Woodside and Sunnyside are two historically Irish neighborhoods in Queens, the most ethnically diverse borough in New York City. After our taco battle that pitted Brooklyn against Queens (Manhattan won, strangely enough), Carolyn and I decided on a new challenge: between the two great Irish neighborhoods of Woodside and Sunnyside, which has the best and most “authentic” Irish pub? We knew the task was going to be difficult. It was going to require drinking lots of beer and whiskey and eating pub food, but we bravely volunteered. We each picked three pubs (I picked three in Woodside and Carolyn picked three in Sunnyside), and out of those three we selected a winner for the other to try. In the end, could we agree on the best pub? The suspense is killing you, isn’t it? - JOSEPH MCKEOWN
Carolyn in Sunnyside
I visited Ireland for the first time about a month ago to attend a wedding. While it was an incredibly short trip, there were plenty of highlights: the beautiful, lush hillsides of County Kerry; the kindness of everyone I met; an Irish step-dancing performance; delicious food; and, of course, plenty of Guinness and Jameson. I was ready to plan a return trip as soon as I arrived back in New York, so when I was told I had to visit some Irish pubs in Sunnyside for a very important blog post, I was thrilled! Since Sunnyside has historically had a large Irish population, I learned that there were plenty of Irish pubs in the area—how was I to choose just three to visit?
Based on several “top ten” lists for the neighborhood, I narrowed my selections to McGuinness's Saloon, Maggie Maes, and the Courtyard Ale House, all conveniently located within a few blocks from each other on Queens Boulevard. In order to have a basis of comparison between the three pubs, I ordered a Guinness and a Jameson drink at each one—but don’t worry, I had some assistance (thanks, husband)!
McGuinness's Saloon: This was the first pub we visited, and I ordered a Guinness as well as a Jameson on the rocks. An Irish patron sitting near me immediately affirmed that choice by telling me, “Jameson is a good drink.” Indeed it is. The bartender was Irish and the décor felt authentic; this was off to a good start! An Eater review says “there are old pictures on the wall to show you that stuff used to happen in Sunnyside. Boxer James J. Braddock scored an upset, defeating Max Baer for the World Heavyweight title on June 13, 1935, at the nearby Madison Square Garden Bowl on 48th and Northern Boulevard. In 1950, Willie Sutton pulled off a daring daytime bank robbery at the Manufacturers Trust Company in Sunnyside.” I must have missed these because I was admiring all of the “old-timey” Guinness signs throughout the pub.
The bar certainly had a lively, neighborhood bar feel to it, but in the end I felt like an outsider. It was missing the cozy, everyone is welcome feeling I had in Ireland. Additionally, the lighting was a bit dark for my liking. It was time to move on to the next bar.
Maggie Maes: This was the second bar I visited, and it was the opposite of McGuinness's—it was bright, airy, and large. It was apparently revamped in February, and if I had to describe it in one word, it would be “hip,” a word not usually associated with the classic Irish pub. I ordered a pint of Guinness as well as a Jameson cocktail, and both were spectacular. That said, I would not consider this an authentic “Irish pub” despite the Irish name. There were American flags everywhere, and as far as I could tell, neither the bartenders nor the patrons were Irish. While I really enjoyed the vibe of this place—and would love to return with friends—it just didn’t feel authentically Irish.
Courtyard Ale House: This was my final, and favorite, location of the day—I felt it was the most authentically similar to the pubs I had visited in Ireland, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere. While somewhat similar to McGuinness's, Courtyard Ale House had more taps and brighter lighting, which I preferred. The bartender was Irish—and incredibly friendly—reminding me very much of the bartenders I had encountered on my trip abroad. She even took back my Guinness when she noticed it hadn’t been poured correctly! I definitely appreciated that. The bar had several iterations of Jameson whiskey, and I enjoyed a hefty pour of the 12-year variety. This was also the only bar that televised rugby games and it even had a little rugby shrine in the back—which made it feel a bit more authentic.
Carolyn’s Winner: Courtyard Ale House! I felt like I was back in Ireland!
Joseph in Woodside
Although I am Irish, I have unfortunately never been to Ireland. So in order to judge these Irish bars for how “authentic” they seemed, I had to draw deeply upon my own Irish DNA and my own views about what a good Irish pub should have—namely, a welcoming atmosphere that feels like a favorite neighborhood bar, a good selection of Irish beers, and Irish staff. I was happy to explore the pubs of Woodside, which after its founding in 1869 quickly became the largest Irish-American community in Queens helped by affordable housing and easy access to public transportation.
Up until the early 1930s Woodside was eighty percent Irish, and it’s reflected in the many kinds of Irish pubs there now. Using my own knowledge of the neighborhood combined with online reviews, I made my three choices: Donovan’s Pub, Sean Og, and Saints and Sinners, all located on or close to Roosevelt Avenue, the main road through the neighborhood. In my ordering, I wasn’t as methodical as Carolyn. I had everything from a Smithwick’s to a gin and tonic to whiskey...to…uh-oh…shouldn’t have mixed my liquors. But don’t worry, as Carolyn did, I too had some help (thanks, wife)!
Donovan’s Pub: One sunny Saturday afternoon I traveled up to Woodside with my wife. Our first stop was Donovan’s Pub, which has been serving the neighborhood since 1966. Located a few steps from St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church—nothing like a good pint after mass—this Tudor-style Irish tavern used to offer free champagne to ladies on Thursday nights. When we were snugly seated on the barstools inside, I admired the classic wood-paneled bar and stained glass windows as well as the maps on the wall and a cool wood peg coat rack. The pub has a good beer selection, as well as a full menu and a dining room in the back. At the bar sat what appeared to be many regulars. I wouldn’t describe the bartender who poured our pints as overly friendly, but if I was serving beer for thirty years, I doubt I’d be either. The pub boasts of the world’s best burger as well as live music Friday and Saturday. While we didn’t test out that burger claim, as we weren’t hungry yet, we chatted with regulars sitting next to us, Bryce and Kathy, a charming old couple in their eighties (I believe). They certainly made us feel welcome, which apart from beer is pretty much what you’re looking for when going to an Irish pub. I’m not quite sure what he said to my wife when I was out of earshot, but as we left she told me: “I hope you’re that funny in fifty years.”
Sean Og Tavern: If I were judging by the façade and name Sean Og would win. The dramatic red building takes up the street corner and nearly half the block and provides a nice splash of color in the otherwise architecturally drab neighborhood. The pub is bright and airy, and has a fireplace, a very long bar, and friendly Irish bartenders. The menu is eclectic—nachos and Irish breakfast all day. We tried out the Shepherd’s Pie. It was perfectly fine, though lacking in flavor. Importantly for the warmer months, there is a large out door patio and sidewalk tables for those who want to drink outside. I wasn’t blown away by the pub. It’s perfectly decent, but despite it’s bright red look lacked any real character inside, and reminded me of a thousand other Irish pubs I’ve been to (okay, maybe I haven’t been to a thousand, but you get my point).
Saints and Sinners: When I lived nearby this was one of my favorite places to have a beer with friends. I spent some memorable times in this typically lively pub with the square-shaped bar in the center. I remember it being a warm and welcoming atmosphere when I was there, and so I was excited to return to it after not having visited for a few years. I’m sad to say it didn’t live up to my memories. While the beer selection and drinks were perfectly fine, the Irish bartender was unfriendly and the potato skins we ordered were laughably bad—microwaved with a few flecks of cheese and store-bought bacon bits. A very drunk person was talking loudly and staggering around the bar, which for an Irish pub isn’t that unusual, but it was four in the afternoon and we were hoping for a quiet drink. Also the floor was strangely sticky. Friday nights there is live music, but I won’t be going back for it.
Joseph’s Winner: In the end, I picked Donovan’s Pub. The atmosphere was cozy and inviting and we got to drink with funny old people.
Carolyn in Woodside – Donovan’s Pub
When it came time for me to visit Joseph’s favorite Irish bar in Woodside, I wasn’t sure it could beat the Courtyard Ale House. Upon arriving at Donovan’s, I was pleasantly surprised, but in the end, I will stick with my assertion that Courtyard Ale House was more authentically Irish. First, I will state that Donovan’s is a really lovely bar—it is beautifully decorated and it felt like I had entered a little cottage tucked in the woods. True to form, I ordered a Guinness and a Jameson upon my arrival. The Guinness was poured well, but I will note that it was not served in a traditional Guinness glass—unlike the three locations in Sunnyside I visited. Normally that’s not something I really care about, but when it comes to comparing a bunch of great bars, I have to be picky.
Additionally, our server—while Irish—was not particularly friendly. She could have been having an off day, as we all do sometimes, but that bumped down the authenticity factor for me. I heard that there is live music here sometimes (and I love live music) but unfortunately that wasn’t the case during my time here. I would love to return to try one of their famous burgers, but based on my visit, I can’t say that Donovan’s is more authentic than Courtyard Ale House. Sorry, Joseph!
Joseph in Sunnyside - Courtyard Ale House
When Carolyn selected this place, I was initially confused. Is that even an Irish pub? It doesn’t have a recognizably Irish name. Well wait, what makes an Irish bar Irish? I’ve never been to Ireland so what do I know? My doubts and fears were allayed when I entered the pub one Monday evening and saw all the traditional trappings of an Irish pub. From the Irish bartender, friends chatting over pints of beer, and an impressive Rugby trophy collection, to men and women sitting and drinking by themselves at the long bar, I knew it has passed the “Irish pub” test.
With twenty-four craft beers on tap, a third of them from local New York brewers, the beer list had many good options not found at your typical Irish pub. The wood-paneled bar was cute and cozy, and I can see why Carolyn liked this place. That said, I didn’t find the bartender too friendly, as he spent most of the time at the other end of the bar talking to his own friends and barely stopped by to get my drink order. I also didn’t love the nine TVs all over the place, making it feel more like a sports bar than an Irish pub (and it is actually billed as a sports bar online). My vote is still for Donovan’s Pub.
OVERALL WINNER: It was a tough battle, but Donovan’s Pub and the Courtyard Ale House tied. You’ll have to try them both!