Complain all you want about new faux-Irish chain pubs, but like the budget deficit, they're here to stay. After all, "Scruffy O'Connor's" and "Molly Malone's" are found by the dozens in London and Dublin, and if pubgoers there can deal with them, so can you.
I'm surprised that it took so long for one to show up in Bethesda, of all places. Ri-Ra -- the name supposedly means "devilment" or "good fun" in Gaelic -- is part of a chain with branches from Charlotte, N.C., to Burlington, Vt., and they've certainly got the formula down.
Split into a country-style pub and a lavishly decorated restaurant, there are bars in both rooms, but most people will head for the pub, which is rather packed on weekends and at happy hour. The wood on the walls, ceiling and floor is well-weathered and worn, as if you were in a leaky old watering hole in Co. Mayo -- I'm sure some people must fantasize about that. Above the high pub tables and stools hang old photos of the Dublin Transit Union and old ads for cigarettes, even though you can't smoke. Bric-a-brac fills shelves beneath the bar and on overhead beams, and bookshelves are arranged just so. (Just the way a designer directed, I take it.) Everything was imported from Ireland if you hadn't guessed.
There's a larger, more dramatic bar down a few stairs in the opulent dining room, although it never seems as crowded. Decorated with etched mirrors and heavy red curtains from a Dublin theater, the room looks rather severe compared with the pub, but is far more comfortable.
Like many an Irish pub, Ri-Ra serves its Guinness as a proper 20-ounce Imperial Pint. When you order most draft beers ($4.50), though, they'll come out in Mini Me-sized pint glasses -- the size of a soda can. You'll think you're being ripped off. You may be tempted to raise a fuss. Don't. They are actually 16-ounce glasses. I'm not saying how, but I know.
-- Fritz Hahn (Oct. 20, 2003)