In a similar though less severe manner as Beaumont in Lincoln Park, Mystic Celt has a split personality. By day, neighborhood regulars and new moms stop by for the immensely popular sidewalk cafe and tasty pub grub that includes the best shepherd’s pie in the City of Chicago. After work, an army of young professionals moves in for a mean pint of Guinness for the lads and the Celt’s signature cocktails for the lasses, often followed by a dinner out. By night, the disco ball comes out, the music gets turned up and the standards are set low when a younger crowd invades as part of a never-ending attempt to hook up, which usually ends in Jager bombs and hangovers the next day. Fortunately, the best brunch buffet on Southport comes to the rescue for these poor souls.
Mystic Celt is located on the east side of Southport Avenue between Newport & Cornelia Avenues, and adjacent to what once was the Saga Launder Bar but will shortly become a hair salon. A wooden facade painted in black and green with gold lettering spans two storefronts. As for the entrance, say it with me people: “I will use the revolving door to enter Mystic Celt. I will refrain from using the side door, which is what servers and busboys rely on to administer beer garden food and libations. Otherwise, the servers will get angry and spit in my food.” I just made the last part up… or did I?
Pass through the revolving door and you’ll find yourself in a large room with walls painted a color that has no rhyme and a beige ceramic-tile floor that matches the pillars holding up the wood-paneled ceiling. Beyond a series of wooden cocktail tables under large flatpanel TVs is an impressive wooden bar that stretches the length of the northern wall, over which are ornate hanging lamps and behind which are shelves stocked with booze and books. Here you’ll find 16 beers on tap, about 27 more in bottles, and the bartenders (usually from the Emerald Isle) pull a proper pint of Guinness by adhering to the two-minute pour. Wines by the glass number a surprising 18, including one champagne. Six “signature” martinis are advertised on the menu for $10 each, along with a series of “House Cocktails” that include a margarita, mojito, the predictable Irish coffee, Bloody Mary, and “Sweet Old Fashioned.”
An elevated seating area across from the bar features four over-sized booths and is the place to see and be seen, especially if you have four or more in your party. Less comfortable, low-slung wooden tables are found across from a door of frosted glass set midway into the southern wall that leads to the restrooms, and a few more cocktail tables are located in the southwest corner of the room, overlooking Southport. An additional room with more booth and table seating lies beyond the front room’s eastern wall, and yet another space is reached beyond a black velvet curtain that serves as the official private party room.
Having lived around the corner from the Southport Corridor for about four years now, Mystic Celt has become my go-to lunch spot because, hands down, it serves the best shepherd’s pie in the City of Chicago (Duke of Perth is a somewhat distant second). What makes it so good, you ask? It’s the perfect combination of ground beef and stewed vegetables, is topped off with a crust of slightly singed mashed potatoes and served in a clay pot. It comes out piping hot, so it’s always a challenge to avoid scalding your tongue, which would defeat the purpose. My only complaint is that the shepherd’s pie, though filling, isn’t served with any sides, so an order of curry chips (fries) does the trick.
Also recommended from the Mystic menu: bangers and mash (Irish sausages and mashed potatoes), and chicken curry (pleasantly spicy and nice char-grilled taste). My wife loves the Cobb salad, with its artistic display of spinach served with sliced turkey, apples, avocado, olives, and bits of bacon that was often craved during her pregnancy. People also love the fish & chips with its bed of peas and malt vinegar accompaniment—without which no fish & chips can be considered authentic—though we’ve strayed from this deep-fried concoction at even the best of places for about a decade… The Celt Burger, served on a pretzel bun a la Rebel Bar & Grill, is also quite good as are the wraps—or so I’ve heard as I stick with the Irish specialties. The $10.95 Sunday brunch buffet also helps relieve the after-affects from a night of boozing with an omelet bar, French toast, pancakes, bacon, sausage, corned beef, roast beef and pork, salad bar, and bread pudding. With a few exceptions, the waitstaff is rather attentive and you’ll encounter a few brogues in the mix.
Here in “Strollerville”—the unofficial name of Southport Avenue between Belmont and Irving Park during summer—Mystic Celt’s sidewalk cafe is perhaps the most favored on a strip that includes highly sought-after patios of Southport Lanes, Merkle’s and Southport Grocery. On the other end of the spectrum from the moms, kids and somewhat older neighborhood types you’ll encounter during the day, the average age plummets and the volume gets ratcheted up as the night wears on. It starts with the after-work crowd and transforms into the Jager Bomb-DJ set later in the evening, especially on weekends. Mystic Celt also supports Ohio State, though doesn’t seem to make a big deal about it.
Mystic Celt opened in January 2003, signifying a changing of the guard along Southport. The strip went through a renaissance in the mid-90s when places like Bistrot Zinc, Strega Nona and Red Tomato turned Southport Avenue into a restaurant corridor. Around that time, more bars moved in such as Blue Bayou, Sopo, and Merkle’s joining such trailblazers as Justin’s, Schoolyard Tavern, Cullens, and Toons. Mystic Celt then replaced Bistrot Zinc, Take Five (also gone) replaced Strega Nona, and the Red Tomato just closed to make for something retail-oriented. When combined with old-school mainstays Lange’s (new awning), D’Agostino’s (remodeled bar) and Newport Bar & Grill (now owned by people behind Tai’s), as well as some notable newer restaurants like Coobah, Southport Grocery and Lips Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar, the Southport Corridor has evolved into a nightlife and shopping district that many up-and-coming neighborhoods around Chicago idolize and would love to recreate, at least in part. As a side note, you can still find Bistrot Zinc in the Gold Coast, just north of the Viagra Triangle.
Aside from the somewhat cheesy name (though they do love the “mystic” element in Ireland), Mystic Celt is a damn fine traditional Irish pub even with its Jekyll & Hyde personality—if you don’t stay too long. Mystic Celt is brought to you by the same people behind Corcoran’s in Old Town, Vaughan’s Pub in West Lakeview, Vaughan’s Pub in Jefferson Park, and Emerald in the Loop. Parking is pretty rough unless you have a Zone 383 permit, so be sure to take a cab or CTA—the Southport Brown Line is within a stone’s throw. If you like Mystic Celt, be sure to check out Cullen’s just up the street (more traditional), Irish Oak (a finely pulled pint o’ the Black Stuff), and Chief O’Neill’s (huge beer garden in Avondale).