Creating an authentic pub experience is more than just luck

In 1995, the famous Irish stout company, Guinness, noticed a trend in sales: whenever an Irish pub opened in a city or town around the world, sales of Guinness skyrocketed – not only in the pub itself but in neighbouring establishments too. The other bars and pubs, they deduced, were trying to emulate that ‘something’ an Irish pub brings.  The phenomena led to The Irish Pub Concept – a study that defined critical success factors for a successful Irish pub, including authentic Irish décor, food, music, key employees, and engaged management and ownership.

In California, one Irishman was watching very closely. Joe McGuiness from Stonybatter, Dublin, was no stranger to the brand. His grandfather and father had worked at the Guinness brewery for a combined 77 years. Taking inspiration from the Guinness Irish Pub Concept, McGuinness began formulating a business plan.

13 years later, after moving to Halifax, McGuiness met Kyle Drake, a university student with boundless enthusiasm and a comparable sum of family money. The fortuitous marriage of entrepreneurial brain and brawn was unusual. Drake was half McGuiness age, had no hospitality experience, and had never (yet) been to Ireland. In 2009, Durty Nelly’s opened on Argyle street.

“Kyle knew nothing about bars,” says McGuiness, “He didn’t know vodka from gin. Didn’t know a sausage from a slice of bacon.”  He says all this quite seriously, and then a moment later, when I ask him if I can quote him – howls with laughter. His chef, Richard Sanford, who I am chatting with this morning, joins in.

This, from my experience, is a trait of the Irish sense of humour – to say something in a deadly serious fashion, then wait.  It’s hilariously “authentic,” and has just ticked one of the boxes: McGuiness, as owner, is undeniably engaged in the business.

Niall McGuiness, Chef Richard Sanford, Axel Herve and Eugene McCabe

With a healthy passion for Irish food, I visit Durty Nelly’s on two separate occasions to try both the dinner and the brunch menu.  

My first visit is early on a Friday evening, and “Sonny’s Return” is being belted out in the back. It’s a Newfoundland tune, but it would satisfy the experts: according to Guinness, “music doesn’t always have to be traditional Irish music, but carefully choosing your playlists…is very important.” Another box ticked.

Sanford’s award-winning fish chowder is how we begin. Packed generously with fresh fish and shellfish and cooked to order, we don’t have to go fishing for the good stuff – chunks of shrimp, scallops, and fresh Atlantic haddock are right on top, ready for the spoon. On the side, there are several pieces of Sanford’s homemade Guinness brown bread.

The chowder is so adored that in 2013, the LA Times did a feature article about the recipe. In 2015, it won first place at the Devour! Food and Film festival. Then, in 2017, an Ontario woman, Debbie Fricker, wrote to Durty Nelly’s complaining that she had lost the love of her husband. He was obsessed, she lamented, with the chowder they’d tasted last year on a visit to Halifax.  With the assistance of the Downtown Halifax business commission and a few other partners, Durty Nelly’s flew Clayton and Debbie Fricker to Halifax for a chowder cooking lesson and Maritime weekend knees-up. Debbie Fricker left the city with the chowder recipe and a Durty Nelly’s tattoo.

The brown bread has a story too. The recipe comes directly from the Hotel Europe in Killarney, where Sanford visited in 2015, as part of a Durty Nelly’s “market research” trip, along with Drake, McGuinness, operations manager Michael Carey, and a few other close friends and customers. The bread isn’t your standard dense, hard Irish soda bread. Instead, it’s soft, sweet, and melt in your mouth delicious, almost like gingerbread cake, but savoury, the perfect companion to nearly everything on the menu.

For my main course, I choose the Bangers and Mash. For this dish, Sanford hasn’t tried to emulate an Irish sausage (impossible!) but instead uses a Bratwurst recipe. Served with a hearty portion of champ (mashed potatoes with spring onion), caramelized onion and a deep pond of demi-glace, this is a true winter warmer, a really hearty pub meal that goes down perfectly with my pint of Guinness.  My companion chooses a lamb shank, also hearty, served with a selection of roasted vegetables – parsnips, carrots, and beets. And so, Durty Nelly’s has ticked another box by “providing genuinely home-cooked food…”

Our server encourages us to try the sticky toffee pudding for dessert, and we don’t look back. The sauce is what makes this dish –not thick, burnt and sugary, but thin, sweet, and sophisticated, with the gentle flavour of whisky – a perfect complement to the enormous cube of soft, glossy-topped cake made with fresh dates. Served with vanilla ice cream, this is comfort food heaven.

Then there’s brunch, served on weekends between 10 and two o’clock.  I’m a sucker for a fry up, especially an Irish one, but when I see white pudding on the menu, the skeptic in me creeps in. White pudding – a sausage made from meat, fat, oatmeal, and a unique combination of spices – is a genuinely Irish thing.

Sanford admits that it took a long time to get his recipe right. “We have a loyal clientele of Irish folks who come up here and do some Guinness drinking, and for two months straight I would come out and say, OK, how’s this white pudding, and they’d say ‘ah, it needs a bit more spice.’”

“It’s at the point now where I would bet my paycheck that we have the best white pudding in Canada,” says Sanford.

I order breakfast on one of the most miserable days of autumn. With cold rain still dripping from my forehead, I am handed a steaming pot of Barry’s Irish tea, followed by a massive plate of eggs, bacon, potatoes, brown bread, potato bread, black pudding, and the much anticipated white pudding, which is so close to the taste of Ireland, I nearly cry with joy. Sanford is right. This could indeed be the best white pudding in Canada.

According to Guinness, the final key for a successful authentic Irish Pub is “having all employees understand the warmth, informality and conviviality of Irish Pubs,” and Durty Nelly’s has got it right. The staff at Durty Nelly’s is warm, genial…and very much like a family. Next time you go, ask your server how long they have been working there. The answer may surprise you.

My final question to McGuiness is about work-life balance for his staff. “We all know that being a chef is one of the hardest jobs out there,” I say, “Do you have anything in place for your staff, in terms of days off, mental health…you know, looking after them?”

He looks me straight in the eye and adopts a very sombre tone. I feel like I’m about to be let in on a trade secret.

“We give them alcohol.”

There is a brief silence, then Joe and Richard howl with laughter. The answer is a joke of course, and purely Irish in spirit. It’s all part of the craic at Durty Nelly’s – a truly authentic, successful Irish Pub.