Irish pub food doesn’t have the best reputation among Americans. Blame all the theme-y chains and freezer-to-fryer mentality on this side of the Atlantic. Mark Kirwan hopes to change that. The Tipperary native and former Guinness employee is preparing to open Kirwan’s on the Wharf on October 12, a “real gastropub” in the new Southwest waterfront development.
“So many people who haven’t been to Ireland go to Irish-American pubs, where the food is all ‘fry it until you can’t taste it anymore, or boil it until you can’t taste it anymore,’” says Kirwan, who adds things are different back home. “They’ve rejuvenated the whole pub scene in Ireland, and that’s what I’m trying to do here.”
The 5,000-square-foot bar/restaurant is a pioneer in other respects. Kirwan, who also owns Samuel Beckett’s in Shirlington, says his was the first hospitality business to sign on to the Wharf development in 2011. Six years have given him ample time to make the place as authentic as possible. Nine Irish carpenters and three painters have been busy finishing the interior, which is made almost solely of materials and decorations imported from the Emerald Isle. Kirwan is also sponsoring staff from his home country and hired a chef from Dublin.
“One of the things that gets under my skin is when people open Irish pubs, and they go to a warehouse and buy brick-a-brack,” says Kirwan. “Here, everything with the exception of the electricity and foundation has come across the sea.”
Part of Kirwan’s motivation to bring a true Irish pub to the neighborhood stemmed from research at the Library of Congress. He found Southwest DC was once home to a significant Irish immigrant population—mostly poor, compared to the Irish tradesmen who settled around the capitol.
“It was a place full of character—the streets had names like Blood Alley,” says Kirwan. “It’s nice to bring the Irish back to Southwest.”
The menu will include from-scratch classics, such as fish and chips, soda bread, homemade sausages and puddings—many versions of which will be present in the full Irish breakfast—and shepherd’s pie. Patrons will also find Chesapeake versions of seafood dishes one finds on the Irish coast, and lesser-known specialties like coddle, a comforting sausage and potato stew.
Instead of the stereotypical dark wood-paneled pub, Kirwan’s takes inspiration from airier seaside watering holes. Patrons can pick between two outdoor patios: one close to building and another that’s across a walkway near the water. Inside there’s more room for dining and drinking, televisions for watching European sports—including hurling and gaelic football—and a back whiskey bar specializing in brown liquor from Ireland, Scotland, and the US. Regardless of where you sit, Kirwan says the goal is to be a casual spot amidst the many finer-dining options at the Wharf.
“If we were any more laid-back, we’d fall over.”
Kirwan’s on the Wharf. 749 Wharf St., SW