All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
A good pub began with steamed mollusks. About 20 years ago, Dublin-born Feargal McKinney returned to Dallas from a trip to Belgium and France, and he had mussels on his mind. He lugged back the memory of steamy, beer-bathing shells, showered with bright herbs, garlic and shallots, from the great pubs of Europe. The mussels, spiced Belgian beer and proper fish and chips, along with the cheeseboards McKinney grew up eating with cold brews, became the inspiration for a new bar on Henderson Avenue.
In March 2018, around St. Patrick’s Day, the Old Monk will celebrate its 20th birthday. There’s something about shellfish and mussels: They carry memories. Everyone can remember the first time they threw back a sterling oyster, brining in a sauce of its own ocean, or used the base of a mussel shell to sip garlicky broth like a medieval lord. The heart of the Old Monk lies in the mussels, the fish and chips and a few french fries.
There’s also memory in the Old Monk patio’s wood benches. Sitting outside, whether it’s a summer blaze or a shuddering winter, it feels like the reliable center of a wheel that’s constantly turning on Henderson. Restaurants and bars, concepts that range from old-fashioned America to stuffy fine dining, will turn, falling flat or keeping their successful buzz. The Old Monk is home base. The pub has planted a flag right on the edge of U.S. Highway 75. You remember the fish and chips; you count on them to be crispy and the ramekins to be rimmed with paprika and shards of dill, no matter the state of food trends boiling within the city.
“We didn’t want to be a restaurant," McKinney says. "We wanted to be a pub.”
Before the age of taking food photos with your phone, the Monk boomed most often at night. The focus was booze and a few eats. McKinney had come from Dallas’ Dubliner bar (he also owns the Blackfriar, Idle Rich and the more recently opened The Skellig) and looked to expand with a menu inspired by pub traditions from England, Germany, Belgium and Ireland. The idea was to open the kind of ale-soaked house where you'd find aging, nicked wood and maybe Viking runes beneath the floorboards.
Before all the fancy-ass gastropubs, Old Monk was serving cold beer and boards of cheese you could eat with your hands. It had Prince Edward Island mussels wafting the aroma of Belgium’s great bars long before it was cool to Instagram mussels from your favorite bar.
As time moves on and trends emerge, Old Monk has kept an eye out and surfed the changes. It tried adding more martinis when martinis were a thing. Craft beers are obviously popular now, so it snuck a few in between the classic, mind-exploding, good Belgian sours like Duchesse De Bourgogne, a must-try when it’s on draught.
McKinney went through a vegetarian stage, so Old Monk crafted a veggie burger from scratch. Surprisingly, it's one of the best sandwiches. The focus has swung more toward food lately (although liquor sales have outreached beer in the past few years). The chicken sandwich with millenial-ready avocado outsells the mussels. Nothing outsells the fish and chips.
“Fads will come and go, but it’s just getting the right balance of taking the good out of the bad,” McKinney says.
A few years ago, I was elbow deep into a bowl of mussels with a few friends on the Old Monk patio when a powerful thunderstorm rolled in over Henderson. Rain dropped in thick blankets, the traffic lights swayed in the wind and thunder ripped across the sky. The TVs flipped to the emergency warning, uniformly broadcasting those ear-splitting, skittering National Weather Service tones that Texans know well. Everyone hunkered down inside, hair wet, hearts beating faster, but everyone still had a beer. We all talked and laughed until the storm dissolved, and then we went back outside to drink.
There’s memory in the wood, and I’m sure many Old Monk patrons have their own. Why does Old Monk hold on to thoughts like this, and what makes it different from other bars? McKinney has a simple explanation.
“It’s really, really honest,” he says. “I’m sure somebody more cynical or business-minded would do a case study and talk about the way it’s facing against the sun and the exact layout of the bar, but on a gut-level feeling it just feels right and honest.”
The mussels are a simple and true dish. There’s a saute of celery, garlic, shallots and herbs, bubbling with Hoegaarden, a Belgian white ale brewed with orange peel and coriander. There’s something about the beer that evokes something honestly homemade—even if it wasn’t your home.
“We’ve tried wine and other white ales and nothing worked," McKinney says. They get the mussels in there, cover the pot, steamed to open, and shepherd them to you quickly.
The fish and chips are special.
“I’ve got to mention that one. They’re available everywhere. ... Good ones? Not so much," McKinney says.
Old Monk uses a “reasonably traditional” beer batter, a drunken dose of Smithwick’s, an Irish red ale that’s been around since 1710, is the foundation. They fold rice flour in with all-purpose, something near a tempura batter, to give the fresh Atlantic cod a crisp shell. Then, they fry the fish in clean, hot oil, while the beer batter's always kept nice and cold. The results are always a golden crust, not greasy, with a flaky-meets-tender-soft and juicy fish that will be your desert island meal with a good Belgian ale. More than a pub meal, it becomes a memory.
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A few years ago, McKinney purchased the property his bar sits on. In March, he’s looking at opening up the parking lot, maybe with a little music out there for the Monk’s 20th birthday. No matter if Dallas’ restaurant bubble bursts — McKinney seems optimistic.
“We’re hoping to stay there and be the stalwart," he says. "Hopefully I’ll be talking about some items that we brought on board that none of us can imagine today, but I suspect we’ll be talking about the mussels and fish and chips.”
Watch the eras of food go by on Henderson while Old Monk remains unchanged, and it’s easy to suspect the same.
Old Monk, 2847 N. Henderson Ave.