Talking about Culhane's Irish Pub with owner Mary Jane Culhane
1. Tell us about Culhane’s?
We're a family business owned and operated by 4 sisters from county Limerick, Ireland. Since opening our doors in 2005, Culhane’s has captured the attention of both everyday diners and culinary critics. It landed a coveted spot on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and has been covered by local reporters fascinated by the pub’s distinctive menu and entertainment options.
2. What makes Culhane's special?
It’s the experience that you don’t get in a regular restaurant. Our Irish culture is rich in delicious comfort food, perfect pints of Guinness, traditional Irish music and friendly banter. Culhane's is very warm and hospitable. Our staff are engaging and friendly. Growing up in Ireland, the pubs were the central place to meet your friends and neighbors - a place for camaraderie.
Chef Chrissy and our culinary team create delicious daily specials along with whiskey, wine and beer pairings.
For big events like New Year’s and Valentines we have special a la carte menus.
We always have fun events going on. Every Sunday we feature live, traditional Irish music and Irish dancers. We have a very popular Pub Trivia on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday and Saturday are for karaoke fun. Famous local and international bands like Celtic Thunder and Dublin City Ramblers also perform regularly.
3. Is Culhane’s similar to what you’d experience if you went to a pub in Ireland?
I think we’re different. At Culhane’s we’ve spiced things up a lot - it’s comfort food with an attitude! Everything is made from scratch using fresh local produce. Corned beef is marinated for hours, slow cooked, and flavored with rich tasting stout like Guinness. We’ve brought an American twist to our food. Locals rave about it - even the Irish love it!
4. What sort of food do you serve?
Irish Pub favorites like Fish 'N Chips, Bangers and Mash and Shepherd’s Pie. We also feature rich, savory foods such as Dingle Fish Pie, Guinness Beef Stew and Bourbon Guinness Ribs. Weekend Brunch from 11am - 2pm features specialties such as Biscuits and Gravy, Farmer’s Irish Breakfast, and Oscar Wilde’s Whiskey Toast.
5. What would you recommend for someone new to Culhane's?
Fish ’N Chips is our most popular dish. We purchase the cod from a local fishery - Mayport C&C. Our chef filets the cod in house and tosses it in a light beer batter before frying it in hot peanut oil to give it a a crisp light texture. This is the real deal you find in Ireland! Guinness Beef Stew and Dingle Fish Pie are very popular too and were Guy Fieri’s favorite dishes.
For something a little different, and also very popular, I’d recommend trying our Reuben Egg Rolls. They’re made with won ton wrappers, like a traditional egg roll, but they're filled with corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. For dessert I’d recommend trying our Paddy’s Bread Pudding.
6. Is your Corned Beef and Cabbage a traditional Irish dish?
Corned Beef and Cabbage is not a traditional Irish dish. You will find restaurants all over Ireland serving this dish but mainly for the tourists and not for the locals. Corned beef is a popular dish amongst Irish emigrants who came to America around the famine years. Corned beef was a substitute for bacon in an attempt to recreate the authentic Irish dish of Bacon and Cabbage. They didn’t have money to buy bacon so they bought corned beef. That’s what they had for dinner. We purchase our corned beef from Thumann’s in New Jersey. It’s a very high quality corned beef and we pay top dollar per pound. It’s free of MSG, has no nitrates added, and is both gluten free and very lean. A lot of people tell us it’s the best corned beef they’ve ever had. We feature Thumann’s corned beef in many of our dishes. The Reuben Egg Roll is a popular appetizer. We feature Corned Beef and Cabbage Soup, and a Reuben sandwich in a wrap, quesadilla style. For Sunday Brunch we feature Corned Beef Hash.
7. What's your favorite dish?
Shepherd’s Pie topped with cheddar cheese - perfect with a cold pint of Harp!
8. Where do you get your recipes?
From our mum, Kitty Culhane, the sisters and from our chef, Chrissy Schneider. We’re all very hands on in the kitchen. All of us sisters love to eat. We go to Napa once a year and treat ourselves to fine food and wine. We always come back with lots of new ideas. We love changing our menu with the season so we can taste fresh local vegetables.
9. Many people would be surprised that you incorporate so much farm to table cooking at Culhane’s...
We visit the local fresh market on Saturday and enjoy supporting our local businesses. We purchase our fresh fish from Mayport C&C and our breads from Cinotti’s. We prepare our famous dishes with many root vegetables like carrots, cabbage, collard greens, peas, potatoes and seasonal vegetables - nothing out of a can, only from the ground. We grew up on a farm and always had the freshest vegetables. We never lost that. When we opened the pub we said everything must be made from scratch.
10. Are you getting more people requesting gluten free?
Yes! We try our best to cater to requests for gluten free dishes. I personally like to eat very healthy food and that influences me and our chef. We can’t guarantee to be 100% gluten free because of the setup of our kitchen - it’s just too small to support a complete separation of gluten containing and gluten free foods. But we do what we can. We have a lot of dishes that are made without gluten - meats and potatoes, along with vegetables. By request we'll make sure any seasonings we use are gluten free. Our house seasoning is gluten free. From the bar, we have many gluten free options, starting with a great selection of gluten free wines and Irish whiskeys. We have Mackenzie and Magner’s cider on tap and Omission Ale beer, which are all gluten free.
Our goal with our next restaurant is to build a gluten free kitchen and offer more gluten free items.
11. Are there any trends on your menu that you’re looking towards?
We currently serve very hearty and flavorful portions. We are famous for our comfort food. There’s always a place for that but many people want options that are lighter and less filling. When people come with their friends they often want a taste of something to share - more like tapas. We will be adding more small plates, or skinny plates, as we call them. These will be served at a lower price point - more affordable. In addition to the smaller plates, we’re also going to add more varieties of fish. When people eat out they want options that are light but also nourishing at the same time. We currently have cod, salmon, shrimp and talapia on the menu and we will be adding more seasonal, fresh local fish.
12. You had Guy Fieri from Diners, Drive-ins and Dives visit Culhane's. Can you tell us about that experience?
It was fantastic. Business has doubled. Guy is a lot of fun and he brought national and international fame to Culhane's Irish Pub. We have re-aired numerous times with over 50,000 hits on our YouTube episode. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Our episode recently aired in Ireland and England and had huge write ups in the Irish Examiner and Weekly Observer.
13. How was Culhane’s selected to be on the show?
We honestly don’t know. The Food Network goes online to check out area restaurants. They look for a story that’s appealing. We’re a locally owned pub, we have a strong online presence through Facebook and our website, and we have a lot of positive reviews online. Those things all helped us to stand out. A number of area restaurants were shortlisted and we had interviews with the production company. Before we knew for sure that we’d be on the show some people came in to review our kitchen to make sure everything was clean and all our health inspections were up to date. They also wanted to observe our cooking to make sure we were making everything from scratch and that it was authentic food. Then they announced our pub would be featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
14. How did you select the items that were highlighted on the show?
The Food Network reviewed our menu online and chose the items. Once they had an idea of what they wanted to feature, they came in for a tasting. During the filming they showcased a number of items that didn’t make the final edit that appeared on TV. For example, they showcased our Corned Beef and Cabbage, Bangers and Mash, Buffalo Wings and our Potato Leek Soup. Guy’s favorites were our Dingle Fish Pie, Lamb Sliders and Guinness Beef Stew, so these were the items that made it onto the show.
15. Which of Guy’s favorites is the most popular item at Culhane’s?
Of the items featured on Triple-D, the Guinness Beef Stew is the most popular - and it’s always been one of our best sellers overall. The Lamb Sliders are very unique. Not everyone likes lamb, but for those who do, they love the Sliders. Dingle Fish Pie is a unique seafood cream stew made with cod, salmon and shrimp (recipe). It’s popular and unique, and appeals to those who like all those types of fish. Growing up in Ireland we always had local fish shops we’d go to. We’d mix things up. We wanted something rich and savory that was like what we had growing up.
16. How long did the filming take?
It was a full day with Guy, from about 10 in the morning through to 7 pm. Before Guy arrived though, the production crew came for about 3 days. They focused on filming in the kitchen. When Guy came the focus was with him hanging out with the sisters, staff and the crowd - it was more relaxed.
17. Guy Fieri has a recipe book called The Funky Finds in Flavortown that features Culhane’s for 6 full pages. How did that come about?
The Food Network called us up to say that Guy loved Culhane’s and our Guinness Beef Stew and he wanted to include us in his new cook book. They asked us to share the details of the Guinness Beef Stew recipe and to provide some pictures. We hired a photographer and sent them an album of photos to choose from. The editor added some background on the experience the production team had when they spent time at the pub. It was a great write up that was done entirely by The Food Network.
18. What is Culhane’s Spice Blend?
It’s a seasoning blend made up of roasted garlic salt, pepper, basil, and many other spices. It’s all natural, without any MSG.
We sell our seasoning in house. It’s great on everything and it gives our Lamb Sliders a unique taste!
19. If someone wanted to try a dish that highlighted Culhane’s Spice Blend, what would you recommend?
I’d recommend the French Fries. It adds a great flavor that really complements the subtler potato taste. The Lamb Sliders are another great option too.
20. What’s your number one selling beer?
It’s Guinness, by far.
21. Have you noticed an increased interest in craft beers and craft whiskeys?
Absolutely! We just added another 12 beers to our draft system, giving us 24 active taps. We carry the popular Irish and English beers, along with more and more craft beers. We’ve also seen a lot of interest in Irish and Scotch whiskeys, along with craft bourbons. That’s a definite new trend.
22. Why aren’t there more cask ales available, hand pumped, like they have in Ireland and England?
I don’t know. That’s something that you’d probably find more in bigger cities, but it’s not something we’ve seen a demand for.
23. Can you tell us a little about your background?
I moved to St. Paul, MN 17 years ago to find a new life and worked in the financial business up until 2007. We opened up Culhane's in 2005 so us four sisters could work and live close together.
24. What made you transition from working in financial services to opening a restaurant?
Freedom of working my own hours and spending more time with my young son, family, and of course my partners/sisters. The mortgage industry was slowing down, and I wanted a change of career. My passion is marketing and I love marketing Culhane's Irish Pub. Our story is unique and we are living the American Dream!
25. How did you decide on the Jacksonville area for your restaurant?
We researched demographics and targeted a more mature audience. Atlantic Beach was ideal because it didn't have an Irish restaurant in the area. My sisters and I love Irish traditional music, great food, and craic (fun). Jacksonville was lacking an authentic Irish pub and we saw a huge void here. Our goals and dreams are to be the best Irish pub in America and to grow Culhane's Irish Pub. We must keep the Irish traditions alive. We also fell in love with Atlantic Beach's community feel - similar to home. Our grandparents lived in Beale Strand, Ballybunion, County Kerry, which is similar to Atlantic Beach. We are a neighborhood pub that enjoys mingling with the locals and supporting local community events. Every town needs a local family Cheers pub like Culhane's.
26. Lynda Culhane was recently nominated 2014 JAX Chamber Beaches Division Small Business Leader of the Year. Can you tell us about that?
We’ve always been very involved with the Chamber and with the local community. After 8 years of being committed we’ve developed a strong business reputation. Lynda is a high level performer who has proven leadership within Culhane's and the local business community. Lynda serves as a role model at the restaurant while managing over 30 employees and hosting many charity events.
27. What’s next for Culhane’s?
Due to many requests we will open for lunch every day starting in February. We are currently adding more lighter, smaller portions to our new Spring menu. But don’t worry, we will never change our traditional pub favorites!
We’ve also been aggressively looking for a second location. We feel there’s a calling for us to go to St. Augustine’s because the culture there is so similar to Ireland. We’ve been looking for the last couple of years. There are a lot of places to lease, but we grew up on a farm where we owned the land and ownership of property has always been important to us. For that reason we’re looking for a place we can buy and that we can hand down to our children. We’re excited about growing. We want a place that’s similar to what we have here in Atlantic Beach. We haven’t found the right place yet, but we’re looking hard.