Block E Goes Brogue

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March 15, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// The new Kieran’s Irish Pub opens just in time for St. Patrick’s Day //

Is there anyone in this town not completely charmed by Kieran Folliard? The Irish pub impresario has long been a darling of the Twin Cities thanks to an endearing belly laugh, an emerald isle accent, a liberal use of the friendly wink — and a handful of exquisitely executed, cliché-smashing Irish bars from the Liffey in St. Paul to the newly opened Cooper in St. Louis Park’s The Shops at West End.

But Folliard set off fresh shock waves of giddiness last November when he announced he would move his flagship bar, Kieran’s Irish Pub, into the old Bellanote space in Block E. Immediately, the blogosphere was rife with effusive praise. Finally, the beleaguered Block E would be blessed with a promising business — and an independently operated, locally owned one at that. Those who had written off the entertainment complex as a chain-ridden eyesore would have a legitimate reason to return.  And Folliard would have a fresh, 10,000 square foot space — nearly double the size of the original Kieran’s — in which to work his magic.

With the new location set to open Tuesday, March 16, a date which marks both St. Patrick’s Day eve and the pub’s golden 16th birthday, Folliard’s popularity is at an all-time high. A key to the city seems almost imminent.  

“When I heard he was coming, I immediately dashed off an e-mail saying, welcome to the neighborhood,” Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association, said recently. “Kieran runs successful businesses, he’s really good at what he does, and [his employees and partners] are really nice people. There is just nothing negative about it.”

The move has even promoted kind words from Dan McCaffrey, Block E’s developer who has had to fend off criticism and bad press after the departures of Snyder’s drug store, Escape Ultra Lounge, Borders and Bellanote left key vacancies, and after the recent news that Sega GameWorks was looking to sublease its space in the complex.

“Kieran’s a marvelous person. He’s got a great image in this city, and he’s walking into a fantastic opportunity,” said McCaffrey. “And I’ll tell you what, I didn’t have to talk him into it.”

‘The heart and the feel’

On a recent tour of the new Kieran’s, with the opening only two weeks away, the future pub looked pretty rough — strewn with construction debris, coated with sawdust and still lacking finished floors, treated windows or a proper sign out front. But the most important component had found its way safely over: the great heap of pub bric-a-brac piled in the middle of the floor.

Old paintings, Irish newspaper clippings, photos of former employees and customers, aged trunks, copies of poems to be scrawled onto the walls, even the shoes of former employees — Folliard considers these sentimental details, many of which are seeing light for the first time, to be the “heart and the feel” of his business. It’s a phrase he repeats several times during the tour.

“Everything that’s in here has a purpose and a meaning,” he said. “We understand every aspect of what’s in here and why it is in here.”

Each memento, he asserted, has a human antecedent. “Let’s face it, any really good Irish pub is about the people. The heart and spirit of the people. That spirit of friendliness. We want to bring that onto the walls.”

The new bar, then, like the old one, is a carefully curated assemblage of warmth and authenticity. Only it’s much bigger. Folliard’s wife, designer and nutritionist Lisa Kane, has played a large role in bringing a coziness to the vast space. Many of the subtle design touches that anchor the pub’s character are hers.

Iconic features from the old Kieran’s will be remounted, including the murals painted by artist John Erste and the doors from the old location’s Titanic Lounge. And of course, Kieran’s trademark dark wood interior and aged glasswork — both of which are designed and then imported from Dublin’s Ól Irish Pub Company — will return.

“It was really about trying to create something that was say, like a market type of pub in the heart of the city. Like a Moore Street in Dublin, or Covent Garden in London,” said Folliard. “Not too fancy or refined, but comfortable.”

But the best part of the new Kieran’s is the way that it partitions the vast space into myriad nooks and crannies. The bar is a drinking man’s secret garden, full of hidden areas to stumble upon. There are several “snugs,” small, confessional sized chambers designed to accommodate intimate gatherings, some of which have private service windows that open to the bar.

Then there are also several concept areas, semi-autonomous spaces that each have their own theme. The Angel’s Rest is a round-table meeting spot with a fireplace and a dartboard, a place, Folliard said, “where you can pull away from the maddening crowd.”

The Poet’s Corner — “really the heart of what the pub is about” — is a sound-insulated venue with a stage and a smaller bar, intended for poetry readings, book launches, singer/songwriter performances and the pub’s famed poetry slam competitions. (Doomtree star Dessa got her start at a Kieran’s slam in the mid-90s.)

And the Titanic Lounge is a separate ballroom with a nautical theme — the original Titanic was built in Belfast — complete with portholes, a boat-shaped bar and a giant coal-burning stove.

So what’s the catch? Where is the underside to all of this positivity? Is Folliard simply trying to cash in on the Twins’ stadium excitement?

Not necessarily. He’s just following the natural flow of the city.

“The old location worked great for a lot of years. But the building occupancies aren’t great over there, and there has been a noticeable shift to other areas,” he said. “Not just the Twins, but in general.

“We’ve been around long enough to know, and have had enough failures to know that something like the Twins — or the Timberwolves or the Wild — that they don’t make your business. You need to have a decent business to start. The teams are just the icing on the cake.”

Still, the new location will undoubtedly offer more foot traffic and visibility. And Kieran’s everyman vibe might help dethrone the club-heavy feel of the area.

“If you’re leaving the baseball game, and you’ve got your 10-year-old with you, and you want to have dinner, you might go to Kieran’s,” said Kaufman. “You’re not going to go to Envy or Drink.”

“That’s why we’re going to make it here,” said Alice McGrath, a long-time Kieran’s bartender. “We’re doing the exact opposite. It’s going to be a very comfortable place to walk into.”


Kieran’s Parade

Kieran’s will celebrate its golden birthday with a mini-parade from the old location, at the corner of South 4th Street and 2nd Avenue, to the new one, six blocks away in Block E.

The doors to the old bar will be opened at 2 p.m. The pub will drain their last kegs and offer free pints until 3:30 p.m.. Donations are encouraged, and all proceeds will benefit the Make-A-Wish foundation.

Alice McGrath, a longtime bartender who has been with the pub since it opened, will ceremoniously pour the last pint at 3:45 p.m. If all goes according to plan, she will escort it personally to the new location, leading the parade. The parade starts at 4 p.m. The Brian Boru Pipe band will provide music. Opening toasts at the new bar are scheduled for 5 p.m., with an Irish dance performance by the Rince na Chroi dancers and music by the Wild Colonial Bhoys and the St. Dominic’s Trio.