The Irish Rovers

The Irish Rovers

Looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Here’s your guide to Richmond’s best Irish bars.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services may disagree, but the bars say otherwise: On March 17th, any person in green is offered honorary Irish citizenship. On St. Patrick’s Day, America becomes a sea of emerald, from our clothes to our beer – we even dye the Chicago River green.

This tradition is a stark contrast from the discrimination the Irish once faced in America. Stereotyped as violent, drunken and ape-like, the Irish once experienced widespread discrimination, especially during the mid-19th-century wave of immigration to the U.S.

But these days, everyone’s fighting to be Irish, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. While our March 17th celebrations are different from those on the Land of Saints and Scholars, we say a little pro-Irish revelry is just plain fun. To get you in the spirit for some spirits, here’s a roundup of some of Richmond’s best Irish bars by two writers with partial Irish lineage.

McCormack’s Irish Pub

Thanks to the building’s dark glass panel windows and discrete door, it can be hard to tell if McCormack’s Irish Pub is even open from the outside. The dim lighting and dark wood paneling found inside hardly provide the best atmosphere for a first date. However, the cheap price of the drinks serve as a solid guarantee that all parties involved will only look more attractive as the night goes on.

But the selling point of McCormack’s isn’t the pub’s ambiance. As the bar’s motto goes: “It’s a pub … with a bit of attitude.” As soon as you walk in you’re greeted by a 4-foot-tall and -wide three-leafed clover hanging on the back wall with a large red A in a circle superimposed on top of it. That spirit of all-are-welcome punk anarchy is what makes McCormack’s an underground Shockoe Bottom institution.

Sure, the wooden tables and chairs look like they’ve been here since the place opened in February of 1998, but the drinks are strong, the prices low and the vibe unpretentious. Whether you come to see a late-night metal show or just to enjoy the incredible 5 p.m.-to-9 p.m. happy hour, everyone can find something to love at this grungy dive bar with heart.

Behind the bar, this Irish pub has 10 beers on tap and an entire wall of schnapps and spirits to suit anyone’s tastes — unless your poison of choice is vodka or gin. Although the kitchen could be open later, it’s hard to beat the crowd here. The folks who congregate at the bar or in the back for darts and foosball quickly feel like family, but maybe that’s just the effect of the low-priced pints. If you’re looking for a non-dive drinking experience, try one of Mac McCormack’s other establishments: McCormack’s Whisky Grill in the Fan and McCormack’s Big Whisky Grill in Regency Square. The glowing walls of amber whiskey will make you feel like you’ve found Smaug’s treasure.

McCormack’s Irish Pub.12 N. 18th St., 23223. (804) 648-1003.

O’Toole’s Restaurant and Pub

Above the bar at O’Toole’s Restaurant & Pub on Forest Hill Avenue is a mirror that reads “Since 1966.” That’s the truth, more or less. Fifty-six years ago, Jim O’Toole and two business partners opened a watering hole in that space called The Gay Nineties. With a nostalgic eye for the Gibson girl and the gaslight era of the 1890s, the place featured red velvet wallpaper, latticework and, frequently, a nine-piece Dixieland band.

All that changed in 1972 when O’Toole bought out his partners and reworked the space as a neighborhood Irish pub for families. Gone were the Victorian affectations and in their place went Kelly green paint and Irish coats of arms.

Ever since, it’s been a cozy Irish pub on Richmond’s Southside. Still owned by the O’Toole family, the bar pairs its Irish, domestic and craft pints with a surprisingly extensive menu. This is stick-to-your-ribs fare that runs the gamut from corned beef sandwiches to “Spaghetti O’Toole” and guacamole and chips. The bar is long, there’s plenty of booths and the staff is friendly. The TVs broadcast sports games, there’s darts in the back and sometimes live music. Its hearty dishes and welcoming atmosphere make it the perfect place to pass a snow day.

In the early 1990s, there was O’Toole’s Too in Robious Hall Shopping Center; that location is now the Shamrock Pub. In 2019, O’Toole’s opened another location in Midlothian. Sporting its own Kelly green paint job and coats of arms, the Midlo spot serves up the same vibes, cuisine and offers 36 taps to choose from.

O’Toole’s Restaurant and Pub. 4800 Forest Hill Ave., 23225. (804) 233-1781.

Rare Olde Times

Although the shopping center that hosts Rare Olde Times is called Canterbury, the pub itself is distinctly of the Emerald Isle. Launched in 1994 by the singer, guitarist and native Irishman Andy Jennings, this bar brags about being “the only pub in Richmond founded by a Dubliner.” Indeed, a family friend from Cork confirmed that his top choice for the most authentic Irish spot in town would be Rare Olde Times.

Up until a few years ago, everything from the floor to the bar to the booths was a vibrant teal. A relatively recent remodel took the space from feeling like a “Cheers” set knock off to a modern gastropub. Thankfully, the illuminated stained glass sign still hangs above the bar that, along with the large beer brand signs scattered about the place, lends an air of authenticity to the decor. Don’t miss the dozen teacups with faces hanging behind the bar if you want to witness something as delightful as it is disturbing.

Out of all the pubs we patroned, Rare Olde Times is clearly the spot most focused on its cuisine. There is a bar you can sidle up to, but most of the space is reserved as a restaurant with dozens of booths and tables to accommodate any size crowd. Servers range from college students to middle-aged moms, giving Rare Olde Times the feel of a family affair where folks understand having a good time without going wild. Ordering an Irish car bomb here rewards you with a look that your drink choice is ill-advised.

Rare Olde Times, after all, markets itself as less of a pub and more of a public house. The reuben egg rolls and loaded baked potato fries may not be traditional, but they do make for delicious bar food. If you’re looking for more authentic fare, this spot serves corned beef and cabbage to shepherd’s pie with the portions as hearty as the ingredients that comprise them. If you’re looking for a spot to recover from your hangover, Rare Olde Times even serves a classic Irish breakfast from 10 a.m.-to-3 p.m. on Sundays.

With over 25 years of operations under its belt, Rare Olde Times is the well-oiled machine of neighborhood watering holes. With Monday open mic nights, Tuesday $10 specials, trivia Wednesdays and live performances Thursdays through Saturdays — there’s a reason most Applebee’s have gone under while Rare Olde Times keeps trucking along.

Rosie Connolly’s Pub & Restaurant

While some may consider it a no-brainer to include Rosie’s on a list of Irish bars, it actually sparked quite a bit of conversation among our friends.

On one hand, the Shockoe Bottom establishment has an Irish name, hosts Irish music nights and, we are told, has a short line from the Guinness keg to the tap, which is the sign of a true Irish bar. On the other, it’s owned by Liverpudlian Tommy Goulding and just seems … well, to carry a British vibe. The tap list includes both Irish and British pours, as well as a couple whiskeys.

Rosie’s website acknowledges its appeal across the Irish Sea, calling it “a true Irish pub, with a splash of the Mersey.” We say: See for yourself!

A favorite after-shift spot for restaurant workers, “Tommy’s” – as it’s still referred to by people in the know – is a cozy spot for a pint. Goulding is something like the high priest of Richmond bartending, having spent 17 years behind the taps of Penny Lane Pub before opening Rosie Connolly’s, named after his Irish grandmother.

Previously operated as O’Brienstein’s Pub and Deli, the bar came into Goulding’s ownership on Aug. 30, 2004, the very day Hurricane Gaston flooded Shockoe Bottom, dumping more than 10 inches of rain in just a few hours. The flooding reached 27 feet above sea level in some areas. Goulding spent the next six months scrubbing and cleaning the place, sanding and restaining the bar, and redoing the upholstery. Every little knick-knack got a scrub down, and Rosie’s grew to become a Richmond institution.

If it’s your first time, make sure to get a Guinness. It’s properly poured here, slowly and with a creamy head. If Tommy is behind the bar, he’ll top the head with a shamrock design.

Rosie Connolly’s Pub Restaurant. 1548 E. Main St. A, 23219. (804) 343-1063.

Shamrock Pub

Sometimes, you just need a good dive bar. Unpretentious, full of character, sometimes smoky. The Shamrock Pub in Midlothian’s Robious Hall Shopping Center certainly fits that bill.

After beginning its life as an offshoot of O’Toole’s in the early ’90s called O’Toole’s Too, it has completely come into its own as an Irish dive bar. The wood paneling is covered with graffiti, as are the restrooms, which feature advertisements for sexual favors and at least one “Let’s go Brandon.” There are pool tables and dart boards for those in a sporting mood. The bartenders are friendly, and the menu’s once-frozen fried food is executed surprisingly well.

The clientele on a recent Saturday night appeared to consist of a Mexican family playing pool, a group of middle school science teachers raging and a couple of 30-something suburban moms playing Nicki Minaj and grinding on their dates.

Wyatt is a fan of their Irish Trash Can, a potent cocktail that’s similar to a Long Island Iced Tea, albeit with an upended Red Bull sticking out of the top. The green concoction made of vodka, gin, rum, blue Curaçao, triple Sec, and peach schnapps will leave you feeling the luck of the Irish. A designated driver may be a good idea.

Shamrock Pub. 10016 Robious Road, 23235. (804) 330-0617.

Siné’s Irish Pub

Just as the culture and drinking customs of the Emerald Isle weren’t always widely appreciated in America, neither was the neighborhood that now plays host to Siné’s Irish Pub. Long before the ad agencies and swanky hotels moved in for the area’s rustic charm and proximity to downtown, Shockoe Slip was a dirty docks district.

Today’s it’s nigh impossible to tell that Siné’s spacious interior was ever a storage warehouse. With dozens of booths, high tops around every corner, and a nearly 360-degree bar at the center of the establishment, the pub’s official slogan may as well be: “There’s room for all at Siné’s!”

Although the exposed stone, extensive wood carvings and giant brass-plated harps around the bar can verge a bit too far towards the Killarney section of Busch Gardens, Siné’s ability to accommodate the masses is certainly a selling point. Fraternity alumni gathering? Go to Siné’s. Impromptu office happy hour? Head to Siné’s. Bachelor party pitstop? Why not Siné’s?

Siné’s may sometimes come off as a caricature of an authentic Irish pub to the untrained American eye, but long-time patrons know that much of the pub’s interior was designed and built across the pond and transported to Richmond in order to come as close to a traditional “city pub” feel as possible. After a pint and a shot of Jameson, the kitsch starts to feel downright cozy.

Depending on how busy the bar gets, the service can get slow but rarely rude. When the staff isn’t strapped for time, their smiles and jokes can make you feel like family. The number of hotels within walking radius inevitably brings in business travelers and stragglers looking to socialize. An apartment manager from Portsmouth eavesdropped on our conversation, cordially inserted himself, and then told us his whole life story. Such salt of the earth can’t be bought.

Siné’s sandwiches, pretzels with beer cheese and nachos are nothing to write home about, but as far as bar food goes, it does the job. If you’re looking for more authentic food, choose their fish and chips. The presence of malt vinegar is always a small sign an Irish pub understands the assignment.

If the free live music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday isn’t enough to draw you in, Siné’s drinks should do the job. Their pours are heavy enough to compete with any gay bar in town, and with more than a dozen beers on tap, odds are good they can give you a fresh pint of whatever you like. Ask for a snakebite if you’re looking for something fun and simple. Half cider on the bottom and half Guinness on top, it’s as heartening and authentic as the pub that pours it.

Siné’s Irish Pub. 1327 E. Cary St, 23219. (804) 649-7767.

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