Upon moving to Portage Park, we knew we were getting into a no man’s land of Polish discotheques and poorly lit pool halls. After running Binny’s and Sam’s dry, my husband and I found we needed a bar to call home. We did our research and mapped the distance to our closest friendly Irish establishment—I’m a Hannigan, what do you want—and it turned out to be McNamara’s. Serving the community of Old Irving Park for the last ten years, McNamara’s does everyone a favor by serving food and drink into the wee hours of the night. And I mean everyone, as the folks they play host to are a varied bunch of local tradesmen, families, young couples, and real live Irish people (they get their own category).
I’ve been to McNamara’s a dozen times since I moved to the Northwest side six months ago. I’ve brought family, friends, and my always trusty sidekick husband. In McNamara’s case, you can judge a book by its cover. It looks like a friendly, relaxed, neighborhood pub and, surprise, it is. McNamara’s sits on the northeast corner of Lowell and Irving Park, just three blocks west of the Kennedy Expressway and Irving Park Blue Line Stop.
The interior is split into two sections, the bar and the dining room. The long wooden bar seats 15, with six tables surrounding the narrow area. There are seven TVs, guilty of playing both Chicago baseball teams at once. If there are no games on and you’re feeling particularly tactile you can enjoy the TouchTunes jukebox. There are two outdoor patios in the summer months, seating 20-30 each, one faces Lowell – the other faces Irving Park Road. The patios could be better described as gardens with the amount and size of the flower boxes lining the perimeter. Someone likes Miracle-Gro. When we go to McNamara’s, we tend to prefer the bar; it’s more socially interesting. You get to enjoy the local painters complaining about some job they haven’t finished, or see your auto mechanic being taken out by his boss after a long day, or listen to someone calling their wife on the bar phone telling her that he’d be home late.
I require a certain degree of authenticity to truly enjoy an “Irish Pub.” This means I’d like a cider (Magner’s with a glass of ice please), my husband longs for a Smithwick’s or properly poured Guinness, and I want to see me some Irish folk. A pleasant surprise might be the inclusion of Irish breakfast on the menu, the kind with black and white puddings, but it’s not a requirement. McNamara’s fits the bill, with plenty of other attractive qualities. The beer, liquor, and wine are all reasonably priced and well stocked. There are lunch and dinner specials throughout the week and they also have “Wino Wednesday,” a charming way of advertising half-priced wine special by the bottle. There are seven beers on tap – the expected and appreciated Harp, Guinness, Bass, Stella, Blue Moon, Heineken, and Smithwick’s. And a surprise for us was they had Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy on tap. If you haven’t enjoyed this Wisconsin special, you might be too late; it’s a seasonal treat from the Cheeseheads sneakily taken off the shelves in late summer, a clever move to get us drinking pumpkin beer. Their wine selection seems to be varied and well priced at least enough to garner a day of attention and price reduction. Bottles include imports and domestics, nothing too outstanding except for my dear Magner’s.
Food is served in such a fashion that you consider wearing elastic waistbands on your next visit. If you order a “dinner,” you get soup or salad as well as bread service. I’m not talking a silly roll, I mean a whole steamy hot loaf of home-baked bread. The soups change daily and they are listed online at their website, along with all their other menu offerings and daily specials. Portions are huge, from appetizers like nachos (it’s not Irish, but it’s a bar – we’ll look past that) to dinner-sized salads. Standouts include the Irish breakfast, shepherd’s pie, lamb shank, meatloaf, and, my favorite, the carved turkey dinner. It’s like Thanksgiving any day of the week.
Onto the service, which I’ve found to be outstanding but, to be fair, I like to sit around and there have been complaints of turtle like service by other patrons. When we’ve sat in the bar, we’ve had the same bartender every time but the last. Her name is Jessica and she makes a great impression on her customers. On our first visit we had dinner and drinks and told her we were new to the area. On our second visit she knew what we going to order. On our third she had them ready. I like that a lot. It’s not that we’re too frequent in our visits, she just paid attention. We stopped there with friends before Lollapalooza and ended up staying way too late, thanks to rounds of shots from dear dear Jessica. Our last most friendly bartender was Donnie (pronounced like Tony with a “D” he says), who gave us all the info on McNamara’s history. Did I mention he’s Irish? And the servers for the most part are Irish too. Nothing like hearing someone review your order in an Irish brogue. Too bad they don’t serve Lucky Charms or it would be the only thing I’d order, repeatedly.
Onto the history of the bar… I didn’t sit next to McNamara’s previous owner last night buying rounds to pick his brain for nothing. Back around the 1960s to 1980, McNamara’s was a bar called Johnny Sloane’s. A place the Local 17 pipe coverer, Kevin O’Brien, visited on a regular basis from the time he was 19 ’til the day he and his friends bought it and named it O’Briens in 1980. It was O’Briens from 1980 to 1997, however Kevin sold it in 1985 but they kept the name. You can find a picture of him and his buddy at the end of the bar, holding up an O’Briens sign.
In 1997, Ronan and T.C. Heaney (sp?) bought the bar and building, expanding by adding the neighboring dining room and patios. They’ve owned it ever since and you’d be hard pressed to hear a bad word about them from staff and customers. They opened up Paddy Mac’s on Pulaski north of Irving Park about five years back, which has a similar feel. McNamara’s also offers bar-sponsored activities, including a golf outing this fall at Tam O’Shanter Golf Course in Niles.
McNamara’s is a neighborhood bar that accepts all visitors, welcoming families, tradesman, white collars, old folks, and even Irish people (take that fadó). You feel like you’re sitting in a bed and breakfast in Ireland when you are seated at a booth in their dining room. It’s just that comfortable. One Sunday morning we went there and they had posted notices of some older woman’s death. Everyone there was talking about it and even though we didn’t know her, we got the feeling that they treat all their customers like family – and mourn accordingly. The posters stayed up for over a month. Come to McNamara’s hungry, sober, and bored and you’ll find a treatment for each condition by the time you depart. For more information, check out the McNamara’s Food & Drink website.