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 (20921 Davenport Dr., Sterling; 703-444-9796). 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.
Over the past few years, folks have gotten used to the idea that any bar or restaurant can serve as a makeshift dance studio -- just move some tables, bring in an instructor and offer an hour-long introduction to the basics of salsa or the Lindy Hop. These crowded drop-in classes probably won't turn patrons into Fred Astaire, but they might just spark an interest in the dance.
Here's a more exotic experience: Follow the lilting sound of Arabic music up the stairs at Meze (2437 18th St. NW; 202-797-0017) on a Sunday night after 10. In the Turkish restaurant's small lounge, under a wall-size photo of Istanbul's Galata Bridge, you'll find instructor Noor-Jihan leading what looks like an aerobics class full of belly dancers. Behind her, rows of students gamely attempt to copy every twist of the torso, craning their necks to watch as Noor-Jihan's bare feet trace intricate patterns on the tiled floor.
Some dancers wear hip scarves covered with beads and jingling gold coins, which flash and tinkle as they whirl. Others are dressed in loose-fitting street clothes and dance slippers. The loose ranks of students are filled with a wide range of ages, races and body types. Despite popular ideas about belly dancing (or Oriental dance, to use the preferred name), this is not just a crowd of lithe young women in halter tops. I've even spotted a few men learning the steps.
Traditional Turkish music booms from the speakers. As one song ends, another begins -- this time with a more modern, clublike beat under the soaring strings. Noor-Jihan turns, applauds her students and promptly resumes dancing, her arms gliding through the air.
In many other classes, the instructor spends a good deal of time talking students through the mechanics of the steps. Not here. "It's so loud [in the lounge], and I'm not," explains Noor-Jihan, a quiet woman known as Frances Trainor outside of the dance world.
Noor-Jihan has studied Middle Eastern dance for more than 15 years, traveling as far as New York and Cairo for workshops and intensive seminars. Teaching since 1993, she offers classes in Old Town Alexandria, Woodbridge and at Georgetown law school. But Noor-Jihan is better known for appearances at cultural events and area restaurants and clubs. She performs at Meyhane (633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-544-4753) on Saturdays and some Fridays. Last year, Noor-Jihan was a regular dancer at Meze's weekly "Turkish night." It was eventually canceled, but the restaurant's owners asked her to teach free classes. "It's not a proper dance studio, but it's a nice space," she says of the small mezzanine-level lounge, noting that the hour-long Sunday gatherings are "very informal," with a mix of veteran dancers and newcomers. "We have people who've been coming since March 2003. We have some who've been coming since last November. If we just have a bunch of regulars, we can do more [complicated moves]," Noor-Jihan says. "If I have a class where I know that there are beginners, I can break things down. We can go over things after class, or they can stop me at any time to go over something. . . . I think that if you're coming in for the first time, you can get the hang of things."