What Potato Famine?

Calories galore at Beckett's, Berkeley's most palatial Irish pub.

Credits: Michael Rossney

One would expect a pub named after Samuel Beckett to offer nothing but carrots and turnips, waiters who speak in monosyllables, and food that takes forever to arrive. Probably, too, the bartender would joke about the gallows and disapprove of toasts. “Nothing to be celebrated,” he would say. “Now eat your greens.”But in fact the latest inhabitant of downtown Berkeley’s Tupper and Reed building offers steaming-hot steak-and-mushroom pie and Irish-coffee baked Alaska, and the bar’s regular players–distinctly Irish–talk a blue and happy streak. The first thing you’ll notice, if you arrive on the right evening, is the spitting image of a young Samuel Beckett standing behind the mahogany bar. The actual Beckett is a fixture here, too–his portrait hangs near the entrance, as if to keep watch and find out what Berkeley intends to do with his silence. His younger likeness will pour you a Guinness, perhaps, or a Caffrey’s Irish Ale, as you salivate at the steaming plates of spicy fries and cottage pies as they pass by.Open since February, the two-story pub recreates the friendly ambience of a watering hole in Ireland, except the decor here is splendid enough for a castle. Outside, the brick-and-stone facade harks back to the 1920s, when the Romance Revival movement produced such storybook touches as a cobblestone courtyard, gargoyles, and a tooting metal piper atop the forty-foot chimney. Inside, the irregular brickwork motif repeats around the fireplaces, and the lighting from chandeliers and wall sconces adds firelight colors overhead. The remodeled rooms, with their carved wooden banisters, cathedral ceilings, and refinished wooden floors, contribute to a wonderfully warm atmosphere. And the walls sport many faces–Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and George Bernard Shaw are among the commissioned visages watching over patrons. It’s clear that the proprietors, who also own Johnny Foley’s in San Francisco’s Union Square, spared no expense.

My friends and I visited Beckett’s in late February just after it opened, when seating areas were nearly empty and servers were still finding their groove. After appetizers of barbecued pork spareribs with coleslaw ($7.95) and beef and Guinness soup ($3.75), we determined that the menu alone was worth a return visit. Plus, the ten draught beers actually add up to twelve, to my way of thinking, because one can sweet-talk Beckett the Younger into combining Guinness Stout with Bass Ale for a black-and-tan, or Guinness and Carlsberg lager for my personal favorite, the Black Viking.

Sometime around St. Patrick’s Day, word got around and the scene got decidedly livelier. With corned beef and potatoes and cabbage and live Irish music, not much was left to be desired except a good brawl and some dancing. I returned to find both the upstairs and downstairs bars fully in commission, and a jolly assortment of mostly Irish fellows sitting at the downstairs trough. I’d brought along an old classmate whose friendship I’ve found to be more abundant than her appetite, but nonetheless we decided that a few morsels would go handily with the Black Stuff–or, in her case, the pale stuff. I ordered the cider-braised corned beef ($12.95) and found it worth its salt, piled high as it was over boiled potatoes (you can opt for mashed) and shredded cabbage, all with a parsley cream sauce over the top. My friend made a meal out of the baked mussels ($6.95) from the appetizer list–a small plate of black-shelled mussels that come stuffed with fat bread crumbs and melted garlic-hazelnut butter that fairly oozes everywhere, making a kind of bassinet out of each shell. Unbelievably, extra butter came served in a ramekin–a veritable kiddie pool –and we had no use for it except as a dipping sauce for bread, which comes in two varieties, white and hearty wheat.

Let it be said that Beckett’s is not for dieters. That night I carried my leftover corned beef home in a box–no help from my friend–but even so, I was feeling as fat as a bishop. The dessert list was partly to blame, as we couldn’t leave without sampling the sherry trifle ($4.50) and the Irish coffee baked Alaska ($5.50). Both were luscious, creamy finales to the evening–the baked Alaska’s meringue encircled espresso gelato and sported an Irish whiskey custard sauce, whereas the sherry trifle nearly sent us around the bend. The trifle was served on a plate rather than in a goblet; real whipped cream topped layers of sponge cake tinted pink from berry sauce, and although the custard sauce didn’t taste at all of sherry, it was nearly as satisfying to eat as the Irish boys at the bar were to watch. One of them had his arms around a girl and, as they say in Ireland, there was a-laughin’ and a-curray’n.If Ireland is anything like Beckett’s, then every meal in Eire is a kind of party, for at Beckett’s you can have your spirits one of three ways: in a glass, in a bowl, or on a plate. This is why I invited my friends Ethel and Mae along on my next visit. Ethel is such a fan of the drink, the last time we were out enjoying a few scoops together she became inspired to audition for Star Search via the security cameras. (This was after challenging the bouncer to an arm-wrestling competition, but failing to notice first that her knickers were at half mast.) Lately she’d had a face as long as a hare’s back leg, and so Mae and I met her at an upstairs table where we thought we’d cheer her up with a little hearty food. Trouble was, our server, Jackie, mistook Ethel for Mae’s and my mother, which required Ethel to be on her best behavior for the rest of the night. She ordered a glass of dry and lovely Michel Lynch sauvignon blanc ($5.50)–Jackie’s recommendation because of the Irish name. I requested a creamy Boddington’s ($4.50 for a twenty-ounce glass), and Mae–well, she did manage to keep her head above the table, but only because “Mum” was working overtime.We started the solid portion of our meal with crispy fried green beans ($5.95). I can only imagine that this appetizer was invented because somewhere an Irish chef ran out of potatoes and had to resort to frying a green vegetable. But the soy-ginger dipping sauce added a sophisticated touch.

Between wait duties, Jackie had a little time to talk, and she informed us that the pub’s most popular dishes include such traditional favorites as bangers and mash, cottage pie, fish and chips, and smoked cod. For those who crave the peculiarly British, there is also chicken and vegetable pie, Irish lamb stew, and chicken curry served over rice or french fries with mango chutney. All pies come served with a small side salad: a blend of lettuces and tomatoes tossed in a sherry vinaigrette.

Vegetarian options include vegetable lasagna; vegetarian pot pie; Irish stew with barley, mint, portabello mushrooms, and spinach; and a veggie burger. For herbivores who prefer their medicine in a bowl, vegetarian Bass Ale chili with beans and vegetables comes served over rice.

We asked Jackie what brought her here from Ireland. “A man,” she answered, shaking her curly brown hair. “Can you believe it?” We ordered according to Jackie’s recommendations: fish and chips ($10.95) for Mae, cottage pie ($9.95) for Ethel, and smoked cod over mashed potatoes ($14.95) for me.

The cottage pie (sometimes called shepherd’s pie) is a hearty single-serving casserole of ground beef in gravy with onions and carrots, topped with mashed potatoes. Ethel found it very warm and comforting, generous enough to share around. Mae cleaned her plate of fries and Harp-lager-battered fish, but the side of coleslaw proved too heavy on the mayonnaise, even for those of us who like a little cabbage with our dressing. My smoked cod was a lovely antidote to the calorie-laden tidbits that I stole from Mae’s plate. The potatoes and poached fish were flanked by bits of broccoli and cauliflower in white sauce, and the meal came with soup or salad–I opted for the soup of the day, a delicious chicken-and-rice mixture in tomato broth with vegetables.

Returning with a second glass of Michel Lynch for Ethel, Jackie reminded Mae and me that the pub stays open late into the night, and that if we should return with our boyfriends, well, she wouldn’t tell our mum.

After dinner we consulted the dessert list. Mae had already picked out the chocolate hangover ($5.50), a warm chocolate-chip brownie beneath chocolate and vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and nuts, but Ethel and I wavered between homemade apple pie, fresh fruit pavlova, Guinness-flavored ice cream, warm soda bread and butter pudding, or Bailey’s Irish cream cheesecake. We opted for this last decadence ($5.50), and this time there was no mistaking the liqueur flavor. Bailey’s permeated every bite of the rich cake, which is topped with cream and nuts and encrusted in black coffee-flavored crumbs. Oscar Wilde looked on approvingly from a nearby painting. Only an Irish-coffee nightcap could have made the experience more complete.