It’s 11 AM on a Friday morning and I’m sitting in my favorite Old Town Fairfax bar, the Auld Shebeen (3971 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax; 703-293-9600). I’m preparing for my interview with bartender Aaron Irwin, 32, who asks if I want something to drink. Still in my late-night bar mindset, I think, “He can’t be serious,” and politely decline. A couple of minutes later, he pulls up a chair with a soda in his hand and a smile on his face, and I start to realize just how quickly this family-friendly restaurant and bar transforms itself into the alcohol-infused, music-pumping Thursday-night dance spot I know and love.
Having bartended for ten years, nearly three of them at the Auld Shebeen, Aaron knows all aspects of this Fairfax favorite—from the Irish-music performances to Thursday night’s college crowd to the restaurant regulars. Here he tells us about the bar and what it’s like to be a part of the staff as well as his plans to take his love for music and restaurant management to the next level.
How did you get into bartending?
I’ve actually been in this industry since I was 15. I started out as a busboy and worked my way up. I started barbacking initially when I was 20, and we had a bartender who didn’t show up. They asked if I could bartend, and so I actually started bartending when I was 20 instead of 21. It was just kind of a chance happening, like “The bartender didn’t show up. We have a spot to fill—you want to work it? There you go.”
And where are you from?
I’m originally from Texas, the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
What other previous bartending jobs have you had?
Well, I used to be in management—restaurant management—as well. The reason I got back into bartending was because I wanted to focus on radio/television production, which I’ve gone back to school for. So in order to have the flexibility without a major hit in income, I decided to go back to bartending. After I left management, the first place I worked at was called Buffalo Wing Factory in Chantilly, but I’ve been coming here ever since I moved up here. I always kind of applied and finally just made my way in by starting working at the door, and a position came up and then I started bartending here. So really, up here the only place I’ve bartended previously was Buffalo Wing Factory, but it was just a beer-only joint.
What is it like working at Auld Shebeen?
It’s a lot of fun. It’s very structured. The great thing about it is you kind of know what to expect as far as what needs to be done. That helps, so there’s not a lot of room for “Well, maybe this should be done, maybe that shouldn’t be done.” At a lot of places I’ve worked at in the past, you have one person saying one thing and another person saying another as far as management goes. And outside of that, working here is a lot of fun. Us as a group—the bartenders and servers, the entire staff—usually hang out a lot. We have our general tiffs, but for the most part we’re really good friends with each other. For example, next Friday, one of our managers and one of our bartenders are getting married and there’s about six of us who are going to the wedding. But the most important thing—Michael Boyle and Dominique Keane, our owners, are a blast to work for. They know when it’s time to be serious. The other times they’re a lot of fun, kinda joking around. And then on top of that, the clientele—we have a very good clientele that comes in and makes our job a lot of fun as well.
Do you have any regulars that come in a lot?
Yeah, we have our happy-hour regulars. Then we have our late-night college-crowd type regulars who come in later for the evenings. So as far as interesting stories, I don’t know if it’s something I can share or not. [Laughs.] We have our religious regulars who we know. I always work Friday days, so I know there’s probably about five or six who I’m going to see come in for a beer or two, maybe three, and I kinda know a little bit about them just from having conversation back and forth. They kinda know a lot about me. And then there’s our regulars we see late night who we’ve actually hung out with outside of work, so that makes it a lot of fun to interact with people who more or less sometimes seem to pay your bills.
How do you like the college crowd? I used to come here pretty regularly on Thursday nights.
It has its ups and downs. It’s really the newly 21 that you sometimes have a problem with because they’ve been accustomed to kind of drinking at home or drinking at somebody’s house, fraternity house, or whatever. So at some point you have to kind of educate them on how to act in public, I guess you could say. And then the other times, their tolerance is not very high, so you have to deal with people getting sick. The good thing about this place is that everybody who comes in here feels comfortable and feels safe because they know what we expect from them. Our typical problem is that somebody’s a little sick and we ask if their friends are here—“Hey, do you mind taking them home?” We don’t really have that many fights, which is good. It’s just a safer environment we try to provide for everybody who comes in here.
Are there any drinks that are unique to Auld Shebeen?
Well, first and foremost is the Guinness. We do pour proper Guinness. Working for Irish owners who are from Ireland, they are big sticklers on pouring a proper pint. Outside of that, I think we’re one of the very few places that offer the Irish cider, which is Magners. It’s also called Bulmers in Ireland. It’s really just or more or less a proper Guinness. We have Smithwick’s and Murphy’s, so we do have several Irish beers.
And how does that tie into the food and theme of the restaurant?
The great thing is you have a lot of places out there that’ll have an Irish name and it’ll say they’re Irish, and then you’ll have an American owner. We’re trying to make it as authentic Irish as possible. Of course, we modernize and have the posters up and everything, but as far as the menu, we do have recipes that are available, typical Irish dishes. We do put sandwiches here and there, but we try to make it as authentic as possible. We try to do things the Irish way, as far as pouring a proper Guinness pint. We also have potato-leek soup, which is an Irish recipe, and shepherd’s pie. We just try to make things as authentic as possible. To say that we’re Irish in an Irish pub—I don’t think you can get more authentic when your owners are from Ireland.
So what’s your favorite drink to make?
I have several. Usually a drink for the ladies, and it’s more of a shooter or a shot. I guess it just depends on what they’re looking for. The great thing with having a plethora of liquors is that having bartended for so long, you know what will kind of taste good together. I have several different shots that I’ve made up recipe-wise but not necessarily given a name. But it’s also like, “Make me something up,” so it’s putting stuff together and making it taste good. Instead of just saying, “Make me something,” and saying, “Here’s a SoCo and lime”—that’s boring. From the paying-customer standpoint, there’s not a lot of alcohol in a SoCo and lime, so it’s like, “Hey, if I can charge you another 50 cents or an extra quarter, here’s a little more.” I want them to get what they’re paying for. Some nights are different. Some nights it seems like everybody will order a Long Island and I’m just like, “Sigh—somebody else ordered a Long Island.”
That’s usually me!
But I mean, I honestly I like to make martinis, cosmopolitans, things of that nature with a garnish. There’s so much in it, especially a martini. And generally I get a good grade on my martinis and cosmos.
What’s your favorite night to work?
Thursday night, probably, because it’s more of the college night. Typically it’s our busier night, so you get a lot of people and it’s generally a faster pace than you think. It goes by faster, you’re doing more, you’re working and putting drinks out.
What kinds of things do you like to do in your free time?
I like outside stuff, sports. I love music.
What kind of music do you like?
I’m big into blues, rockabilly. I come from the grunge era, so grunge I’m really big into. I like the old-school hip-hop, rap—you know, back in the ’80s, early ’90s. I like the electronica. Anything that’s good, I’ll listen to it, but I’m not a huge fan of country.
What about the live music here and in some of the other Old Town Fairfax bars?
I generally have Friday nights off, so I get to experience it a little more. Really, the only live event that we have close to here that has original music is T.T. Reynold’s, and a lot of bands have come and gone through there that I’ve liked. Most of our bands are cover bands—we have really good ones, and if they have their own original music, they’ll put some in. We have a lot of good bands that come here that I enjoy. There’s several that I’ve seen outside of here.
How do you think Auld Shebeen compares to T.T. Reynold’s and other Old Town Fairfax bars?
I’ve always favored Auld Shebeen, but I don’t think I’ve given the other bars a fair chance. When it comes to the Auld Shebeen, I think, versus the Firehouse Grill and T.T. Reynold’s, we’re more of a restaurant/bar that has the late night. We do have live music—like Friday and Saturday nights upstairs, we have live Irish music. But then downstairs we have our entertainment. But it’s an Irish pub, where as T.T.’s has been there forever, and it’s your locals’ radio live-music venue. And Firehouse is kind of your place to go to relax in peace and quiet, more or less. We’re all individuals, we’re all our own little place. We’re an Irish pub where you can come bring your family—not saying you can’t take your family there—but you know, here you can come back, have a good pint, enjoy the atmosphere.
What else do you do outside of bartending?
I do some freelance production work in television. Eventually I’d like to have my own restaurant and a studio myself that focuses on live local music. I wouldn’t just necessarily do a CD for them, but I can do a DVD for them by going to one of their live shows and film it and then produce a DVD. So—have my own restaurant and bar but also have my own production company. I got my associate’s degree in restaurant hospitality and management, and then I finished up in radio and television production, so it’s kind of taking both of those and putting them together. Hopefully, one of these days.
Would you do that in Fairfax, you think?
I would love to start here. I think Fairfax has a pretty good local-music scene. It’s about putting more avenues for local bands to get their music out there. Not just by a CD with a demo, but I can give them a DVD. It’s like, “Well, here’s our stage presence, here’s what we look like live.” The more avenues, the better chance they have to get their music out there.