THE IRISH once outnumbered the Norwegians and Swedes in Minnesota. They’ve given us the town of Kilkenny, near Le Sueur; several archbishops and at least one governor; and, if you believe Jesse Ventura, the labyrinth-like streets of St. Paul. But outside the confines of Mill City and Pig’s Eye, you’d be hard-pressed to find that icon of Eire pride: the Irish pub.
“Every small town in Ireland has a public house,” says Dermot Cowley, a native of County Louth and owner of O’Donovan’s Irish Pub in Minneapolis. For centuries, the Irish pub has been a man’s place, a safe harbor for henpecked husbands and soccer hooligans alike. Shielded from the sun’s heat and your wife’s glare, you could nurse a pint alone at the bar or join friends in an alcove for carousing or confession.
That warmth—not the exclusivity—is what Cowley hoped to re-create when he opened Jake O’Connor’s Public House in downtown Excelsior in December. And he deserves a doff of the cap for turning a former hardware shop into something comfortable and convivial, replete with a fireplace, buttoned-leather booths, stained-glass dividers, and soft lighting. Vintage ads for Murphy’s Extra Stout and Jameson Irish Whiskey line the walls. On a recent night, guys in tweed blazers sat alongside fellows in baseball caps at the ornate bar, the restaurant’s centerpiece, built by Irish woodworkers. A pair of aging lovebirds fed each other forkfuls of potpie. A table of women toasted a birthday.
As is his custom, Cowley was manning the door the night we stopped for dinner. He urged us to sample one of the 16 beers on tap, including Smithwick’s (pronounced sans w) and, naturally, Guiness, while we waited roughly 20 minutes for a table.
Once seated and comfortably buzzed, we ordered a smattering of appetizers, the best of which was recommended by our server: mini-tenderloin sandwiches, topped with fried onions and spiked with horseradish. The crab cake—also recommended—was smallish, but the capers and mustard mixed with the meat gave each bite a complex mix of flavors.
Fans of Irish food will find plenty to choose from at Jake O’Connor’s. We pronounced the shepherd’s pie fit for peasant or prince. The boxty, an Irish potato pancake, seemed authentic, but we found the cheese-seafood topping overly rich and one-noted. In fact, we had more luck with dishes that hail from outside the Emerald Isle, such as the thick-cut pork chop, marinated and crowned with fresh apple chutney, and the tenderloin, cooked through but still ruby red in the center and paired with roasted Brussels sprouts.
As we mopped up the crumbs of our desserts—oatmeal-infused crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e and a Bailey’s-and-chocolate cake—I couldn’t help but think that, for me, a glass of creamy stout would’ve made an equally satisfying finish. Cowley wants his restaurant to be known for its food, but we’re betting most locals will come for the pours—and stay for the mood.
Jake O’Connor’s Public House
200 Water St., Excelsior
Lunch and dinner daily.
Appetizers $5—$13, entrÃ©es $8—$41