American Irish pubs are like Irish whiskeys, there are an endless number of them, but very few are worth your time. Far too often, bars masquerading as Irish pubs (the McHooligans of the world, if you will) use their national theme as a gimmick and are really no more Irish than the local sports bar, although the pub might have more green on display.
Finding a good Irish pub though can be a transformative experience and, with St. Patrick's Day coming up, it might be a wise idea to start giving some thought as to where you'll be spending the holiday reciting James Joyce and really digging some fiddle (or getting sloshed, the choice is yours). If you're heading to an Irish pub in the States, one that prides itself on holding up the age-old Irish tradition of not just drinking, but drinking well (and occasionally to excess), then there are a few things you should look for in your destination.
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The beverage selection should be concise
When visiting an Irish pub, drink as the Irish do. Guinness, hard cider and Irish whiskey (Redbreast and Tullamore Dew are two excellent choices) are what you should be choosing from. If you're ordering a martini or an IPA, why are you there in the first place?
The music should be Irish
Drake or The Chainsmokers should not be the first thing you hear when you enter an Irish pub. If that's the case, immediately turn around and leave. The best Irish pubs will have live musicians playing traditional Irish music while you throw back a few pints of the magical dark stuff. That said, if they don't, the pub should at least be playing music by Irish bands. The Corrs, The Cranberries and The Frames are acceptable. U2 or Snow Patrol would even work as well. However, you'll know that you've chosen well if music from the Pogues, Van Morrison or the soundtrack to The Commitments is playing upon entry.
The space should be worn in
I'll take a pristine new pub over one that's designed to look old any day of the week. However, the best Irish pubs should look worse for the wear. This isn't a cocktail bar or a craft beer bar, this is a pub, a place to congregate for heavy drinking and enthused discussion. Your Irish pub should look like people have been smoking in it and spilling drinks on the floor for years.
The bar should be lively, but not painfully loud
As the night wears on and the speakers start blaring Dropkick Murphys (for that one regular who always requests it), you should still be able to hear your fellow drinkers. There will be music and merriment, especially after Jameson shots arrive. However, good Irish pubs are about more than drinking; they're for spending time with likeminded drinkers, something that's not always easy to do during a "Shipping Up to Boston" sing-a-long.
The food should be at least a little Irish
There should not be nachos. Stews, mussels, fish and chips and any dishes containing lamb or mutton are acceptable options. If you've discovered a truly good Irish pub, one where the whiskey and Guinness flow freely, you'll want to order something hearty at the start of the night.