Denver doesn't have good Irish bars — but the Celtic Tavern comes close

Fish fry is not just a food. Fish fry is a sacrament, a religious and cultural duty carrying with it a freight of comfort and damnation. To some kids (like this kid) who grew up in certain families in certain neighborhoods in the gray twilight of dying working-class towns filled with Kennedys, Reardons, McGinnitys and McKennas, fish fry is like a snake in the memory — something dark and scaly curled around the base of the brain, just waiting to be awakened by a touch.

Fish fry was what some devout Catholics (mostly Micks, though a few Italians and Polacks, as well) ate on Fridays, when no meat was allowed, when accidentally eating a cheeseburger could get your heathen ass sent straight to H-E-doubl e-hockey-sticks. Fish fry was what you ate even if your folks had fallen away from the faith, because it was still a custom, now stripped of its religious significance and imbued instead with a cultural burden. Fish fry was what you ate because, after a time, it felt strange not to.

It was a participatory ritual: thousands of fathers coming home through the purple dusk, stopping in at the neighborhood bar for a belt or two, a couple footed pilsners of Genny, and stepping out again — a few minutes or hours later — with a bloom on their cheeks and a plastic bag full of Styrofoam takeout boxes smelling of fryer grease and fish oil, malt vinegar and sour, already warming tartar sauce going quickly rancid in the sweating heat of the bag. For some families, there was a hard undertone to the Friday fish fry — a remembrance of the Famine and a celebration of plenty, like look how well we've done that, on Friday, we can have fish rather than boiled potatoes, and fried potatoes rather than nothing. For others, it was just a kind of spiritual cover: Check it out, Jesus — we might be a bunch of wife-beating, cop-dodging, barley-drinking fucktards the rest of the week, but we're eating the fry-up tonight, just like you asked us to.

I had a childhood friend, long out of touch now, but the proudest I ever saw him was when he was twenty or so, a new father, estranged but bringing home the family's first bag of Friday takeouts from Mark's on Monroe Avenue — providing the way his dad had, keeping to the ritual. I remember him with his chin out, his head up, swollen with dignity that he might not have even understood, going to sit at the tiny kitchen table with the girl he'd knocked up and the baby they'd made, popping open the styros and eating together in strange, almost reverent silence.

In my neighborhood and those I frequented in Rochester, every restaurant, every bar, fried fish on Friday. In Buffalo, one day a week they'd devote a Frialator normally used for dunking chicken wings to frying up 10,000 fat cod or haddock filets and 10,000 orders of fries. In Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Boston, on Bainbridge Avenue and Vinegar Hill, it was the same. It's been a long time since I've been back home on a Friday, but if I close my eyes, I can still recall the smell of block after block of bars and restaurants throwing out clouds of fishy, greasy steam, of dining rooms full of families all eating the same thing, of fire-hall dinners and church basements. I can still see and hear the crunch of winter snow underfoot and the crinkle of cheap plastic bags full of fish.

Denver is different. I can go a year here and not think about fish fry at all. I can go to the Celtic Tavern on a Friday night and have mine be the only table outfitted with the stack of napkins, the bottles of malt vinegar and ketchup, the platter of fish and fries and tartar sauce.

The Celtic fries cod — big filets, but thin. A cod fry just doesn't tickle me the way a haddock fry does. Done properly, a haddock fry has almost no flavor at all beyond the fryer grease, the beer batter (a thick jacket, crisp as potato chips and laced with a delicate filigree around the edges) and the vague essence of sea creature within. When poked with a fork, the steam will rush out, rising up like a mushroom cloud: a tiny fish Hiroshima. Cod has a sense of uppity-ness — it's just slightly more expensive than the rock-bottom cheap haddock — and leaves a greasy aftertaste, an oily feel in the mouth. The Celtic fries its cod until the batter is thin and crisp, but its fry tastes of fish rather than batter — not a bad thing, just not what I'm used to. And in a strange sop to traditionalism, the tartar sauce here always comes warm, as if a bucket has been sitting in a corner of the kitchen just waiting for some unfortunate sucker to order the fish fry. And while, yes, I fondly recall the warm tartar sauce from my own innumerable bags of takeout fish fry, I've become more cautious in my old age — and warm, mayonnaise-based sauces make me nervous.

So I don't really like the tartar sauce, but there are other things I like about the Celtic. I like the fact that it sits at 18th and Blake, one of my favorite parts of downtown. I've rarely spent a night in this neighborhood that hasn't culminated with my being offered drugs (everything from weed to opium) by friendly drug dealers as I walk to the parking garage where I always stash my car because I like the girl who works nights there.

I like the Celtic because a man of other filthy habits can still have a cigarette with his glass of Jameson whiskey at the bar, because the Celtic somehow managed to get itself classified as a cigar bar under Colorado's anti-smoking ordinance. The odor of spilled beer and lingering smoke, the white fog twisting up around the dim bar lights, makes the Celtic feel more like a bar to me than almost any other bar in town. People complain about the smoke here — fuck 'em. They already have every other dining room and stretch of long oak in the city (and can even go to the Celtic's non-smoking section if they so choose). This place is mine.

I like the rare times when, at a quiet moment, I can hear the Celtic's sound system play a snatch of the fiddle and pipes — mournful dirges from the Old Country or a bit of a Galway whirl — and I imagine that someone might one day actually take one of the books off the wooden shelves, to read a bit of Joyce or Behan over a pint or three. I like it that many of the Celtic's bits and pieces were brought from across the water (stained glass from Dublin, tables from Parliamentary Hall) and that the beer — Murphy's and Murphy's products only — comes from County Cork.

But being a Murphy's bar means no Guinness products, and no Guinness products means no Harp. That alone would be enough to make me swear off the Celtic — if only there were another place where I could both smoke and drink Harp. When I ask for a pint of lager here, the bar pulls me a glass of Stella Artois, which has always tasted like what might happen if I were to spend the night drinking good beer, then pee into a bottle that I cap in my fridge for the night. So instead I drink Corona (which, back home, would get me rightly punched in the face by everyone from the bartender to the natty grandmothers knitting in the corner) or whiskey. Thank God the Celtic carries Jameson behind the bar, as well as a fine profusion of lesser brands.

On some nights, I like the crowds of solo drinkers and small groups filling the Celtic with laughter, the happy drunks swaying along with the Clancy Brothers' bodhrans, the waitress celebrating the end of her parole and how she no longer has to be looking over her shoulder when she's being bad, the rest of the always happy and friendly (if rarely quick) staff. But too often, the place attracts pub-crawling LoDo hat boys and last-call tramps, shit-faced Broncos fans who have apparently mistaken it for a sports bar and gaggles of frat girls puking their schnapps into the gutters along Blake Street.

Like its clientele, the Celtic's kitchen is a mixed blessing. It does a nice steak with Stilton that's almost authentically upper-crust British, and a simple, comforting potato-leek soup. Some form of "Killarney chicken" exists on every Mick-American menu; at the Celtic, it's the awful "Isle of Skye chicken," a cordon bleu, more or less, served over mashed potatoes too smooth and gluey to be anything other than old or out of a box. The shepherd's pie is an embarrassment — an artistic piping of bland mashed potatoes with a stew-ish slurry in the middle — and the actual lamb stew smells like canned beef stock and tastes like something from a Campbell's can, water-thinned and bulked up with trim. The insipid flavor reminds me altogether too much of poverty — those couple of days before payday when I was younger, scrounging the cupboards for dusty cans of anything that might fill me a little.

So don't come here to eat — or, at the very least, don't come expecting anything better than you'd find at any Mickey O'Blarney's Irish Theme Restaurant anywhere outside the industrial East.

For reasons I've never entirely understood, this city seems incapable of opening an Irish bar that's anything but a faded copy of a copy, a playground of Jäger shots and shamrocks, as Irish as a hipster on St. Paddy's day. And while the Celtic tries harder than most and, in small ways, can sometimes almost trick me into thinking it has succeeded, it still serves as little more than a goad to my homesickness, a reminder of snowy nights and gray skies, the sweet sizzle of Harp in my throat and the soft comfort of Dad coming through the door on a Friday night, smelling of beer and smoke and with the rustling plastic bags of takeout in his hand.

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