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THE EMERALD STYLE : Some Pubs Have the Luck to Be Green-Spirited All Year-Round

March 17, 1994|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

Back in the old country, St. Patrick's Day is still what it's always been: a religious holiday. On these shores, of course, the day has taken a different tack, becoming a raucous celebration of all things Irish and many things pseudo-Irish (green beer, anyone?), with sprawling parades in the Celtic strongholds of the East Coast and, more locally, copious drinking by folks who wouldn't know a shamrock from a shillelagh.

On St. Paddy's Day, virtually every bar, tavern and cocktail lounge fancies itself Irish for a day, blowing the dust off the old Dennis Day tapes and pulling the green streamers out of the storeroom. For some local public houses, however, being Irish is not a part-time occupation.

Even those pub owners who go beyond the ubiquitous Irish name above the door and shamrock cocktail napkins find that there's more to creating atmosphere than decorative detail. The danger is creating a sterile shell that approximates a pub in Ireland about as well as Disneyland's New Orleans Square approaches the grimy bustle of the real Bourbon Street.

In Ireland, pubs run the gamut, from the standing-room-only watering holes of downtown Dublin (some with names immortalized in James Joyce's "Ulysses") to the more relaxed country spots, darkened enclaves warmed by turf fires.

Some are being dragged, reluctantly, into the modern age with the controversial addition of such items as jukeboxes, TVs and (gasp!) video games, but even these blasphemies cannot detract from the essential draw of the Irish pub everywhere: conversation, known there as "crack," a word that obviously has a different connotation here.

Pubs are the neighborhood's social meeting ground, and denizens of American bars might be surprised by the wide range of ages interacting in an Irish public house. The conversation is lubricated by some of the best beers anywhere, Guinness stout being among the best-known. Also, most pubs serve lunch, hearty meals that won't be mistaken for gourmet cuisine but can be tasty and filling--and relatively inexpensive.

Judging local pubs by the standards of their Irish models can be tricky business--most try primarily to capture some of the spirit without worrying too much about slavish detail.

Orange County does not have a large, concentrated Irish population, as some cities (such as Boston and San Francisco) do, but it does have a scattering of Irish immigrants, some recent and some long-established. One way to compare bars is to find out where the Irish drink, and the long-running leader on that account has been the Harp Inn in Costa Mesa.

The Harp, home-away-from-home for many local Irish and a regular venue for traditional music, has been featured often in the pages of this newspaper, so we'll concentrate on other places in the county--including one up-and-comer that is challenging the Harp as the most "Irish" of the Irish pubs.

*

Spotting the Shamrock Bar and Grill along busy West Coast Highway in Newport Beach can be a bit of a trick, tucked away as it is among a row of restaurants and other businesses with only a modest sign to mark it. Inside, it can look at first glance like any number of neighborhood taverns, cozy but unremarkable.

That impression soon gives way, however. First, there's the Irish lilt coming from both sides of the bar. Owners Christina and Frank Duggan are from Tipperary, and the crowd they draw is heavily Irish. Says Christina, "Sometimes people who come in here for the first time ask me, 'Did they make you talk like that to work here?' "

The fare distinguishes the Shamrock as well. Bartender Mike Cathal knows how to pull a pint of Guinness, one with a dark, rich body and a dense foam head to rival any in the area. It's an art that takes years to perfect and several minutes to execute, so be patient--it's worth the wait. It should be noted that the Shamrock uses the imperial pint (20 ounces) rather than the U.S. version (16 ounces).

There's also a full pub menu, starting with a traditional breakfast: imported Irish bacon and sausage, black and white pudding, eggs and brown bread. For lunch, traditional Irish fare is offered alongside burgers and sandwiches.

The Shamrock opened in August, 1992. The goal, said Christina Duggan, is to promote Irish culture (they sponsor a soccer team in the Hibernian league) and to provide a gathering place. "We get quite a mixture, actually," she said.

"It's a lovely atmosphere, and I meet a lot of other people from Ireland," said Harry Jones, a Shamrock regular who emigrated from Dublin to Newport Beach a few years ago. "I just like Irish bars."

A handful of customers--who asked not to be named--admitted they had switched their allegiance from the Harp, mostly because that bar had become too popular, particularly on weekends. But Duggan downplayed any competition between the two pubs, saying she thought that more Irish pubs was better for everyone.

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