Here, Real Irish Eyes Are Smiling
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, October 1, 2004
It used to be so easy to open an Irish pub. Anyone could take an old bar and add dark wood and maps of Ireland to the walls, put Guinness on draft and U2 on the jukebox, then add some Irish staff and live musicians for character. Soon, the place would be packed with folks nursing their romantic versions of the old country, chatting at the bar and singing along to "The Wild Rover."
In the last decade, though, some larger Irish pub chains upped the ante. Instead of building "traditional" pubs and letting them age, they decided it was easier and more buzzworthy to buy an entire pub in Ireland, pack up the interior and ship it to America. Then, in Boston or Philadelphia or Las Vegas, the old bars were reconstructed lock, stock and old wooden barrels to create an "authentic" atmosphere.
Neither approach sits well with Justin Holohan, a native of County Kildare, southwest of Dublin, and general manager of the new O'Faolain's Irish Pub. Americans have gotten used to the stereotypical "shamrocks and leprechauns" Irish pubs, Holohan says, but as tourism increased, "when people went to Dublin, instead of having the old guy singing 'Danny Boy,' they'd find some upbeat, trendy, modern pub."
So when Holohan and Ireland-based partner Patrick Whelan took over an Italian restaurant in a bland Sterling strip mall earlier this summer, they sought to create a compromise, combining a traditional community-based watering hole and restaurant with a "more modern Irish setting." While the result is something of a mixed bag so far, there's potential.
O'Faolain's is hampered by its space, a large single room compartmentalized into pub and dining areas by walls that stretch to -- but don't reach -- the high ceilings. One nook holds small tables and darts, and there's a large outdoor patio. The covers of dozens of great Irish books, including Bram Stoker's "Dracula," Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds" and Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan," hang on the walls.
Holohan says the management team resisted the conventional wisdom that they "needed" to bring an old bar and furniture from Ireland, choosing to use a local craftsman to build the attractive woodwork and shelving. (It's a bit of a change for Whelan, who also owns an award-winning country-style Irish pub in Philadelphia's fashionable Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. The Bards sports a thatched roof over the bar and a prominent fireplace.)
Here, you'll hear authentic brogues from the bartender pouring Guinness and Magners Cider, the chef whipping up bangers and mash and fish and chips in the kitchen, and the servers carrying food to the restaurant floor. Irish musicians playing fiddles and penny whistles hold forth on Sunday evenings. A digital jukebox holds everything from the Beatles to Belfast indie-rockers Ash.
Bartenders are friendly and quick to converse with everyone at the curving bar. Regulars and newcomers alike can expect to be asked how they've been, how they heard about the place, how the food is. Glancing at the Notre Dame game on a flat-screen TV leads to a discussion of college football.
Of course, this friendliness means that the staff might be in a conversation when your glass is empty, and you have to work to catch someone's attention. But when the bartender gets to you, he's so chatty and apologetic that you forgive him. Mostly. That's okay with Holohan, who looks for outgoing staff. "It's the most important thing," he says. "I can teach you to pour a pint of Guinness, but I can't train you to be nice."
Holohan, who previously worked as the general manager of the convivial Ireland's Four Provinces in Falls Church, met "Paddy" Whelan through mutual friends in Ireland. (O'Faolain is a Gaelic translation of Whelan.) Whelan was interested in opening a second restaurant and pub, and Holohan persuaded him to consider Loudoun County. "Out here, it's all chain restaurants," Holohan explains, adding that he wanted to create a place that could be a "focal point of the community."
That's where O'Faolain's seems to be succeeding. On a recent Saturday evening, growing crowds of couples and girlfriends arrive at the bar, many greeting bartender Barry McMahon by name. A local rugby team celebrates on the patio. One customer proudly tells Holohan he's brought his girlfriend to the pub for the first time. This is the kind of atmosphere that can't be imported with 19th-century knickknacks.