By Renée LiButti
Pubs are not new to Las Vegas. They’re a growing cultural phenomenon here. There are at least 18 Irish-themed pubs in and around the city – one even debuted earlier this month.
Why are they so popular? Simply put, pubs offer a friendly and exuberant atmosphere for all ages. The word “pub” is the shortened form of “public house,” which refers to a community gathering place that combines conversing and sharing stories with hearty food, flowing drinks and good music. Pubs continue to be a mainstay of Irish social life. You’ll find them on every street in every city, town and hamlet throughout the Emerald Isle.
While all of the pubs in Las Vegas dole out the “craic” (the Irish word for fun and enjoyment), there are a few that excel in bestowing a real experience to guests based on the traditions of Ireland.
The city’s newest pub, Rí Rá in The Shoppes at Mandalay Place, tops that list when measured by an authenticity barometer. Owners David Kelly and Ciaran Sheehan go to great lengths to re-create the rich traditions of Irish pubs in America. This is the 12th pub they’ve opened in the United States. Close friends since the age of 14, the two grew up on the south side of Dublin and spent their time in many of the esteemed pubs on Baggot Street, like Toner’s and Doheny & Nesbitt.
“We used to hang out in those pubs and thought how cool would it be to take an actual pub – not a reproduction-type thing or an imitation in any way – and move it…just bring it over and drop it in,” said Kelly, who spent 12 years working in marketing for Guinness. “Our vision was to source everything and have it be purely salvage. Nothing would be reproduced, so the pubs would be authentic to the core.”
In trying to create something real and not Disney-esque, there were many hurdles. Kelly and Sheehan had been looking for a location for Rí Rá in Las Vegas for several years. When a space was finally selected, they not only had to create the infrastructure for a full-service bar and restaurant, but also fill an immense 7,000-square-foot area with salvage from Ireland.
“Everything in Ireland is smaller, so it forced us to break the pub into little intimate areas,” said Sheehan, who boasts a broad architectural background. “Each one is populated by a different piece of millwork and has a different story.”
For instance, there’s a Victorian area that features cut glass and gilded mirrors from turn-of-the-century Dublin. The bar, originally built in the 1880s and then rebuilt in 1921 after having been destroyed by fire, came from Foley’s in West Cork. Plus, an eight-foot-tall, 500-pound plaster statue of St. Patrick, which stands on a pedestal watching over guests, dates back to 1850. In the whiskey area, you’ll find another bar with a glazed jewelry cabinet built in 1900 as well as oak flooring from a distillery. And the music room showcases artifacts from the Olympia Theatre, the oldest theater in Dublin.
“You won’t see brass plaques saying ‘this is this’ and ‘that is that.’ It’s more about the pub unveiling itself to guests as part of their experience,” said Sheehan.
All of these pieces were painstakingly restored and assembled – cut down to size, modified or added onto to fit the Las Vegas layout for Rí Rá – at their storage yard, a pasture in Brittas Bay, Ireland. Everything was then shipped overseas in four 40-foot containers.
“It definitely would be easier to build from scratch and start anew, but the finished product, I think, is a testament to the efforts of all the craftsmen we have working on it,” said Sheehan. “We are truly restoring and retooling pubs for the next generations.”
Of course, bricks and mortar are only part of the equation. The quality of the food, drink and entertainment, along with the hospitality of the staff are also important to providing a true Irish experience. Kelly and Sheehan make sure that things in Las Vegas are done exactly as they would be in Ireland. On the menu a traditional Irish breakfast is offered all day. Fish and chips are served only when there’s fresh fish.
“We take Irish items and really try to deliver them at another level,” said Kelly. “Our corned beef is fantastic. It’s in-house brined for 12 days, so it’s unique and really delicious.”
The staff – many of whom are Irish nationals, thanks to a work experience program for hospitality graduates – are also rigorously trained in whiskey proficiency and pouring draft Guinness. What’s more, guests at Rí Rá can listen to up-and-coming bands flown in directly from Ireland every night of the week.
There are other pubs in Las Vegas that have a similarly high authenticity factor. Perhaps none embodies the spirit of Ireland better than Nine Fine Irishmen at New York-New York. Opened in 2003, it was inspired by a group of nine extraordinary Irishmen who not only led lives of great achievement in the 1800s, but also participated in a movement for independence from the British Parliament.
“Nine Fine Irishmen celebrates their passion for Ireland, joy for life and sense of adventure,” said Frank Lawlor, the publican. He’s a man who knows a lot about Irish pubs. Lawlor’s parents owned three in Dublin, where he plied his trade from the ages of 5 to 23. He came to America in 1985 and has been managing pubs here ever since.
“Nine Fine Irishmen was designed and built by the best of Ireland’s craftsmen and shipped directly to Las Vegas,” said Lawlor. “It replicates the styles of pubs found throughout Ireland in fine detail with Victorian bars, cottage areas and shop-style snugs.”
Spread out over two stories, the downstairs bar is modeled after the Trinity Bar and the upstairs bar is based on the Long Bar – both of which are famed in Ireland. The pub also boasts a sitting room and a replica of the courtroom where the Nine Fine Irishmen were put on trial. Authentic Irish farm implements and other knick-knacks are hung on the mahogany wood-paneled walls.
“Everything you see in the pub, we plundered from Ireland – like streetlamps ripped from the sidewalk and antiques from secondhand shops,” said Lawlor.
Aside from the architecture and heroic namesake, Nine Fine Irishmen also shines brightly in terms of food. The menu is a collaboration from nine of Ireland’s most famous chefs and reflects everything from pub favorites to the more sophisticated cuisine of the country’s varied regions. Some standout items include creamy colcannon soup, shepherd’s pie made with port wine-infused beef tips and “drunken” onion rings, which are marinated with Bloody Mary mix.
“You can’t have a pub menu without outstanding fish and chips,” said Lawlor. “Ours is beer-battered cod.”
Amid the fine food and perfectly poured pints, Nine Fine Irishmen is equally serious about entertainment. Live music is provided nightly compliments of two house bands: Sin É Rí-Ra and the Celtic Rockers.
Beyond the Strip are two more standout pubs that offer hefty helpings of authentic Irish revelry. J.C. Wooloughan is located at the JW Marriott in the northwest part of town. Since opening in 1999, it has nurtured a loyal following among both the resort’s guests and locals.
“The pub was named after J.C. Wooloughan, who came from Ireland and was involved in operations for the first few years,” said Therese Sam, the marketing and public relations coordinator for the JW Marriott. “There are pictures of him still in the pub.”
Created by the Irish Pub Company, a premier designer of authentic Irish pubs throughout the world, J.C. Wooloughan was initially constructed near Dublin, dismantled and then put back together again in Las Vegas by the same craftsmen who first built it. Everything that you see inside the pub, from the wood and tiles to the bric-a-brac, is also from Ireland.
Sam said that a highlight on their menu is the “Emerald Isle” category, which includes bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage, and beef and Guinness pie. These exceptional Irish eats are complemented by a fully stocked bar, in order to serve the pints that are the pride of Ireland – Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s and many more. Live performers, such as the rock band Wild Celts and Vegas U2, a Bono impersonator, appear at the pub regularly to spread cheer among guests as well.
Another neighborhood-style Irish pub, The Auld Dubliner, is found on the southeast side of town at Lake Las Vegas. Surrounded by The Village, a charming retail development, it benefits from the communal-like atmosphere.
“This is a coastal cottage pub,” said Joseph Serrano, the general manager, when describing the ambiance at this contagiously pleasant spot. “We’re very family-friendly. We also get a lot of older patrons because of the hominess. We’re really able to tap into the whole age spectrum.”
Like J.C. Wooloughan, this pub was crafted by the Irish Pub Company. The founders of The Auld Dubliner – Eric Johnson and David Copley, an Irishman from Limerick – drew up the floor plan and selected a theme before it was built in Ireland and transported to Las Vegas in pieces. Upon arrival, the Irish Pub Company sent out a small team to reassemble the pub, do the painting and add all the finishing touches. The Auld Dubliner, as a result, exudes a welcoming Irish essence.
Along with its laid-back vibe, the pub is best known for its freshly prepared Irish comfort food. Among The Auld Dubliner’s exceptional fare are Guinness beef stew and Guinness meat loaf. A house brew batter, combining Guinness and Harp, is used for the fish and chips. Sausage rolls are a popular appetizer. And, the menu displays an item not frequently seen in America’s Irish pubs: boxty.
“Boxty is a potato pancake,” said Serrano. “The one that we have on the menu is the Bushmills chicken boxty with a cream-like base, but we can also turn corned beef and cabbage into a boxty.”
In addition, The Auld Dubliner has a great lineup of Irish beers and whiskeys that are often accompanied by great Irish music. In spring and summer, local bands typically perform Thursdays through Saturdays, while Sundays are dedicated to Irish session music.
“People are welcome to come in and bring an instrument, so they can jam with the group,” said Serrano. “We usually do this with the Celtic Cove. They play on the patio and then we slide the doors open. The whole ambiance – the craic – just spills out and takes over The Village.”
Indeed, at all four of these pubs, the genuine atmosphere is overflowing. They don’t rely on Irish themes or gimmicks. Instead they are passionate about providing a real Irish experience in every way. Thanks to them, a bit of Ireland has been indelibly woven into Las Vegas’ cultural fabric – and the city is far richer for it.
Where to Get Your GREEN On
In town for St. Paddy’s Day? Although you’re a long way from Ireland, Las Vegas is home to its fair share of Irish pubs. You’ll discover a wide variety of festivities here to mark the occasion – like raising a toast to a 500-pound statue of St. Patrick or participating in a green bikini contest. Whatever you do, may the luck of the Irish be with you!
● The Auld Dubliner at Lake Las Vegas: St. Patrick’s Day marks the pub’s fifth anniversary, so a good party is guaranteed. Along with promotions from Guinness, Baileys and Bushmills, hungry guests can participate in a corned beef taco eating contest. Plus, live music will be offered all day and night.
● Hennessey’s Tavern at 425 Fremont St.: Plenty of beer, fun and live music are on tap for the day. Located downtown underneath a giant pint of Bass, this is where you can order the world’s largest pint. Served in a souvenir glass, you’ll definitely want nurse this 64-ounce behemoth beer – or else you’ll be nursing a hangover the next day!
● J.C. Wooloughan at JW Marriott: This fun-loving pub is rolling out a six-day festival beginning on Mar. 12 and culminating on St. Patrick’s Day. Doors open at 10 a.m. on Mar. 17, with entertainers hitting the stage at 11 a.m. An outdoor arena called “The Backyard” shifts into gear at 3 p.m., where you’ll find Irish dancing, bagpipe playing and performances by live bands. Starting at 1 p.m., a $20 cover will be charged.
● Kavanaugh’s Pub at 3290 W. Ann Rd.: Famed for their thick slices of corned beef, this pub is featuring a special expanded menu of Irish culinary delights to accompany their annual block party.
● McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon at Rio: Blending Irish culture with something of a crazy college atmosphere, this pub opens at 7 a.m. with the “21 Shotgun Salute Beer Chug” (the first 21 people through the door get a free beer to shotgun). A Kegs and Eggs breakfast buffet will be served from 7-11 a.m. for $20. Live entertainment including Irish dancing and bagpipe playing begins at 2 p.m. And the famous “Build Your Own Green Bikini” contest gets underway in the evening.
● McMullan’s Irish Pub at 4650 W. Tropicana Ave.: This pub always overdoes it on St. Paddy’s Day, with the celebration pouring out into their parking lot. Expect a truck full of beer and several stages featuring live entertainment, complemented by food and drink specials.
● Molly Malone’s at 11930 Southern Highlands Pkwy.: In addition to a special dinner menu, this cozy neighborhood pub will set up stations selling beer and burgers in their parking lot. A DJ will also be on hand to keep the party and dancing going well into the night.
● Murphy’s Law Bar & Grill at 1590 E. Flamingo Rd.: There will be an all-day block party here that runs from dawn to dawn! Knock back $3 green beers and $5 Irish leprechaun shots. At 4 p.m. guests can flirt with the Jameson and Guinness Girls or snap a photo with Pint, the Guinness mascot. Bring along a boxed or canned food item to benefit HELP of Southern Nevada, and your first green is beer free.
● Nine Fine Irishmen at New York-New York: At 11 a.m. a parade led by bagpipers will wind by the Brooklyn Bridge, through the casino and into the pub to usher in their annual Celtic Feis festival. Enjoy delicious pub fare, the best of the bar and six different live acts that will be performing on stages located indoors and outdoors. Admission is $25, which includes your first drink.
● Paddy’s Pub & Eatery at 4160 S. Pecos Rd.: This wee pub frequented by locals will be serving corned beef and cabbage all day long. At 5 p.m. Jimmy Quinn, a highly regarded Irish balladeer, will appear.
● Rí Rá at The Shoppes at Mandalay Place: Although it opened quietly in early March, today will feature a celebration that’s sure to be raucous. Along with an impressive lineup of bands flown in directly from Ireland, guests can pay homage to a 500-pound statue of St. Patrick that will be presiding over the fun.
● Three Angry Wives at 820 W. Charleston Blvd: Their eighth annual St. Patrick’s Day party commences at the stroke of midnight and ends the following day at 2 a.m. That means you have 26 hours to paint the pub green! Join the carousing in the parking lot, where there will be a beer garden, traditional Irish food, prize giveaways and live music.