As someone who actually opened a restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day a third of a century ago at the behest of an Irish partner, the elegant, now departed Robert Flaherty, may I give some advice? Stay away from Irish pubs on St. Paddy’s Day.
Even a regular Friday night happy-hour crowd at the Irish Bank, a soulful Irish pub tucked away in a Financial District alley, hints of St. Paddy’s Day madness.
But the Irish Bank’s good-natured staff and its clientele, which is San Francisco diverse, international and equally male and female, all maintain civilized high spirits, even at the height of the rush. Open for 20 years, the pub used to be called The Bank of Ireland, until it was sued by The Bank of Ireland.
Four of us found ourselves in the midst of it the other night. Long tables under awnings and heat lamps, in the alley outside the whitewashed front of the Bank, were full, and a small pub room was packed.
At the end of a short corridor with a confessional holding a coveted occupied table for four inside, was a quieter, low-ceilinged dining room full of evocatively worn wooden tables. We waited in that corridor, studying the vintage photos lining the walls, and then pounced as an after-work foursome drained their glasses and stood up.
You actually get some Irish dishes here. Big battered fingers of chewy, fresh Alaskan cod ($11.50), fried in clean, neutral oil, come with tartar sauce lightly scented with onion, and with clean, crisp, house-made cole slaw. The chips are big, flat and probably frozen, but OK. Fish and chips are the pride of The Irish Bank.
A ramekin of shepherd’s pie ($9) has a golden top of mashed potatoes covering a filling of ground beef and mixed vegetables all in a sweet and sour tomato sauce that suggests barbecue.
Meat eaters will appreciate the Irish stew ($10.95), with big hunks of long-cooked beef, fork tender, in tomato-tinged gravy with big pieces of carrot and celery. A dollop of mashed potatoes crowns the top.
Even better is corned beef and cabbage ($12.95), a mystery to the Irish, who eat boiled bacon or smoked pork shoulder with their cabbage. Corned beef comes in cans in Ireland. The Irish Bank’s pickling spice-infused corned beef is falling-apart soft but has plenty of meaty flavor. A pile of it comes with a bright green, cooked-to-order wedge of cabbage, and a scoop of well-seasoned mashed potatoes, horseradish and mustard on the side. It’s a great plate.
Chicken curry ($12.50) found its way to Ireland during the British Empire, and the mild “Malay” style chicken curry here has a sweet, coconut milk sauce fragrant with Madras curry powder, basil and mint and is tinted tomato red.
Another comfort food favorite, light, creamy elbow macaroni and cheese ($9) comes to life with a sprinkle of salt.
On St. Paddy’s Day, the Irish Bank will have live music in the alley all day, a DJ inside after work, a radio station broadcasting on-site, and a pared-down menu of drinks for faster distribution, served in plastic to prevent mayhem. I still plan to avoid the festivities and celebrate on my own, using glassware.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.