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THE EMERALD STYLE : Some Pubs Have the Luck to Be Green-Spirited All Year-Round

<i> Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Back in the old country, St. Patrick’s Day is still what it’s always been: a religious holiday. On these shores, of course, the day has taken a different tack, becoming a raucous celebration of all things Irish and many things pseudo-Irish (green beer, anyone?), with sprawling parades in the Celtic strongholds of the East Coast and, more locally, copious drinking by folks who wouldn’t know a shamrock from a shillelagh.

On St. Paddy’s Day, virtually every bar, tavern and cocktail lounge fancies itself Irish for a day, blowing the dust off the old Dennis Day tapes and pulling the green streamers out of the storeroom. For some local public houses, however, being Irish is not a part-time occupation.

Even those pub owners who go beyond the ubiquitous Irish name above the door and shamrock cocktail napkins find that there’s more to creating atmosphere than decorative detail. The danger is creating a sterile shell that approximates a pub in Ireland about as well as Disneyland’s New Orleans Square approaches the grimy bustle of the real Bourbon Street.

In Ireland, pubs run the gamut, from the standing-room-only watering holes of downtown Dublin (some with names immortalized in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”) to the more relaxed country spots, darkened enclaves warmed by turf fires.

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Some are being dragged, reluctantly, into the modern age with the controversial addition of such items as jukeboxes, TVs and (gasp!) video games, but even these blasphemies cannot detract from the essential draw of the Irish pub everywhere: conversation, known there as “crack,” a word that obviously has a different connotation here.

Pubs are the neighborhood’s social meeting ground, and denizens of American bars might be surprised by the wide range of ages interacting in an Irish public house. The conversation is lubricated by some of the best beers anywhere, Guinness stout being among the best-known. Also, most pubs serve lunch, hearty meals that won’t be mistaken for gourmet cuisine but can be tasty and filling--and relatively inexpensive.

Judging local pubs by the standards of their Irish models can be tricky business--most try primarily to capture some of the spirit without worrying too much about slavish detail.

Orange County does not have a large, concentrated Irish population, as some cities (such as Boston and San Francisco) do, but it does have a scattering of Irish immigrants, some recent and some long-established. One way to compare bars is to find out where the Irish drink, and the long-running leader on that account has been the Harp Inn in Costa Mesa.

The Harp, home-away-from-home for many local Irish and a regular venue for traditional music, has been featured often in the pages of this newspaper, so we’ll concentrate on other places in the county--including one up-and-comer that is challenging the Harp as the most “Irish” of the Irish pubs.

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Spotting the Shamrock Bar and Grill along busy West Coast Highway in Newport Beach can be a bit of a trick, tucked away as it is among a row of restaurants and other businesses with only a modest sign to mark it. Inside, it can look at first glance like any number of neighborhood taverns, cozy but unremarkable.

That impression soon gives way, however. First, there’s the Irish lilt coming from both sides of the bar. Owners Christina and Frank Duggan are from Tipperary, and the crowd they draw is heavily Irish. Says Christina, “Sometimes people who come in here for the first time ask me, ‘Did they make you talk like that to work here?’ ”

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The fare distinguishes the Shamrock as well. Bartender Mike Cathal knows how to pull a pint of Guinness, one with a dark, rich body and a dense foam head to rival any in the area. It’s an art that takes years to perfect and several minutes to execute, so be patient--it’s worth the wait. It should be noted that the Shamrock uses the imperial pint (20 ounces) rather than the U.S. version (16 ounces).

There’s also a full pub menu, starting with a traditional breakfast: imported Irish bacon and sausage, black and white pudding, eggs and brown bread. For lunch, traditional Irish fare is offered alongside burgers and sandwiches.

The Shamrock opened in August, 1992. The goal, said Christina Duggan, is to promote Irish culture (they sponsor a soccer team in the Hibernian league) and to provide a gathering place. “We get quite a mixture, actually,” she said.

“It’s a lovely atmosphere, and I meet a lot of other people from Ireland,” said Harry Jones, a Shamrock regular who emigrated from Dublin to Newport Beach a few years ago. “I just like Irish bars.”

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A handful of customers--who asked not to be named--admitted they had switched their allegiance from the Harp, mostly because that bar had become too popular, particularly on weekends. But Duggan downplayed any competition between the two pubs, saying she thought that more Irish pubs was better for everyone.

Rock music plays over the speakers here, but softly enough to keep from overwhelming the conversation. Live Irish music is featured Sunday evenings and will be expanded to five nights a week in summer. There’s a television as well, but it plays tapes of Irish soccer matches and other sporting and cultural events.

Beginning in June, the Shamrock should be a hotbed of Irish soccer fans. The national team qualified for the World Cup, to be played in the United States this year, and all of Ireland’s matches will be broadcast in the pub.

Last St. Patrick’s Day, the Shamrock didn’t even have its full liquor license yet (it opened with a beer and wine license), but still boasted a crowd that spilled out onto the street. Be ready to wait a bit longer for your pint if you go today.

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The Shamrock Bar and Grill, 2633 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach. Open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. (714) 631-5633.

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From the Shamrock, the new kid on the block, it’s just a mile or two to what may be the county’s most-established Irish pub and restaurant. Muldoon’s is a sedate Newport Center landmark, one that serves Irish beers and food in an atmosphere more upscale than the Shamrock or the Harp.

The cozy dining room may be among the most attractive in the county, in an Old World way. Dark woods predominate, with an open kitchen, high-backed booths and several tables clustered around a large fireplace. The room is particularly popular on overcast days, says manager Sharon Barklay.

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Those who prefer can eat on a secluded patio, which is heated to allow for year-round dining. The menu includes such Irish favorites as stew, corned beef and cabbage and lamb with mint sauce, as well as steaks and other selections.

Like the dining room, the pub is woodsy and intimate, although brighter and cheerier. Unlike the dining room, however, the music tends to be pop (Sting the day I was there) rather than Irish traditional. Sporting events play silently on the TV sets.

Food can be ordered in the pub, with an option of smaller portions on several menu items. The crowd here is heavy with local business people, particularly during lunch and just after work.

Today’s events include live traditional music from 10:30 a.m. until closing. Muldoon’s is another favorite spot for St. Patrick’s.

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Muldoon’s Irish Pub, 202 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. Opens Monday through Saturday at 11:30 a.m., Sunday at 10 a.m.; pub closes at 1:30 a.m. daily, dining room closes earlier. (714) 640-4110.

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Silky Sullivan’s is another combined pub and restaurant with an Irish theme. Although the physical detail is nearly as impressive as that found at Muldoon’s, the general atmosphere is more boisterous, particularly in the bar.

On one recent weeknight, the pub was packed; the music, played a little too loudly for easy conversation, was country and rock. Essentially, this is a sports bar with an Irish theme (and Guinness and Harp on tap).

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The dining room menu ranges widely; the two specials one recent evening were corned beef and cabbage and Jamaican jerk chicken.

St. Patrick’s Day is so popular here they set up a tent in the parking lot to handle the overflow. An expanded Irish menu will be offered; live Irish music and rock will be featured, and there will be hats and T-shirts for sale.

The celebration continues through the weekend, with live rock in the evenings. The pub and restaurant will open at 10 a.m. today and Friday, one hour earlier than usual.

Silky Sullivan’s, 10201 Slater Ave., Fountain Valley. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.

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Also in Fountain Valley is the Blarney Stone, a friendly neighborhood tavern with lots of Irish overtones--from the proverbs painted on the walls to the portrait of John F. Kennedy hung reverentially in the back.

Rock and country dominate the live offerings Thursday through Sunday evenings, but the Irish Beggermen, a local traditional group, plays the first Saturday of each month, and will also be featured today from 2:30 p.m. to closing. The bar does not usually serve food but will offer corned beef today.

The Blarney Stone, 11761 Edinger Ave., Fountain Valley. Open daily, 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. (714) 775-9987.

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Another neighborhood joint with an Irish touch is O’Hara’s Pub, just north of the traffic circle in the historic district of Orange. On one recent weeknight, the crowd was college-age and pool-playing, with blues songs and ‘60s rock getting a heavy workout on the jukebox.

O’Hara’s offers a full kitchen, with burgers and other diner-type fare.

A bagpiper will be stopping by today, but that’s it for the live music--the bar is just too packed to accommodate a band, they say. Also offered for St. Paddy’s Day: green hamburgers and “Irish nachos.”

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O’Hara’s Pub, 150 N. Glassell St., Orange. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Sunday. (714) 532-9264.

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Last, but certainly not least, there’s the Harp, where the bartenders pull an expert pint of Guinness, and Irishness is celebrated daily. The live music schedule includes rock as well as traditional Irish music.

The Harp Inn, 130 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa. (714) 646-8855. Open Monday through Thursday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 2 a.m.

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