Middletown’s Nana’s is the embodiment of an Irish pub

Executive Chef Heather Burgess and General Manager Tara Coughlan welcome guests to Nana's Irish Pub in Middletown. Tom Crosby/Daily

It’s 3,321 miles from Clare County, Ireland, to Middletown, Virginia.

Tara Coughlan, who spent her childhood years growing up in Ireland, has brought her childhood memories to Middletown, creating with her mother a classic Irish pub dedicated to her beloved grandmother, Bridget.

Called Nana’s Irish Pub, it offers traditional Irish cuisine fastidiously prepared by Executive Chef Heather Burgess, a steady stream of Celtic and Irish folk music, friendly waitstaff, and an array of Irish liquor and local craft beer.

Critical kudos came this past St. Patrick’s Day when Travel + Leisure Magazine named the 50 best Irish bars in which to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland’s death on May 17, 461 A.D.

Nana’s ranked 50th out of thousands of self-described Irish pubs that have sprouted up in past years as evidenced by Irish whiskey sales skyrocketing 736 percent since 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Keeping it as similar to an authentic Irish pub “is very important to me,” said Coughlan, who has dual citizenship. “I love it here but I do miss Ireland. I just want to keep the traditions and culture alive, our heritage.”

And while green beer and “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shot glasses and buttons flourished elsewhere on St. Paddy’s Day, at Nana’s there was no green beer, no employees dressed as Leprechauns, just Irish songs and jigs played by Tara’s father, Brian Coughlan, a celebrated Irish musician.

Nana’s began as the Irish Isle Restaurant and Pub at the same location – 7843 Main St. (U.S. 11) – in 2003. It was owned by Tara Coughlan’s father, who retired and sold it to Philomena O’Brien, Tara’s mother, in November 2014. The pub was renamed to Nana’s with Tara Coughlan as general manager.

And Philomena O’Brien, who owns Nana’s Irish Pub twin with her daughter in Newport, Oregon, and has operated it since 2008, saw it rated 17th in Travel + Leisure Magazine’s rating.

Consistent, friendly service is one of Nana’s goals.

“We want every guest to feel like they are home,” said Tara Coughlan, 40. “We don’t have anyone here who doesn’t love working here.”

Burgess, 26, started working at Irish Isle in 2010, becoming executive chef in 2011. She has never been to Ireland.

“My mom’s family is from Spain,” she said, but that hasn’t stopped her from perfecting the preparation of Irish food.

The Irish breakfast is a challenge, with the need to perfect the blood pudding and the bangers with every order because “consistency with the food is one or our main priorities. We put a lot of effort into that,” said Burgess.

She experiments from time to time with new offerings but despite her evolving expertise, she has never entered a chef competition.

“I have to focus on making this restaurant a success before pursuing any interest in advancing my culinary skills,” she said.

She recently did Irish eggs Benedict, using scones with thyme, like Irish soda bread and rashers instead of ham.

“Simple but different,” she said.

Tara Coughlan adjusts the menu by importing a new Irish whiskey once a month – recently it was Connemara, arguably one of the most decorated Irish whiskeys with a smooth malt taste and peat flavor.

The main dining room seats 50, an outdoor patio 25-30 and Bridget’s Bar – downstairs and intimate – seats 20, and “quality over everything” is the mantra that overrides if the restaurant is crowded and food may not arrive as quickly as wanted.

“We always let the customers know,” said Tara Coughlan, who invites comments and complaints. “If something is wrong, I want the feedback so I can fix it. It’s the only way to improve.”

This led to ending orders for the Irish breakfast at 4 p.m. because of the time needed to prepare them.

Twenty employees – 15 are full time – work two shifts, including eight kitchen staff, two are also cross-trained as servers.

“The hours can be challenging but if you love what you do…” she said.

Echoed Mariah Lange, 29, who has worked at the pub for three years, “The staff is great, we all look out for each other and it is a fun place to work.”

Watching the waiters and waitresses work, it resembles the classic housewife’s friendly and solicitous efforts trying to impress her husband’s boss at dinner.

The kitchen is roughly 150 square feet and was an add-on to the original 1890 building housing the Middletown State Bank until the mid-1980s when it became McSylvies restaurant, operated by two sisters. Brian Coughlan bought it in 2003 and opened Irish Isle. The vault remains, now used as a storage area.

The restaurant is closed Tuesdays when the staff talks about improvements in service, special food offerings, or a way to reorganize the small kitchen to be more ergonomic.

“We have been tossing about ideas about how to do it for over a year now,” said Burgess.

“We definitely need more space but the building is old and we don’t want to make things worse,” Tara Coughlan added.

“Everyone (on staff) gets full attention,” said Burgess. “We all truly care about what we are doing in the back of the house.”

“We are all-in,” said Tara Coughlan.

Burgess’s food preparation skill is like watching a magician. You see it happen but you don’t how it was done.

“It’s a miracle how much food is put out from that small space,” said Tara Coughlan, adding, “We are getting busier and busier.”

While she doesn’t “bombard people with ads,” the restaurant maintains a robust presence on social media with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“People who want to follow us can,” she said, noting a sign on nearby Interstate 81 attracts out-of-state travelers, many of whom become repeat customers on return trips.

“It’s a convenient travel stop,” she said. “We also see day-trippers from D.C.”

Loyalists gather in Bridget’s pub downstairs where Austin Jordan, 27, oversees the bar. A handyman who has been a carpenter, landscaper and roofer, he became the bartender at Nana’s three years ago because “I am free to be more of an individual here, be myself and create my own personal environment.”

His subtle commitment to service is evident when he serves a bottled beer and turns it so the customer can see the label.

Roger Rickerd, 76, of Stephens City, is a regular who sits on the same bar stool every Friday night and who once worked in the building when it was a bank before he began a military career.

“It’s a nice friendly place,” he said. “No one’s a stranger.”

Enjoying the bar recently were Angel and Tyler Wakeman, both 31, who moved to the area from Charlotte, North Carolina, late last year and are becoming regulars every two weeks or so.

“There is no cell phone service in here (in Bridget’s),” said Angel. “Everyone needs a place to check out. There is nothing else like this.”

No televisions exist either.

But musicians may gather in the pub for impromptu sessions now and then and musical groups often perform Irish and other music on Friday and Saturdays, the restaurant’s busiest days. The schedule is found online.

“I have seen more people get up and dance than in any other restaurant,” said Tara Coughlan.

The only constant event is pub trivia at 7 p.m. Wednesdays when “we have a full house,” she said.

For sale as souvenir or memento are T-shirts, aprons, Guinness glasses and Irish teas, plus Lone Oak coffee from Winchester.

Contact Tom Crosby at news@nvdaily.com