Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Perfect Pub

Ottawa's Manx Pub

A few years ago a new pub opened up in Halifax to a lot of fanfare. The architect apparently spent weeks hanging out in pubs in Ireland to get the feel and look of a true “Irish pub” and this new place was designed with all the features they found in “real” pubs from across the pond. It is a nice place; looks very “Irish”, beer is good, and food is tasty. I've been there once.

The first time we visited our son Ryan in Ottawa, he insisted on taking us to this fabulous pub for brunch. We had to be there at a specific time or we could not get a seat, and it was quite a walk. My first impression was not great. There was a faded sign hanging on the corner of a building and a set of dingy stairs leading down to a black basement door. The place was crowded but we found a seat in the corner. There was a hole in the wall across from my seat. Five years later, that hole was covered with duct tape and painted over, but little else has changed. But . . . I can't imagine visiting Ottawa without making at least one trip to this pub, the Manx, for at least a beer if not a meal.

What is it that makes the “perfect pub”? Why do I love going back to the Manx in Ottawa, yet have never returned to the “authentic” Irish pub in Halifax?

Essential to any real pub is good beer, but I prefer to find some nice local brews that I can try. It is also really helpful if the servers know something about the beer and are willing to give an honest opinion. I often ask them for recommendations, and a good server is willing to tell me something about what they serve. I like to hear that “the local IPA is particularly hoppy”, and when a server tells me that they have a favourite brew I will usually take their advice and try it – I've rarely been disappointed. Better than having the server tell me they “Don't really like beer.” or when visiting Columbus Ohio, I asked about “local” beer and was told that they serve “Miller Light”. In a little pub in Bangor Maine the server was so excited about two local beer that when I chose one, he gave me the other one as well for free just because he wanted me to try it. I go back there whenever I'm in Bangor. The Manx always has some interesting beers from the Ottawa area, and the servers are knowledgeable about what they serve. A good server recognizes someone who likes good quality local beers, and when you choose something they suggest they often will return and not just ask how you liked the brew, but discuss it with you, comparing opinions and tastes.

Pub food is not always good food, but a good pub always has good food. Ottawa's Manx excels in this area. Their food is amazing; interesting and unique. The menu is not your usual burgers and sandwiches, it is closer to gourmet restaurant fare. Ryan tells me that their cook/chef, has been there for years so he must find something satisfying about working in this tiny little spot, for his talent surely could get him a position in a big fancy hotel or restaurant. The Manx has a continually changing menu, and it is always interesting to find out what is featured on the “Specials” board, but another of my favourite pubs has a menu that always seems to remain the same. I can depend on getting a “Knotwurst & Kraut” or a Knot Burger made from local sausage at the The Knot pub in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. These two favourite meals are always the same and always excellent. It takes very little to convince me to pair one of these two specialities with a nice cold Knot Ale whenever I'm in Lunenburg.

Although quality beer and delicious food are essential to a perfect pub, equally important is the atmosphere, the genuine feel of the place. I like The Old Triangle in Halifax. Their beer isn't extra ordinary, but they pour an excellent Guinness, and their food is “good”, but it is a pub that just feels comfortable. I go back to the Manx in Ottawa, or the Knot in Lunenburg because I enjoy sitting in these pubs sipping a good beer. I just like being there; they feel good. This is something that you just can't import from Ireland. It isn't the authentic wood counters or special bar stools, it is just something that feels right. The owner of the Manx obviously knows this and has left the place alone. The display of local artists on the walls changes, but the copper wrapped tables have always been there, the tables back in one corner are still awkward to get to and the servers still pass your beer through a window to those tables, the “Special board is still leaning against one of the thick pillars, and when you try to read it from your table, the servers will go bring it over to your table so you can get a closer look, and I think that hole in the wall in the corner is still there.

Now that is what makes a Perfect Pub. Sit back in your favourite chair in your favourite pub and have another cold one.