Behind the scenes at Katie Mullen's
So, a few weeks ago, I wrote this little piece titled "How to Create a Great Irish Bar." It wasn't something I put a lot of thought into. It wasn't something that groaned under the weight of background research (unless drinking counts as research). Really, it was just a way to vent a little anger over a terrible weekend spent cruising through places like the Celtic Tavern and Delaney's and wondering what the hell was the matter with this city that it couldn't manage to come up with even one truly great Irish bar.
Well, my diatribe escaped out into the wider, weirder world of the interweb. It got picked up in a couple of places and developed a life of its own, eventually spawning hundreds of comments and lots of back-and-forth discussions about what, precisely, it might take to create a truly great Irish-American bar in this Gaelically-challenged city. Or any city.
Meanwhile, in a not-so-secret location almost walking distance from this office, a bunch of guys were working hard -- not just talking about making a proper boozer, but actually building one. That place was Katie Mullen's Irish Restaurant & Pub, which has been under construction on the 16th Street Mall side of what's now the Sheraton (at 1550 Court Place, in the old home of the execrable Supreme Court) for the past sixteen months and was finally revealed to the public on Monday.
"You know, when we saw that list, we just ran down it and were like, 'Okay, number one? Check. Number two? Got it.'" Paul Maye, the pub's owner, was describing this to me on Friday while we leaned in one of the doorways running between the various bars that make up the single uber-pub that is Katie Mullen's.
"It was great," he told me. And really, it was the reason I'd ended up at his bar in the first place -- because he and his boys had liked my piece and wanted to meet the fella who'd so succinctly summed up the trouble with Irish bars (or the lack thereof) in Denver. They'd talked to their PR person (the incomparable Wendy Aiello), who'd then talked to me and set the whole thing up like a playdate for marginal grownups: a combination drinking party, tour and meet-and-greet, well-lubricated by Sir Arthur's best and done in advance of the opening-night crowds.
Maye and I spent a good long time talking about pubs in general, about his pubs in particular (four of them in the northwest of Ireland, none nearly as large as Katie Mullen's), about the drinking habits of the American crowds (as inconceivable to Maye as they are to me) and their taste for the culture of a people who've raised a night out at the pub into a work of highly public art.
I was (and always have been) confused by the local idea of a round of drinks. Here in Denver, a round of drinks means that if you're out with two of your friends, you go to the bar, buy a pint for yourself, a pint for each of your buddies, and then you're done; that's a round of drinks. In my world, you're not finished until you've bought three drinks, your one friend has bought three drinks and then your other friend has bought three drinks. That way, everyone has bought two drinks and everyone has had two drinks bought for them. That is a round.
But Maye didn't understand how a gang of friends could go to a bar for just one drink. Or just for two. "If I'm going to go out," he said, "I'm going to go out." Meaning for the day, the night, whatever else might come after. "Otherwise," he asked, "why bother leaving home?"
We were in agreement on much of what makes a pub a pub and on what makes a good night out a good night out. The one thing he didn't agree with? That there's no need to even try cooking proper Irish food in the United States.
"Yeah, I have a small bone to pick with you on that," said one of Maye's food guys, in the middle of overseeing a tasting session in the dining room.
The problem, as I have always seen it, is that most, if not all, of the Irish canon is made up of comfort food -- comfort food unique to a people and to a place. Boxty and champ, bacon with cabbage, coddle and stew and bangers -- these are all things that can make an Irishman drool or weep with memories of coming up in the Old Country. These are things that, to a certain extent, even the children of immigrants can identify with -- words that they know and flavors to which they are accustomed.
But to everyone else? Not so much. A comfort food is only comforting if you have fond recollections of comforting moments surrounding the eating of said food, get me? So if you've never warmed yourself on a cold day with a big bowl of champ and cabbage, you're not going to have any particular urge to order it when you see it on a menu.
Which, of course, isn't stopping the guys at Katie Mullen's from serving it. It's not even slowing them down. To hear Paul talk, he'll be patient. He'll let the people come to it on their own. After all, the kitchen will still be serving burgers. It'll still be serving short ribs, garlic chicken and steaks. But once in a while, maybe someone will come in for the calves' liver with onions; for the Irish stew with lamb, pearl onions and custom-made brown bread (courtesy of the bakery at Panzano); for the bangers and champ with spring onions, or for the boiled bacon with cabbage, potatoes, parsnips, carrots and parsley sauce that I can't wait to try myself.
John Ruane -- an East Coast transplant with more than a touch of green in his blood -- is in the kitchen overseeing the bacon in its fifty-hour marinade and tinkering with the amount of lemon in the boxty-salmon rolls; adjusting the angle on a double-cut pork chop lying on a plate and watching over a crew of pierced, tattooed and galley-pale mercenaries brought in from all over the city to run his line. He expects to be able to do 500 a night out of this kitchen (which was basically rebuilt from the floor up after he got a look at what a wreck the Supreme Court kitchen had been, telling me that he couldn't believe those guys "ever even served a burger out of that fucking pit"), and certainly has it organized for doing those kinds of numbers. The first thing he showed me when I walked into the back wasn't his new gear or his new guys, though. It was his food. He took me right into the coolers to show off his produce, his back stock. He's a man in love with the raw materials of his craft.
And, in a way, Maye is the same. Sure, he talked to me about the furnishings (much of it still covered by tarps or ranked against the walls). He told me about how everything had come from Ireland (and how an entire shipping container's worth of it was being held up by customs in Chicago, requiring him to cut a huge check for a truck driver who would be sent to pick it up and drive it, overnight, to Denver for a Sunday delivery), and how he'd arranged the four bars that make up Katie Mullen's into a kind of historical pastiche of traditional Irish pubs through the years: the classic Victorian bar, the apothecary bar (styled after the historic early days of the Irish public houses, back when they were little more than a back room at the local pharmacy or grocery where the fellas stood around sampling brews), the cottage (like a snug, but bigger) and the Celtic bar, a modern view of Irish drinking habits (minus the Coors and Budweiser on tap and confused tourists, of course).
But what was Maye most concerned with? His beer. He and partner Tom Cronin told me how they'd had to drop an unplanned-for $70,000 on building a special room for the Guinness to live in. The Sheraton had wanted them to use a liquor room in the basement for storing kegs and such, but would the beer have been happy in the basement? No. Would it have liked having to travel all the way up through the lines to get to the taps? No, it would not have liked that at all. Thus, a beer room had to be built, where the barrels could rest comfortably and the lines connecting them to the taps wouldn't have to be too long.
One thing both Maye and Cronin were thrilled about? The altitude. With the extra mile above sea level we've got here, a barman can put a head on a pint of Guinness that is just amazing -- one that actually swells up just slightly and rises above the lip of the glass. Everyone in the joint was thrilled with that. And I was, too. Through not just my first pint from the new system (creamy, rich, black and delicious), but through the second and third as well.
And the fourth, too.
By that time, I was ready to move in to Katie Mullen's -- to find a quiet corner in the Victorian bar amid the dark wood and long runs of Guinness taps, throw down a cot and claim it as my own. I loved that it was so outsized, both in terms of personality and actual space. I loved that Maye and his team were running full-tilt toward their vision of what a great Irish-American pub could be, if not what one in Denver might actually be, and doing it without looking back, without second-guessing themselves or wondering if they'd taken it too far. I appreciated the fact that every time Maye and I started talking about some facet of the drive toward opening, he would say how he'd thought, maybe, he could save a few bucks by doing something the cheap way (using the old kitchen equipment abandoned by the Supreme Court or some of the structural characteristics of its dining room), but then would say, "Nah..." and just spend some ridiculous amount of money on doing it the right way instead.
I love this bar for being uncompromising, for serving boiled bacon and cabbage even if there are probably no more than a hundred people in the entire city who understand why someone might want to eat such a thing, for being huge and strange and full of booze.
There are going to be bumps along the way, sure. I don't know if Maye and company can fill that large a space. I definitely think Ruane is overestimating the draw on his kitchen. I worry that no one but me and the other East Cost transplants, itinerant Micks, wandering pub purists and ex-pats from the Old Country stranded in Denver will get the difference between a Victorian bar and an apothecary bar, between a pint of Guinness that has traveled 500 feet through the lines as opposed to fifteen, between real Irish bangers and chips and that frozen shit from Sysco. I worry that Maye and his crew will have done all this work and spent all this money and made all these decisions to always err on the side of traditionalism, on the side of right and proper, to no good end.
But Maye himself didn't seem worried at all. The way he looked at it, someone who started off doing everything on the cheap could never truly make anything great. Even if he was successful, he'd only be successful at selling something cheap to people who were too dumb to know the difference. But on the other hand, if you started off doing things the right way, the worst that could happen would be that you'd fail trying to do something the best way you knew how. And if you succeeded? Well, then you might not just have something good at the end of the day, but something great.
In this case, perhaps the great Irish bar that Denver (and I) have been waiting for all these years.
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