A short walk from Christ Church Cathedral is the oldest pub in Dublin, dating back to 1198 and still one of its most popular for traditional music.
Hidden behind a rather odd stone frontage, The Brazen Head reveals itself as a maze of rooms, including a lovely book-lined study, all full of customers (though in the afternoon it looks more like a theme restaurant than a pub). The barman asks me twice if I want food, while behind me a Spanish waitress serves a table of young Italian men.
Publican Tom Gilligan of The Duke, just off Grafton Street, has been in the trade for more than 40 years. He recognizes that change is inevitable but is driven by locals more than tourists. “If the customer wants it, you’d better do it, because that’s how you stay in business.
“When I started, it was pints of Guinness, bottles of Guinness, draft lager. You never had cider on draft. Now we have ten flavors of cider. People’s habits have changed, their disposable income has risen and fallen and the advent of home drinking has made a big change to the drinking scene. People used to go out and have a drink. Once, the only drink at home was water, milk or tea. The young gang are inclined to party a little bit before they go out. They’d tell you that’s to save money but when I went out I might have had six or eight beers and had a short then. We never had half a bottle of vodka before we left the house. You know what I’m saying?” Indeed I do.
In Café En Seine on Dawson Street, once one of Dublin’s trendiest new bars and still a riot of Art Noveau extravagance, cocktails are as popular as beer. A young woman brings back two mojitos to complain they are too sour. “Did you not put brown sugar in them?” “No,” says the very young cocktail maker, tasting them. “We use sugar syrup. I’ll make them again for you but there’s nothing wrong with these.” “Yes, there is,” says the customer, “I should know, I’ve been drinking them for years.” She looks barely 18, the legal drinking age in Ireland.
Gilligan, though, is optimistic that the traditional pub will survive, despite the popularity of this new breed of bar and competition from restaurants, clubs and other venues. Not just because visitors come looking for them but also because locals cherish them too. He recognizes that the key is good staff. The Guinness Irish Pub Concept is very clear on that point, too.
“Although it is possible to recreate the feel of a true Irish pub without Irish staff,” it says, “we don’t recommend it. No Irish pub is complete without the friendly warmth, humor and advice of a true Irish bartender. To recreate the friendly service expected in Ireland, pub operators adhere to a simple rule: know a customer’s name by his second visit and his drink by the third.”
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