Irish Embassy Pub & Grill

Toronto Star
July 11, 2001

When Irish Pubs Are Beguiling

As Celtic goes upscale, welcome to a posh new style of watering hole

This is where Bay Street meets Dublin. Where fish and blue chips mix and the Guinness goes down as quickly as your Nortel stock.

The Irish Embassy pub- housed in a former bank building on the edge of Toronto's financial district- has not a whisper of shamrocks or leprechauns. Fitted nicely with a shiny copper bar, tall white columns and at least one television tuned in to the stock tickers, the pub has become a hotspot for the financial crowd since it was launched on St. Patrick's Day.

But, more important, it represents the new style of Irish pubs and pub fare that has hit the city- a reflection of an even bigger movement going on in Dublin.

The Irish pub is one of the strongest symbols of Irish culture and has long been a fixture in Toronto. About two dozen are spread across Greater Toronto. But there's something different about them now. You'll find premium whiskey and grilled salmon bordering on haute cuisine. The trend is clear- the Irish have gone posh.

And why shouldn't they? The Emerald Isle is basking in economic success. Ireland's annual economic growth has been the strongest in the European Union for about four years. Toronto is home to about 250,000 Irish immigrants and triple that in Irish descendents.

"The Irish in Canada are people in the financial services industry and in information technology," says Eamonn O'Loghlin, editor of the Toronto Irish News, a quarterly newspaper.

Simply put, Ireland is no longer a land of poor potato farmers, and Irish immigrants to Canada aren't working-class builders and bricklayers anymore. "It's refreshing for someone from Ireland to now be able to have a business lunch in Toronto in a place where you're proud to bring a client," says O'Loghlin.

This is exactly why John Maxwell, the owner of three Irish establishments, opened the classy P.J. O'Brien downtown in 1998. The son of an Irishman, he realized the local Irish community had money to spend and deserved fine ale and good food in a nice setting. "We wanted a place that reflected our success," Maxwell remembers.

The exuberant restaurateur steers away from the Irish stereotype as much as possible with his trio of pubs. That means no Irish stew- a hearty but often overdone lamb-potato-vegetable medley. P.J. O'Brien serves instead roast leg of spring lamb, herb-crusted Atlantic salmon, smoked whitefish mousse and double-smoked Belfast ham.

"Classical preparation of Irish ingredients is what I like," says Maxwell, who also owns Dora Keogh and Allen's, both on the Danforth. "Prepared in a light, modern and innovative way, Irish food is not the peasant food of the Irish famine years. Go back to Dublin today and you won't see it."

At the Irish Embassy, the menu takes a similar approach with honey-baked ham in parsley cream sauce ($14), pan-seared rack of lamb in port wine reduction ($24), and grilled Atlantic salmon with lemon chive butter ($21).

As Irish-born owner Gavin Quinn says, there's nothing wrong with taking a simple Irish dish and modifying it. "For our stew, we add a little garlic and a bit of tomato, red wine and rosemary. It isn't exactly traditional, but it makes it taste a little nicer."

Dublin is a chic city these days with fantastic food. Tourists still gravitate to the dark, smoky pubs filled with old Irishmen, fiddlers and little more than fish and chips. But the locals have moved up to trendy spots in the city's Temple Bar area. Toronto's Irish Embassy- so named to anoint staff "the ambassadors of Irish hospitality"- tries to reflect Dublin's chic without being "too starchy and intimidating."

Irish pubs, of any calibre, are so popular you'll now find them in just about every corner of the planet, including Kenya, Bangkok and Tokyo.

Thank Irish brewer Guinness for that, says Paul Nolan, marketing director of the Irish Pub Co., a Dublin firm that has designed and built about 400 pubs in countries with minimal Irish tradition, such as Italy, Argentina and China. They helped with Paddy's Pub on Bank St. in Ottawa.

Guinness helps pub owners with free design and management advice, pint-pouring training, suggested menus and recipes, music lists and finding Irish bric-a- brac for the walls.

The brewer, in return, asks that the pub be under 3,500 square feet, shun distractions like pool tables and video games, be made up of a collection of smaller sections (nicknamed "snugs"), and have Irish staff (whenever possible), Irish music and Irish beer on tap.

"It's a very simple thing really," Nolan says of the lure. "We put people into a small, cozy space and give them something to drink. Add a little music and it's a potent mix."

Upmarket Irish pubs have been sprouting up in Toronto for about a year. They all seem to have dark green and burgundy decor, brass fixtures, an Irish flag waving outside the front door and pictures of lush the Irish countryside on every wall.

Visit Windy O'Neills, nestled at the corner of Highways 7 and 400 in Vaughan, and you can't help but lift your eyes to the cathedral ceiling and gasp. This palatial, two-storey pub has every piece of Irish memorabilia you could imagine, and a trendsetting menu to match.

Sure, patrons can slurp lamb stew and Guinness under a massive painted mural of Ireland or next to a bookcase of Irish classics from James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. But the $9.95 stew swims in a mint- tinged broth. Dilled Irish cheese planks with honey mustard mayonnaise ($5.95) and the Dublin all-day breakfast ($8.95 for eggs, bacon, sausage, leek and potato cakes, baked beans and toast) compete for attention with pad thai ($9.75), vodka- or gin-spiked gazpacho ($7.25) and poutine ($3.75).

Managing partner Lou Mosna makes no apologies for the upmarket edge to the six- month-old pub. "Let's face it, people want cappuccino these days, not coffee."

Windy's is co-owned by five people, all but one of whom are first- or second- generation Irish. The pub's name comes from one of the owner's brothers, the late Thomas (Windy) O'Neill. He was born in Deseronto, Ont. in 1924 to Irish parents, played hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs, practised law and co- founded the Gaelic Athletic Association. He's the patron saint of Windy's because wherever he went, a party broke out.

Windy's owners chose Vaughan because of the untapped suburban clientele and the proximity of an AMC multiplex theatre and York University, says co-owner Paul O'Neill. Sean Bayley and Jost Rittershaus, co-owners of Murphy's Law in Toronto's Beaches area, had no real marketing ploy in mind when they launched their pub seven weeks ago. It was simply something fun to do.

The pair have been in the restaurant business for close to 20 years. Their pub, housed in an grand bank building, has dark wood furniture, a stone fireplace, live Irish music on weekends and no shortage of Murphy's Irish Stout, Kilkenny Ale and Harp Lager. They chose the area primarily because of the building. Most of the patrons are from the neighbourhood.

Some would argue that Irish fare- Guinness steak and mushroom pie ($9.95) and Irish stew ($8.95)- alongside chicken wings and nachos is uncouth, but Rittershaus says perennial favourites are a must.

As someone proud of making his pubs authentic, Maxwell suggests people be wary of places that put up shamrocks, serve stew and call themselves Irish pubs. He calls this "paddy wackery." Charges Maxwell: "They focus on the theme, not on the true identity and they strike me as phony."

Back at the Irish Embassy, Quinn says he doesn't see anything wrong with what some of these "Irish theme" pub owners are doing. "Certainly they might be a little over the top in some cases and are often just a corporate entity, but if they are promoting Irish culture and food, then why not?"

Authentic or not, the fact is from the small neighbourhood pub with a Guinness sign dangling from its door frame to the suburban monster pub next to the highway, it is Irishness that makes them work.

Whether any pub outside of Ireland is actually "authentic" is an argument that will probably never be settled.

But in their own way, these spots all harness the romance of Irish culture: sadness, exile, love of life and laughter. They work because we who visit them feel we're lucky enough to be Irish, too, even if it's only for as long as it takes to drink a pint.

by Louise Surette