In Ireland, the pub is the center of the community: the old-fashioned diner, the coffee shop, the place where people meet, talk and have a good time. In Sterling, a trio of Irishmen aims to create that same kind of congenial spot.
Like many other bedroom communities, Sterling has lacked that kind of neighborhood locale. Gathering places are likely to be any of the dozens of chain restaurants clustered along Leesburg Pike, and the time together might be spent waiting for a table.
Paddy Whelan, Justin Holohan and Emmet Gallagher hope their pub and restaurant, O'Faolain's, near the Regal Plaza theaters at Countryside, offers nearby residents a more convivial alternative. They have transformed a sprawling suburban Italian-restaurant-turned-raucous-nightclub into a comfortable, clubby space that is inviting for families and singles.
O'Faolain is the Gaelic precursor of the name Whelan, and Paddy Whelan is the main investor. He owns a similar pub and restaurant, the Bard's, in Philadelphia. Holohan and Gallagher are veterans of other Irish pubs in the Washington area; both have managed Ireland's Four Provinces, in Falls Church. The three opened O'Faolain's in June.
Gallagher said they chose the Sterling site specifically because of the lack of neighborhood restaurants. They converted the old DJ booth into an area for the servers, covered up the massive speakers, took down the disco ball, stained the wood dark and carved a friendly bar area from what was the dance floor.
To give the place a real Irish family touch, they brought over Holohan's brother Damien, who has cooked in some of Ireland's best hotels, to head the kitchen. The result is a casual family restaurant with comfort food that would make your Irish grandmother proud -- and envious. And the restaurant takes reservations.
The menu is long and accommodating. There are specials for children and lunch, brunch, happy hour and late night selections, in addition to the regular dinner menu. The most expensive item on the dinner menu, strip steak, is $20, and there are many entrees for $10 or less.
The servings are large. The food is hearty but rarely heavy. Even the traditional Irish brown bread has a light texture and an almost nutty taste. It's a fitting base to velvety smoked salmon, presented at lunch as a sandwich. Order one portion and split it as a stunningly good appetizer.
The boxty, which the menu describes as Irish potato cakes, are light but savory, enhanced by a stuffing of corned beef or chicken. The Kinsale chowder is brimming with chopped clams, potatoes and bacon in a creamy base, and presented not in a dainty cup but a huge bowl.
Mussels are a house specialty, fresh and briny. The appetizer portion, served with slices of brown bread, is more than ample for a main course.
There are more sophisticated dishes, such as grilled salmon with an Irish whiskey glaze, but my guests and I were drawn to Irish classics. The shepherd's pie -- minced meat slow-cooked with carrots and onions, then baked in a gratin dish with a topping of mashed potatoes -- is homey and flavorful. The Guinness casserole, a huge plate of beef stew cooked in a sauce accented by Guinness stout, is the ideal dish for a cool fall night.
So is the corned beef and cabbage -- tender slices of corned beef and the most wonderful, buttery cabbage you can imagine. The dish is served with a selection of three Irish-made mustards, all tinged with different traditional spirits, and that old standby, Grey Poupon. Stick to the Irish selections.
The chicken pot pie also fills a large gratin dish: sweet chunks of white meat chicken and vegetables in a light cream sauce and topped with flaky puff pastry. It's another great choice.
Among O'Faolain's desserts, the only one made in-house is the bread pudding, served warm with an Irish whiskey sauce. On one visit, the bread pudding was dense; on another, its consistency was almost mousse-like. Both were more than worth the calories.
The wine list is small, and there are five Irish brews on tap. Although the service isn't always polished, it's always welcoming.
O'Faolain's 20921 Davenport Dr., Sterling, 703-444-9796. Reservations recommended on weekends. Appetizers at lunch, $4-$10; main courses at lunch, $7-$13; appetizers at dinner, $4-$12; main courses at dinner, $8-$20. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m.; bar food, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Wheelchair accessible. www.ofaolains.com.
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