While the old-time Irish pubs are disappearing from Ireland, new, quasi-Irish pubs are flourishing in America. One of them, Dugan's Pub, was chosen by Arkansas Times readers as the best new restaurant in Little Rock.
A number of Irish pubs have opened in Little Rock in recent years. In fact, Don Dugan says that while he'd been thinking for some time about opening an Irish pub himself — about reaching back to his Irish roots — what really pushed him over the line was a visit to one of the new pubs in the area. He found, he says, that it "was not the way I'd do it," so he decided to do it his way, and opened Dugan's at Third and Rock Streets in the River Market District. The place was packed on a recent Thursday night when a couple of journalists dropped in for dinner.
Pubs in Ireland could use that kind of business. Travel writers say the famous Irish pub is in serious decline, especially in rural Ireland. The trouble started in 2004, with adoption of a national ban on smoking in Irish workplaces. Surely among the smokingest people in the world until then, the Irish did not adapt well to the ban on smoking in pubs. Conversations between friends became intermittent. Non-smokers found themselves sitting alone much of the time while their mates slipped outside for a smoke. Stories were told of romances that began or ended because half of a couple was a smoker and the other half was not.
So, people began buying booze to take home and drink, and they found alcohol was cheaper that way. Married couples didn't have to worry about babysitters, either. All of the stay-at-homes could socialize exclusively with friends and family.
Having reduced public smoking, the government took action to reduce drunken driving, a big problem in Ireland, especially on low-quality rural roads. Random breath tests came into use; a zero-tolerance policy was adopted. Drinkers became afraid to drive — which was the idea — and buses and taxis weren't available in rural areas. Deprived of their former customers, many publicans closed their doors.
There've been Irish pubs in America since the great Irish emigration of the 1840s, during the potato famine. The early Irish-American pubs were in the big cities of the Northeast that had large Irish populations. In the 1990s, Irish pubs started appearing in much greater numbers, and scattered across the land. American smokers were accustomed to dealing with restrictions, and they'd become a vanishing breed anyway. Different forms of transportation were more readily available in the U.S.A. And, of course, the Irish were known for their ability to have a good time.
The pubs made money for their owners too. A restaurant authority says, "In an industry where profits can be very low, margins in Irish pubs are significantly higher than those achieved within the mainstream casual-dining sector, mainly because of the very high and profitable ratio of beverage to food." Many of the customers at Dugan's appeared more interested in drinking, socializing and listening to the band than they were in eating.
Our authority on Irish-American pubs says further, "Often, the Irish theme extends only to the name and the decor, while the menus are much like those in other North American bars or full of faux-Irish dishes like 'Irish nachos' and 'Reuben egg rolls.' " Dugan's has a "Molly Malone's Seafood Platter."
Much of Dugan's menu is the same as that in non-Irish bars. They make a good cheeseburger, and you can build your own, adding such things as fried jalapenos, avocado and peppered bacon.
And then they have what they call "Traditional Irish Favorites." But they were out of the Bangers & Mash (a waitress said they were out of casings for the sausage). The shepherd's pie we had instead was not entirely pleasing. Our companion approved of the fish and chips. The fried cod was firm and the beery batter tasty. The chips, nothing special.
Guinness and other imported beers are on tap, and several kinds of Irish whiskey and Scotch are available. There are also specialty drinks, like "Dublin Iced Tea — Melon liqueur, Stoli, Bombay Sapphire, Bacardi, triple sec, sweet and sour, and Sprite. - $8.50."