If you live in Tuscaloosa, chances are you’ve at least seen Tuscaloosa’s version of an Irish Pub, Innisfree. Until a few years ago, it was nestled right in the middle of downtown (where the Grey Lady is now) between The Shirt Shop and Epiphany Café. Now, it resides in a new home on University between Hooligan’s and the new federal building. The move from Greensboro Ave gave Innisfree two things: more than double the space they had before and closer proximity to campus (and student drinking). If you’ve driven by on a Thursday-Saturday night, you’ve probably noticed the throngs of students (and limo cabs) covering the parking lot and outdoor patio area. While I certainly understand and appreciate that the move was a profitable one, as a crotchety graduate student who’d rather drink alone than with (or near) a rowdy group, I miss the smaller, older, quieter crowd from the pub’s downtown days. That’s just me though.
I’ve never been in an actual Irish pub and can’t offer comparisons between Innisfree and the real thing. From what I can tell, proper Irish pubs are looking more and more like our re-creations of them as they attempt to conform to the expectations of the tourists they want to draw in, so perhaps comparisons are a moot point anyway. Based on my experience with “Irish” pubs stateside, the process of naming them appears to be pretty simple. You either name it after a stereotypically Irish-sounding name (preferably one that starts with a “Mc” or an “O”—McGuire’s, Pat O’Brien’s, and Silky O’Sullivan’s come to mind) OR name it Innisfree (which the resident Irishman of the English department tells me is pronounced “Inn-ish-free”—now you know; spread the word).
Although I swear I’ve seen an Innisfree (say it with me: “Inn-ish-free”) in just about every city I’ve been to, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa are the only locations for this particular joint. Innisfree refers both to a fictional Irish village made famous by the 1952 John Wayne Film “The Quiet Man” and to an actual but uninhabited island in a large lake. The pub appears to have had the latter in mind, as W.B. Yeats’ “Walden”-esque poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is printed on the back of the menu.
The menu, sticking to the literary theme, offers a variety of burgers named after 20th-century Irish authors: the aforementioned W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and George (Bernard) Shaw. There’s also a TS burger, which I can only assume is named for a contemporary of these authors, T.S. Eliot, but as Eliot was born in St. Louis and lived most of his life in London, I’m yet to figure out his Irish connection. In addition to burgers, Innisfree carries a fairly standard array of “pub grub:” fish and chips, wraps, fries, messy chips (their version of barbecue nachos), and a decent bread pudding. They also have a daily meat-and-three (vegetables) lunch special that’s not on their regular menu. Update: I recently had the fried fish with green beans, mac and cheese, and sweet potato fries, and was rather pleased with my meal. Nothing terribly special, but really good nonetheless.
As far as the quality of the food goes, it’s good, though perhaps not quite good enough for the price. The burger I had was tasty enough (it had a bit of a charred taste, which I don’t really care for but some people like) but far from one of the best in town (see Hooligan’s, The Oasis, and Rama Jama’s). The burgers come with fries (I get sweet potato fries, which are good but nothing special) and costs about $9. My favorite thing to order is the messy fries, which are actually an appetizer. They run about $8-9 as well, but it’s enough food for two people to make a meal of. Kettle-style chips covered in pulled pork, a sweet barbecue sauce, melted cheddar cheese, jalapenos, and sour cream. They’ve very different from Big Bad Wolves or Bryant-Denny Dreamland barbecue nachos, but if you’re having withdrawals in the off-season, Innisfree’s version is quite good and will certainly hold you over.
Speaking of the off-season, one thing about Innisfree that makes me smile every time I go in is a digital countdown clock above the bar. The last time I went in, it was steadily counting down from 193 days 1 hour 48 minutes and 47 seconds with a poster above it that reads: “YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS.” And it’s true. I do know: it’s the countdown to kickoff 2012. The rest of the walls in Innisfree are covered with all kinds of Irish kitsch, proverbs, and paraphernalia: signs that read “God created liquor to keep the Irish from conquering the world” and “Beer: So much more than a breakfast drink!”; a chalkboard countdown to St. Patrick’s day, Boston Celtics stickers and jerseys, and lots of Guinness logos and signs.
The bar keeps a good variety of beers on tap, and as far as I can tell they don’t rotate: Sam Adams seasonal, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Smithwick’s (pronounced “Smittick’s”), Newcastle, Harp, Bass, Magic Hat #9, Guinness, Stella Artois, Blue Moon, Sweetwater Blue, and Sweetwater 420. The liquor selection is also pretty extensive. The place itself is quite large with at least three different rooms (I’ve honestly not even seen the entire building), a large outdoor patio, and plenty of large tables, booths, and bars at which to sit. There are large flat-screen TVs on just about every wall (three hang over the main bar) and dart boards. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a pool table in some part of the bar I haven’t ventured into yet. The music (which I think is a Pandora station) entertains me more than anything at Innisfree: ‘90s nostalgia abounds. It’s always (at least in the afternoons when I tend to stop by) some combination of Counting Crows, Three Doors Down, and Nine Days (remember that band? Yeah, me either).
Finally, multiple posters inside advertise a weekly “Bloody Mary (or Irish Mary—not sure what the difference is) Bar” Sundays from 12-4. It’s apparently something like a buffet setup where you create your own Bloody/Irish Mary. I’ve not tried it yet because, honestly, if I need a Bloody Mary on a Sunday, I’m not going to be in any condition to drive to Innisfree to make it. Still, it’s a neat idea.
As I said, I’m not one for crowds, so I tend to avoid Innisfree during party hours. It’s on my way home from campus though, and at 2:00 when I haven’t had lunch yet and a lot of other places are closed, it’s a nice, quiet spot to stop for a beer and some messy chips. If I’m feeling particularly productive, I can settle into a booth and get some lesson planning done before heading home for the day (where I’ll inevitably take a nap instead of working). It’s far from my favorite restaurant in town, but let’s be honest, Innisfree is a pub. It isn’t trying to be the a great restaurant. And I do think it’s one of Tuscaloosa’s better bars. It’s a good space and atmosphere that gives the kids the good time they’re looking for at night and gives me exactly what I need to relax in the afternoon.
Monday-Thursday: 11am–1:45 am
Friday: 11am–2:45 am
Saturday: 12 pm–1:45 am