Given that I write about bars in a city that proudly basks in its Irish heritage, you might think I treat St. Patrick’s Day like it’s Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, my birthday, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one. A day that I mark on my calendar and count down to with breathless anticipation. I mean, it’s an unofficial drinking holiday, right? What’s not to like?
Standing in line outside a bar that would never otherwise have a line, and paying a cover charge that would never otherwise be levied, for the privilege of squeezing into an overcrowded room with revelers who’ve been at it since 11 a.m., while struggling to order a beer, not spill it, and make audible conversation with my companions. That’s what’s not to like.
Look, I’m not trying to be a wet blanket here. If you spend a few minutes perusing this site, I’m sure you’ll discover that my fondness for Boston drinking culture is beyond dispute. And if your preferred mode of celebration is to take St. Patty’s Day off from work, deck yourself out in green, strap on your drinking shoes, and wait for the bars to open, far be it from me to criticize. You have my unending support. And trust me, I understand the importance of honoring personal traditions.
The thing is, you’ll never have to twist my arm to spend a night in a warm pub chatting over shepherd’s pie and a few pints of Guinness. I don’t need a holiday or any sort of special occasion. And I don’t have to pretend to be “Irish for a day,” since I’m Irish every day. So in terms of actually celebrating St. Patty’s Day, I’ve come to see it as something of a hassle. Kind of like shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, except you’re not getting any good deals.
Which is not to say that I don’t celebrate at all. I just prefer something a bit more low-key, and I tend to stay outside the city. So this week we head out to Waltham and visit a comfortable old favorite of mine – the Mad Raven.
There’s no O’ in the name, and the walls aren’t cluttered with black-and-white photos of Irish farmers eking out a hardscrabble existence during the potato famine. But the Mad Raven is the real deal. Owner Mark McAuliffe, a native of County Cork, Ireland, and his wife Maura have run the place for nearly 15 years, and it’s everything a good Irish pub should be – casual, approachable, and familiar. A long, spacious bar with a worn, wooden surface is surrounded by 15 comfortable chairs.
Green and amber lights above the bar give things a festive, St. Patty’s Day glow. A large dining area with about 10 to 15 tables keeps the bar area from getting too cramped. Hardwood floors, exposed brick, and warm, orange-yellow walls result in a very homey feel.
And then there are the ravens.
All throughout the bar, you can find the bar’s namesake bird. Ravens behind the bar. Ravens on the walls.
Apparently there are ravens all over Ireland, too, but that’s only part of the reason behind the name. “Mark’s father was into theater and stuff in Cork,” bartender Willie Egan explains. “He liked the Edgar Allen Poe poem about the raven, thus the name.”
My sister Kelly and I stopped in on a recent Saturday for a laid-back evening of conversation, comfort food, and best of all, a few of Ireland’s famously recognizable beverages. But we started with a couple of local offerings. First up was the Harpoon’s appropriately named seasonal brew, the Long Thaw.
A beer ideally suited to the month of March, this powerful white IPA is loaded with hops, but softer notes of citrus and spice serve as a reminder that spring is (reportedly) on the way.
Sam Adams also offers a seasonal white ale, though the Cold Snap is considerably less hoppy than Harpoon’s brew. Smooth, citrusy, and highly drinkable, it’s a sturdy beer that can stand up to a long, chilly New England winter.
The Raven’s appetizer menu is stocked with standard pub fare like wings and nachos, but we opted for the evening’s special – Buffalo calamari. Topped with thinly sliced carrots, bleu cheese, and a plethora of jalepenos, it was a spicy start to the evening (for me, anyway; Kelly picked out most of the peppers) and a nice twist on traditional calamari.
The rest of the night was spent celebrating all things Irish. Starting, of course, with arguably the grandest of Ireland’s gifts to the rest of the world. What can be said about Guinness that hasn’t already been said? Even after two-plus centuries, it’s a beer that never gets old.
It’s also a beer that plays surprisingly well with others. There’s Guinness and its old English friend, Bass, making up the traditional Black and Tan.
Kelly opted for the Black Velvet, a mix of Guinness and Magners Irish cider.
The Raven’s dinner menu is heavy on comfort food, with burgers, sandwiches, and old standbys like mac and cheese. But they also throw in a few curveballs, like Creole jambalaya and blackened swordfish tacos. Kelly and I kept things traditional.
The Raven’s shepherd’s pie is stuffed with beef, carrots, corn, and a rich gravy, topped with homemade mashed potatoes. This fortifying dish is a longtime favorite at the Raven, even among the staff. “The shepherd’s pie is good, huh?” one of the bartenders asked as I dug in. “It’s good from behind the bar, too,” he added. “I can order it, and 15 minutes later, it’s still hot.”
Kelly opted for the fish and chips, a generous portion of deep fried cod and crispy golden fries.
Like any Irish pub worth its salt, the Raven hosts live music every Saturday night, and some Fridays too. As we ate our meals and sipped our Guinness, we were treated to the acoustic stylings of Dennis McCarthy, who impressed with Irish standards such as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
I closed out with one of Ireland’s oldest and most distinguished exports. A Jameson on the rocks is a strong way to cap off any night, whether you’re toasting the patron saint of Ireland or just enjoying a quiet evening.
And it makes me wonder, as I do every year, how St. Patrick’s Day got so blown out of proportion. I know plenty of people still observe it as a cultural and religious holiday. But you don’t need the luck of the Irish – or even a special occasion – to find good food and beer, live music, and friendly company in the confines of a comfortable pub.
But I can’t fault anyone for getting into the spirit, and if that’s your plan this weekend, the Raven’s ready for you. In addition to regular menu items like the shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and corned beef reuben, the weekend’s food specials will include a full Irish breakfast (served until noon), Guinness beef stew, corned beef and cabbage, and bangers and mash. Saturday night, the talented Ryan Palma will be entertaining what is sure to be a full house, and green-clad revelers will likely be out in full force all weekend.
Come Tuesday, things will get back to normal. The Raven will go back to being a relaxed, familiar neighborhood pub with plenty of Guinness, Jameson, and shepherd’s pie to go around. The regulars will congregate around the bar, watch March Madness or speculate about the upcoming Sox season, and chat with their regular bartender. “That’s what an Irish bar is all about,” Willie reminds me. “Socializing over a pint. TVs optional.”
And that’s worth a pot of gold any night of the week. Sláinte!
Address: 841 Main Street, Waltham
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