The first time I stepped into a MacCool's, I barely managed to get both feet in the door. Part of our St. Patrick's Day bar-hopping theme included an initial stop at the then new-ish restaurant for a fortifying bite to eat.
"First things first," my social planner for the evening told me on the ride there. "Lamb ribs. Lots and lots of lamb ribs. Then a Publican Burger. After that, we go where the pints take us."
Many others had the same idea that night. And despite the cramped quarters and the stretched service staff, it was fun in every sense of the word.
As someone who has grown up without the idea of "public house," or a "pub," MacCool's is the closest thing. It's a place where the food is more consistent than not and where you can always get a drink. Depending on your mood, you can sit next to the fire, within the walled embrace of a booth or at the bar, where you can root for your favorite football team or challenge complete strangers to a round of shuffle board.
Since that first visit, I've returned to MacCool's on many occasions: for a midday dinner, a late night snack and drink, a friendly lunch and even for a post-wake toast to the beloved deceased. The versatility is appealing. And so is the food.
Those lamb ribs ($8.99, $12.99) were a revelation. Not too fatty, slathered with a slightly piquant, sweet and tangy barbecue sauce and drizzled with a blue cheese sauce. You eat them with your fingers. You will most likely get messy. Perfect with a pint of anything, not just Guinness or Murphy's. Lamb is one of those polarizing meats; people either love it or hate it. This is the diplomat that will bridge the great divide. A half order never seems like enough to share. A full order with a dozen sticky ribs stacked high is always appropriate, and for me, serves as a proper meal.
The Publican burger ($7.99), is appealing in its straightforward simplicity. Good beef flavor courtesy of 1/2 pound's worth of beef, topped with nothing but tomato and lettuce. The pillowy potato bun also cradles the more stylish burgers that use bison with pico de gallo ($10.99) and an equally good lamb burger with olive tapenade ($9.50).
Anyone who has paid an iota of attention to Gordon Ramsay or other British TV personalities and/or chefs has heard of a "gastropub." Essentially, they have taken supremely crappy grub and replaced it with well-executed fare ranging from the homey to the haughty. MacCool's is probably the closest thing Utah has to it. Not just because the Citrus Chicken ($13.50) is tender, moist and some of the best roast chicken in town. Rather, the focus is on the food.
Though it's called a public house, let's be clear that MacCool's is first and foremost a restaurant and a reliable one at that. The kitchen prepares many components from scratch, evident in tender Prince Edward Island mussels simmered in a refreshingly mild shallot tomato broth ($8.99) or fish entrees like the Red Trout with grilled potatoes ($14.50).
Sauces, in fact, are one of its strengths. The house barbecue sauce graces thick slabs of flavorful meatloaf, a nice top note to the hefty meat. Even the crunchy addictive sweet potato fries ($4.99) get in on the act with a pairing of curry dipping sauce.
Then, of course, there's traditional Irish fare. Here, it's about a simmering, earth brown Guinness stew ($12.50) served in deep white bowls. Flaky hot fish and chips with seasoned steak fries ($12.99) arrive together in a bistro-style cone. Traditional Irish pancakes, called Boxty's ($5.99 to $8.99), are particularly good with trout, green onion, dill and yogurt and are a nice light meal. Keep in mind that anyone expecting a pyrotechnic flavor experience like that of Thai cuisine will be unimpressed. This is the type of food that provides the warm heft needed during these bone chilling days. Call it sweater food because the eater will most likely be wearing a sweater when she's craving it, and once consumed it has this warming, cozy effect.
Still, a bit more depth would have suited the chicken pot pie ($11.99), which wows everyone in the dining room with a huge, golden toupee of puff pastry. It's a fun, if cumbersome, process to smash in the edible covering with a spoon. The Corned Beef au Gratin Pie ($10.99) was wonderfully rich and satisfying, but could have benefitted from more horseradish to help stave off any cloying aftertaste. The corned beef and cabbage ($12.50) are more flavorful than you think. The meat is just as flavorsome in the Irish Reuben ($10.99) where caramelized onions replace sauerkraut between caraway spiked rye slices. Although the sandwich could have used thinner cuts of meat, suitable for sandwich style eating. Which is to say, diners like to take a bite without dragging out a 4-inch chunk of corned beef with the bread and fixings.
The original Foothill village location (ground floor on the southern end) has its stream of loyalists. MacCool's also has expanded to Layton and South Jordan. Each of these satellites resembles one another in its color scheme, solid wood furniture, menu and décor. I have to hand it to the owners for not taking the decor too far into the land of cliché and caricature.
South Jordan was a little too quiet for my liking. I'm hoping local residents pick up on the casual vibe and overall quality of food, not to mention some sweet deals MacCool's has for all its locations. One night my party of five got 50 percent off our entrées. (You'll need to sign up for the e-mail list to get the coupon).
Also, kids can eat free Sundays and Mondays when an accompanying adult purchases a dinner of $8.99 or more.
MacCool's is an obvious choice for the St. Patty's Day celebration. But it's a worthy choice for any day eating.
In a nutshell » Open late with plenty of appetizing options. Give yourself plenty of time to choose between the Guinness stew, meat loaf with mashers, the Pub burger, trout entree and orange broiled chicken. If it's going to take a long while, order up some lamb ribs with blue cheese drizzle.
Location » 1400 S. Foothill Boulevard #166, SLC, 801-582-3111; 855 W. Heritage Park Boulevard, Layton, 801-728-9111; 11610 S. Main District Drive, South Jordan, 801-727-3111.
Hours » Salt Lake and South Jordan locations: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Layton: Monday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices » $$
Liquor » Full
Corkage » $7.50
Reservations » Large groups only
Children's menu » Yes. Free child's meal Sunday and Monday with adult meal purchase of $8.99 or more.
Takeout » Yes
Outdoors dining » No
On-site parking » Yes
Wheelchair accessible» Yes
Credit Cards » All major