Detour Before Dark: A true homecoming at de Vere’s Irish Pub
By Scott Thomas Anderson — first published in the Roseville Press Tribune
The Irish Times called the novelist Terence de Vere White Dublin’s true Renaissance Man of the 1960s and 70s, and now the cultural critic’s grandsons have brought his reflective spirit — along with inspiration from their broader family in the Celtic backcountry — to midtown Sacramento in the form of a pub increasingly renowned for its authentic style and feel.
Simon de Vere White was born in Dublin. His brother Henry soon came into the world in the Irish American neighborhoods of Boston. Together this duo is using the capital city to take on the challenge of sharing what makes their spiritual homeland unique; and they’re doing it by avoiding the clichéd trappings of lazy American pubs, opting to create a tavern fueled by vigorously crisp cuisine, properly pulled pints of Guinness and more than 200 different bottles of rare whiskey lining the walls.
It’s a Monday afternoon and the Irish are at war again, though this time the field of battle is a soccer stadium that could lead to qualifying for the 2016 UEFA Euro competition. Inside de Vere’s Irish Pub, locals are watching the Republic of Ireland’s players run hard at the nation of Georgia. The action is fast. The cheering is explosive. Flat screen prisms blink and Guinness glasses tap the bar-top in an environment that’s completely distinct. The pub has cloudy caramel walls that blend seamlessly with the chocolate and ebony oak panels shipped from Dublin. Its dimensions are stacked with nostalgic memorabilia, a virtual museum of the Irish Republic’s hard-fought legacies. Staring from one corner is the face of Padraig Pearse near a pistol he used in the Easter Rising. Aged political pamphlets from the Irish Civil War are hung from space to space. An iconic image of the IRA leader Michael Collins in full military uniform is framed on a pillar. The Dublin poet and activist Brendan Behen’s black-and-white portrait is prominent above a dim back table.
And beyond those expressive images, past the European oil paintings and timeworn book shelves, de Vere’s pub is filled with countless snapshots from Ireland’s streets and country sides: It’s these intimate memories that offer a glimpse into the true soul of this transporting pub — these are the O’Farrell and de Vere White family photographs.
The de Vere White half of the clan immigrated to the East Coast from Dublin when Simon was a child. He and Henry grew up knowing their grandfather was an influential writer and journalist in Ireland’s capital, appreciated for the humorously poignant moments his fiction reveals about life’s trying complexities. When patrons stroll off the shady, tree-lined sidewalks into the foyer of de Vere’s, the first thing they’re greeted by is a collection of Terrance de Vere’s White’s novels.
Simon and Henry began to prove they had an inventive streak of their own when the idea for de Vere’s first emerged. Henry was running several Irish pubs in Seattle and Simon was working northern California’s tech industry. Whenever the brothers hung out together in California’s capital, they had the lingering feeling that something was missing.
“There really weren’t any genuine Irish pubs in Sacramento at the time,” Simon recalls. “We grew up with our parents’ memories of moving here from Ireland, and all of our cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents lived in Dublin and County Kerry. So, Henry and I eventually felt that, if any family could pull this off here, it was our family.”
When the brothers opened their doors in 2009 customers were finding anything but the Walmart version of an Irish pub. Spacious, impeccably clean and decorated with bar furnishings crafted near the River Liffey, de Vere’s was instantly the go-to spot for those fascinated by Irish culture.
“People tend to really love the overall atmosphere,” Henry observes, “and they truly enjoy all of the family heirlooms we’ve put on the walls.”
Darren Rothwell was one of many Irish expatriates in the area who thought de Vere’s hit the mark. Originally from Killarney, Rothwell felt so at home in the pub that he ended up applying to be a bartender. He’s been pulling pints of Guinness for its customers ever since.
“I love working for these guys,” Rothwell says of Simon and Henry. “They’re practically family to me now. And I also like living in Sacramento as well. It’s a vibrant city these days. I can walk here from my place in midtown. I can walk to a lot of good places.”
Most food critics agree that midtown has plenty of “good places,” being the main culinary battle zone for the region’s top names in food and wine. Simon and Henry jumped into that contest with full “fightin’ Irish” gusto. Their key strategy is following the lead of Ireland’s top chefs in Dublin and Kinsale, using a pure farm-to-fork commitment for a maximum pop to everything from traditional Gaelic staples to classic bar food.
This afternoon, as the Republic of Ireland’s soccer players beat back their adversaries, several plates of fish and chips are landing at different tables. De Vere’s approach to this pub mainstay involves soft, tasty white meat cut from fresh red snapper and then fried in beer batter that’s whipped up, new, at least four times daily.
Patrons who have been to Ireland are also ordering the highly recognizable “Fry Up” dish. This cluster of down home standards has moist bangers arranged around eggs, bacon and one fat, sundial-sized red tomato, complimented by white and black “pudding.” De Vere’s white pudding — a meat clump stirred from suet, bread and pork leftovers — has a fine, herby taste grazed with a slight mint after-touch. Its black pudding, a thick sausage made from swine’s blood, stands out with deep, smoky textures and a faint tobacco tinge. The Fry Up’s execution is as “early morning Irish” as it gets.
On this afternoon, a customer looking for a different old school Dublin favorite asks for de Vere’s Granny’s Sheppard Pie. Served with a fried egg on top, the plate comes as a lagoon of chunky, savory gravy hidden under a pale dusting of snow-fluffed, salt-grazed mash potatoes.
Rothwell looks on as the Republic of Ireland’s footballers seal their victory. He sips a beer, his fellow bartender eagerly chatting with customers around the pub. The servers glide by with their own energy.
“Running this kind of business, the staff becomes an immediate part of your life on a daily basis,” Henry reflects. “Seeing our employees grow as the business grows has been amazing. And now, to see the part the staff plays when a customer comes in and finds a plate they ordered or whiskey selection they discovered is bringing a huge smile to their face, as an owner, it’s beyond satisfying.”
Simon de Vere White is one half the brother team running de Vere’s Irish Pub in Sacramento. Generally referred to as the undisputed heavyweight champ of Irish pubs in Northern California, de Vere’s is built on a competitive mindset and a long family history. Simon discussed how he and his brother Henry have hit the right notes.
Scott: The atmosphere in this place doesn’t feel like your typical “Irish” American pub with a neon four-leaf clover on the window?
Simon: I think we’ve been so well-received by the Sacramento area because we’ve worked really hard to be genuine. There are no cheap flags on the walls. You won’t find images of leprechauns in here. We don’t serve green beer on Saint Patty’s Day. When you come in, 90 percent of the black and white photographs on the wall are portraits of our own family. That’s why I think people who have been to Ireland come inside and feel like they’re back in Dublin. The walls of a good Irish pub tell a story, and these walls tell our family’s story.
Scott: There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the term pub food. What have you and Henry done to earn so many food fans?
Simon: You just got back from Ireland (Scott), so I think you probably know what I know — that the quality of Irish food is leaps and bounds above English food. The great Irish restaurants have a fresh, farm-to-fork approach to all their dishes, and that’s what we’ve done here. Everything is baked, brined and mixed in-house. The only thing coming out on our plates that we don’t make here ourselves is ketchup and ranch dressing.
Scott: What will surprise people who haven’t been in to de Vere’s before?
Simon: Probably that, similar to in Ireland, we run the pub as a place where entire families can come. In Ireland, they say that when you’re born, everyone goes to the pub, when you get married, you go to the pub with everyone, and when you die, everyone else goes to the pub. Traditionally, pubs are your home on the way home, and we embrace that here.
Scott: In County Kerry, Ireland, they have an expression that “the next parish west is Boston.” Does that saying have a special meaning to your brother?
Simon: (smirking) It’s pretty significant in our family’s history that Henry was the first born in America. I give him a lot of digs about. He’s only recently started to admit it.