Judging by the number of closures in recent months, it may well be last call for the once-trendy Irish pub phenomena that mostly sprung from international interest in Ireland, tied in part to the theatrical production Riverdance in the mid-1990s.
From the pubs of local ownership to national chains such as Bennigan’s and Fado, the prevalence of an Irish bar in which to enjoy a Guinness and offerings as diverse as bangers and mash and traditional music seemed to permeate every metropolitan area in the country.
Denver was a little different, as some of the largest chains — some were called “pubs in a box” with decorations and designs shipped directly from the Emerald Isle to be reconstructed here — made themselves home to the faithful.
But that’s waning, with a greater diversity of brewpubs suddenly overtaking what had been the mainstay of shamrock-loving patrons for years. It begs the question: Is the craic over?
In the Denver metro area alone, nearly two dozen Irish pub locales have closed their doors in the past five years, most notably Fado at 20th and Wynkoop streets across from Coors Field, and Maggie Smith’s at East Arapahoe Road and South Peoria Street in Centennial.
“The Irish pub brand is remarkable so that when a bunch do close, it’s quite noticeable, much more so than if it were an Italian or German restaurant,” said Donal Ballance of Ballance Hospitality in Toronto, a major player in the creation of Irish pubs in North America. “The concept of the mid-90s, when the pub concept really sprang, was a loose test on how to design, run and put together the success it turned into. But the landscape has changed dramatically, making it difficult for these pubs.”
Ballance estimates “the pubs became irrelevant in 2006 to 2010,” somewhat the result of the economic downturn, but also for an aging view of what an Irish pub was to be.
“This neo-Victorian 1970s Ireland appearance is what they are holding onto and it’s drawing further away from contemporary Ireland, its music and its business,” Ballance said. “It’s almost its worst enemy. Those who poke through and remain successful are those looking at fish tacos and braised lamb sandwiches, not just shepherd’s pie.”
In an age of craft IPAs, smartphone apps, and arugula salad, the concept has become increasingly obsolete, more so for the younger set of patrons they attempt to attract.
“I just don’t see that many pubs anymore; they’re not as glamorous or profitable,” said Tom McGuire, Colorado-based central regional manager for Warsteiner who once represented Guinness. “It’s not the day of the passionate pint of Guinness. If you go to Ireland, you see Bud Light, Coors Light and Heineken. Beer used to be a 98% share of that market, but kids today don’t want to drink what their parents did.”
The reason, McGuire thinks, is a millennial population looking to make its own statement as consumers, forcing many owners to either change or close.
“These kids, they’re fickle and are about what’s hot at the moment,” McGuire said. “Going to the pub, finding a good pint isn’t what they’re focused on. They’re all drinking spirits, which is killing beer, destroying it. It’s about fizz fests and malt-based beverages.”
The Denver area was a fast-growing market of Irish pubs. Katie Mullen’s along the 16th Street Mall made a large splash around 2010, only to see itself on the downside of the trend, closing within a few years. The competition for millennial dollars caused others to meet the same fate.
“I think it’s the rise of neighborhood microbreweries, which are the new neighborhood bar, focusing on beer and providing a venue for food trucks to offer the food,” said Bradley Gustafson, an associate broker at NeXstep Real Estate Group, whose seen his own choices change. “They’ve just supplanted the Irish pub as the local watering hole with better drinks, atmosphere and food options.”
Pub owners say they’re trying to keep up, struggling with the greater variety of offerings that clearly fall outside of their sector’s niche.
“It does not help matters that there seems to be a new bar or restaurant opening on every corner every day,” said Noel Hickey, owner of The Celtic on Market, relocated and retitled from The Celtic Tavern. “The rents are increasing at a dramatic rate, and it is very hard to make a living. The younger generation doesn’t seem to have the same love for their ancestry that the generations prior had.”
In addition to varied menus, Hickey credits off-track betting and other sports offerings “that really helps with getting us through.”
Not so much for Frank McLoughlin, owner of the Irish Snug on East Colfax Avenue whose Maggie Smith’s in Centennial was the latest of the pubs to close. That decision was based more on a difficulty accommodating patron parking with a newly constructed hotel reliant on the same parking lot.
“It killed us during construction and no one ever just walked in,” McLoughlin said.
McLoughlin, a former manager at Fado, and his brother, James, co-owned four pubs in town — the Snug, Maggie’s, Slattery’s at the Landmark, and McLoughlin’s in the Central Platte Valley.
“McLoughlin’s, when we closed it, we were overextended; the taxes killed us,” Frank McLoughlin said. “Slattery’s we sold. With Jim retiring, honestly, I didn’t want to be running three pubs.”
Is the Irish pub on the slide or is it simply morphing to a different time?
“The majority of our customers are middle-aged, and we see the millennials on Saturday and Sunday brunch,” he said. “I’m certainly doing a lot more listening these days, asking the millennials where it is they’re going. But there’s much more interest in the beer that’s brewed down the alley rather than the big known names.”
The mainstays are still there, though, such as Scruffy Murphy’s, The Irish Rover, and Nallen’s snubbing a nose at the nay-sayers with each poured pint.
“They all have their unique offerings of entertainment and activities, but the shared similarities of ‘come as you are’ hospitality is something that is still appealing,” said Pat McCullough, whose Celtic Connection newspaper was conceived at Nallen’s over a pint.
“Sure, there are the ones that are chasing the latest hot or hip restaurant or bar, but if you’re looking for a place just to relax and kick back with food, drink, and a chat, there’s no better place than an Irish pub,” he said.