What makes an Irish pub Irish? At Grace’s, it’s ‘comfort’ and ‘community’

Mike O'Sullivan is the co-owner of Grace's Pub at 252 W. 14th St in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

We chatted up an Ireland native – and co-owner of a Manhattan pub – who counts tradition among the musts, right down to the importance of having a “snug.”

Mike O'Sullivan is the co-owner of Grace's Pub at 252 W. 14th St in Manhattan.
Mike O’Sullivan is the co-owner of Grace’s Pub at 252 W. 14th St in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Mike O’Sullivan and Dan Grace have the traditional Irish pub scene down pat.

Since 2016, they’ve co-owned Clinton Hill’s Hartley’s pub with Jim Dunn, and they opened Grace’s in Manhattan last summer.

So while New Yorkers prepare for St. Patrick’s Day with green beer, shamrock glasses and bar crawls, we sat down with O’Sullivan to find out: What makes a true Irish pub distinctly Irish?

Coziness that comes from old-world architecture and details

After walking through Grace’s bright red door at 252 W. 14th St., and before you reach the long wooden bar, there is what the Irish call a "snug" — a small private room with a window for drinks to be passed through. The nook, featuring a wooden table encircled by booths and plush pillows, is basically sectioned off from the rest of the bar. 

The snug is a very old Irish tradition in pubs, O’Sullivan said. It’s where mostly men would "do deals" and even arrange marriages, he said.

"The priest and two fathers would go in, close it off and when they’d come out it was arranged," he said. "Another old Irish thing is that they’d send women into the snug so they wouldn’t go out into the main bar of the room." 

Grace's snug, which is inspired by traditional Irish pubs, is at the front of the bar.
Grace’s snug, which is inspired by traditional Irish pubs, is at the front of the bar. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Now, any patrons can "do whatever — and can reserve the time." 

Aside from the snug, which even sounds cozy, the pub’s architectural elements and small details add to the overall vibe.

The wood bar, shelves, floor and stone walls are inspired by Irish concepts. O’Sullivan and Grace looked to Hartley’s interior and relied on their own memories of Ireland, plus research of old Irish pubs, when designing Grace’s.

"When you walk in it feels like an old school traditional bar that you’d find on the west coast of Ireland," O’Sullivan said. "Our friend would look at this old book and we’d say can you do that? And he’d do bits and replicate them all."

A lot of the old bars in Ireland have stood for 100 years or more, he said, so there is an appreciation for their relative simplicity.

Room for conversation

That simplicity allows Grace’s to "capture the soul" of the Irish pub.

"We’ve tried to establish that we are somewhere where everyone goes," he said. "We have a saying in Ireland, ‘From docker to doctor’: you leave your job at the door and you’re the same as the next person. It’s the culture of community."

If bumping music is your thing, Grace’s and Hartley’s probably won’t suit you. At the pubs, it’s all about being able to carry conversations and make connections with people. 

It's more about conversation and community at Grace's rather than drinking and pumping music.
It’s more about conversation and community at Grace’s rather than drinking and pumping music. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

"People have gotten to know each other here, which is Irish in nature — just knowing people and talking to them and engaging them," O’Sullivan said. "We are all buried in our phones all day; people seem very much engaged [here]. I think because people are couped up in small apartments they just want somewhere to go."

But a wee bit of fun

That’s not to say that the pub doesn’t put on a little show. Every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Matt Stapleton, an American who specializes in traditional Irish music, plays guitar. It’s unamplified and on any day he could be joined by a harpist, fiddlers and others.

"You’re not being blasted away with live music," O’Sullivan said. "It’s special when you’re here for the session. There’s something kind of hypnotic about it."

Grace’s first St. Paddy’s Day celebration will start with an Irish coffee night with Stapleton (and possibly poetry) on March 13 and end with a relaxed celebration with music starting at 2 p.m. March 17.

Katie Fischer on the fiddle, Dan Neely on the tenor banjo and Matt Stapleton on guitar at Hartley's.
Katie Fischer on the fiddle, Dan Neely on the tenor banjo and Matt Stapleton on guitar at Hartley’s. Photo Credit: David Handschuh

O’Sullivan said there’s a difference in how Americans and the Irish celebrate the big day. While New Yorkers mostly drink, the partying usually is done the day prior across the pond.

"Here is crazier," he said. "At home there is a big night before. Here is all day all night. it’s more of a party here, where it’s more like a cultural celebration in Ireland."

The food and drink

On St. Patrick’s Day, Grace’s will offer corned beef served on Irish soda bread, but all weekend it will offer Irish breakfast — sausage, bacon, fried eggs, beans, mushrooms and black and white pudding.

What is white pudding you ask? "It’s more intestinal," O’Sullivan said. 

The menu is "Irish comfort" in nature but does offer a bit of a New York City twist with daily-baked soda bread, beef stew and grilled cheese with smoked bacon. 

Grace's has a machine that serves up Guinness at the perfect temperature.
Grace’s has a machine that serves up Guinness at the perfect temperature. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

As for the drink menu, of course, Guinness is available. In fact, Grace’s brought over a dispenser exclusively for Guinness so it is served at exactly 42 degrees to release the beer’s flavor perfectly. Other beers on tap include Montauk Wave Chaser IPA, Cigar City Florida Cracker White Ale, Greenport Tidal Lager and D.A.B. Pilsner.

There are wines and simplistic cocktails, too.

Having an impact

O’Sullivan and Grace, who were roommates and rugby pals in Ireland before coming to the U.S., ended up rooming together again after reconnecting about eight years ago. 

O’Sullivan has worked at pubs since he was 13 (his mother worked at one back home) and that didn’t change when he came to the U.S. He worked at multiple bars, from manning the door to managing them, including at Jack Demsey’s in the East Village and its sister bar, Slainte on the Bowery, and Penrose on the Upper East Side.

"As soon as I started working in bars over here, I just loved it," O’Sullivan said. "In New York you see it a lot because people have small apartments and they don’t want to be home. You have this interaction with people and you’ve had an impact on their day. I love that feeling that it’s not as if you’re changing the world or anything, but you can have an impact on someone having a really bad day. It’s a cool feeling." 

Grace's is the second pub Mike O'Sullivan has opened in the eight years he has been a New Yorker.
Grace’s is the second pub Mike O’Sullivan has opened in the eight years he has been a New Yorker. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

"There aren’t many pubs in general, especially where we are, except for some old school ones in Irish neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and a few in Williamsburg," O’Sullivan said. "There are so many cocktail bars, restaurants and wine bars. We just wanted to be a place with no frills that gives standard, hopefully excellent, food, but a place for people to go meet and relax."

Shaye Weaver