In search of the craic

Seated at the expansive bar counter of the new Irish Exit bar in Moynihan Train Hall in mid-town Manhattan in New York City, early evening was a joyous experience in what is undoubtedly one of the best station bars or pubs I’ve encountered during my travels.

With around 250 covers, it is a pretty extensive space, but the sight lines are broken up to give a more intimate feeling to the venue that sits on the concourse of the station, surrounded by an array of food vendors. Anyone interested in train travel will recall those old school wall-mounted train timetables that continuously flick over when the train times need refreshing.

Irish Exit has a couple of those placed above the central bar area that flick up little known facts about Ireland, along with the updated train times. There is something very comforting to this flickering sound, and among other things, I learnt that three million pints of Guinness are brewed in Dublin every day.

There are also some innovative aspects such as QR codes on the tables that suggest you have “one for the road – the train can wait”, while other signage recommends you take away a “pint of plain for the train”. There was also a sign that summed up the bar – “drink like the Irish – exit with a smile”.

Amid all its professionalism and clever little touches, Irish Exit is, at heart, an Irish bar, and there is something unique about that proposition that is not quite replicated by other bars and drinking cultures. New York is undoubtedly the home of the Irish bar outside of Ireland, and the guys running Irish Exit have some great form because they previously created The Dead Rabbit pub in Lower Manhattan in 2013, and by only 2016 it was awarded with the acclaimed title of “Best Bar in the World”.

The place is very slick and a world away from the Irish pub that I visited in north London just before my New York trip. PJ O’Connor’s sits near Wood Green underground station and looks very much like the bulk of the New York Irish bars that you find scattered across the city, and in every other city in the world, in reality

Its frosted glass gives no indication of what to expect, which can be quite intimidating, as my wife informed me. But on entering the compact venue, there was a warmth in the welcome as it revealed itself to have that quintessential character of an Irish bar. It’s never just about the Guinness, or the horse racing on the TVs, or the cheese and onion Tayto’s crisps. It’s something else.  

The Irish Exit interior

On my visit to The Devonshire in Soho recently – which has rapidly established a reputation as one of London’s best Irish bars – the much-lauded landlord Oisin Rogers informed me that it’s all about the craic. I first came across this when travelling to Ireland for the horse racing many years ago, and I found upon investigation that it is “a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment and enjoyable conversation, particularly prominent in Ireland”. It could undoubtedly encompass other factors, but I reckon we all know it when we see it or feel it. 

It is very much synonymous with the pub. When recent newspaper reports highlighted a man in Ireland who had drank 81 pints across the three days of new year, he suggested he’d embarked on this odd activity simply for the craic. It’s a slightly nebulous definition – similar to terroir, I’d suggest – meaning we can all very much take from it what we like.

For me, it is not about downing 81 pints. It is instead about my understanding that the Irish bar, wherever it might be – whether it’s Wood Green High Street or in mid-town Manhattan – will be a place that delivers something unique and welcoming. It sounds simple, but is clearly not that easy, because every hospitality business would do exactly that it if could.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.