20 April 2011

A Tale of 2 Pubs: Cooper & Merlins

I like pubs. Or at least, I like the U.S. version of pubs, and I like the idea of a pub. I was in a London pub once, about 30 years ago. But that’s hardly the basis for having a strong opinion. Most of my attitude about pubs is from dining in them here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

In the past month, my wife and I have enjoyed two west-of-the-river pubs. That is to say, they were not in St. Paul. But they weren’t strictly in Minneapolis. The first pub in this post is The Cooper in the West End shops in St. Louis Park. Our most recent visit was our second. We liked our first experience so much that we agreed that we would be back. This was it.Pub2

The Cooper is big and new and bold and classy. It’s a raucous, rambunctious, noisy, busy scene. The food is tasty and there is plenty of authentic pub fare on the menu – fish & chips, shepherd’s pie, corned beef & cabbage, sandwiches. The drinks are also good. They have a great selection of beer and ale on tap (including Guinness), some interesting cocktails, and, of course, a great selection of Irish whiskeys.

On our first visit, we ordered off the bar menu. My wife had a Reuben sandwich; I had fish & chips. Like I said, we liked our meals quite a lot and we agreed that we would be back. On our most recent visit, my wife had a burger and I had steak & mushroom pie. I loved mine. My wife said her burger was good but nothing special. She wished she’d ordered another Reuben.

Back to the Cooper in a minute. But now for a word about Merlin’s Rest Pub in south Minneapolis on East Lake Street. I’d never heard of Merlin’s before. But this winter, we were looking for a place to go for a bite to eat and to hear some music, and I found Merlin’s using a Google search. That evening, we decided to stay closer to home. But we didn’t forget about it.

A week ago, we were invited to celebrate Record Store Day at Hymie’s Vintage Records on East lake St. Our son’s good friend from high school owns the shop with his wife. They organized a series of live bands and our son set up a booth to sell his pottery. Didn’t have to ask us twice – we were there. And since Merlin’s was just two blocks away from Hymie’s, it was a logical venue for dinner, drinks, and music to end the evening. Pub3

Merlin’s is gritty, funky, and eclectic. It too is raucous, rambunctious, noisy, and busy. We didn’t make a reservation (dummies). But when we arrived and asked for a table for 7 (including my two little grandchildren), it only took them a few minutes to get us set up, even though the place looked pretty full.

Merlin’s menu features an appetizing selection of classic pub food – fish & chips, bangers & mash, Cornish pasty, Highland steak pie, as well as burgers and sandwiches. All of the guys at our table ordered fish & chips. Very good. My wife ordered the Reuben; it wasn’t grilled. Afterwards, she said she wished she’d ordered a burger.

Now for the comparisons – start with the whiskey.

While we were waiting for our table at Merlin’s, I flagged down one of the staff and asked about their selection of Irish whiskey. Turns out, I think he was the proprietor. I told him what kind of whiskey we drink regularly, and he made two recommendations. First we had a round of Danny Boy whiskey. It was good, but not really distinctive from Bushmills. Then later we had a second round and ordered his second recommendation – Irish Manor (doesn’t seem to have a web site). I liked this one better. On our first visit to the Cooper, I ordered Bushmills. But in the meantime, I read that the proprietor had acquired a house brand of Irish called 2 Gingers. So on the second visit, I ordered that. It might be a good whiskey to use in a cocktail. But straight up and unadorned, it’s not very distinctive.

The ambiance at Cooper is definitely upscale. It’s filled with West End shoppers and theater-goers. Merlin’s is much more of a neighborhood place. The patrons were an interesting mix of young and old, artists, musicians, workers, bikers … you get the picture.

Merlin’s has music. The Cooper doesn’t. The house band at Merlin’s is Papa John Kolstad and the Hot Club. (That’s Papa John in the photo above with my wife and son.) We were told that he owns the building, and that he also owns the building where Hymie’s is located. H-m-m.

According to Merlin’s web site, it was just named the ‘Best Neighborhood Pub in Minneapolis.’ But the fact is that the Cooper is much closer to home. So in the future, we’ll probably end up at the Cooper more often than Merlin’s. I say that with a certain amount of regret.

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