Before we go any further, it’s always a wise idea to make sure you’re not mispronouncing the new pub you’re checking out, so let’s get that out of the way.
Sláinte is pronounced “slahn-cha,” and is the Gaelic stand-in for “cheers” or “to your health,” used in both Ireland and Scotland.
Given the packed house on a recent Wednesday evening, Sláinte is proving to be a welcome addition to Jack London Square, offering a cozy Irish pub in a city lacking them.
The story of how it came to be is that after 20 years of living in America – 15 of them in Oakland – Irish-born chef/owner Jackie Gallanagh was so homesick for a proper Irish pub that she decided the only way to have one up to her standards was to create it herself. Her day job is as a real-estate agent, and she plans to go back to it once things at Sláinte are running smoothly.
According to Gallanagh, most Irish pubs in San Francisco are either dive bars, or “it’s called an Irish bar, but there’s no Irish beer, no Irish food, and no Irish people working there. When I see ‘Happy St. Patty’s Day,’ I lose my shit.”
Gallanagh was determined to make Sláinte different, and it’s all in the details. Inside, there’s plenty of dark wood, shiny copper fixtures and accessories, and exposed brick. There’s also a fireplace with a portrait of James Joyce hanging above it, as well as portraits of Oscar Wilde on others walls. A lot of attention and love have gone into the room. Gallanagh hopes to eventually host traditional Irish musicians and that guests will sit and read from the collection of Irish books lining the walls (though that might be better suited to daytime, as the space was much too noisy to read when we visited recently).
Since Sláinte is a pub, attention must first be paid to its beverage program. It’s overseen by Jenny Schwarz, co-owner of Hopscotch and friend of Gallanagh. They met when Gallanagh and her wife lived near Hopscotch and would frequently go in for oysters and a cocktail.
“We both had our careers and didn’t need to do another thing,” said Schwarz. But when Gallanagh told her that she was opening an Irish pub, Schwarz wanted in.
In addition to Guinness stout on tap, there are also the lesser known Smithwick’s Ale and Magners Irish Cider. All drafts can be ordered by the half-pint ($3-4) or pint ($6-8). Irish whiskeys are the star of the show here, and there are many to choose from, ranging from Powers ($8) to Bushmills 21 Year Old Single Malt ($20). Other spirits show up on the cocktail menu as well.
In terms of the food, the menu is small and is reminiscent of what you’ll find in a typical Irish pub. An Irish breakfast ($16) is served all day, featuring black and white pudding, Irish bacon or sausage, eggs and boxty, an Irish version of breakfast potatoes. While some of the food items are sourced locally, the black and white pudding is imported from Ireland, as Gallanagh said, “No one in the States can make it right.”
The menu will soon offer a sausage roll (like a pig in a blanket, but with homemade pastry), bangers and mash, and an Irish classic dish featuring ham, cabbage and potatoes. For the record, Gallanagh said she never heard of corned beef and cabbage until she moved to the U.S.
On our visit to Sláinte, we tried the most popular dishes in the pub’s short run: the Fish & Chips ($17) and the Shepherd’s Pie ($14).
The fish was expertly fried – light, not the least bit greasy – and the chips were as well, in a multi-step process that requires soaking them overnight. They were served over a bed of coleslaw. But the star of this dish was the curry sauce, which must be ordered in addition (it can be ordered along with the fries for $6, or by itself for $2).
The curry sauce comes from the Indian and Pakistani influence in the United Kingdom, and we felt it should be right up there, challenging ketchup’s dominance in the French fry dipping sauce category. Called “chippy sauce” in Ireland, Gallanagh said it’s commonly considered “drunk food,” in that you eat it after more than a few pints of Guinness. It’s usually served on top of thick-cut fries plated over a bed of coleslaw, with a fork sticking out of the pile. “It sounds terrible, but it’s really good,” she said.
The sauce is made of sautéed onions and garlic, green apple and lots of curry powder in vegetarian broth; nothing complicated, as Irish food, she said, “is hearty but simple.” The curry sauce was so flavorful without being spicy that we ended up dipping our fish into it, too.
Gallanagh also makes her own Irish soda bread, which comes slathered with Kerrygold butter ($5), and Shepherd’s Pie, which is made with lamb, peas, carrots and a mound of potatoes on top. While the pie was incredibly hearty, we felt the meat was under-seasoned, and wanted to taste more of the advertised horseradish flavor in the potatoes.
We finished our meal with a Guinness Ginger Cake ($6), served with whipped cream; a great way to get more Guinness if you didn’t have enough with your meal.
Gallanagh trained in restaurants (or “chippy shops,” as she called them) throughout her teens, going from dishwasher to prep cook, learning how to cut thick chips with a razor blade while holding the potato in the palm of her hand, and then waiting tables and cooking.
Truth be told, we could have listened to Gallanagh’s brogue and details about her upbringing for much longer, but she let us know the chat was over by saying, “I’m probably burning shit in the kitchen, I’d better get back.”
With its inviting fireplace, homey surroundings and a large selection of Irish whiskeys to enjoy with your Irish comfort food, Sláinte is likely to soon be – if it isn’t already – a favorite of locals and commuters alike.