These are exciting times for a West End pub that just might be RVA’s closest connection to Ireland.
- Who: Owner Cindy Jennings, managers Robert Mercurio and Michele Gomes, and chef Connor Cleary.
- What: An Irish pub with actual Irish ownership and staff.
- Where: 10602 Patterson Avenue in the West End.
- When: Opened in 1994. New menu with Irish cuisine debuts later this month.
- Dishes: New favorite is the Irish Breakfast: Two eggs, two sausages, tomato, black pudding (pork blood and oats mixed together in a roll, sliced up) and white pudding (rendered fat and oats in a roll, also sliced).
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“There are a lot of fake Irish pubs,” said Connor “Con” Cleary while sitting inside Rare Olde Times. “This,” he said, eyes dancing around the West End pub, “is the real deal.”
Cleary knows the real deal because he is the real deal. Hailing from Kildysart in Ireland’s County Clare, Cleary is the new Irish chef at one of the only real Irish pubs in Richmond.
Years before landing in RVA, Cleary uprooted from County Clare to attend a two-year culinary school program in Galway City. Following that, he amassed six years of cooking experience. He’s 25 year-old.
When asked why he moved to the US, Cleary said: “I wanted to expand my cheffing knowledge. I wanted to try something new.”
“New” is an interesting word to associate with a place called Rare Olde Times, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.1 But you learn that the restaurant’s eyes are fixed on the future and its approaching Golden Age.
At least general manager Robert Mercurio thinks so.
“We may have just arrived at the beginning of what we can do,” Mercurio said. And much of what Rare Olde Times will do in the coming years builds on what Rare Olde Times has already done.
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Rare Olde Times opened in 1994 under the name Loose Ties. Its founder, Andy Jennings, grew up in Dublin. He adored music, and hauled that adoration in his suitcase when he moved to the US. “He really felt music,” Mercurio said. A guitarist and banjoist, singing was how Jennings’ stood out. “Singing was his number one craft.”
Jennings and his wife, Cindy, became a performance duo in 1982, playing pubs and events across Richmond2 and the East Coast. Over ensuing years, the duo built a strong local following. “He thought it was the next logical move to have his own performance venue,” Mercurio said. So he built a stage inside Loose Tie’s main dining room to make that venue.
A year after opening, Jennings rechristened Loose Ties to Rare Olde Times, a nod to the song “Dublin in the Rare Old Times,” his father’s favorite song.
Rare Olde Times’ Irishness wasn’t predicated solely on Jennings pedigree. “He had some Irish buddies from around town that came and worked for him,” Mercurio said. Currently, five staff members at Rare Olde Times were born in Ireland.
In the early days, the menu served a single purpose: keep audiences full while they watched the live music. “There was no item over $5.99,” Mercurio said. “It was good, affordable food…but the entertainment was the focus by far.”
The entertainment wasn’t limited to the musicians. “Even the waiters and bartenders — and to this day — were expected to be entertainers to some level,” Mercurio said.
How? By having a special way about them.
“We had a waitress here named Diana,” he said. “She was famous for serving people the wrong food, and telling them that’s what they wanted anyway…’No you gotta try that. You really wanted that in the first place.'”
“It was a niche. It was a kind of irreverence that people enjoyed,” he said. “Most of us still have that kind of banter with our regulars.” It’s one way the restaurant seems so close knit. “This is really, truly, a family place.
That family lost its biggest member when Andy Jennings died in May 2012. His wife, Cindy, has since kept Rare Olde Times open. She’s even managed to perform without her longtime musical partner.
“She’s been absolutely brave and amazing through all this, and she’s the one who’s kept it going,” Mercurio said. “It’s still in the family, so it’s important to keep Andy’s vision the same.”
But that vision is in the midst of a renaissance, one that just might put Rare Olde Times in the same league as some of Richmond’s most exciting restaurants.
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Mercurio is one of the people shepherding the restaurant into its Golden Age. He served as the restaurants GM from 2006 – 2008, returning to help the restaurant following Jennings death in 2012. A spate of on-again, off-again returns ended with him returning to manage the restaurant full-time late last year.
Since then, Mercurio has enlisted Con Cleary to help design an authentic Irish menu that’s scheduled to debut later this month. “We really want to be a place where you can get true Irish cuisine,” Mercurio said. “[To] make this place a food destination, in addition to always being a great place to gather and have drinks.”
Con Cleary said three things characterize good Irish cuisine: simplicity, locality, and freshness. “It’s definitely not complicated,” he said about traditional Irish fare. “You have your starch and your meat on every dish, pretty much.” Dishes are best kept simple. Don’t supplement the dish with too many add-ons that only “overpower” and “take over the whole dish.”
Deliberately simple dishes (Irish and otherwise) rely on quality ingredients, ingredients almost always at their best when they’re locally sourced. “When I worked in Galway City, all the seafood came from two doors down,” Cleary said. While an impossible aspiration for the West End restaurant, it underscores Cleary’s experience and preference for locally sourced items. He and Mercurio are now working to establish relationships with area farmers to supply Rare Olde Times ingredients.
Those ingredients will of course go toward the restaurant’s lunch and dinner menu items, but also to its brunch, which the restaurant recently added.
One of the dishes that excites Cleary and Mercurio the most is the Irish Breakfast. “It’s a fry-up,3 pretty much,” Cleary said. “There’s two sausages, two Irish back bacon, which is different from the bacon you have here.”4 The full breakfast also comes with black pudding (pork blood and oats mixed together in a roll, sliced up) and white pudding (rendered fat and oats in a roll, also sliced), eggs, and tomato.
Mercurio said the dish isn’t a watered-down version of the Irish staple. “We don’t want to serve [customers] an Americanized version of it,” he said. “We want to serve them a quality breakfast that would be a quality breakfast in Ireland.”
Rare Olde Times has always been big on entertainment. “Our concept is entertainment all the way around,” Mercurio said. “Food needs to be entertaining and lively [too].”
Mercurio will soon turn his attentions to revamping the restaurant’s drink menu, which he plans to bolster by bringing in a variety of Irish whiskies and other liquors.
A mix of unique entertainment, food, and drink makes the GM excited about Rare Olde Times place among Richmond’s best restaurants. “We want to be among them,” he said. “We want to be one of those places…that you can go, have a nice meal and not blowout your wallet, and just walk away wowed.”
Like a true Irish pub, Rare Olde Times will price their offerings to appeal to all people. “We’re not going to raise the prices just because we have an Irish chef,” Mercurio said. “We’re going to raise our volume because we have great food.” He thinks that great food will go a long way to giving Rare Olde Times customers a taste of the new and unique. “It’s important that this isn’t just a shrine, that we have a stellar past that everyone can remember,” he said. “But we also have an amazing future to come.”
Con Cleary thinks the West End pub gives Richmond a special place to eat and drink. “I’ve been to a lot of different bars…and it’s like, everybody is glued to their phone or the TV,” he said.
But Rare Olde Times isn’t like that. “Here you can sit up at the bar and talk to anybody–talk to the barman, talk to who’s beside you. Have a good conversation, you know?”
“I like that about [this place],” he said. “It feels like home.”
Rare Olde Times is located at 10602 Patterson Avenue. Local band Uisce Beatha, which has played Rare Olde Times for 17 years, will have its last performance on March 20th.