Pub Crawl 2

Way back in July 2009, I did a pub crawl blog about our favorite Irish pubs, and I lamented at the time that we had only been to about half of San Francisco’s 30some Irish pubs. Well, it was a dangerous, demanding, and difficult task, but we persevered — we’ve now visited most of the Irish pubs and added a few to our list of favorites.

But before I get to the list, here’s a recap of what I look for in an Irish pub. First there’s the beer. A good Irish Pub must have Guinness and Smithwick’s or Harp on tap, and the beers need to be fresh and foamy. Additional points are awarded to any pub that also has Magners Cider on tap. Pub grub is for us, an essential ingredient too. As a minimum, a good Pub will serve Fish & Chips with crispy, light, beer battered Alaskan or Atlantic cod, crisp hot chips and decent coleslaw. But food and drink are only half of what makes an Irish Pub great. Ambience is equally important. Ambience begins with the décor and ends with craic. Pub decor is wooden and warm. The best have beautiful hand-carved mahogany back bars with beveled mirrors and stained glass. Their walls are covered from wainscot to ceiling with photos, signs, documents, and bric-a-brac representing all things Irish. The floors are wooden and well trod. And, finally, a great pub rings with craic.

We still like and frequent the pubs on last year’s list, but here are some new favorites:

01 Durty Nelly's (Z28-11-756)02 Durty Nelly's (X01-7-428)


Durty Nelly’s

This is a small cozy pub out in the Outer Sunset that mostly serves the local neighborhood. If you’re in the area, it’s certainly worth visiting. Both the interior and exterior have an Irish cottage look and feel — complete with curtains on the windows, a fireplace, large comfy booths, and a slate floor. The walls are decked out with musical instruments, sports gear, and Irish memorabilia. There’s an curious version of the "Last Supper" over the second booth with James Joyce in the middle, Beckett on his left, and Oscar Wilde in the back.

There’s nothing fancy about the bar at this pub, but it does have both Guinness and Smithwick’s on tap, and the food is good too. I had the New York steak sandwich, which was excellent.

The staff is friendly; the décor is homey and a bit worn. Of all the pubs we’ve been to in San Francisco, this one most reminds us of the pubs you’d find in small villages throughout Ireland.

If you’re wondering how Durty Nelly’s got such an unflattering name, here’s a bit of history. The original Durty Nelly’s, which dates back to 1620, is in Shannon, Ireland. We’ve been there; it’s a large, lively, and fun place, and it’s packed with tourists who are visiting the adjacent 15th century Bunratty Castle.

Durty Nelly's is in the Sunset District at 2328 Irving Street (near 25th Avenue).

«««« Our nephew Brian sitting under the Last Supper

03 O'Neill's (X01-7-435)04 O'Neill's (X01-7-439)

O’Neill’s Irish Pub

This is a really large, nicely decorated pub with some interesting and fun touches to the décor — like a computer terminal housed in a confessional and some rather irreverent Gaelic signs. The cavernous pub is divided into two rooms with twin bars: one on each side of the dividing wall. The bars are nice with lots of carved dark wood, elaborate balusters, and backlit arches. They are complete too with Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s, and Magners Cider on tap.

Located next to AT&T Park (at 747 3rd Street), this pub is popular with Giant’s fans. Their food is good, and the staff is very friendly.


05 Phoenix Bar (Z28-11-757)

Phoenix Bar Irish Pub

The Phoenix Bar is a fairly big and really nice pub right in the heart of the Mission District. It’s popular and lively and nicely decorated. The walls are covered from wainscot to ceiling with photos and memorabilia (photo 5); the tables are topped with copper, and the lighting is especially nice for a pub. The rock music is upbeat yet not too loud; at least you could talk over it.

There's nothing special about the back bar; just mirrors and glass shelves, but they have the important stuff on tap: Guinness, Harp, Smithwick's, and Magners Cider. The food is really good too. Gary liked the Irish stew, and I thought the fish and chips were at least as good as any we've had anywhere else in the city. I really liked the Irish soda bread too. It was a bit sweeter and not as dry as some places.

The word “Bar” in the name of this Irish pub struck me as odd until I remembered the name of the most famous Irish pub in the world: the Temple Bar in Dublin. 

The Phoenix Bar is located in the Mission District at 811 Valencia Street (near 19th Street).

06 Royal Exchange (X01-7-464)07 Royal Exchange (X01-7-459)

Royal Exchange

In the world of Irish pubs, this is a pretty upscale place. The cavernous room is dominated by two long horseshoe shaped bars that are set end-to-end in a giant oval. The bars are topped with an ornate wooden canopy and are fitted with several rows of polished brass taps. In fact, there are 72 taps in all. They have Guinness, Harp, Smithwick's, Magners Cider and 28 other brews on tap.

There are several tables and 15 or so booths around the edges of the room. The booths have high walls, which make it easy to carry on a conversation in this otherwise crowded and noisy pub. The décor here is plainer and more business-like than most pubs; it has high white ceilings, polished wood floors, and a few old photos on the walls. The beautiful bar, with its 72 brass taps, is decoration enough for this pub.

This pub is very popular with the FiDi crowd and is packed at lunch and during happy hour. The food and service are both really good, and the staff is very friendly. This is one of my new favorite pubs, but only on weekdays — it’s not open on the weekends.

This pub is located in the Financial District at 301 Sacramento Street (at Front Street).


08 Tiernan's (Z28-11-768)

Tiernan’s Irish Pub

We stopped at Tiernan’s a couple of years ago for a pint or two and a bit of pub grub and weren’t really impressed. The food was mediocre, and we really didn’t notice the décor. Last week we went back and got a totally different impression. The walls of the huge room are covered with pictures, memorabilia, and one very large bison head. The interesting and busy zigzag-shaped bar is complete with Guinness, Smithwick’s, and Harp on tap and Magners in bottles. The lively Celtic music added to the vibe. We didn’t eat (other plans), but lots of people were eating, and they seemed happy with their food. All this place needs now is a nice wooden or stone floor — pubs should not be carpeted.

This pub is at the Wharf (685 Beach Street (at Hyde)).

Three honorable mentions

There are three additional pubs that deserve honorable mention: Murphy’s and Kells in the Financial District and Fiddler’s Green at the Wharf. These pubs are popular and are worth going to; they just lack the mix of ingredients that draw us back. Murphy’s (at 217 Kearny) is really popular, and packed, during happy hour. They have Guinness and Harp on tap and serve food from a small open kitchen in the main room. I had a really good hamburger there, but Gary’s fish and chips were quite fishy. Murphy’s also has a patio area in the alley out back that would be nice in warm weather. Kells (at 530 Jackson) is housed in an original Barbary Coast building. It has a very long narrow room on the first floor with a bar, tables, and a marvelous old wooden floor. A second room downstairs has another bar and more seating. Kells has Guinness on tap and bottled but Magners no Harp or Smithwick’s. We’ve eaten there twice; the food is sort of average and the music a bit loud. Fiddler’s Green (at 1333 Columbus Avenue) has a great location and façade (photo 10). Surprisingly, their small first floor bar and restaurant has Guinness, Harp, Smithwick's, and Magners Cider all on tap. Alas, their food was not great. Gary said the fish and chips were the worst he’d ever had. We didn’t go upstairs, but we understand they have a nightclub there with music and dancing — the web reviews say it’s a lot of fun.

We still have not been to all of the Irish pubs in San Francisco, but I believe we’ve been to all that serve food. We’ll leave the “drinks only” neighborhood sports bar pubs to the younger crowd. But this is not the end of our pub quest because these are only the Irish pubs in San Francisco; we haven’t even started on the English pubs. Next stop: the Pig and Whistle.


© Virginia E. Vail 2012