This is a story about five Irish bars, and it begins at the end, with a man named Mitch sleeping on Lewers street. That’s because “all endings are beginnings,” as Mitch says to me.
Earlier that day I told a friend that I was headed out for pub crawl and she said, “Do you think you’re in Denver?” and I said “No,” and she said, “Well good luck finding pubs in Honolulu,” and I said, “I’ve already found five, and those are just the Irish ones.”
So I set out with a partner on a late Saturday afternoon, headed toward the fab five–But first, there is Mitch.
Sunday, 1:10am, Kelley O’Neil’s
The last hour of Mitch’s night was spent, like most of the others, at Kelley O’Neil’s, located just off Kalakaua Avenue on Lewers Street. The bar has the usual Irish attractions: rugged brick walls, a bar with imported lagers and stouts on tap, hundreds of shiny bottles of whiskey, a box of cigars and a stuffed leprechaun wearing a green polyester suit. It’s a scene straight out of Atlantic City.
We order a Harp lager ($3.75) and a Guinness Stout ($4.50), not because a thick, malty beer necessarily sounds good after a nearly nine-hour buzz, but because we’re starving, the kitchen’s closed and a Guinness is the closest thing we can find to a steak. They have a late night menu, available from 9–11pm, with items like Sweet Potato Puffs, Gaelic Fries and Deep Fried Hot Dogs for just $5. But tonight, we’re too late, and Mitch, my partner and I sit at the bar like curious citizens do. The band plays a Beatles song, and Mitch lights up a long, thin stogie.
Sipping from a pilsner glass, we investigate the Harp’s grainy, malty texture, an ever-so-slight bitterness that dissipates in the aftertaste.
“I didn’t think you could smoke in a place that serves food,” I say to Mitch, and he says, “It’s a smoke at your own risk rule,” and I say, “What’s that mean?”
It means light up, get caught and pay the $50 fine–and the obviously Irish philosophy seems to work. The place is packed, and the smoky haze is a beautiful health hazard.
By 2am the bar closes, and Mitch finds a corner outside where he curls up under a blanket of neon lights. “Happy Holidays,” I say, and he says, “Feels like heaven doesn’t it?”
Five Irish pubs, one night, a walk in the rain? Yes, it feels a bit like heaven.
Saturday, Midnight, Irish Rose Saloon
LA Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Michigan jerseys cover bodies that smell like Smitty’s, or worse, but I’m taken in immediately by the band and Irish Rose Saloon’s impressive bar. It’s located in an easy-to-find, yet remote area, within walking distance of Kelley’s. Yes, parking is tricky, but a nearby, late night pho restaurant makes it worth it. The dance floor is packed, even though nobody’s dancing, and a band called Elephant takes center stage. The bartender makes 13 drinks in six minutes, impressive.
Hardly what I consider a dive bar, Irish Rose is huge, and, if I may say so, clean! And I feel perfectly comfortable drinking out of the frosty pilsner glass which contains a Smithwicks Irish Red ale ($5.50). Part of the Guinness empire, this beer has a pronounced maltiness and a mild carbonation, and of all the beers I’ll drink on this night, this one’s by far my favorite. As for my partner, he prefers the Newcastle ($5.50), a brown ale with a full body and a clean aftertaste.
A man sitting next to us counts the red tricycles hanging from the wall. He’s wearing a John Deere hat, and he’s drinking a Miller Light. I think I know this man.
“Are you from around here?” he says to me, and I say, “Yes,” and seeing that he’s also wearing a pen and tiny notepad in the front pocket of his work shirt, I say, “You from Nebraska?”
Turns out I was close. His name is Eddie and he’s from Iowa. We talk about farming and hydrolic hoses and he shows me a picture of his two-year old tractor on his iPhone.
“I used to have a girl over here,” he says, and I say, “What happened?” As he finishes the last of his beer and orders a shot of Jameson, he says, “Oh, you know, that’s just the way it goes when you’re in the Navy.”
The band plays “Autumn Leaves.” We say goodbye to Eddie, finish our beer, and wish him good luck back on the farm.
Saturday, 9:45pm, Anna’s
Now this is a dive.
Located on Beretania Street, near the University of Hawaii, Anna O’Brien’s is that perfect mixture of “don’t drink out of the glass” and “is anybody wearing a fanny pack?” It’s seedy and unpredictable, three guys are fighting in the corner, and there’s a pool table. If that ain’t Irish, I’m not sure what is.
A man named Jerry waits on us from behind the bar. He’s an aspiring lawyer, originally from Oklahoma, and he loves chewing on ice cubes. We order a Deschutes Black Butte Porter ($6) and a Hornsby’s Hard Apple Cider ($5.50). The cider tastes less like cider and more like a horn, whatever that means, and the porter reminds me of coffee. It smells black, and its sweet-like toffee aroma is strong enough to cut through the smoke.
On the way to the restroom I stop and watch the band. I notice a rack of Nora Roberts books, and I wonder if I’ve drank too much. The smoke is getting thicker, the cider is setting in and thankfully, I’m not wearing my glasses.
We pay our tab, bid our goodbyes to Jerry, and slip past the Irish-looking gang throwing punches outside the door. And the band plays on.
Saturday, 6:10pm, Murphy’s Bar & Grill
An old fashioned skiff hangs from the ceiling inside Murphy’s bar. The setting is idyllic, as Irish as a shepherd’s pie, and even the bartenders are cocky. There is football (Florida State vs Florida), basketball (UNLV vs North Carolina), and there is beer.
We order some wings and fries ($16 for the large order), a pint of Boddingtons Pub Ale and an Erdinger Hefeweizen (around $6 each). The Boddingtons is brilliantly clear and golden in color. In short, it’s a pretty beer, and its crisp, light, juicy aftertaste is memorable. The Hefeweizen is a good all-around weizen, which is to say, it tastes like December.
We visit with a few military guys who just got back from Afghanistan. We buy them a round, and like true Midwestern gentlemen, they buy us a round back: Maui Brewing Co. Coconut Porter ($6) and Rogue Dead Guy Ale ($5.50), both nutty in flavor. We play shuffleboard, and they win, of course. Fish and chips their sweet reward, we get to know and admire “Charlie” and “Captain.”
“Planning to stick around Honolulu?” I ask, and Charlie nods his head no. “We’ll go back to where we come from, try to find something else to do, I guess.”
And that means Texas for both of them. We offer our hands, they grip them tightly, and we head down King Street.
Saturday, 4:30pm, O’Toole’s Pub
Inside O’Toole’s, people are wearing boardshorts, suits and ties, and black leather jackets. Bagpipes hang from a red brick wall, Baylor and Texas Tech duel it out on the TV, and we order a Killians and Foster ($4 each), while admiring the golden potato hanging above us. It’s our first bar and we’re taking it slow. A man tickles the glass aquarium and packs his cigarettes against his hip. On my way to the bathroom, we meet. His name is Emile and he’s lived in Honolulu for 30 years. “So I guess that makes you a permanent Islander,” I say, and he says, “No–when you live here, you’re never permanent.”
As we’re leaving, I look back at Emile who sits at the bar with a book–Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. A perfectly Jewish book to read in an Irish Bar in Chinatown.