Irish Pubs: Conversation Required

When Don Hubert bought The Beer Box in 1989, the St. Petersburg bar had a hardscrabble reputation that needed overhauling. He wanted an unmistakable sign that this was now a safe and welcoming place. So the Rhode Island native renamed it Don’s Irish Pub.

No Irish entertainment, no Emerald Isle artifacts, no Irish employees, no corned beef. Just Guinness and a neighborly attitude.

“I wanted to send a clear signal that this wasn’t a biker bar or something,” explained Hubert. “When you see ‘Irish pub,’ you think friendly, even family atmosphere.”

Obviously something other than Irish lineage and major marketing by Guinness accounts for the increasing proliferation of Irish pubs far beyond the ethnic haunts of Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago. In the Tampa Bay market alone there are nearly 50 – from Clearwater to Carrollwood, Bradenton to Brandon. In Ybor City the Irish Pub and the James Joyce Irish Pub are across 7th Avenue from one another. In South Tampa there’s the “Irish Triangle”: the Dubliner Irish Pub, Four Green Fields and MacDinton’s within walking distance of each other.

“I’d call it an old school brand environment,” says Michael Peters, president of Tampa-based Spark Branding House. “You know what you’re getting. There’s comfort in that. It’s not where you go for a Mai Tai.”

Colin Breen would drink a Guinness or Smithwick’s to that. He opened Four Green Fields in 1992; now nobody in Florida sells more Guinness than he does at his thatched-roof, Irish cottage-motif pub. Here a Sinn Fein poster, there a Gaelic street sign. The entertainment – from the Wolf Tones to Sinead O’Connor – is Irish. So is the menu and the help. Gerry Adams has spoken there.

“In general, Irish pubs do well,” explains Breen. “We don’t have to change with the times. It’s not age-related; it’s not price-driven. The bartenders are outgoing and engaging. We have no TV’s; you have to talk to someone.”

The formula of authenticity has worked so well that Breen has contemplated franchising, although he is now more inclined to consider partnerships. He looks to license his trademark.

The rest of the “Irish Triangle” are variations on an overlapping pub theme.

MacDinton’s is considered “modern Irish,” meaning plenty of Guinness, camaraderie, dark woods and Irish staffers, as well as big-screen TVs, happy hour specials, rock music and even karaoke. It caters to the SoHo trendy crowd.

Over at the three-year-old Dubliner, Dublin-born owner Richard Campion has succeeded at a location previously known as a bar-and-restaurant graveyard. It’s mahogany, stained glass and plenty of nooks and crannies inside – with a deck for music, smoking and televised sports. It’s a favorite watering hole of soccer and rugby players.

“It’s kind of ironic,” notes Campion, “that in Ireland many of the pubs have a more modern, cosmopolitan look. In America, there is still the novelty and the allure of the Old World.”

Whether Four Green Fields authentic or MacDinton’s modern, the common denominator is ambience: Irish pubs are avatars of amiability. Egalitarian comfort zones.

“We have a saying,” says Dublin native Noel Cooney, owner of Flanagan’s Irish Pub in Dunedin, ‘There’s no strangers, just friends you haven’t met.'”

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