Fact #1: There are dozens of Irish pubs in the D.C. area.
Fact #2: It’s impossible to get people to agree on what, exactly, constitutes a “real” Irish pub. Live music, a homey atmosphere, good “craic” — all important, for sure. Irish accents behind the bar — even better.
The two most recent arrivals on the local pub scene won’t make this discussion any easier, and to add some spice, both are owned by native Irishmen. Samuel Beckett’s in Shirlington is an enormous two-level Guinness palace. The Limerick Pub is a one-room Wheaton corner bar where those who wander in are often greeted by the sounds of live fiddles and guitar.
Ceilings two stories up, huge bookshelves lining the walls, a pair of working fireplaces, a mezzanine bar overlooking the rest of the pub — Samuel Beckett’s blows the dark-and-cozy Irish stereotype out of the water.
Though several hundred people could squeeze in comfortably here, clever design keeps Samuel Beckett’s from feeling too much like a barn. A restaurant with tables of dark wood occupies the front of the space, near the huge glass windows looking onto Campbell Avenue. A glass partition screens the curving main bar from the rest of the room and makes the pub area seem more intimate, especially when you can pull up a barstool and chat about soccer with one of the bartenders, several of whom have authentic accents.
If this area looks full, follow the narrow passage at the right end of the bar to the back, where there’s a tiny eight-seat bar and a lounge area with dinner tables and couches. My favorite place, though, is the mezzanine bar, which over looks the main bar and is reached by a grand staircase. There are only a dozen stools up there, along with a small group of tables, but you can’t beat the view.
The outdoor areas are almost as generously sized, with room for dozens of diners. Skip the sidewalk tables on busy Campbell Avenue and ask for the seats facing the wide pedestrian walkway on the side of the building.
The drafts at Samuel Beckett’s mix your traditional Irish and English taps with American microbrews, including the local Flying Dog. The pub’s menu is one of the better Irish selections in the area; the potato skins are topped with Irish cheddar and crunchy Irish bacon, mussels are cooked in Kilkenny Ale. But I find myself drawn to the lamb burger, perfectly seasoned and topped with rich, creamy Cashel blue cheese.
Overall, service has been friendly — if a little harried on weekends — and crowds range from couples on double-dates to groups of women knitting at the bar. Even the “slow” nights rarely feel empty, thanks to a popular pub quiz (Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.) and half-price burgers on Monday night.
The name is a nod to the neighboring Signature Theatre, though a more theater-literate friend jokes that the place is a little too ostentatious for a playwright whose later works were known for their minimalism. We laugh. I’ll have another Kilkenny.
2800 S. Randolph St., Arlington. 703-379-0177. www.samuelbecketts.com.
If Samuel Beckett’s is palatial, the Limerick Pub is homey. The draw is live music, darts, Guinness and whiskey, which sounds pretty run-of-the-mill unless you know that the landlord is Neil Foley, an Irish-born fiddler who has spent the past three decades performing around Washington with Garryowen, Celtic Union, the Irish Breakdown and other traditional groups.
That explains why Friday and Saturday nights are booked solid with fiddle-and-guitar duos and trios, and both Saturdays and Wednesdays find groups of musicians gathered around a table in the far corner of the room, jamming on traditional reels and folk tunes. Anyone can bring an instrument and join in.
Decorated simply with old black-and-white photos of Ireland, most of the Limerick’s personality comes from the people sipping beers at the bar or playing darts — the local league takes over both lanes on Wednesday nights. Bartenders encourage the welcoming atmosphere — every single one has introduced themselves, asked whether we lived in the area and called most of the patrons by name.
Unlike many pubs this size, the staff talks up the Irish whiskey collection as much as what’s on the taps. I’m partial to the peaty Connemara single malt or the smooth, assertively malty Redbreast; both go down really well after a dinner of flaky cod and chips or the filling reuben, made with house-cured corned beef. (One bartender warned me off the bangers and mash because “I don’t know about you, but I like my sausages with a little bit of spice.”)
The Limerick, named after Foley’s home county, has become an asset to the community, and the owners are trying to introduce patrons to the real taste of Ireland — they’re arranging a trip to the Emerald Isle in October that will include brewery and distillery tours, sightseeing and plenty of pub visits.
11301 Elkin St., Wheaton. 301-946-3232. www.thelimerickpub.net.