Pub's the Same, Only Different
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, Sept. 30, 2005
IT'S THE END of an era: After 20 years pouring pints of Guinness and hosting rock and folk bands (and suffering through innumerable versions of "the Unicorn Song"), Flanagan's Irish Pub, which bills itself as the oldest bar in Bethesda, closes its doors forever on Oct. 9.
The small, well-worn, cellar-level tavern wasn't done in by the smoking ban or a lack of patrons. Like its neighbors at the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Woodmont Avenue, Flanagan's is being razed and replaced by condos.
"We always knew [the closing] was possible," says Nugent, another native of Belfast, who arrived at Flanagan's 16 years ago and worked his way up to manager and, four years ago, an owner. When the guys found out last year that they'd have to leave, Nugent says, "we wanted to stay in Bethesda. We were looking at other places outside of Bethesda, but all our staff had been with us 10 years or longer, and the customers are here."
The perfect fit, it turned out, was about three blocks away at a restaurant previously known as the Red Heifer and Cottonwood Cafe. Nugent, McDonagh and partner Mac McTigue had their new space, dubbed Flanagan's Harp and Fiddle, open about five weeks after signing the lease, giving them a few weeks of overlap "so we could steer people over here," McDonagh laughs.
Although they have knocked down a few walls and added Celtic designs to others, the Harp and Fiddle doesn't seem that much different than the restaurants previously located there. Compared with Flanagan's, though, it's like night and day. Large windows look onto the street, and a patio with space for about 40 lies just outside. Inside, the focal point is a huge bar, surrounded by high tables and stools, but smaller dining areas in the back make it clear there will be an emphasis on food, at least early in the evenings. The rear dining room shows the balance the owners have in mind: Handsomely decorated with wood paneling and stone accents, it has a projection screen that can be raised discreetly to the ceiling. After the original Flanagan's closes, Nugent plans to move the dartboards over but hide them inside tasteful cabinets until after dinner, when the china disappears and the darts begin to fly. A raised platform with dining tables will eventually be converted into a stage for live music.
Instead of the usual Guinness posters, McDonagh says, artistic family members from Ireland are coming over to hang their own watercolors and landscapes. Some old mementos will find their way over from Flanagan's, McDonagh says, "the portrait of President Kennedy, and the Flanagan's mirrors with the logos, so that people know where they are."
Actually, he says, "we're going to take the bar from Flanagan's and put it outside and put the mirrors behind it, so you can sit at Flanagan's bar on the patio."
While Nugent and McDonagh wax nostalgic about the old space, they keep stressing the advantages of the Harp and Fiddle. The previous occupants left a smoker, which Nugent has already started using for venison and duck, moving well beyond the Flanagan's staples of wings and Shepherd's Pie. They also hope to lure back some smoking customers with the patio. Business at Flanagan's declined dramatically after the smoking ban, McDonagh says, as customers seemed reluctant to leave their beer at the bar and climb a flight of stairs to have a cigarette.
One door closes, and another one opens.