Food News

Feargal McKinney, Owner of the Old Monk and Blackfriar, on the Magic of an Old Irish Whiskey

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Feargal McKinney came to the U.S. after college to see the sights and do a bit of traveling. After some time in New York City, he took the scenic route to California and stopped in Dallas to visit a friend and essentially never left -- partially because he got stuck here, but mostly because he liked it.

After a lifelong career in the restaurant and pub business, McKinney now owns The Old Monk, The Idle Rich Pub, Blackfriar Pub and Renfield's Corner. All of which this Irishman will have hopping on St. Patrick's Day.

What did you like about Dallas when you stopped in for a visit over two decades ago? I arrived in March and the weather was just like this, gorgeous. After being in New York where it was so cold, it was lovely. Also it was much easier to find work here and the people were really nice. It was easier to break in and make friends.

How did you initially get into the bar business? I always worked in restaurants throughout school. My first job here was the at the Pearl Street Oyster bar. We lived within walking distance. I worked at Chili's for a while, then the original Knox Street Pub at the corner of Travis. It was a great pub, I was there for years. Also worked at Genevieve and the Inwood Lounge briefly. Then, I owned the Dubliner and sold out of that a few years ago. In 1996, I opened the Old Monk on Henderson, then the Idle Rich, the Blackfriar and Renfield's Corner.

What's the secret to running four pubs at once? I imagine it's a 24/7 gig. I've got a young family, so it can't be 24/7. It's about hiring and training people. Most of our management is fostered internally. They work their way up. I'm not really sure how I do it -- it would take someone from the outside to analyze what I'm doing, I suppose.

How do you manage your team(s)? I try to make my expectations clear to people by putting an emphasis what's important. Building relationships and talking to customers is really important, as oppose to just rules and side work. It's much easier to hold someone accountable to a checklist; the other things, like building relationships with customers, are a little more intangible. We talk about those things in meetings to make clear what the focus is. As a business gets bigger that can get lost because you try to put everything in written documents and checklists. I can't do a checklist to see if someone is communicating well.

How has the Dallas food scene changed since you've been here? It was a bit insular when I first got here, but it's gotten a lot more interesting. It's changed in 20 years, but at the same pace as everything else. People are using pubs for the same reasons though -- for casual get-togethers and mingling. That hasn't changed. There weren't as many pub-style places back then, but there are more places where you can get quality food and drink now. Are there any local spots you prefer for Irish food? No. Not really. I can get corned beef and banger sausages here all the time. I go home to Ireland twice a year and get my fill then.

What about other spots? This weekend when the weather was nice we actually went to Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth because we were out that way. We loved it. We live in East Dallas, so we go to a lot of small places over there.

When you visit Ireland, do you look forward to home cooking? Well, I have three brothers and three sisters -- in all there are about 18 adults and 30 kids. And, actually, one day every year I cook a big Tex-Mex feast for everyone. We bring some of the ingredients over with us and have other stuff shipped, like the chips. I smoke a brisket, make fajitas, salsa and guacamole. For the first time this year I made queso. Before I wasn't able to make it because I couldn't find the right kind of cheese -- I tried a couple different types, but it didn't come out right. So, this year I found those easy single slices and had my kids unwrap about a 100 of them and it actually worked. It's kind of funny. So, each year we have a huge Mexican food feast in Ireland.

How are things back at home? Ireland's had a tough couple of years ... When I left back in the 80's, unemployment was around 16 percent, which is why so many, like myself, left. Now it's back at about 14 percent. It's terrible. And people aren't coming to the U.S. so much anymore because of visa restrictions, but they're going to really any place they can get work, a lot to England to get ready for the Olympics. Ireland is just so small. The scale of the recent financial crisis was unbelievable. Ireland got a $90 billion bailout for a population of 4 million people -- work that per person.

On to brighter topics, what's your favorite Irish drink? Guinness. There's just something unique about it and I've been drinking it for so long now. I like it any time of year, but this time of year especially. Also, the Irish whiskey movement is really good at the moment. There weren't really a lot for a while, Jameson was the only thing you could find here when I first got here. But recently, there has been a bit of an explosion.

Do you have any favorites? There's an interesting distillery called Cooley that hadn't been doing very well and was bought by Irish businessman who essentially saved it. They were putting out some really interesting things. Then, more recently, Jim Beam bought it. I think it says something that Jim Beam was looking for an Irish whiskey in their portfolio.

Do you have a whiskey recommendation? Redbreast is a 12 year-old Irish whiskey by Jameson that is a really good value. With a little ice or straight. There's also a Jameson 18 year that is really gorgeous, but it gets expensive. What's on the menu for this weekend? The Killdares are playing, plus we'll have Irish dancers and bagpipers. In terms of food, we always carry the Irish basics here at The Idle Rich. The corned beef and cabbage is a traditional, plus the shepherd's pie and fish and chips.

Where did you get your recipes? I developed the recipes with help from my wife and folks back home. The corned beef took years to get right. We don't really eat it that much at home. It really is an Irish-American thing. My grandmother use to cook it, but it just wasn't the same as it is here.

What are some of the important qualities to being a good bartender? It takes empathy to be a good bartender.

How's that? You need to be able to see the world from someone else's perspective instead of yours. You have to be a good listener and be able to switch easily from person to person. And it's important to know how to deal with people that are in different moods during different times of the day. We have some bartenders who drift through and don't work out. I find that people with an ego don't work out.

What else is important about being a good bartender or server? There's a theory in the restaurant business that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of the people that come through your door. The repeat customers are so important. I think that if you applied the same theory to pubs it would be even higher. There are so many choices out there. We try to teach our bartenders and servers that if you lose a regular it really costs us. But, if you gain a regular it's huge. When people move into a new area, you might have just two chances to gain them as a regular. So, you really have to be ready for that person to walk in every day. We try to encourage them to make some connection.

What do you think about Mark Cuban? He's great. Good for him. I read that the only reason he pitched in for the parade was because he enjoyed going to it when he was young. That's fantastic.

Do you like the parade? I've never been! I'm always working.

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.