By Kurt Epps—The PubScout
This was my first-ever visit to the Kilkenny House on South Ave. in Cranford. But it wasn't the first time I was in the building that houses it. Before Barry O'Donovan's warm and welcoming publick house, there was a simply great beer bar run by Tony and Danny Bartone called Antone's. The Bartones are now profitably ensconced in The Ark in Pt. Pleasant, but Antone's, with its Wall of 45 Beer Taps, had a great ambience and appeal while they owned it.
Though the ownership and ambience have changed (good Irish pubs have a distinctive atmosphere), the appeal certainly hasn't. The place was packed out on a recent Friday night by 7 PM, and the overflow crowd of the Main Room filled the Back Room—not a "Snug" in the strictest sense of the word, but cozy enough-- to capacity.
Certainly a big reason for that lies in the personality of its effervescent owner, Barry O'Donovan. Barry made his bones in the business in Bay Ridge, and, in the words of PR man John Mooney, "Barry is Old School." Mooney defines that as a hands-on owner on the premises who not only knows his customers by name, he even knows their birthdays. That much was evident as I witnessed O'Donovan personally singing Happy Birthday to a colleen of about 4 at the table with her family. "Barry makes it a point to know families and to make them feel welcome," said Mooney. Indeed, the clientele on this night was extraordinarily diverse, with older families, young families, Generation X-ers, Y-ers, Z-ers and a plethora of Boomers.
O'Donovan, who is delightfully (and Irish-ly) garrulous, doesn't call his style "Old School." He terms it the "Only School." "Treat your customers as you would want to be treated," says Barry. "The most important phrases are "Welcome" and "Thank you for coming." You can catch a snippet of O'Donovan's lilting accent and sparkling eyes in the movie on The PubScout's Page. True to his heritage (he's actually from Kilkenny), O'Donovan is a master storyteller who regaled us with historical tidbits from the Old Sod that were both new and fascinating—like his declaration that the Irish back home don't eat corned beef and cabbage. According to him, they eat ham, but back when the Irish had their Great Migration to America, they couldn't afford ham, so corned beef—which was less expensive—got the nod.
You'll also meet John Mooney, whose major public relations claim to fame was his banning of the singing of "Danny Boy" at Foley's Pub in NYC, a move which yielded extensive TV and media coverage for his client; and House Manager Damien Owens, whose impressive curriculae vitae includes a fifteen-year stint managing the fabled Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Owens, with a Dublin twinkle in his eye, asserts "The Kilkenny House manages me; I don't manage it."
Plenty of good beers are on tap at the Kilkenny House, but I chose Dave Hoffman's IPA, made at Climax Brewing right up the road in Roselle Park. Dave also supplied Antone's with his exceptional beers. It was not only outstanding, but it matched perfectly with a dish called Harkin's Curry Chicken. This particular dish was laden with flavor and was not overly spicy; it was in fact on the sweet side—delightfully so. It was absolutely delicious, and it made me glad that I eschewed my usual Shepherd's Pie—though I reserve the right to return and try it.
The missus enjoyed her Crab Cake salad and Arugula salad immensely, almost as much as she savored her Caramel-Apple Tart dessert. A pint of Guinness would have made that a perfect match, but the missus drinks…um… a more…er… mainstream swill beer.
O'Donovan knows the value of offering good food in his pub, and he does so with the help of his indispensable master chef, Carlos Galvez. This guy cooks Irish food so well he should be awarded an honorary O' in front of his last name.
Like Antone's before it, the Kilkenny House is a happening place. I like my Irish pubs noisy and filled with "pub hubbub," and the Kilkenny House does not disappoint. There are even tables outside, where, upon leaving, I passed by a group of mature, but young-looking, colleens who were doing their level best to match the noise level inside. And why? Because The Leprechaun O'Donovan was out there entertaining them. They absolutely loved him, and he returned the favor. And, of course, he knew them all.
O'Donovan loves Cranford too, and, if Friday night was any indication, the feeling is mutual. But you don't have to be from Cranford to go there. Cranfordians just have a headstart on everybody else when it comes to finding an open table.
Go to the Kilkenny House.
You'll be a stranger just once, and a friend ever after.
©Kurt E. Epps 2010 All rights reserved.