There are Irish pubs in strip malls, suburban shopping centers, and all sorts of unlikely venues. Some Irish pubs even exist within the manufactured environments of theme parks and cruise ships. In fact, Guinness has an entire side business of cultivating what it calls the “Irish pub concept” throughout America. To get the feel right, however, an old building helps. On Monroe Street in downtown Phoenix, Seamus McCaffery’s Irish Pub has long occupied a ground floor space in the historic San Carlos Hotel, which is approaching its one hundredth birthday.
Seamus has been at the same spot for decades, predating light rail, which stops nearby at the Van Buren / Central (westbound) and Van Buren / First Avenue (eastbound) platforms. The green awnings make the establishment easily recognizable from either direction. A bike rack is found outside, with more across the street. There is a patio along the Monroe sidewalk, but the ashtrays on every single table there indicate this space has been surrendered to smoking, one aspect of prior pub traditions no longer allowed indoors, not only in Arizona, but also in Ireland.
Inside, Seamus is broken into three zones, something that recalls the typical layout of several interconnected rooms typical of traditional pubs. The front of the pub is a long wooden bar with an impressive selection of whiskeys from all over the world, not just Ireland, on display. Tap handles provide the usual assortment of beers from Ireland and the British Isles, along with a few domestic favorites and some craft brews of local origin. Bartenders will pour a pint or create a black and tan: its variant, a half and half: or any other customary pub drink without hesitation.
Besides the bar, there are two dining rooms at the pub. The one furthest back is brighter than the rest of the space, and the extra light allows for appreciation of a display case full of leprechaun figurines. In between this room and the bar lies a middle dining room that is darker and more pub-like in feel within its low ceilings and natural wood furnishings. Throughout the space, beer signs from familiar pub brands reinforce the theme. Along the bottom shelf of the bar, look for police badges from around the world under the bottles of scotch and whiskey.
With two dining rooms augmenting the bar, it is natural to wonder how the food compares to the drink in defining Seamus. The answer is that the kitchen can be uneven, but the pub is best enjoyed when it plays to its strengths with traditional pub food. In other words, the more Irish, the better. The corned beef and cabbage is a capable version of the classic with tender salted meat, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. The vegetables are boiled, but not to the extreme level that would obliterate their flavor. Sinus-clearing horseradish is available as a side sauce.
The boxties are also a good choice with stews such as chicken in a white wine cream sauce or steak and mushrooms topped with what is essentially a potato pancake. The shepherd’s pie begins with a ground beef foundation overlaid with some cheese and a layer of mashed potatoes, while the chicken pot pie relies on poultry in a cream sauce inside a pastry shell. An Irish beef stew, available by the cup or bowl, is a hearty meal but somewhat one-dimensional with a flavor profile that conveys salt and vinegar, but not much else in the way of nuance.
Many of these entrees come with a piece of soda bread, an appreciated nod to Irish tradition; a few others, come with a less impressive chewy garlic breadstick. Another pub classic is fish and chips. Seamus’ approach here is half right. The fish is outstanding. Two generous slabs of cod are generously battered and fried until crisp but not brittle. The chips part, however, needs some improvement. These fries just don’t have the same level of crispy freshness as the protein they accompany. The third component, a side of coleslaw, is serviceable although a bit too sweet.
Burgers and sandwiches on the menu come with a choice of fries, slaw, or an upgrade to onion rings for several dollars more. A French dip can be enhanced if ordered “zesty style” with jack cheese and jalapeños. Among the burgers, a solid choice is the Paddy O’Melt, which despite its corny name, is a good take on a classic patty melt with an elliptical burger served on rye with onions and Swiss cheese. A beer battered cod sandwich reprises the better half of the fish and chips, and a Reuben can be made with either the restaurant’s corned beef or sliced turkey.
The salads here are substantial and can function as light entrees. The Caesar is a satisfying version with croutons providing some heft and an option to add Cajun or Buffalo chicken, as well as breaded shrimp,as proteins. Likewise, the chef and Cobb salads are appealing versions of classics, and the house salad is essentially a meatless amalgam of the other two. At the other end of the carbohydrate spectrum, a breakfast burrito is served all day with potatoes, cheese, eggs, and a choice of meat or vegetables rolled inside a flour tortilla with a side of salsa.
Seamus offers three desserts. Two of them, chocolate cake and vanilla bean ice cream, are nothing that cannot be found just about everywhere else. The one choice that does stand out more is the Irish whiskey cake. It’s not always available, but it’s the dessert to choose when it is. While many places are calling themselves “gastropubs” with elevated food, Seamus has no such pretensions. The kitchen has its strengths and its weaknesses, but the pub atmosphere has its own consistent charm that fits into the aesthetics of the century-old hotel that houses it.
18 W. Monroe St., Phoenix AZ 85003