Behind the scenes at Katie Mullen's

Categories: The Dish

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So, a few weeks ago, I wrote this little piece titled "How to Create a Great Irish Bar." It wasn't something I put a lot of thought into. It wasn't something that groaned under the weight of background research (unless drinking counts as research). Really, it was just a way to vent a little anger over a terrible weekend spent cruising through places like the Celtic Tavern and Delaney's and wondering what the hell was the matter with this city that it couldn't manage to come up with even one truly great Irish bar.

Well, my diatribe escaped out into the wider, weirder world of the interweb. It got picked up in a couple of places and developed a life of its own, eventually spawning hundreds of comments and lots of back-and-forth discussions about what, precisely, it might take to create a truly great Irish-American bar in this Gaelically-challenged city. Or any city.

Meanwhile, in a not-so-secret location almost walking distance from this office, a bunch of guys were working hard -- not just talking about making a proper boozer, but actually building one. That place was Katie Mullen's Irish Restaurant & Pub, which has been under construction on the 16th Street Mall side of what's now the Sheraton (at 1550 Court Place, in the old home of the execrable Supreme Court) for the past sixteen months and was finally revealed to the public on Monday.

"You know, when we saw that list, we just ran down it and were like,
'Okay, number one?  Check. Number two?  Got it.'" Paul Maye, the
pub's owner, was describing this to me on Friday while we leaned in one
of the doorways running between the various bars that make up the
single uber-pub that is Katie Mullen's. 

"It was great," he told me. And really, it was the reason I'd ended up at his bar in the first
place -- because he and his boys had liked my piece and wanted to meet the
fella who'd so succinctly summed up the trouble with Irish bars (or the
lack thereof) in Denver. They'd talked to their PR person (the
incomparable Wendy Aiello), who'd then talked to me and set the whole
thing up like a playdate for marginal grownups: a combination
drinking party, tour and meet-and-greet, well-lubricated by Sir
Arthur's best and done in advance of the opening-night crowds.

Maye and I spent a good long time talking about pubs in general, about his
pubs in particular (four of them in the northwest of Ireland, none
nearly as large as Katie Mullen's), about the drinking habits of the
American crowds (as inconceivable to Maye as they are to me) and their
taste for the culture of a people who've raised a night out at the pub
into a work of highly public art.

I was (and always have been)
confused by the local idea of a round of drinks. Here in Denver, a
round of drinks means that if you're out with two of your friends, you
go to the bar, buy a pint for yourself, a pint for each of your
buddies, and then you're done; that's a round of drinks. In my world,
you're not finished until you've bought three drinks, your one friend
has bought three drinks and then your other friend has bought three
drinks. That way, everyone has bought two drinks and everyone has had
two drinks bought for them. That is a round. 

But Maye didn't
understand how a gang of friends could go to a bar for just one drink. Or just for two. "If I'm going to go out," he said, "I'm going to go
out." Meaning for the day, the night, whatever else might come after. "Otherwise," he asked, "why bother leaving home?"

We
were in agreement on much of what makes a pub a pub and on what makes a
good night out a good night out. The one thing he didn't agree with? That there's no need to even try cooking proper Irish food in the
United States.

"Yeah, I have a small bone to pick with you on
that," said one of Maye's food guys, in the middle of overseeing a
tasting session in the dining room.

The problem, as I have
always seen it, is that most, if not all, of the Irish canon is made up
of comfort food -- comfort food unique to a people and to a place. Boxty
and champ, bacon with cabbage, coddle and stew and bangers -- these are
all things that can make an Irishman drool or weep with memories of
coming up in the Old Country. These are things that, to a certain
extent, even the children of immigrants can identify with -- words that
they know and flavors to which they are accustomed.

But to
everyone else? Not so much. A comfort food is only comforting if you
have fond recollections of comforting moments surrounding the eating of
said food, get me? So if you've never warmed yourself on a cold day
with a big bowl of champ and cabbage, you're not going to have any
particular urge to order it when you see it on a menu.

Which, of
course, isn't stopping the guys at Katie Mullen's from serving it. It's not even slowing them down. To hear Paul talk, he'll be
patient. He'll let the people come to it on their own. After all, the
kitchen will still be serving burgers. It'll still be serving short
ribs, garlic chicken and steaks. But once in a while, maybe someone
will come in for the calves' liver with onions; for the Irish stew with
lamb, pearl onions and custom-made brown bread (courtesy of the bakery
at Panzano); for the bangers and champ with spring onions, or for the boiled
bacon with cabbage, potatoes, parsnips, carrots and parsley sauce that
I can't wait to try myself. 

John Ruane -- an East Coast
transplant with more than a touch of green in his blood -- is in the kitchen
overseeing the bacon in its fifty-hour marinade and tinkering with the
amount of lemon in the boxty-salmon rolls; adjusting the angle on a
double-cut pork chop lying on a plate and watching over a crew of
pierced, tattooed and galley-pale mercenaries brought in from all over
the city to run his line. He expects to be able to do 500 a
night out of this kitchen (which was basically rebuilt from the floor up after he got a look at what a wreck the Supreme Court kitchen had
been, telling me that he couldn't believe those guys "ever
even served a burger out of that fucking pit"), and certainly has it
organized for doing those kinds of numbers. The first thing he showed
me when I walked into the back wasn't his new gear or his new guys,
though. It was his food. He took me right into the coolers to show
off his produce, his back stock. He's a man in love with the raw materials
of his craft.

And, in a way, Maye is the same. Sure, he
talked to me about the furnishings (much of it still covered by tarps
or ranked against the walls). He told me about how everything had come
from Ireland (and how an entire shipping container's worth of it was
being held up by customs in Chicago, requiring him to cut a huge
check for a truck driver who would be sent to pick it up and drive it,
overnight, to Denver for a Sunday delivery), and how he'd arranged the
four bars that make up Katie Mullen's into a kind of historical
pastiche of traditional Irish pubs through the years: the classic
Victorian bar, the apothecary bar (styled after the historic early days
of the Irish public houses, back when they were little more than a back
room at the local pharmacy or grocery where the fellas stood around
sampling brews), the cottage (like a snug, but bigger) and the Celtic
bar, a modern view of Irish drinking habits (minus the Coors and
Budweiser on tap and confused tourists, of course).

But what
was Maye most concerned with? His beer. He and partner Tom Cronin
told me how they'd had to drop an unplanned-for $70,000 on
building a special room for the Guinness to live in. The Sheraton had
wanted them to use a liquor room in the basement for storing kegs
and such, but would the beer have been happy in the basement? No. Would it have liked having to travel all the way up through the lines
to get to the taps? No, it would not have liked that at all. Thus, a
beer room had to be built, where the barrels could rest comfortably
and the lines connecting them to the taps wouldn't have to be too
long. 

One thing both Maye and Cronin were thrilled about? The altitude. With the extra mile above sea level we've got here,
a barman can put a head on a pint of Guinness that is just amazing -- one
that actually swells up just slightly and rises above the lip of the
glass. Everyone in the joint was thrilled with that. And I was, too. Through not just my first pint from the new system (creamy, rich, black
and delicious), but through the second and third as well.

And the fourth, too.

By
that time, I was ready to move in to Katie Mullen's -- to find a quiet
corner in the Victorian bar amid the dark wood and long runs of
Guinness taps, throw down a cot and claim it as my own. I loved that
it was so outsized, both in terms of personality and actual space. I
loved that Maye and his team were running full-tilt toward their
vision of what a great Irish-American pub could be, if not what
one in Denver might actually be, and doing it without looking back,
without second-guessing themselves or wondering if they'd taken it too
far. I appreciated the fact that every time Maye and I started talking
about some facet of the drive toward opening, he would say how he'd
thought, maybe, he could save a few bucks by doing something the cheap
way (using the old kitchen equipment abandoned by the Supreme Court or
some of the structural characteristics of its dining room), but then
would say, "Nah..." and just spend some ridiculous amount of money on
doing it the right way instead.

I love this bar for being
uncompromising, for serving boiled bacon and cabbage even if there are
probably no more than a hundred people in the entire city who
understand why someone might want to eat such a thing, for being huge
and strange and full of booze.

There are going to be bumps along the way, sure. I don't know if Maye and company can fill that large a space. I definitely think Ruane is overestimating the draw on his
kitchen. I worry that no one but me and the other East Cost
transplants, itinerant Micks, wandering pub purists and ex-pats from
the Old Country stranded in Denver will get the difference between a
Victorian bar and an apothecary bar, between a pint of Guinness that
has traveled 500 feet through the lines as opposed to fifteen,
between real Irish bangers and chips and that frozen shit from Sysco. I worry that Maye and his crew will have done all this work and spent
all this money and made all these decisions to always err on the side
of traditionalism, on the side of right and proper, to no good end.

But
Maye himself didn't seem worried at all. The way he looked at it,
someone who started off doing everything on the cheap could never truly
make anything great. Even if he was successful, he'd only
be successful at selling something cheap to people who were too dumb to
know the difference. But on the other hand, if you started off doing
things the right way, the worst that could happen would be that you'd
fail trying to do something the best way you knew how. And if you
succeeded? Well, then you might not just have something good at the
end of the day, but something great.

In this case, perhaps the great Irish bar that Denver (and I) have been waiting for all these years.

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