Having just visited Ireland where we spent a good deal of time drinking and eating and drinking in that quintessential Irish institution, the pub, I thought it would be useful to put my newfound expertise to work by evaluating a venerable "Irish" pub in our area.
Of course, such an evaluation has to be colored by the globalization of Ireland's pubs that has led to Cajun chicken appearing on most menus and few native Irish folk doing the pouring and serving. The Celtic Tiger has become so incongruously prosperous that its low-level jobs are increasingly being taken by Eastern European immigrants.
Irish pubs, which have long been a feature of the American drinking scene, have become a worldwide phenomenon, flourishing in such unlikely venues as Moscow and Tokyo. Most likely, it has been their legendary cheery environment and beer, and not their food, that has sparked this cultural exportation. In many ways, the Blarney Stone Pub in Berkley has been ahead of the curve.
The striking, green-hued building (né Payne's from 1995 to 1999) just north of 11 Mile Road on Woodward Avenue in Berkley is related familially to Duggan's Irish Pub two miles up the block. However, in 1999, when Payne's became the Blarney Stone, it severed its formal ties to Duggan's, though it's owned by sisters Dottie and Gail Payne, whose brother owns Duggan's. Moreover, the manager and resident chef is Dottie's son Bo Burton. And his menu closely resembles that of Duggan's.
Burton admits that there is little that is Irish about his bill of fare aside from cute labels like Little Leprechaun's menu and Shamrock soups. Although he does occasionally prepare specials such as shepherd's pie and corned beef and cabbage, and the Irish coffee and black and tan are authentic, his everyday menu is all-American pub grub. Moreover, the decor in this lively, impossibly cluttered little bar revolves almost completely around American sports banners and signs, with nary an artifact from Gaelic football, hurling or the IRA.
The appetizers, which average around $6, are dominated by scores of familiar deep-fat fried items, many of which are available in the hefty Pot of Gold sampler that includes serviceable renditions of potato skins, chicken strips, jalapeño peppers, mozzarella cheese sticks and onion rings. A more unusual appetizer, though no less calorie-laden, is pizza dip, which deconstructs a pie into a creamy mass of cheese, pepperoni and sauce, with soft bread sticks as dippers.
If these artery-cloggers concern you and they shouldn't since you are already in a smoky bar, which isn't the healthiest place in the world you can always order a bowl of thick and aromatic tomato-basil soup. In Ireland, soup has always been one of the more popular lunch options, available at virtually every pub, with tomato-based among the most popular.
Eating healthy first should justify ordering a Susie-Q-Fish & Chips dinner ($10.95), based on the original recipes of the celebrated drive-in restaurant of the postwar era on Woodward (and also available at Duggan's). Burton fries his freshly-cut scrod encased in a secret-recipe batter that emerges as a thick, crispy but surprisingly light crust, accompanied by house-made tartar sauce and Susie's vinegar-based cole slaw. He also accommodates those who prefer a creamier and sweeter slaw.
Because of waning demand, steak (and shrimp) has disappeared from the menu, but there are some nicely seasoned and tender pieces of beef in an otherwise ordinary sirloin Caesar salad ($9.25). Less ordinary is the order of five flavorful burger sliders ($5.95) with pickles, onions and a tomato-mustard sauce that easily transcend White Castle's alleged gold standard. There are 10 other burger varieties, including, again for the more health-conscious, bison or turkey.
A large selection of "St. Patty's" sandwiches, from turkey club to chicken pita, along with a variety of Tex-Mex favorites ("Spicier Side of Ireland"!) and pizza round out the comprehensive menu.
Although there is only one dessert, "brownie delight" ($4.95), it's a winner. Burton's chocolate cakelets emerge from a deep-fat fryer with a crispy outer core and a soft inner core, creating a sensation akin to that of Susie Q's scrod. In a finishing touch the brownies are inundated with hot fudge and whipped and ice cream.
There are plenty of beers either on tap or in bottles, with Guinness drawn in the traditional manner, as the bartender permits some time to elapse before topping it off. A handful of wines are available by the glass, half-carafe and bottle, at a reasonable $3.85, $10.25 and $19, respectively.
When Americans go to Ireland, many are compelled to travel somewhat off the beaten path to kiss the Blarney Stone. I don't know if Berkley's unpretentious Blarney Stone Pub deserves a kiss but it does merit a virtual embrace. And it's no longer an issue that there's little Irish about its cuisine, since pubs in Ireland are turning out lunches and light dinners that look increasingly like the stuff you'd find in a stateside Irish bar. Such is the price of globalization.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].