Q&A: The Dubliner’s Danny and Gavin Coleman

The father-and-son duo talk future plans, St. Paddy’s days past, and hangover remedies.

By: Anna Spiegel

Of all the Irish pubs in Washington, few boast the longevity and history of the Dubliner. Founder Danny Coleman opened the doors of the Capitol Hill institution in 1974, and has been serving pints of Guinness to guests—including President Obama and other notables—for 40 years. The pub and adjoining hotel are also grounds for one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington, which attracts up to 5,000 revelers each year (who tend to make their way through an impressive 100-plus kegs).

Danny’s son Gavin Coleman has taken over the day-to-day operations, and along with his father plans to roll out a few new features after the holiday. In addition to an expanded collection of rare Irish whiskeys, guests will find one of the biggest menu revisions in the past four decades. While the classics like fish and chips and shepherd’s pie will remain, Gavin says about 40 percent of the dishes will change. Here the father-and-son duo talk about St. Patrick’s days past, pouring Guinness for the President, and their go-to hangover remedies.

Tell us about the first St. Patrick’s Day at the Dubliner 40 years ago.

Danny Coleman: It was March 17, 1974. I’d just opened, and this neighborhood was a little rough at the time. I was very nervous, because I didn’t know if anyone would show up! But we hired an Irish band and opened at 8 o’clock in the morning, and for the first hour we sold beer for 17 cents. Guess what? There were hundreds of people there. I did that for four or five years, but then I’d come in the next day and there’d be people sleeping in the doorway still drunk from the night before. Now we open at 10 and don’t sell beer for 17 cents.

What was the most eventful St. Patrick’s Day celebration?

Gavin Coleman: Without a doubt, it was two years ago when Obama came to visit. We had no advance notice, only about 15 or 20 minutes, when a Secret Service agent found me to let me know the President was on his way. That was amazing. Obama also has a cousin in Ireland whom he saw on a state visit, and they had a pint in the local pub. He brought over his cousin, Henry Healy, and the owner of the pub. Ever since then they still come in during the week of St. Patrick’s Day.

When you heard Obama was coming, what was your first thought?

GC: That day it was, “Where am I going to put him?” We were already open for St. Patrick’s Day, and he came around 12:30 when the Dubliner was already full. I was pretty proud he’d chosen us. We found out after that the White House had taken a poll about where he should go, and so it felt like recognition for everything my father and I have put into it for the past 40 years.

What are some other highlights from the past four decades?

DC: When there was a lot of trouble in Ireland, President Clinton wanted to make sure he helped negotiate the peace process. He’d invite people from both sides—Catholics and Protestants—and they all stayed in the hotel here and drank in the Dubliner. Even though the perception was that there’s a big war going on in Ireland, they were over here drinking Guinness together. I always felt we were an important part of the peace process, because they could come over here and talk to each other without getting ridiculed by their neighbors. It’s too bad the rest of Capitol Hill doesn’t work [that way], as well.

Not many restaurants in DC have been open for 40 years. What’s your key to success?

DC: You have to have the service disposition and personality. You have to care that people are having a really good time, without concern about who they are or how much money they’re spending. You can’t fake it.

GC: I took over the day-to-day operations ten years ago, and people ask, “Is your dad retired?” And I’m always like “No, he’ll be in soon.” You never really retire from doing this. He still does what he did 40 years ago: comes in and talks to people. It’s a family restaurant, and that’s how it’ll continue to be run.

What’s your recommended hangover remedy for after St. Patrick’s Day?

GC: A pint of Guinness. It’s the best way to do it. That and an Irish country breakfast.

DC: Yep, hair of the dog. Back in the day I would overindulge on occasion—which I don’t do anymore—and my motto was, “Only an amateur is sober enough to have a hangover.”