In anticipation of the annual week of green and Guinness, we're heading to Ramsey, where all of a sudden there are two major ways to get your Irish-pub fix.
There's the classic: the seven-year-old neighborhood pub Brady's at the Station, a charming house next to the town's railroad stop "where you're only a stranger once," as the motto goes. Inside, a model train winds around the dining room; outside, New Jersey Transit cars rumble to a stop.
Barely five minutes away is the newfangled model: The Shannon Rose Irish Pub, a very big, very shiny and very red building that hit Route 17 in January and instantly became so crowded that it had to add valet parking Thursday through Saturday. It's the third Shannon Rose, with sisters in Clifton and Woodbridge.
Both offer an extensive menu of American and Irish pub favorites. Both present themselves as a friendly place to have a beer. Both will have St. Patrick's Day bagpipes.
So how do they compare?
We visited both, looking at some pub essentials for your St. Patrick's Day celebration.
Brady's has eight taps and about 30 bottles, including its own Brady's Ale. All the standards are here, as well as some Irish imports such as Magners and Harp.
The Shannon Rose has a wider selection, with 19 taps, about 24 bottles, and "beer flights." It includes some craft beers, though it helps if you come in with some knowledge – our waitress told us that the ale we were ordering was an oatmeal stout.
Both pubs have their own ale and beer prices that generally top out at about $6. But the drafts and crafts tip this one.
Point: Shannon Rose.
Corned beef and cabbage
At both places, it was among the better dishes we tried. Brady's was thinly cut and very tender ($14.50). The Shannon Rose's matched up in flavor but was tougher ($14.99).
Neither version of this mashed potato-covered pie will impress purists, because neither is made completely with lamb. Brady's version could serve two people and was moist and aromatic, though also gamier than you'd expect for something that includes both lamb and beef ($15.95). Shannon Rose's version was significantly smaller (and cheaper, at $12.99) and also much milder. Its beef-and-vegetable filling was more like a cottage pie.
Point: Brady's had the edge here.
Fish and chips
The crust on Brady's fish tasted distinctly of a beer batter, though it was also not particularly crisp. The standout on the dish was the seasoned french fries ($15.95). The Shannon Rose's version boasted crispy crust and meaty fish, but the fillet also kept falling right out of the crust. Great lemony tartar sauce, though ($14.99).
Point: A tie.
We tried wings and some form of Irish potato skins. At Brady's, the wings weren't particularly meaty ($8.75). The potatoes in the "Irish nachos" were not thin-cut as advertised and didn't include much cheese ($8.50).
The Shannon Rose's wings were much meatier and had a nice crispness to them; we enjoyed the slightly sweet Guinness barbecue sauce ($9.99). The potato skins vanished quickly – the cheese and bacon were more evenly placed so that you got both in each bite ($8.99).
Point: Shannon Rose.
Of course, not Irish, but a pub benchmark. We didn't have much initial luck.
Brady's served its rather bland patty on a too-thick Kaiser roll ($9). But then the Shannon Rose's burger arrived burned black all over ($7.99). It was so bitter that we asked for a replacement, which came perfectly grilled and full of beefy flavor, on an English muffin. Irish cheddar was worth the extra $1.99.
Point: Shannon Rose – but only if it's not burned.
Brady's is the dark-wood-filled pub around the corner. It's separated into two floors and consequently feels more intimate.
The Shannon Rose, on the other hand, feels like the hot restaurant of the moment. It was so crammed with people by about 6:15 p.m. on a Thursday that when my friends were first seated, all of the menus were out at other tables. At 320 seats, the size and polished atmosphere feels distinctly more like a chain restaurant – its bar wraps around a center wall, and signs like "Superior Irish Whiskies" and "Purveyors of Fine Stouts" scream from the top. (The Shannon Roses are owned by Allendale-based Doherty Enterprises, which runs all the area Applebee's and Panera Bread locations). The crowd was happy-hour-meets-family-gathering, with the expected din.
Point: Take your pick. Brady's is more low-key and laid-back, while the Shannon Rose is closer to a theme park. Pick whichever you prefer, and consider it the true luck of the Irish to have two very different experiences available within a few miles.
Where Irish eyes are smiling
Brady's at the Station
5-7 Main St., Ramsey, 201-327-9748, bradysatthestation.net
Saturday: Open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. with Irish music and bagpipes all day. Menu will be limited to Irish specialties.
Shannon Rose Irish Pub
1200 Route 17 north, Ramsey, 201-962-7602, theshannonrose.com/shannon-rose-ramsey
Wednesday to Saturday: Irish bands and drink specials. On Saturday, opens at 10 a.m. and features bands, bagpipers, step dancers and giveaways.
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