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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling in Spain

March 15, 2023

MADRID—Irish pubs have always intrigued me. The attraction doesn’t come from the typical things one expects from a pub. I’m not interested in Guinness on tap, or Irish whiskey, or any alcohol for that matter. I’m not a prude, and I’m certainly not against responsible alcohol consumption (it put both of my kids through college), but I’ve been clean and sober since 1983. Trust me the world is a better— and safer— place without drunk Robert stumbling around in it.

I’m not quite sure where the intrigue comes from, but I think it has to do with the people. I love the Irish. My favorite Irish pub outside of the British Isles is The James Joyce in Madrid. The James Joyce is owned by a quick-witted, energetic, and acerbic Irishman, Matthew Loughney. Raised in Dublin, he moved to Madrid in 2006 and has been running this country’s best Irish pub ever since.

My wife and I are in Spain about to host 25 Americans from all over the southern part of the United States through Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, and Malaga. I will be consuming 36 Spanish-themed meals over the next 12 days. I thought I’d get a little Irish pub grub in before the serious tapas-ing begins.

We arrived yesterday but I won’t officially start working until this afternoon. It is always my practice when traveling overseas to do my best to sleep on the flight to Europe and stay awake on the return. Yesterday I was only able to grab a couple of hours on the plane ride over. It is also my practice— and I advise my guests to do the same— to do my best to push through the jet lag and try to stay awake until around 10pm on the day I have landed. It’s not easy, but I have found that when I do I go down hard, and my body clock adjusts to the local time much easier.

Upon arrival yesterday, I was more tired than usual but didn’t want to nap as I would probably be wide awake at 3:00 a.m. and it would take several days to adjust. My wife and I walked around the city for a bit, mainly waiting for the James Joyce to open at noon. When the doors opened, we were there.

It should be noted that I am a firm believer and staunch proponent of eating local wherever I am. Though there are exceptions, and since I will be on an all-out Spanish food bacchanal for the next 12 days, I allowed myself a deviation. The James Joyce is worthy of deviance. We had a lunch of fish and chips and spoke with Loughney about the restaurant/bar business, travel, and what’s happened since we last saw each other 12 months ago. He let us know that Ireland was playing Scotland in rugby later that day and the pub would be packed, but he could save us a spot if we were interested. It should also be noted that the answer to that question should always be, “yes.”

On our return, the pub was raucous and rowdy as one might expect. But it wasn’t all Irish. The Scots accounted for one third of the crowd. My knowledge of rugby is extremely limited. I was recruited to play on my freshman college team but was more interested in 12-ounce curls in the barroom than flankers and drop kicks on the rugby field. We didn’t have a dog in the Ireland vs Scotland fight, but pledged our allegiance to the Irish since we were in our friend’s pub.

If I weren’t already a fan of Irish pubs before yesterday’s visit, then I certainly would have been converted mid-game yesterday afternoon. It was a blast. Ireland hadn’t beaten Scotland in their last eight games, but they won yesterday and the crowd— or at least the Irish in the crowd— was loving it and singing in unison by the end of the game.

Irish pub food is right up my alley. I’m a fish and chips guy— or at least the American version of those items— from childhood. Beef stews, lamb, mashed potatoes, sausage, and the like are all in my culinary wheelhouse. Beef in Guinness sauce and Shepard’s Pie both speak to the foods of my youth as my grandmother was a master of lamb, beef pot roast, and mashed potatoes.

There’s a certain energy level in an Irish pub that appeals to me. It’s an energy that comes from a strong mixture of a particular attitude, love of food and drink, love of country and fellow countrymen, a history of endurance, constant ribbing of one another, festive music, and just the right amount of don’t-give-a-damn, with a little bit of us-against-the-world mentality thrown in, that makes Irish pubs unique in the bar category.

Like Ireland, the American South has experienced a rough and hard history. The attitude of the Irish is a lot like American Southerners in that we endure, and we carry on. We take our hits, and we bounce back, moving ever forward.

When Loughney is asked, “What makes a great Irish pub?” he can sum it up in three words, “It’s the welcome.” That’s something I’ve never consciously thought of, but it is certainly something I have experienced in every Irish pub I have ever visited. He’s right. It’s the welcome. The beer, the food, the atmosphere, and the sports are all great, but it’s the welcome that makes the first impression that lasts through the entire visit.

Even the Scots were welcome yesterday. So were a couple of visitors from Mississippi.

I slept for nine hours last night. I haven’t slept for nine hours since I was in my twenties. I am rested and ready to spend the next eight weeks leading five separate groups of new friends through Spain, Tuscany, and Holland/Belgium.


This week’s recipe: Hearts of Palm and Artichoke Salad

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