Games, craft beer and food trucks: How the Irish pub is changing
As lifestyle choices shift, pubs are having to offer a lot more than just a good pint
The food truck outside The Vines in Saltmills, Co Wexford
The Irish pub is one of the most iconic aspects of our culture. Places of celebration, commiseration, company and community, they have a long, rich history interwoven into the fabric of our cities, towns and villages. They are a sellable ideal with attempted replications scattered all over the globe.
But the Irish pub as we know it has been changing. Factors like rural migration, the smoking ban, the recession, and more recently, vat hikes and drink driving laws, have had a profound impact on the industry, forcing some pubs to close and others to innovate in order to survive.
In 2017, Ireland had almost 1,500 fewer pubs than 2005. That’s a net loss of 125 pubs every year.
Events at Crawford & Co include art classes, salsa dancing, pub quizzes, storytelling, knitting and writers meet-ups
But the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland says they have noticed the number of closures beginning to level off, and there is a noticeable new wave of pubs opening up all over the country. Places that may have been on the path to closure are being snapped up by creative and savvy new owners, and others already in the game are starting to realise the need to offer more than just a bar stool and some familiar drinks on tap to bring customers through the doors.
Despite having the most pubs in the country, Cork saw a 25 per cent decrease in pubs from 2005 to 2017, the largest drop in Ireland. But Cork city publican Michael Droney hasn’t let this put him off. Last year he opened O’Sho’s on the site of an old Cork pub, The Brown Derby, which he says was “a drinking man’s pub, real old school” for centuries.
He wanted to keep that sense of community. It now boasts a specialised tea counter serving therapeutic teas and other homemade concoctions. As the day goes on, you can mix these with your gin.
“Tastes have changed and drinking habits have changed so we’ve brought in lots of new ideas,” he says. “We’re trying to be a real local pub for the 21st century.”
In Crawford & Co, Droney’s newest venture, he combined two old Cork pubs to form one warren of activity. In the daytime there’s a grocer selling local produce, and a coffee dock that becomes a spot for whiskey tasting and cheese boards in the evening. His jam-packed events line-up includes the usual sports fixtures, along with “Paint & Prosecco” art classes, salsa dancing, pub quizzes, storytelling, knitting and writers meet-ups.
“As people’s lifestyle choices and habits are changing, we are trying to go with this flow,” Droney says.
Being open-minded seems to be a recurring theme. Joe O’Leary had no intention of taking over Levis’ in Ballydehob, a pub that had been in his family for generations. But somehow over the past six years, he and his wife Caroline have breathed life back into this beloved rural spot.
Joe started growing tomato plants and selling them in the bar, which has led to a weekly Wednesday farmers market where local producers and bakers gather. A local ukulele group meet up to practice in the next room while the market it is on.
It’s their approach to live music that has really put them on the map. “There were bars in the village who had been doing music but no one had been doing original music on the level we are,” Joe says. They now host intimate gigs with notable names like Glen Hansard and David Kitt, and even run their own annual Secret Sessions festival in the pub every October. Music and pubs go hand in hand of course, but as Joe points out, it’s not enough anymore just to “throw someone in the corner and get them to make some noise and talk over them”.
A new pub owner who knows this well is Dave Parle, a music promoter who recently opened a vinyl bar on Parnell Street in Dublin called The Big Romance.
“It’s a music bar that only plays records. This means the bar staff pick from our record collection throughout the day, rather than playing a pre-planned playlist,” he explains.
This seems like a perfect example of how discerning the modern pub customers have become. A slick drinks list featuring craft beers and a broad range of spirits has become standard, and now the entertainment needs to offer more, too.
Parle and his team have events booked months in advance, taking full advantage of their custom Hatchett sound system.
“We bring in vinyl DJs in the evenings, and host listening parties where you hear the full quality versions of classic albums in full on our sound system,” he says.
“Apart from good sound, really the main drive to do a vinyl bar is to bring music to the forefront of the conversation in the bar. People chat to the staff about the records they’re playing. We also host a record shop, Optic Music, which has an unreal collection where people can find some real gems.”
They’ve also added food, serving bar snacks, toasties and hot dogs. Parle considers this all part of the experience at The Big Romance.
Food can seem like the easy option to get people through the doors, it’s not always the case. Many pubs are hindered by being located in old historic buildings, where adding a kitchen isn’t an option.
When Lorraine Walsh from The Vines in Saltmills, Co Wexford started to see a welcome increase people arriving in her pub thanks to newly developed walking trails around Tintern Abbey, she was determined to cater for them.
Before that, the customers were mostly locals, but when walkers began to arrive in increasing numbers in 2017, they started doing teas and coffees, and began thinking about food, too. They didn’t have space or finance to build a full kitchen, so the solution for them was to invest in a food truck.
“We thought, if it doesn’t work at least we can sell it on,” Walsh says. “We’re just selling sandwiches and wraps but it’s made a big difference to us here.”
Adding the outdoor area and the truck has attracted younger customers, and allowed them to cater for parties, too.
The Square Ball in Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock runs a Rubix cube challenge, and has started hosting monthly adult Lego building nights called Beers & Blocks
“When we took on this place and everyone said we were mad,” he remembers.
They reopened what was an old boozer with a lick of paint and their promoter heads on, and started filling the space with art exhibitions, car boot sales, and music bookings. Such events have now become the norm in plenty of other pubs around Dublin.
Three years ago they opened Eatyard, a street food market, in the space adjoining The Bernard Shaw, with a selection of food trucks offering tacos, curries, burgers and vegan fare. Casual food perfect for the Instagram generation brought a whole new lease of life to the pub, and a fresh customer base.
Food trucks have been popping up out the back of pubs around the country ever since, in a brilliant new wave that benefits publicans and customers, and offers new food business opportunities; Lucky’s on Meath Street with Coke Lane Pizza, The Glimmer Man in Stoneybatter with Vietnom, and Chewy and The Beast out the back of Dick Macs in Dingle are a few that seem to be lasting the pace.
O’Shea believes serving food or doing craft drinks might have been enough to get people into a pub five years ago, but “that’s not true anymore. That’s the new normal.”
He is constantly striving to give people a fresh reason to come through the door. For his latest Dublin opening, The Lighthouse on George’s Street in Dún Laoghaire, he had the craft beers, good food and music bookings sorted, but also filled the upstairs with retro arcade games and ping pong tables. Bringing more fun back into pubs, even if it’s just a stack of board games, is giving customers a good reason to go out for that midweek pint.
Bars dedicated to games are now popping up. Token in Smithfield is part bar, part diner, part retro-arcade where the games line-up is more important than the drinks. The same goes for Barcadia in Cork. The Square Ball in Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock runs a Rubix cube challenge, and has started hosting monthly adult Lego building nights called Beers & Blocks. Games are back in a big way.
Ditching the booze is another unlikely trend that is enjoying a moment in Irish nightlife. The big drinks brands have recently got in on the game with Heineken launching their non-alcoholic beer Heineken 0.0 and Guinness Open Gate bringing out Pure Brew, which has won a legion of fans. MVP on Clanbrassil Street started running Sober Sunday events last year, inspired by the alcohol-free movement in London called Club Soda.
Lorraine Walsh from in The Vines in Wexford says their next move to keep new customers is to work on a non-alcoholic cocktail list. “People not drinking still want to come to the pub, but don’t just want to sit there drinking water,” she says.
A completely alcohol-free pub is opening soon on Capel Street in Dublin, The Virgin Mary bar. The concept comes from Oisín Davis and Vaughan Yates, who are well known for their extensive alcohol knowledge. They believe they have identified a new customer base, who are looking for a space to socialise in without booze. Ahead of the opening in April, head bartender Anna Walsh says she’s looking forward to what they consider a bit of social experiment.
“Working on this project has been a constant path of discovery, working out new techniques and ways to present flavour without the use of alcohol,” she says. “We’re excited to offer a different way of drinking to Dublin.” The menu will also have an array of alcohol-free beers, wines and spirits, and will no doubt offer plenty of inspiration to other publicans considering more alcohol-free or low alcohol choices for their menus.
There are more than 7,000 pubs still open across the country, many of which are innovating and thriving as a result. Unfortunately, however, some will be forced to close their doors in the years to come. If you value your pub, give them your support; call in for a pint, a cup of tea or a game of Pac Man. They’ll be happy to have you.