There are only a handful of Gateway District restaurants equipped to handle the blitz of a pre-game dinner rush. Flannery's Pub is one of them. This is, after all, a bar that does more business on a single St. Patrick's Day than its neighbors do in a good week. So compared to the tipsy mob that descends upon the place each March 17, a measly pre-Cavs game crowd must feel like a weekday happy hour.
To judge for ourselves, we paid Flannery's a visit in the hours leading up to the biggest happening in town: Celine Dion at the Q. When we arrive, the place is crawling with fans of the Canadian songstress; we are outnumbered about 200 to 1. This must be what parents experience when they chaperone their progeny to "rock" concerts.
Despite the fact that every visible seat in the cavernous restaurant is occupied, we are promised that the wait for a table will be brief. True to her word, the hostess rounds us up from the bar before we've polished off our first round. She ushers us to a room I never knew existed, one with a pool table, dartboards and pleasant views of East Fourth Street.
A Flannery's bartender once told me that the bar serves approximately 4,500 pints of Guinness on a single St. Patrick's Day, evidence that Flannery's is nothing if not efficient. We experience the very same pacing as our dinner orders are taken, beverages are served and appetizers are delivered. Our server is the model of fluidity as he floats from table to table, grabbing empty plates, reciting specials or pausing briefly to tell a joke.
But rare is the operation that doesn't sacrifice quality for speed. Just as we are commending the kitchen for keeping up with the Sisyphean demands of a 7,500-square-foot restaurant, our food begins to arrive. Had the corned beef and cabbage soup ($3.99) been served hot, it would have been pleasant enough. The pale beef broth, assuredly from a base, is augmented with bits of beef and flaps of cabbage. But appropriate temperature does not salvage a cup of Irish stew ($4.99) so thick and gummy that it is nearly impossible to decipher its contents.
We very much enjoy the Boyne Valley rolls ($6.49), a sort of Irish-American version of the Mexican flauta. Deep-fried tortillas are stuffed with chopped corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese and served with good-old Thousand Island. Comically large mushroom caps, dipped in Guinness batter ($6.99) and fried, also fare fine as they are suitably hot, pleasantly juicy and patently plentiful. Each mushroom cups a dollop of what seems to be condensed broccoli cheese soup.
If you've had fish and chips at any other Irish bar in town, Flannery's' version will seem familiar. Neither memorable nor offensive, the platter ($10.99) contains a heaping portion of batter-fried whitefish, a fistful of fries and a blob of coleslaw. On the other hand, this restaurant's version of cottage pie has absolutely nothing in common with that traditional dish.
Rather than a dense minced-meat casserole topped with a thick layer of crusty mashed potatoes, the Flannery's adaptation ($9.99) is essentially a bowl of cream of chicken soup with a piping of potatoes around the circumference. This seems like the kind of shortcut in preparation that allows a restaurant to manage 500 covers in a night.
Lunch is a whole different animal at Flannery's - quiet, almost eerily so given the hall's dimensions, and decidedly more relaxed. The atmosphere is not unlike any other casual restaurant.
We decide to avoid all Irish-themed menu items just to see how that works out, and it works out just fine. A Caesar salad ($2.99) is garden-fresh, with the ideal ratio of dressing to leaf. The shredded cheese is flavorful, the croutons aren't stale and the tomatoes are halfway ripe (though why they are in my Caesar is anybody's guess). Flannery's sells a damn fine burger ($6.49) that is cooked right, topped any way you choose and sided by a stack of thick, crisp fries.
In 2005, owner Denis Flannery sold his eponymous pub to MRN Ltd., the development company behind East Fourth Street. The restaurant is operated by Trifecta Management Group, the team that runs Zocalo and Corner Alley. I can't say whether the food has suffered or improved following the changeover because I never ate a meal here before. A fan of the ever-amiable bar staff, what I did do at Flannery's was drink. And I plan to do more of that in the future.