No reasonable person visits an Irish-American pub expecting great eats. That's our long-standing maxim, based on years of research -- and we're standing by it, recent visits to the Gateway stalwart Flannery's Pub notwithstanding.
This, despite the pub's 2005 takeover by an East Fourth Street developer. Since then, operations overseer Trifecta Management Group (which also runs the nearby Corner Alley and 4th Street Bar & Grill) has been busy upping the entertainment ante at the rambling space, remodeling, redecorating, and adding amenities such as billiard tables, a fireplace, patio, and a pair of semiprivate booths.
A long L-shaped bar serves as a focal point, and plenty of brass, frosted glass, and Guinness posters channel the ostensibly Irish vibe. Service with a smile seems to be the directive for the impossibly cheery staffers. And on Friday and Saturday evenings, a small movable stage provides a platform for a rotating crew of talented Irish musicians.
But if service, amenities, and ambiance have gotten a boost since Trifecta took over, the food remains pretty much the same. Other than the gummy, gluey boxty, rife with a surfeit of dried thyme, nothing was downright horrid. On the other hand, the big, all-day menu holds few surprises, with a mainly predictable lineup of sports-bar noshes -- wings, chicken tenders, and nachos, among them -- supplemented by soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches, and so-called "pub specialties" like strip steaks, sautéed grouper, and chicken fettuccini.
Among the ample "built-to-share" starters, fried foods dominate, including the deep-fried Southwestern Rolls, stuffed with avocado, black beans, and cheddar; and the Boyne Valley Rolls -- basically, deep-fried Reuben burritos. At lunch, a quartet of giant mushroom caps, stuffed with a low-wattage mélange of finely chopped broccoli and cream cheese, then dipped in Guinness batter and popped into -- what else? -- the deep fryer, offered satisfying heft and crunch, even if the 'shrooms themselves were barely cooked through. And a stackup of oversized onion rings, in a similar Guinness batter, proved properly crisp and golden, if predictably greasy.
When it comes to entrées, a half-dozen "traditional" Irish offerings range from that unfortunate boxty (essentially a thick potato pancake), improved not a whit by a side of underseasoned, sautéed cabbage, to a solid rendition of Guinness-battered fish 'n' chips, served with creamy coleslaw and long, slender, frozen fries. We skipped over the corned beef and cabbage, as well as the shepherd's pie; but a big soupy portion of Irish stew made for a filling, if unthrilling, midday main event.
Dessert brought more of the same. While warm and reasonably moist, a massive slab of relatively flavorless bread pudding hardly seemed worth the calories. A shallow swath of sweet, gooey chopped dates wandered down the middle, but was too inconsequential to boost the flavor quotient. And while a cloud of cinnamon-spiked whipped cream added requisite sugar and fat, garnishes of shaved white chocolate and caramel drizzles seemed mainly superfluous.
Of course, the biggest problem with this lunch visit may have been the booze -- namely, we weren't drinking any. This we rectified on the following Friday night.
Starring nearly two dozen brews on draft, all priced at $5 for a 20-ounce imperial pint, the beer list is a whopper; among the attractions, find Strongbow Cider, Hoegaarden, and Murphy's Stout, as well as local Great Lakes' faves Burning River and Dortmunder Gold. Add another 20 bottled imports, like John Courage ($5) and Grolsch ($7), and a worthy collection of Irish whiskey and single-malt scotch (unfortunately listed sans prices), and there's plenty of cause to shout Sláinte!
In fact, there may be nothing more effective than Flannery's well-poured pints o' Guinness and a rousing rendition of the New Barleycorn's "King of the Fairies" to make a pedestrian corned-beef sandwich suddenly pop. Sure, a companion was halfway through his indistinctly seasoned clam chowder before he could identify what he was eating. But consider the beer's salutary effect on the bread-crumb-dominated meatloaf, further enhanced by maple-smoked bacon, rich brown gravy, and sides of tender-crisp veggies and buttery colcannon, a blend of mashed potatoes and finely chopped cabbage. By that point in the evening, it tasted like the height of luxe.
Unfortunately, not even first-rate music and drink could elevate our dessert -- this night, a gargantuan brownie sundae, complete with ice cream, a smidgen of chocolate sauce, and a shower of chocolate sprinkles -- above the merely mundane. A few inquisitive bites, then we pushed it aside, the better to concentrate on musicians John Delaney and Alec DeGabriele, as they wrestled every note of mirth and pathos from their repertoire of Irish gems.
With the volume high, the lights low, the beer flowing freely, and even the servers taking part in an extremely silly rendition of the Irish Rovers' "The Unicorn," this Gateway mainstay suddenly seemed like the most pleasant joint on earth.
Which, of course, is the corollary to our maxim: Reasonable people visit Irish-American pubs for the song and the drink. And in that regard, Flannery's doesn't disappoint.
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