Irish pubs: A comfortable place to gather (with photo gallery)

Bill McDonald knows the obvious — a few hours inside an Irish pub means Guinness, a corned beef sand
Here’s to you: John Patrick Maloney holds a fresh pint of Guinness at Katie O’Byrnes in Schenectady.
Here’s to you: John Patrick Maloney holds a fresh pint of Guinness at Katie O’Byrnes in Schenectady.

Bill McDonald knows the obvious — a few hours inside an Irish pub means Guinness, a corned beef sandwich and maybe some shepherd’s pie.

There is another, more subtle reason people visit places rich in green and orange allegiance to the Emerald Isle.

“When we were over in Ireland in 1998, we noticed the Irish pub was the gathering place,” said McDonald, whose family owns Pinhead Susan’s tavern on North Broadway and Liberty Street in Schenectady, plus the city’s Stockade Inn and Van Dyck restaurants. “We talked to a lot of the locals, and they would have dinner and go to the pub. Not because they were drunks, but because that was their gathering place. They didn’t have golf leagues or bowling leagues, there were no TVs. That was their meeting place.”

McDonald wants people to reach an Irish level of comfort inside his tavern. So do other men and women who own pubs in the Capital Region that cater to Irish tastes and sensibilities. All say taverns with links to Ireland have a special ambience found only in Irish taverns.

McDonald helped open Pinhead Susan’s — named for Susan Duggan, who was identified as a “pinhead” by her sister in graffiti written on an Amtrak train station wall in 1981 — in 1999. When an Irish bar passes muster as a comfortable meeting place, word spreads quickly.

“Once you get that vibe, it’s the people,” McDonald said. “Everybody’s Irish, especially around this time of the year. Everybody likes to celebrate.”

Friendly neighbors

Pinhead Susan’s was designed with European style in mind. There are stone arches in the front room, light sconces on the front of the building, large rectangular windows with shelves for Irish mementos. People rest their glasses of Guinness, Harp and Smithwick’s and their elbows on the deep green Connemara marble bar.

Irish taverns get a little busier during March. The 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, always attracts customers in a celebratory mood.

“The seasonal aspect is a big thing,” McDonald said. “Spring is on its way; we’re done with the snow. The whole thing with cabin fever is kind of behind you and you’re out. It’s a good way to get into the spring and into the nice weather.”

Pinhead’s and another city Irish tavern, Katie O’Byrne’s on Wall Street, near the Amtrak station, will conduct annual daylong block parties on Saturday to warm up for St. Patrick’s Day. McDonald — and members of the Maloney family who run Katie O’Byrne’s — do not see their businesses in direct competition.

“We’ll have 3,000 people at both places, people will walk back and forth,” McDonald said. “People will come out no matter what, as long as it doesn’t snow. There will be a lot of people in the downtown area, and that’s what we want for our community.”

John Patrick Maloney, who owns Katie O’Byrne’s, said his family is part of the atmosphere at the 4-year-old pub.

“There are a lot of Irish taverns that don’t have any meaning behind the names,” said Maloney, a retired Schenectady police officer. “This place is named after my father’s mother, her name was Kathleen O’Byrne, she came over from Ireland when she was 17 through Ellis Island. And the majority of everyone who works here is either family or close friends.”

Katie’s portrait hangs above the bar. Flags and art are also on the brick walls.

“The majority of all the stuff that’s on the walls here I collected in Ireland,” Maloney said. “All the things in the windows, all the figurines, those are all my mother’s — Kathleen Maloney — that she collected over the years. She does all the decorating in here.”

O’Byrne’s also carries the big three Irish draft beers. “We just put on what we call Katie’s Irish Red, it’s made by Davidson Brothers in Glens Falls, named after my grandmother,” Maloney said.

Like McDonald, Maloney does not see a problem with two Irish bars in such close proximity.

“The McDonalds are very good people. We always borrow from them or they borrow from us, so it works out fine,” Maloney said.

Family considerations

Saratoga Springs also has two Irish bars a couple blocks from each other. On Lake Avenue, The Parting Glass has been open since 1981. The Irish Times, on Phila Street, opened in 2009.

“I think what makes an Irish pub real is the Irish people in it,” said Niall Roche, who owns the large Phila Street building — the former home to O’Callahan’s, Saratoga Brew Pub and the Trattoria restaurants — with his wife Nikki. “I’m Irish, we have an Irish bartender on staff and when it comes summertime, like I did this past summer, I had six of my cousins over here and it was just fantastic. Work? Of course! They were all working — that was the whole idea.”

Roche, who began working in New York City Irish pubs and restaurants in 1998 and whose family has run hotels in Ireland, also thinks different things on the menu and on tap make a difference in an Irish tavern.

“We have Magners Irish cider here; I was adamant about getting that,” Roche said. “We actually had to force the smaller distributor to make sure they carried it. I said, ‘Trust me, we’re going to be ordering enough of it for you to supply it.’ So they said they would and they’re glad they did. We’ve got Irish people coming into the place, they know it and they’re delighted to see it.”

Like Pinhead Susan’s and Katie O’Byrne’s, The Irish Times brings tastes of Ireland to the table. Roche believes Irish cuisine has received undeserved bad raps in the past. “There’s a lot more creative cooking in Ireland today,” he said, adding his kitchen in Saratoga Springs offers traditional Irish breakfasts, Irish sausage rolls and Irish spring rolls.

Roche believes the name of an Irish bar can help describe the atmosphere.

“I thought, ‘We have to keep it simple with Irish in the name,’ and I always liked the name Irish Times. It’s clear it’s an Irish pub and with the Irish Times, we linked it to The Irish Times newspaper. It also means Irish people having good times out and about, having a drink. I thought it brought it all together, people history and culture.”

Two Irish bars within three blocks is not a problem for Roche.

“How many Italian restaurants are in this town or any other town?” he asked. “You go down to New York City, there are five Irish pubs in one block.”

‘I feel at home’

Patrons of Irish taverns say their favorite places have to have certain things in stock. “It’s got to have Guinness,” said John Brewer, 60, of Ballston Lake. “It’s the drink of the Irish.”

“And it can’t be pretentious,” said Cathy Brewer, John’s wife. “It’s got to be OK to be 57 and wearing a baseball cap because you’ve just ridden your horse. Some places, I might be uncomfortable going to because I’m dressed like this. Here, it doesn’t matter.”

“I’m from out of town, I like to go to a place that’s got friendly people, safe environment, family traditions,” said Dan Edwards, 54, seated at Katie O’Byrne’s Monday afternoon. “I feel at home.”

Edwards, who lives in Drums, Pa. (near Wilkes Barre) but works in Schenectady, also comes for the storytelling.

“J.P.’s father [James P. Maloney], he tells stories.” Edwards said. “I come here and get something to eat every day, I’ll leave. But if he comes in the place, I’m here for an extra hour. He can tell the stories and every one of them are true.”

Joan Desadora of The Parting Glass said an Irish tavern must have a lived-in look.

“No one walks into an Irish bar and expects to see a brand-new place, all shiny brass,” she said. “It’s got to have the warm feeling of old. One of the reasons I fell in love with this place is the bar is 100 years old, it’s beautiful wood. Our doors were very important. Even though we couldn’t afford it, we had custom-made doors in the Irish style. It gives a sense of welcome and that’s important.”

Like other local Irish taverns, The Parting Glass has family members on staff. Desadora’s three daughters — Susan Thomas, Linda DiBlasio and Kathleen Hearn — all work at the bar.

Desadora is also happy to provide all the space people need to conduct their social meetings. The Parting Glass offers a large front room with bar and dining tables; a theater-like hall in the back for concerts and a dart room.

The tavern offers 36 beers on tap and more than 100 brands in bottles. Desadora said her new “table taps” are 4-foot high cylinders that hold two pitchers of Guiness. A frozen “bullet” slipped into the towers keeps the beer cold.

“You have to constantly look for new things,” Desadora said, “but I always have to keep remembering what’s traditional in an Irish pub.”

Welcoming flags

In Albany, Carol Ann Micare is preparing for one of the biggest days of the year at McGeary’s in Lincoln Square — hundreds will visit after Saturday’s 60th annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown.

McGeary’s lets people know of its affiliation — Irish and American flags are in place above the entrance.

“It’s a big thrill when people see the flags,” said Micare, the pub’s manager. “Then they come inside and see the Guinness logos. . . . You’ve got to have that warm, comfortable feeling. It’s got to be like a corner pub. When you walk in, you feel like you’re at home.”

For people who want to get into the Irish spirit early, here are three recipes shared by staffs at Pinhead Susan’s, The Parting Glass and Katie O’Byrne’s.

Irish Mac And Cheese

Recipe courtesy Pinhead Susan’s, Schenectady.

3 teaspoons butter

2 teaspoons shallots

2 cups heavy cream

1⁄2 cup Swiss cheese

1⁄2 cup cheddar cheese

1⁄2 cup Dubliner cheese

31⁄2 cups cooked pasta

1 pound corned beef brisket cooked, then cut into cubes

In a pot, cook butter and shallots until soft, but not brown. On medium low heat, add heavy cream and cheeses, whisking together until they are combined and thick. Once it is thick, turn off the heat and add the pasta and the brisket cubes.

Serves 4 to 6 people

Guinness Black Bean Soup

Recipe courtesy The Parting Glass, Saratoga Springs

1⁄2 cup celery

1⁄2 cup carrots

1⁄2 cup white onions

1⁄2 cup red peppers

16 ounces Guinness beer

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup of beef stock

7 cans (15.5-ounce size) black beans

1 boquet gani (tied bundle of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Sauté celery, carrots, onions and peppers until soft. Place in stock pot, then add the Guinness, chicken and beef stock, black beans and boquet garni. Bring to a boil and then simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Katie O’Byrne’s Shepherd’s Pie

Recipe courtesy Katie O’Byrne’s Irish Pub Restaurant, Schenectady

For pie filling:

2 pounds ground beef

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 cup diced onion

1 cup diced carrot

1 cup diced celery

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon pepper

1 teaspoon rosemary

1 teaspoon thyme

1 quart beef stock

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons water

For mashed potatoes:

3 pounds peeled potatoes

1 cup sour cream

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Place peeled potatoes in pot of boiling water and cook until fork tender. In a stock pot, brown ground beef with garlic and drain off excess fat. Drain potatoes and transfer to bowl. To the stock pot of ground beef, add vegetables and all seasonings. Cook for five minutes until vegetables begin to brown.

Add sour cream, butter and seasonings to potatoes and blend until creamy, reserve until later. Add beef stock to the meat and vegetable mixture and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the liquid is reduced by one-quarter. In a small bowl, combine cornstarch and water, add the slurry to the meat and vegetable mixture and stir to incorporate. Let cook another five minutes until mixture becomes thick.

Evenly distribute filling into six scallop dishes. Top each scallop dish with the mashed potatoes. Bake at 450 degrees until golden brown.

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