Deoch. Ceol. Bia. Rince.
Just as you’re leaving the main bar of Midtown’s Rí Rá location, glance over your shoulder on the way to the Harbour Bar and you’ll see these words. They mean: Drink. Music. Food. Dance. Consider some of the other chain restaurants you have been to or fast food gambles you have made – telling you there’s nothing like the neighborhood, or implying you have nothing better to do, so you “gotta eat.” So, when you work for a site that specializes in the Retro, the nostalgic, and the wonderfully weird… what is one to do with a restaurant that has a dozen locations across the U.S.?
The simple answer to the question is: “Deoch. Ceol. Bia. Rince.”
Rí Rá’s layout is heavy with homeland and family nostalgia. The founders were passionate about capturing a “proper Irish pub” experience. There are some obvious decisions in the decorations, but then there is something subtle that begins to take over: the warm wooden architecture, the open space and the fact there are large “group tables” scattered throughout the restaurant, actively encouraging patrons to celebrate with friends. Two and four tops throughout the restaurant also cater to those looking for something more intimate or relevant to a date night, but the best experience you can have at Ri Ra comes from sitting down to a large table, surrounded by happy faces that become rosier and louder with each course and each drink.
Crammed into the Harbour Bar with other lovers of food and drink, I entered expecting to hear the lilting Irish “stock” music that often pops up at self-proclaimed “Irish pubs.” Instead? Dropkick Murphies. Flogging Molly. The list just kept going, and before I knew it, the grinding voice of Dave King had enabled me to tuck into yet another Smithwicks. The room was buzzing with photographers and writers and travelers, all of them discussing their own journeys – if they are going to the upcoming beer festival, if they managed to check out that restaurant they suggested at the last gathering. These are marathon eaters and comprise a total thiasus to all things Bacchus. We sat down ready to dine, ready to drink, ready for the music and the dance of a four-course meal.
Getting into the full array of the tasting menu would push the boundaries of the review. You are a busy reader with things to do, after all! But Chef Kelly Sollinger played an incredible balancing act with his meals. Each dish was playful and a special, worthy introduction to Irish eatery. He respects the qualities of an ingredient that make it subtle or overwhelming. For example, cheddar, an ingredient I believe some chefs play very fast and loose with, became a subtle binder for a boxty cake, decorated with sautéed arugula and balsamic vinaigrette. Earthy rosemary cut the rich density of a ground lamb slider, which also boasted pickled red onion taming the sharpness of a goat cheese spread. Not only are his dishes in perfect synch with their ingredients, but they pair very well with the Harpers, Guinness and Smithwicks on tap – especially the pear and blue cheese salad which melded perfectly with its champagne vinaigrette and the Smithwicks served alongside.
Before we reached dessert, the table enjoyed a 14-day house-brined beef brisket and ale-battered haddock. Brines are tough for me, so is cabbage, but the flavor is there, and the parsley-cream sauce and fluffy piping of mashed potato kept everything in line. Chef Kelly’s background with seafood is delightfully present. The haddock was battered respectfully, giving the diner that satisfying crunch, but letting the haddock’s tenderness and texture take over from there.
By dessert, I was in a very happy place with my surroundings and my table-mates. The sponge cake with dates and toffee pudding neighbored a Guinness and brown bread ice cream, sharp on the back end as if I had just finished off a long draw from a tall glass of the same stout. The Irish coffee served was made with the French press method, my favorite when it comes to coffee – you just get so much more flavor from the ground bean that way! One of our bartenders, Eoghan, was circling the table with his third song of the evening – U2‘s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I have heard that song 101 times, but here we were – all of us from different walks of life and different backgrounds, different beliefs and different moralities, all gathered around a table. The song is about the ideal world where a person is not defined by the “street” where they live, a world where there are no divisions of any sort. At a table like this, at no point do any of us think about one another’s class, race, wealth or some other criteria that has been deemed important. We only think about the food, the drink, the music, and how our conversations simply dance.
How retro can you get? Before any of the movies came out that we fell in love with and defend its kitch to this day, before we first played a plumber trying to save a princess from an angry monkey, before the first radio broadcast was played… we gathered around the table. Rí Rá, if you give it the chance you need to give it, is not just a chain, not just one in 12, not just another corporation. The restaurant wants you to sit for a while, to have a drink, to eat some food, and to celebrate just being there. This message becomes clearer if you speak to co-founder David Kelly who said, of this “reintroduction” of Rí Rá, that the message is simply: “We exist.”
So, if you aren’t doing anything this St. Patrick’s Day, or hell, this weekend? Head over to Midtown, and pull up a seat at the bar in Rí Rá. Make sure you dance. Make sure you listen to the “music” surrounding you. Make sure you drink. Make sure you eat. Simply exist.
Beginning Tuesday, March 12, Rí Rá will host friends, family and local Irish patriots as they kick-off their six-day toast to St. Patrick, highlighted by a block party celebration, closing off a portion of Crescent Avenue on Saturday, March 16 and Sunday, March 17 for live music performances and other fun activities. For more info on each day’s festivities and other special events, such as whiskey tastings, visit www.rira.com/atlanta/.