I became interested in the concept of the pub—short for “public house”—while visiting my daughter in England, where, as in Ireland, pubs are an integral part of the culture, and they are so much more than bars. The pub at the corner of her street in East Oxford seemed an extension of her own living room: a place to have a pint, a bite to eat, and a friendly conversation. I felt relaxed and comfortable there, even on my own. So when I heard that Tim Rooney and his son Jake had launched a genuine Irish pub in, of all places, Orcutt, I was curious—but skeptical. I needn’t have been so dubious. Good ol’ Orcutt has a way of surprising us lately, and Rooney’s Irish Pub comes through.
Granted, it’s not two centuries old, but meticulous care has been taken to create an atmosphere that is warm, welcoming, and decidedly Irish. Situated on the first floor of a new two-story building that is part of the Orcutt Union Plaza development in Old Town Orcutt, the interior of Rooney’s is adorned with beautiful woodwork, leaded glass, and ceilings of faux hammered tin. There is a collection of murals of pastoral Emerald Isle scenes, a fireplace, and an assortment of Irish memorabilia, from sheet music to whiskey labels. I also counted six wide-screen TVs, fortunately muted, but no doubt appreciated at times. The space is surprisingly large but is partitioned into smaller areas that feel more separate and intimate, while the bright, well-bottled bar has a communal feel.
Rooney’s is based on heartfelt field research. “We visited every pub in Ireland,” Jake told me. This was, no doubt, a tough job, but the result is a genuinely hospitable place that has become very popular with people in the area. The Rooneys started with their own microbrewery, Shanty Irish, and in addition to six Shanty Irish microbrews, they now feature a dazzling array of regional and craft brews, as well as Irish standards such as Guinness, Harp, and Smithwick’s, for a total of 18 beers on tap (not to mention 30 kinds of bottled beers). “We’re still a part of wine country,” acknowledges Tim, and the wine list is extensive. But the Rooneys like to envision a Santa Barbara beer trail, too, with Shanty Irish as its hub.
It would be a grievous mistake, however, to think of Rooney’s as just a drinking place. Chef and manager Anthony Endy has taken care to create an eclectic menu that is Irish-inspired, but with an American gastro-pub twist. Everything is made in-house from scratch—even the pickles. I tried The Lost Shepherd’s Pie ($17) and finally obliterated bleak memories of shepherd’s pie concoctions from long-ago school cafeterias. This one is Guinness-braised Angus short ribs, meltingly tender, topped with julienned carrots still slightly crisp, and sweet little snap peas on a buttery mound of whipped potatoes. One of my companions ordered the fish and chips ($15), made to perfection with red snapper, local and wild, served with pickled vegetables and light “criss-cut” fries. We agreed that we could have split either of those meals, paired it with a petite salad and left completely satisfied. Another friend was quite pleased with an entrée of goat cheese salad ($12), fresh and substantial, with apples, dates, pecans, wild arugula, and butter lettuce. Maybe next time I’ll try one of the sandwiches or house-ground burgers ($9-$14), the beer-brined roast chicken ($17), or some good old corned beef and cabbage ($15).
Rooney’s offers a variety of daily specials, five-course beer-pairing dinners in which the perfect brew is matched with each course, and a Sunday brunch from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. that includes a make-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar. Consistent with Irish tradition, the pub regularly features live music starting at 10 p.m. and continuing into the wee hours; check the events calendar on the Web site: rooneysirishpub.net.
On weekends, Rooney’s gets “crazy busy,” according to Tim, but on a weekday afternoon, it felt calm, family-oriented, and conducive to talking. I heard snippets of unobtrusive music and laughter at the bar, while, at our little table, my friends and I tried to solve the problems of the world. “Being Irish,” said the poet William Butler Yeats of a fellow countryman, “he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” Whether it’s time to ponder the tragic or muster up some temporary joy, Rooney’s may prove helpful. In either case, there’s something quite sustaining about a good pub, and Orcutt now officially has one. Brace yourself for St. Patrick’s Day, when Rooney’s will open its doors at 6 a.m. (gasp) for a day of good-hearted revelry.
Head to Old Town Orcutt and find Rooney’s Pub at 241 South Broadway Street. Call 934-3777 or see rooneysirishpub.net.