What makes a good Irish pub?
There's really only one way to find out: Step inside the door of an Irish pub. So we did. We took on the tough task of visiting Kelly's, O'Shay's, Paddy's and Selkirk Abbey Brewing Co.
We asked questions, we took notes, we took pictures, and yes, even drank a Guinness or two.
Damn, the Irish do know how to have fun.
Let's start our tour with ...
Kelly's Irish Pub
Good beer, good food, good conversation, good friends. And that all adds up to, of course, good times.
"That to me is an Irish pub," said Meg Sullivan.
She should know.
Sullivan is the owner of Kelly's Irish Pub in Coeur d'Alene. And Wednesday night, she was there, along with a crowd of working-class folks doing exactly what they should be doing in such a place.
Every seat at the cozy, u-shaped bar was taken. There was a woman wearing green, clover-shaped glasses. There was a man working on his corned beef dinner. Another was finishing a can of Natural Light.
Just a few places away, a guy and gal talked and laughed as they sipped glasses of a dark beer called Irish Death. Even the Irish Colleen for Saturday's St. Patrick's Day parade, the red-haired Marianne Buley, was there, drinking a beer, chatting, listening to music.
Kelly's employee Ed O'Brien, asked what makes a good Irish bar, nodded and quickly offered up an answer.
"Me talking to you," said O'Brien, who is, naturally, Irish.
It's not easy to talk, though, on this night.
For a time, Coeur d'Alene firefighters, moonlighting in the pipes and drums group, cranked up some loud, Irish tunes as everyone stopped eating, stopped chatting, and listened.
When they finished came the applause.
"These guys make everybody smile," Sullivan said.
Firefighter and bagpiper Jake Bieker said they won't be out for St. Patrick's Day on Sunday, so they showed up at Kelly's Wednesday.
"Meg and Kelly's have been so supportive of us," he said.
Kelly's, in the heart of Coeur d'Alene's midtown, attracts a mix of young and old.
They come for the food, which on the menu has names like "The Donegal," "The Blarney," "Kilkeny BBQ Delight," and "St. Patty Melt," and is known for filling the plate, and then some.
On Wednesday, the special, shepherd's pie, was popular, as was the Guinness stew.
The beer, though, like any Irish pub worth its name, pulls 'em in.
The selection on tap includes Harp, Guinness, MacTarnahans and Slane's Irish Red.
Irish Death, says bartender and server Isaac Foelber, who happens to be Sullivan's son-in-law, is their No. 1 seller.
There's talk that Guinness "is a meal in a glass" that must be downed slow and steady. And that makes it the perfect Irish pub beer.
Foelber, asked what makes a good Irish bar, grinned.
"Drinking and fighting," he said, laughing, then quickly adding, "no, we don't have fighting here."
If you like green, Kelly's is the place for you.
Paper four- and three-leaf clovers and "Get Your Green On," posters are on the walls. Boston Celtics and Notre Dame basketball is on TV. Sayings like "Luck of the Irish" are written on the blackboard behind the bar.
The key, said Sullivan, is a festive atmosphere.
And family matters, too.
Granddaughter Chloe, 4, is already part of the long-term business outlook.
"We're planning on her owning Kelly's," said a smiling Sullivan.
Sullivan, a quarter Irish and three-quarters Norwegian, bought Kelly's last year, sight-unseen, over the Internet, then moved here. It has been everything she hoped.
"We now have regulars who have all become friends," she said. "They do other things together then just come here."
Kelly's is where people hang out, tell stories, share a laugh, and for sure, a few beers, too.
They'll be doing plenty of that on St. Patrick's Day.
"That's my idea of an Irish pub," Sullivan says.
Perhaps one of Coeur d'Alene's most recognizable Irish pubs is O'Shay's Irish Pub, 313 Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive.
Partly location, partly decor, makes the building that sits on the old highway with green lights lining its roof a popular hangout.
Every St. Patrick's Day, it rolls out the green carpet and this year isn't an exception. It's serving up beer and cabbage all weekend long, complete with live music, and outdoor space for patrons to mill.
But the locale offers a nice Irish atmosphere every other day of the year, too.
With paintings and pictures of the old country hanging on the wall, and wooden tables tucked together, the eatery keeps a quaint, cozy pub feel year round.
And what's an Irish pub without a Guinness?
The draft costs around $5 a glass, and those recognizable cartoon Guinness posters that declare it's a lovely day for the beer adorn the walls as well.
The pub has a kitchen - Irish nachos, Leprechaun's Cod and Chips and Suffolk Rueben. During the week, it's a nice blend of family dining and casual beer talk with the bartender.
But on St. Patrick's Day weekend, the green carpet comes out.
The Selkirk Abbey Brewing Co. can be easily missed with it being in an area occupied mostly by industrial firms and part of a small business complex along eastbound Seltice Way between Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene.
But, once inside the warm, dimly-lit pub with Irish-Catholic decor that includes antique cathedral lights, tapestry and historic abbey photos, this visitor immediately felt welcome and was greeted by the bartender with hospitality.
After I explained my mission of giving Press readers a flavor for the place with St. Patrick's Day as our "hook," she directed me to four blue-collar regulars shooting the breeze over a cold one after work.
They were open to me cutting in on their conversation and narrowing the focus to the pub instead of regular happy hour topics.
"It's clean, not dingy," Cory Temple of Coeur d'Alene offered. "Great atmosphere, great beer."
That is, full disclosure, Belgian-style beer. Don't expect Irish brew here.
Co-owner Jeff Whitman said popularity of Belgians and their "versatility" are what drew the 2-year-old business to them.
All of the patrons during my visit appeared to be drop-ins after work and were there for the conversation, not power drinking.
"The back (of the business where the beer is made) is even more important than the front," James Bonar said. "They did a nice job up front, but it's the back that keeps us coming back."
Snacks, not meals, are served at Selkirk Abbey. Bowls of pretzels are at the tables. That told me that the focus is on the crafted brew, not the grub.
However, patron Chad Wilson was quick to point out that the pub encourages folks to bring their own food if they desire and the place can be rented for birthday parties and special events.
The group of working buds say the pub is a "hidden gem." They said they tend to run into a lot of the same people and it's generally a smaller crowd.
"It's like Cheers to us," Temple said, referring to the bar in the TV series.
Paddy's Sports Bar and Grill
Sure, other bars claim to be Irish.
But do they have hand-make pasties? Do they have a whimsical leprechaun toting a foaming ale as their mascot?
Because Paddy's Sports Bar and Grill on Appleway has both.
Add to that the forest green paint job inside, the Irish flag draped on the wall, the array of red ales on the menu, and this bar's affiliation is hardly in question.
"Our family is Irish, so it worked out when we bought it," said owner Chris Carper, a laid-back guy in jeans and a baseball cap who knew all his customers by name on Thursday afternoon.
Carper touts the pub's loyalty to serving true Irish food, like pasties, a gravy-doused, meat-and-potato pastry. Such treats can be tasted this Sunday when bagpipers will also be performing.
"There's a big following for Notre Dame," Carper added of those who frequent the clean, intimately lit bar. "There are more and more Irish in the neighborhood, it seems like."
But all Emerald-Isle nationalism aside, there are still the dressings of an unassuming American Sports bar.
Several flat screens flickered with images of baseball and football on Thursday. Some young men were taking aim over pool tables. A handful of regulars were munching on sandwiches and light beer around the tables.
Tim Camarata of Coeur d'Alene, kicking back some beers with a buddy, said he has never been anywhere but Paddy's for St. Patrick's Day.
"They do it right. Bagpipers, great food," said Camarata, who has been sipping beer at Paddy's for 17 years.
But he enjoys the bar the rest of the year because the staff is friendly and the atmosphere relaxed, he added.
"It's a great sports bar," he said.
Fred Smith, Dennis Pope and Marshall Thorp, all three grandfathers and enjoyers of beer, gather around a Paddy's table once a week to grab a bite and josh each other.
"Fred here, he and Moses used to play together," Pope said with a chortle. "He helped swat the locusts out of the way, right?"
Paddy's is "about as Irish as we get up here," Pope said, admitting that's not a high bar for authenticity.
"I like it when they say 'Top of the morning to ya,' when you walk in," Smith added.
They don't come for Irish flavor, though.
They faithfully return because they enjoy the easy atmosphere there on a weekday afternoon. Music isn't blaring, not too many people bustling around, the owner and waitress know them by name.
They play darts, and sometimes pool. They catch up over tasty sandwiches and beer.
What more could a bar offer, Irish or otherwise?
"It's a quiet place to sit and enjoy talking," Pope said. "Having a good time."
Issac Foelber pours a beet at Kelly's Irish Pub.
Chris Carper, owner of Paddy's Sports Bar, grabs a bite on Thursday with a regular.