You’ve got to love a restaurant whose signature dish sounds like a warm hug from an Irish grandma. Talk about comfort food—a steaming bowl of coddle, a hearty stew studded with potatoes, bacon, and sausage, will cure what ails your heart and soul. Begin with an order of Blarney Puffballs (fried nuggets of cheesy, garlic-scented potatoes), finish with house-made Irish Apple Walnut Cake covered with rich caramel and whipped cream, and wash it all down with a pint or two of Guinness. The Irish won’t be the only eyes that are smiling as you make your way home.
In a town overflowing with bars, The Irish Lion Restaurant & Pub may be Bloomington’s only true pub, an establishment that wouldn’t seem out of place on the streets of Dublin or Cork. The Lion is on Kirkwood, just west of the courthouse Square, in a building that was nearly a hundred years old when Larry McConnaughy bought it in 1979—a perfect setting for the gorgeous mahogany Brunswick bar and polished fixtures that he salvaged and restored from taverns around the state.
With its quirky décor of antiques and stuffed animals (not the cuddly kind kids take to bed but the haunting efforts of nature and taxidermy), it’s a place that calls up the spirits of a time past. Larry’s son, Sheaghan McConnaughy, laughingly says that family members are the only ones the ghosts don’t mess with, and he admonishes the bartenders to leave a shot on the bar when they go home at night. No report on whether the glass is empty when they return.
But for all its look and feel of an old-world pub, the McConnaughys see the Lion as a restaurant first. And while the pub grub is a draw for many (in addition to the coddle, the place has such standbys as fish and chips, served with malt vinegar on request, corned beef and cabbage, and mutton pies), there is fancier fare on the menu, too. Classic dishes you don’t often see, like Chicken Kiev and Cordon Bleu, are offered alongside lamb, beef, and seafood. In fact, seafood has been something of a specialty at the Lion from the beginning, and Craibheachain (it’s okay to just ask for the seafood salad), Oysters Rockefeller, and a variety of fish dishes are always on the menu.
But just because they’re proud of their food doesn’t mean that the folks at the Lion don’t tend to the traditional purpose of a well-established public house. There are beers on tap, of course, with pride of place given to the Guinness, and bartenders are carefully instructed on the proper way to draw it. The Lion has an extensive wine list, and, thanks to longtime manager Dennis Cheng, more than 160 small-batch bourbons, Irish whiskeys, and Scotches.
The Lion hasn’t changed much over its 28 years in business. The menu is a little more refined, the smoky haze in the air is gone, there are more Scotches to be had (98 at last count). This year the Lion is opening the Glen, an outdoor patio for catered events one building over. But mostly it remains as it began—a cozy pub that can make your heart ache to be Irish, no matter where your grandma called home.