New in Town: 36 East Irish Pub

A high-profile downtown address gets a new tenant.

Given the string of restaurant concepts that have failed to make a go of it at 36 E. Washington St. in the last few years, we were eager to see what 36 East Irish Pub & Grill (36 E. Washington St., (317-437-3578) might do to have more staying power in the downtown dining scene. Would a bar billing itself on its Facebook page as a “higher class restaurant right off of the Circle” really outlast the previous tenants? Or was this address, as many have speculated, simply doomed?
The storefront first found new life in the winter of 2009 with Taste of Tango, a short-lived but spirited steakhouse whose approach to the hearty workingman’s staples of Argentina couldn’t draw the throngs away from nearby St. Elmo or Fogo de Chao. Later came Hue Dine, offering up California spa cuisine fused with lounge beats that didn’t exactly jive with a downtown crowd wanting something a bit more substantial—and consistent—for their post-theatre eats. Most recently, Coal Pizza revamped the two-story space into a casual pizzeria with obvious ambition, including addictive garlic knots and a sophisticated take on the Alsatian tarte flambe topped with bacon, onions, and gruyere cheese. Its spacious upstairs bar made for a cozy place to take in the game and grab a bite to eat—and you could usually get a table. But it, too, closed up shop last November, before it even marked its first anniversary.
News that the spot would reopen as an Irish pub came in late spring, with hopes that it would provide at least a good place to get a Guinness or a Jameson’s on a downtown block where only the Libertine has gained a dedicated following. If nothing else, it would brighten up a storefront down the street from a mixed martial arts studio and a Dunkin’ Donuts that’s sat empty for months. That pint of Guinness would have to wait a bit longer, however, as we found out when we stopped in this weekend to 36 East. The bar had yet to have its taps installed and was currently offering only a few brews, almost none from the Emerald Isle, by the bottle. Indeed, a number of things seemed very much still in the works here, including its decor—a smattering of Guinness ads and some posters of Irish landmarks—and its overall concept.
A long bar downstairs is now the focal point, awkwardly hidden behind the hulking stairway inside the front door, and quaffing domestic lagers seems the main draw so far. Only a few already worn-looking tables in the rear offer seating for larger parties grabbing dinner. But these curvy white tables, perhaps left over from a former occupant, are set too high for standard restaurant chairs, and we had to hike our elbows up to keep from sliding under. A Megatouch gaming terminal at the end of the bar seemed out of place in a “higher class restaurant,” and Irish jigs mixed with Dave Matthews and Notorious B.I.G. hits from a digital jukebox on the back wall did little to transport patrons to County Cork.
The current menu offers up standard American pub fare with just enough Irish classics—corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash—to make you know the place is trying to evoke an air of Dublin, not humdrum Hoosier bar fodder. But chicken strips, cheeseburger sliders, and spaghetti don’t point to a lot of creativity emanating from the kitchen. From the small selection of starters, lightly battered onion petals served in an oversized white bowl were crisp enough, if lacking much character aside from an oily and surprisingly spicy remoulade sauce for dipping. A grilled cheese sandwich came with a spare filling of pedestrian cheese inside bread that appeared toasted in a press, not buttered or crisped on a griddle. A generous portion of thick-cut but rather wan fries came on the side. Fish and chips had the suspicious shape and texture of frozen factory filets, some crisp and some with residual gooey batter inside, served with the same pale fries. A tiny ramekin of coleslaw hardly seemed worth its $1.50 price tag as an add-on. Bangers and mash were perhaps the biggest disappointment, the sausages themselves light on seasoning and bursting out of their casings in places. They came fairly drenched in an onion sauce with a bitter undertone of the Guinness they weren’t serving at the bar. The accompanying mashed potatoes, while plentiful, were a tad watery, though they made up somewhat for the lack of flavor in the dish overall.
Our eager but slightly distracted waiter, who doubled as the bartender, offered us no dessert options, though we didn’t ask. We had to prod him to take away our plates and bring the check. While it’s clear that 36 East is still gaining its footing, it’s surprising the owners didn’t take a few more steps over the summer to ensure their success at such an enigmatic address. We left thinking it would take more than a few tweaks to the menu and decor for 36 East to be a long-term player in a space that’s been anything but kind to its enterprising tenants.