Claddagh (pronounced "CLAW-duh) Irish Pubs are a chain of upscale authentic Irish pubs with 15 locations throughout the Midwest. About four years ago, I had a brief entry on Road Tips about the original Claddagh in downtown Indianapolis (see that entry here). I've had beers at a couple three Claddagh's during my travels and had always meant to eat at one, but had never gotten around to do so even though I've certainly had the opportunity to do so. It was a cold evening in Madison and I didn't feel like venturing far from the hotel that evening. The Claddagh Irish Pub was a short journey from my hotel and I figured some good ol' Irish comfort food would be in order that evening.
One of the big reasons the Claddagh pubs appear to be authentic Irish pubs is that they were started by an Irishman and an American who lived in Ireland for a time. Kevin Blair was an Cleveland-area native who worked for a number of years for the Taco Bell corporation when it was owned by Pepsi. He was hired in the mid-90's to go to work at the Supermacs fast food chain in Ireland. During Blair's stay in Ireland, he loved the feel of the Irish pubs and the many friends that he met while frequenting those pubs. The Irish have a term - craic (pronounced "crack") that describes a place that is fun, lively and friendly. Blair decided that the United States needed authentic Irish pubs with "craic".
Blair talked Supermacs chairman Patrick McDonagh to help him start a chain of upscale Irish pubs in the Midwestern United States. In 2001, the first Claddagh Irish Pub opened in Indianapolis. Both Blair and McDonagh were looking at aggressive growth during the first few years growing the chain to nearly 20 locations. However, like most partnerships, this one went sour with McDonagh withholding funds to keep the company from expanding while trying to force Blair to sell his shares. McDonagh had already invested over $20 million dollars into the Claddagh chain and wasn't willing to invest more money for expansion. Lawsuits and court dates ensued and the chain eventually declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. McDonagh's CDG Acquisitions group came in and bought the assets for $10 million dollars in 2008, about an estimated third of the value of the Claddagh chain.
By the way, the Claddagh Irish Pubs get their name from a small fishing village - Claddagh - that was legendary for the friendliness of the people who lived there. Many writers lived in Claddagh over the years (Claddagh is now part of Galway, Ireland - home to Pat McDonagh) and they wrote about the hospitality they received from the townspeople during their stay.
Each Claddagh Irish Pub has a dining area, a bar and a handful of small rooms that feature overstuffed chairs giving the place sort of a cozy feel, allowing patrons to sit down with friends in a comfortable setting and enjoy a Guinness or a Jameson whiskey. The dark wood walls and broad-beamed ceilings give Claddagh pubs an authentic Irish pub look.
I rolled into the parking lot of the Greenway Station shopping center in Middleton where the Claddagh is located (see map) around 7:30 p.m. The Claddagh is located next to Cheeseburger in Paradise, the Jimmy Buffett-owned chain of upscale burger joints (click here to see my entry on Cheeseburger in Paradise) and the parking lot in front of the businesses were full of cars. I was able to find a spot and I went in to get a seat at the bar.
The first thing I noticed behind the bar at the Claddagh was where there should have been bottles of different types of liquor, there were nothing but bottles of Jameson whiskey. Yes, I was definitely in an Irish pub! The bartender came over and asked if I wanted a menu. I got a Smithwick's as I perused through the selection they had at the Claddagh and glanced up at a football game and a hockey match they had on the flat panel televisions behind the bar.
Claddagh Irish Pubs have a wide selection of authentic Irish food including Shepherd's Pie, fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage, and Irish beef stew. They also have some American-based foods with an Irish twist such as the Guinness barbecued ribs made with a Guinness bar barbecue sauce, the Jameson burger that's topped with a Jameson sauce, along with the normal staples - steaks, chicken and a couple of pasta dishes.
I needed a "stick-to-my-ribs" dinner as it was cold and I was having trouble warming up. I thought about the Chicken Kildare - a garlic encrusted chicken breast filled with spinach, mushrooms and Irish rasher (a type of Irish bacon). The bangers and champ sounded good, too - Irish sausages served over Irish champ (baked potatoes) and topped with an onion gravy. But what I ended up getting was the old fashioned meat loaf, topped with a sweet glaze and then served with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side of vegetables. For a starter - and to help warm me up - I got a cup of the Guinness onion soup, basically a French onion soup that is made with a Guinness beer stock.
I was seated next to a guy from Indianapolis who was in Madison on business and we got to talking. He was a really nice guy, in his mid-to-late 30's, I'm guessing. He said, "We've got three Claddagh's in the Indy area. When I go on the road to Columbus, Cleveland or Cincinnati I always go to the Claddagh's there. It's like a home away from home." He said this was his first trip to Madison and he was surprised to find a Claddagh near his hotel. Some people like that familiarity with their restaurants, I would rather explore. Although, I have to admit that it's getting tiresome to find new and exciting places in some locations.
The Guinness onion soup was very good - a large crouton was on top along with an ample amount of Swiss cheese. Large onion chunks were in the broth that had a hint of a taste of Guinness to it. Actually, a bowl of the soup alone would have been a good meal.
The bartender brought out my plate to me and I sort of looked at it funny. It certainly didn't look like meat loaf to me - and it wasn't. It was the Irish beef stew. It looked very good, but it wasn't what I ordered. I got the bartender's attention and pointed out that I think I got the wrong meal. He said, "You had the beef stew, right?" I said, no, I had the meat loaf. "Ah! Yes, the meat loaf!" He said he'd get me the right meal straight away. That's the problem with people who don't write down your order - they space out from the time they take your order and then enter it into the system. But he did give me a free beer for waiting.
And the wait was worth it. I was served two large slices of meat loaf that had a nice smoky glaze on top the slices. There was a little bit of a heavy beef gravy on the slices of meat loaf, but the mashed potatoes were swimming in the gravy - just as I like it. The vegetables were a medley of broccoli, cauliflower and carrott slices.
Everything was very good - the meat loaf was flavorful and hearty, the mashed potatoes were real and the rich, thick gravy was a great compliment to the meat and potatoes. The vegetables were also cooked perfectly with a little bit of a crunch with each bite. The meal was exactly what I was looking for - generous portions of good ol' comfort food on a cold late fall evening.
The guy from Indy next to me had the Shepherd's pie. "I've tried the meat loaf before," he said. "I like it, but I think these guys make about the best Shepherd's pie I've ever had in the States."
After I finished what I could of the meal, I sat at the bar savoring my meal, watching the football game and enjoying one more Smithwick's. The guy from Indy had polished off his Shepherd's pie and had ordered the bread pudding for dessert. On the menu, the bread pudding comes under the heading of "split to share" desserts. And it was huge, easily covering an 8" dessert plate. And this guy was going to eat the whole thing! And he did! I said, "Jesus, buddy! You need to watch it! I was your size one time and when I started traveling on the road that's when I started to gain weight. When you have a company credit card and you're in a city far from home, it's not hard to over-indulge."
He said, "Oh, I know it. I've gained 15 pounds over the past couple of years. This (pointing at the bread pudding) doesn't help, but it's so darned good that I have to indulge myself every once in a while."
I'm glad I finally got to try the food at one after stopping in for just the beer on my previous visits. The meat loaf was very good, the portions were generous, the Smithwick's was great (any place that has Smithwick's on tap is OK by me) and the service - other than screwing up my order - was adequate. There are Claddagh Irish Pubs in four of the cities that I travel to and now that I know that the food is very good, I'll go back at some point when I just need the feel of some comfort food in my tummy.