Occasion worthy of a pint and corned beef 

Whether you’re Irish or not, chances are you’ll eat your one corned beef and cabbage meal of the year Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day. Though the holiday honors the Roman Catholic bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, the day really has become a bibulous and joyous celebration of all things Irish.

Corned beef and cabbage is actually considered an American meal throughout most of Ireland, but traditionalists nonetheless will like O’Reilly’s Irish Bar and Restaurant in North Beach, an evocatively wrought pub full of mementos collected by Irish-born Myles O’Reilly, a certified San Francisco eccentric.

On one slow, rainy night, a grizzled, aproned bartender joined a couple patrons on the sidewalk under a green awning for a smoke. Indoors, in the wood-paneled barroom, locals were sipping Guinness and looking for soccer on TV. I headed to the dark, cozy dining room, with its own beautiful carved front doors inset with jewel-like windows.

I sat at a banquette made from an antique church pew and slurped Drakes Bay oysters on the half-shell (6 for $10.95), big, superfresh and mildly briny with lots of liquor. I had another six just to polish off a basket of moist, nutty, Irish brown bread and butter and an 8-ounce glass of Harp lager ($2.75), just the right size for me.

The corned beef and cabbage ($12.95), heaped on an oval plate, looked absolutely gorgeous but tasted flat and washed out. It seemed as if both cabbage and corned beef had spent too much time in water. A mountain of good mashed potatoes made everything fly. On St. Paddy’s Day, the corned beef and cabbage will be flying out of the kitchen, not hanging around in the pot.

The Liberties, a new-school Irish pub in an airy corner Victorian remodeled with big windows that look out onto stately Guerrero Street, doesn’t even have corned beef and cabbage on its regular menu.

The slim waiters and bartenders wear black and look as if they work out at the gym. When I visited, one television was tuned to a tennis match on clay. Clutter plays no part in the design of a polished barroom with high tables and stools, or an adjacent dining room with framed prints.

At The Liberties, I could only get Harp lager by the pint, so I went for an 8-ounce bottle of Magners Irish cider ($4.50), a slightly off-dry but crisp drink that goes well with food, especially fish and chips ($14.95), three brown torpedoes of batter-encased ling cod on a pile of thick-cut french fries with skin.

The fries, like the fish, had a tender interior surrounded by crunch, that irresistible combo of textures. A shot of malt vinegar worked better as a condiment than sweet tartar sauce.

The potato, a South American tuber, was introduced to Ireland in the 17th century as a garden crop of the gentry. In the 18th century, it became a staple, and mono crop, with a tragic result.

But the potato is still the most beloved vegetable in Ireland. At Liberties, mashed potatoes top a traditional cottage pie ($12.95),  filled with savory, well-seasoned chopped beef and lamb. A pile of knife-cut leaf lettuce with brown edges supplies the green. 

On St. Paddy’s Day, when Liberties will be serving up plenty of corned beef and cabbage as a special, everybody will be wearing the green — and nobody has to eat it.

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

O’Reilly’s Irish Bar and Restaurant
622 Green St., San Francisco
(415) 989-6222

The Liberties Bar and Restaurant
998 Guerrero St. (at 22nd Street), San Francisco
(415) 282-6789

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Patricia Unterman

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