Raising a pint with Ri Ra owners David Kelly and Ciaran Sheehan
Wed, Jan 30, 2013 (9:28 a.m.)
Photo: Christopher DeVargas
What if you could take an Irish pub—a real one—and transport it intact to America? Thick accents, Guinness, authentic food and wooden bars worn down by decades of pint glasses and elbows. If that sounds a little crazy, it shouldn’t. It’s called Rí Rá.
It’s Friday evening, and I’m raising a pint with David Kelly and Ciaran Sheehan, childhood friends, Guinness connoisseurs, Irishmen and owners of Rí Rá’s 12 pubs on American soil. Despite my persistent questioning, they manage to easily outdrink me. And they went out last night.
- Rí Rá
- Mandalay Place, 632-7771.
- Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 a.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 a.m.
But these two are pros. Kelly jokes that he’s been to every pub in Ireland, and as senior brand manager for Guinness there and a member of its tasting panel, sampling batches was literally part of his job. “I bleed black,” he says, before geeking out over proper gas mixing and pouring techniques.
It’s not just the beer that evokes the homeland here; it’s the furniture, the decorations and the bar itself. In the main room, the bar is a grand, gorgeous piece, with five wood-and-glass panels that look like they must have graced a truly excellent pub in their first life. For the Vegas space, they’ve been restored and reworked, trimmed to fit the room. The cozy front bar is darker and more modest, a relic from a pub owned by Sheehan’s family for decades.
“It’s a fun jigsaw puzzle,” he says of reassembling the pieces to fit new spaces in their American pubs. “If I’ve done my job well, then you kind of feel like you’re transported to Ireland.”
Indeed, I do. I’m not sure if it’s the bar, the beer, the massive statue of St. Patrick watching over us or the company, but I almost forget that I’m in a casino—just 30 seconds from Mandalay Bay’s slot machines and an Urban Outfitters. Despite the salvaged antiques and rich history, there’s nothing stuffy or opulent here.
“It’s not a museum we’re building,” Sheehan says. “We’re big advocates of people dancing on bars.”
Between gulps of Guinness, Kelly and Sheehan joke about stubborn farmers, former girlfriends and a late night out with the Rí Rá staff at Minus 5. They offer up a picture of the crew in massive furry coats as proof. When the conversation turns to the accents of the pub’s staff, which a friend insists must be fake, the claim is met with a healthy chuckle. “They’re fresh off the boat,” Sheehan says, adding that many come for a year or two as part of a partnership with Irish hospitality programs. Kelly points toward one of the bartenders. “Fitzy, I can hardly understand him, and he’s from the next county.”
By the time the Rí Rá founders start pointing out landmarks on a framed yellowed map and debating whether plaster St. Pat should or should not be holding a beer, I’m considering joining the annual staff and customer trip back to the motherland. In Ireland, they tell me, good times with entertaining conversation are called craic, pronounced “crack.” They’ve imported plenty at Rí Rá—served with Guinness, of course.
Want to join Kelly and Sheehan on the 2013 Craic Tour to Western Ireland September 23-29? Find more details and a full itinerary at longervacations.com/groups/rira-craic-tour-2013.