Coming full circle

Mother, daughter open pub in Middletown
Tara Coughlan, left, and her mother Philomena O'Brien, right, stand inside Nanas Irish Pub in Middletown. O'Brien is the new restaurant owner of the former Irish Isle Restaurant. Rich Cooley/Daily
Nana's Irish Pub has opened in Middletown. Rich Cooley/Daily

MIDDLETOWN — When Philomena O’Brien was a little girl, she moved with her family from Limerick, Ireland, to Rochester, New York. After spending the 1980s raising her children in Ireland, O’Brien came back to the states, where she eventually opened an Irish Pub with her then-husband Brian Coughlan.

Located in Middletown, the Irish Isle Restaurant and Pub offered thirsty locals and weary travelers Irish beer and cuisine from 2003 to November 2014. Meanwhile, in 2008, O’Brien and her daughter Tara Coughlan moved to Newport, Oregon, where they opened Nana’s Irish Pub, named after O’Brien’s mother.

Sitting in the newly opened Nana’s Irish Pub in Middletown, O’Brien smiled and said, “When I moved from the Shenandoah Valley years ago, I never thought I’d be back at the same restaurant I ran so long ago. It’s all come back full circle.”

Nana’s Irish Pub opened Dec. 12 at the former site of the Irish Isle. O’Brien said the community’s reception has been phenomenal.

“When we opened, we had some people come in, asking for Brian, asking how Tara and me were doing,” O’Brien said. “We just didn’t expect such a show of support.”

Serving dishes like bangers and mash and meatloaf, O’Brien said she is trying to replicate in both her restaurants the average Irish fare, with some American tweaks.

“The soda bread, for example, we had to adjust that for the American palate by adding more sugar and butter,” O’Brien said. “The pot-pies and the shepherd’s pie, we tried to kick up a little bit, give them some spice.”

Unlike the Irish Isle, Nana’s will be open from lunch until late at night, seven days a week. O’Brien said having stable, accessible hours is a way to attract and retain customers.

“If you’re open every day and keep stable hours, people are more likely to keep coming back to you,” O’Brien said. “People don’t like change and if they come out and see you’re closed, they might be less willing to make the drive out again.”

However, O’Brien did retain a majority of the Irish Isle’s staff.

“They’re a really hard working, great group of young people,” O’Brien said. “I believe they will fit in with the culture we developed in Oregon, where customers and staff have a bond formed around great food and great service.”

Since O’Brien left the area, Middletown has changed, with the closing of the theater. O’Brien said the changes in Middletown have inspired her to be as successful as she can be.

“It’s a shame what happened with the theater, because when this was Irish Isle, the folks over there gave us a lot of business,” O’Brien said. “Now I’m more determined to make this restaurant successful and make it a place people want to visit.”

With 2,900 miles between her two restaurants, O’Brien said she hopes to be able to split time between the two.

“Both areas are beautiful, but nothing compares to Oregon in the summertime, because it’s a comfortable temperature and not very humid,” O’Brien said. “But the Shenandoah Valley is beautiful in the fall and winter, so I intend to spend summers in Oregon and winters here.”

Of course, a pub is not a pub without the beer. That’s where Tara Coughlan comes in.

“I started handling the beer, wines and liquors back when Irish Isle opened and I’ve been doing it ever since, along with training the wait staff,” Coughlan said.

Coughlan said at Oregon Nana’s, nestled in the heart of the craft beer boom, they tried to serve a variety of beers, especially locally produced ones. With the uptick in craft beers being produced in Virginia, Coughlan said she hopes to do the same in Middletown.

“We’re always on the lookout for new craft beers and since we’re in Virginia, we’re definitely looking into what’s available,” Coughlan said. “We have PBR, Budweiser and Guinness, but we also have Virginia-made beers like Devil’s Backbone and Heritage Kings Mountain.”

Nana’s Irish Pub is located at 7843 Main St. in Middletown and is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The downstairs bar opens at 4 p.m. daily with a happy hour running from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or

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