes, "An Irish bar has to be an Irish bar all year round, not just on one day."
For Whelan, "being Irish year round means emphasizing the cultural contributions." So an entire wall opposite the bar at Bards is lined with framed book jackets, showcasing great Irish writers, poets, playwrights, and actors. All are from Whelan's own library back in Dublin. And that element is part of what stirs and directs the conversation at the bar.
"I think one thing we always wanted to provide was an ethnic experience," says Whelan, who returned to Dublin a few years ago to become a barrister (solicitors are office-based; barristers are in court most of the time and wear wigs).
He comes back to the States periodically. General manager John Condren, who is from County Carlow, and Condren's wife, Dorean, a South African, are in charge day to day.
The couple met while interns in food and hospitality at a hotel outside Dublin. Dorean Condren has a Dutch accent, but lived and studied in Dublin for three years, so that counts for something.
"I know enough to know what pubs are like in Ireland," she says, rattling off a list of other must-have menu items: sausage rolls, bangers, fish and chips.
Not making too many changes is another element of authenticity. But Whelan's wife, Regina, is gluten-intolerant, and that awareness prompted another menu change to keep up with the times. Now a roster of made-to-order gluten-free options is on the menu, too.
Batter for the fish and chips, for example, is made with rice flour and gluten-free beer from Bards (same name, no relation). There are gluten-free rolls for the burgers, gluten-free shepherd's pie, and Still Riding brand gluten-free pizza.
But the biggest menu change is in the works. The Condrens have hired a chef who, they say, will use fresh, local ingredients. Anything frozen or precut is outta here. The as-yet-unnamed new chef will be butchering meat and filleting whole cod on site, making his own stock from the bones.
"A lot of people think the Irish can't cook," Dorean Condren says. "So we really plan to start promoting our food."
Thompson's favorite is the house-made chili.
But as long as the bartenders (Mike, John, and the Other John) keep rotating the taps at the bar, the volume on the television is off, and interesting people are willing to strike up a conversation, he's happy.
"The essence of an Irish pub is in the discussions that take place," Thompson says.
Whelan would be pleased to hear that.
"When we opened," Whelan said in a telephone interview, "we didn't have television, because we wanted people to talk to one another. And to our great surprise, it's been a grand success."
Beef and Guinness Stew
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 pounds lean stewing beef
3 tablespoons oil, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 large onions (about 10 ounces, coarsely chopped)
1 large garlic clove, crushed (optional)
2 tablespoons tomato paste, dissolved in 4 tablespoons water
11/4 cups Guinness
3/4 cup carrots, cut into chunks
Sprig of thyme
1. Trim the meat of any fat or gristle, cut into 2-inch cubes, and toss in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Season the flour with salt and pepper. Toss the meat in this mixture.
2. Heat the remaining oil in a wide skillet on high heat. Brown the meat on all sides. Add the onions, crushed garlic, and tomato paste to the pan, cover, and cook gently for about 5 minutes.
3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a casserole, and pour some of the Guinness into the skillet. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the caramelized meat juices in the pan.
4. Pour the mixture onto the meat in the casserole, with the remaining Guinness; add the carrots and the thyme. Stir, taste, and add a bit more salt if necessary.
5. Cover and simmer gently until the meat is tender, about 2 to 3 hours. Scatter the stew with lots of chopped parsley and serve with boiled potatoes.
Per serving: 301 calories, 35 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 87 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Bread and Butter Pudding
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 tablespoons butter
8 slices good-quality white bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup raisins soaked in hot water and then drained
2/3 cup superfine sugar, divided
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 cups milk
1/4 cup cream
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1. Butter the bread, then break it up into small pieces and put in an ovenproof dish.
2. Add the raisins. Mix one-quarter of the sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle over the bread.
3. Whisk the eggs with the remainder of the sugar and add the milk, cream, nutmeg, and ginger. Pour over the bread, put the dish in a water bath of hot water, and bake in a moderate oven, 350 degrees, for about one hour.
4. Serve warm with lots of softly whipped cream.
Per serving: 277 calories, 10 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 141 milligrams cholesterol, 197 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Makes 8 servings
6 to 9 Yukon Gold potatoes (2 to 3 pounds)
1 small savoy cabbage
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup, plus 1 tablespoon, boiling milk
1. Scrub the potatoes. Put them in a saucepan of cold water, add a good pinch of salt, cover, and bring to a boil.
2. When the potatoes are about half cooked (about 15 minutes) strain off two-thirds of the water. Replace the lid on the saucepan, turn the heat to low, and let the potatoes steam until they are fully cooked.
3. Remove the dark outer leaves from the cabbage. Wash the rest and cut into quarters, removing the core. Cut each quarter finely across the grain. Cook in a little boiled salted water until soft. Drain, season with salt, freshly ground pepper, and a bit of the butter.
4. When the potatoes are just cooked, put the milk in a pan on the stovetop and bring to a boil. Pull the skins off the potatoes, mash quickly while they are still warm, and beat in enough boiling milk to make a fluffy puree.
5. Then stir in about the same volume of cooked cabbage and taste for seasonings.
6. Serve immediately in a hot dish, with the rest of the butter melting in the center.
Note: Colcannon may be prepared ahead and reheated later in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for about 20 minutes. Any leftover colcannon may be formed into potato cakes and fried in bacon fat until crisp and brown on both sides.
Per serving: 194 calories, 5 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 81 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Contact Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @marderd. Read her recent work at philly.com/diannamarder.