Only in America will you find a menu that consists of Guinness, shepherd's pie, and Irish car bombs and instantly think "authentic Irish pub." Add soccer on the TV and baskets of fish and chips, and an American might claim they're in a bona fide English pub. That's not to say these statements don't hold some truth, and I particularly don't mind a car bomb once in a while. But it's hardly an Irish import. According to legend, the Irish car bomb was first crafted by Connecticut bartender Charles B. Oat, who created the drink in 1979 for St. Patrick's Day. Suffice it to say, the drink is not exactly celebrated on the Emerald Isle.
Over the past few years, we've seen several English and Irish pubs open doors with a completely different mind-set. Take Gerry Kieran, owner of Seanachai Irish Pub and Social Club on Johns Island, for example. "A majority of people want the same old shit," said Kieran, who wants his patrons to experience an environment that they would call their second home. "Traditional Irish and English pubs have a lot in common. Mainly, they act as second homes for most people, as the weather is so bloody miserable over there."
Seanachai, which has become a favorite of Johns Island locals, opened its doors in 2011 as a members-only club. "I didn't want this to become a college bar. I wanted it to be a true locals hang out, and so far that's what it's become," Kieran says.
He also wanted his pub to be as traditional as possible. There are no TVs and, initially, Seanachai didn't offer any food at all. Occasionally, a food truck would set up shop in the parking lot, but there was no food in-house. "Traditional pubs don't serve food," said Kieran, "but I knew I wanted to add a kitchen at some point." He did just that by turning the Seanachai office into a kitchen earlier this year. But don't expect Shepherd's pie with a Guinness pairing. "This is home food. It's what families would have for dinner before or after going to the pub," said Kieran.
The Seanachai menu is small, but the food is truly outstanding — think croquettes filled with curried cauliflower, cottage pies overflowing with chicken and mushrooms, and crispy potato cakes (boxties) piled high with house-made corned beef and cabbage. There are Irish pudding and onion jam boxties and fish and leek pies. The roasted carrots and parsnips are coated with honey, mustard, and coriander, forming a shiny glaze. Root vegetables never tasted so good.
The extensive Irish whiskey list stands out as one of the best in the Lowcountry, so it's no surprise that Kieran is a member of the Charleston Brown Water Society (full disclosure: I'm a member too). But what makes Seanachai unique is the lack of the single biggest Irish staple: Guinness. Instead, the house beer is Victory Donnybrook, an Irish dry stout brewed right here in the United States. There's not a single beer that's brewed in Ireland on the menu, as the entire draught board pays homage to the American craft. "l'd rather support the smaller regional breweries," Kieran says. "I like Guinness in Ireland, but, to me, it doesn't taste the same here. I was spoiled in Ireland. I want to serve something fresh."
Things couldn't be more different in Park Circle where you'll find bustling crowds taking down imperial pints of Guinness while watching soccer at Madra Rua, which has been holding it down as the Best Authentic Pub voted by City Paper readers for the past seven years. The local Irish pub offers standard bar fare like burgers and Caesar salads, but nothing compares to a steaming bowl of Irish stew with fresh soda bread or a big plate of corned beef and cabbage.
At Madra Rua, owners Robert Spencer and Stephen O'Connor deliver everything you'd expect to find in an American Irish pub menu — think savory Shepherd's pie, fisherman's pie, and a worthy basket of fish and chips. On St. Patrick's Day, Montague Avenue gets blocked off and the Guiness flows.
English-style pubs are similar to the Irish counterparts, but also unique in their own ways. Owners Scott London and Dan Wenz of the Griffon downtown don't have any ties to England, other than Scott's last name, but when they bought the pub after 13 years in business, they decided to make minimal changes since the pub had become the go-to watering hole for many locals, especially those from the food and beverage industry. While they do serve a nice pour of Guinness, the bar has a heavy focus on local and regional craft brews, which is actually one of the few changes London and Wenz made. From the kitchen, you'll find fried chicken and shrimp, loaded salads and sandwiches, with the only true favorite from across the pond being fish and chips.
Over in Mt. Pleasant, Robert Walker — whose family descends from English and Irish ancestors — turned J. Paulz into My Father's Moustache. The English pub attracts soccer fans and pool hustlers alike. Being the sports pub that it is, My Father's Moustache is fitted with pool tables, a shuffle board, dart boards, and several TVs, and they open as early as 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays for English Premiere League and European league soccer matches. They're pouring Fuller's ESB and have a full lineup of St. Peter's bottles. On the food front, you'll find English staples like Shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, and fish and chips, and they're all worth a visit. The creamy whipped potatoes, plump sage sausages, and sweet onion gravy make one hell of a dish, and the fish and chips are easily a contender for best in town. On weekends the pub has become a go-to brunch destination with benedicts, breakfast sandwiches, and an English breakfast consisting of a fried egg, banger, bacon, vegetables, and potato cakes. There's also the Widow Maker, a mound of thick cut, spiraled chips topped with sausage gravy, rarebit cheese, bacon, and two fried eggs that will cure any hangover.
Fish and chips is easily the most popular dish in England, just as fried chicken is in the South. And while fried chicken shops seem to be the latest trend in Charleston, a fish and chips shop is slated to open in North Charleston in just a few weeks. At the age of 19, England native, Adam Randall, moved to Pennsylvania where he worked in a fish and chips shop his dad opened. A contractor by trade, Randall has always wanted to own his own business so he decided to move to Charleston and pick up where his father left off.
Randall is just weeks away from opening The Codfather, a traditional fish and chips shop, in a space that was once a bar in the Navy Yard. "The location picked me," Randall said. "It'll primarily be take-away, but there will be seating for 12 to 14 inside, with a handful of seats outside," he says.
As for the food, Randall adds, "It will be old-school, original food — good hearty English food." The focus will be fish and chips with the use of both cod and haddock. Randall promises the batter will be made in-house every day. He'll also serve meat pies — like steak and kidney and chicken and mushroom — jumbo sausages, and sides like mushy peas and mash.
To start, Randall plans to focus on gaining a following around the Navy Yard, but ultimately he hopes to add a true English-style bar with English ales and growler fills very soon. "This area has a lot of potential," he says. "The big economic boom is coming." We hope he's right. If his fish and chips shop is as good as we think it's going to be, we could see the next big food wave Charleston: fried chicken of the sea.