By Emmett Burnett
With oak lined streets embedded with happy folks on friendly front porches, Mobile’s Oakleigh Garden District is the essence of South Alabama charm. In the heart of such a storybook setting, one would expect a beloved eatery of Irish descent, right? Hold my Guinness.
The hub of Oakleigh, Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, is more than a restaurant. It is a gathering place, entertainment center, and neighborhood jewel. But the common denominator is food.
“Best tuna dip ever,” says a Mobile regular customer, Dawn Allen Manning. “They also have this burger that blends ground beef and ground Conecuh sausage. It’s amazing.”
The above referenced sandwich and house favorite is the L.A. (Lower Alabama) Burger. Served typically on Wednesdays and Thursdays, many customers call in advance, assuring the bountiful burger is on the day’s menu.
Other hand-crafted specialties sculpted upon order are cheeseburgers (with or without bacon), shrimp po’boys, Philly cheese steak, and chicken clubs. Garden salads can be topped with grilled chicken or shrimp. Or live a little – go for smoked tuna.
Sandwiches are served with choice of potato salad, slaw, pasta salad, chips or tomato cucumbers. And do not depart without dessert: Callaghan’s bread pudding with Irish whiskey sauce. Faith and begorrah, it’s good.
Accolades from all over
Dawn lives nearby but the fan base is also state and nationwide. Honors include those from USA Today and the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, both proclaiming Callaghan’s with the best burger in Alabama. Locally, Mobile Bay Magazine and the Lagniappe newspaper voted the pub as having Mobile’s best music venue.
As for good food, the restaurant’s secret recipes are easily explained. “There are no secret recipes,” says owner John Thompson, bringing out superb Irish pub-like burgers that could make Dublin our state capital. “Nothing is cooked until you order. We do not make cookie -cutter burgers under a heat lamp. Everything is fresh cut, fresh served.”
John also credits his staff. “We have good people; many have been here over 10 years. Our employees take pride in what they do.”
Predicting crowd size is tricky. On a weekend, the Irish eatery sees upwards of a 100-plus a night. On St. Patrick’s Day it sees upwards of – this is not a typo – 6,000.
“As far as I know, we are the biggest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Alabama,” says John. “On that day we sell more Guinness and Harp than anywhere in Alabama and Mississippi. In Mobile, our St. Patrick’s Day outdoor crowd size is second only to Mardi Gras.”
“Callaghan’s appeal is its sense of community,” adds Dawn, seated at the restaurant’s outdoor dining area, with chips and tuna dip. “People walk from the neighborhood, bicycle from nearby, and drive in from everywhere.”
Bartender-manager Cheryl Shifflet laughs, “Some people refer to us as Oakleigh’s town hall.” She continues, “Many come in every day. There is a neighborhood vibe.” But she adds, with chalk in hand, scribing today’s special on a blackboard, “It doesn’t matter where you live, after a first visit, you are part of our neighborhood.”
Callaghan’s neighborhood includes Led Zeppelin. John remembers the night of the rock band’s unannounced arrival. “Robert Plant (lead singer) examined everything on the walls,” he recalled. That could take a while.
Walls are adorned with Mobile memorabilia, a digital St. Patrick’s Day countdown clock, and autographed photos of visiting celebrities, actors, and political leaders too many to mention. Let’s just say green beer was hoisted by the mighty and the meek.
Food and music, too
In addition to food, patrons enjoy some of the region’s best performers when Callaghan’s transforms into a family-friendly nightclub featuring music of all genres.
The corner lot pub turned diner on Marine and Charleston Streets opened in 1946 in what was then the family home of Woodrow Callaghan. The restaurant room additions built around and attached to the family home. Many of the original restaurant tables still grace the dining room.
“I grew up about a mile from here,” says John, who runs the operation with business partner, Richie Sherer. It was purchased from Woodrow Callaghan’s daughter in 2003. John recalls, “I felt it would be a neat little place for a restaurant.” It is still neat but did not stay little for long.
The music venue took off after Hurricane Katrina when New Orleans entertainers came east looking for venues to play. Today music is a daily staple, and so are about 200-plus burger plates, salads and more served daily.
Drinks are poured from what Esquire Magazine says is best bar in America. Callaghan’s prides itself on a great selection of beverages. Imports and domestics flow like the River Shannon.
Summarizing Callaghan’s success can be gleaned in part from the name: “Irish Social Club.” “We are all things to all people,” says John. “Everyone is welcomed – families, business people, young and old. In fact, we recently held two separate birthday parties the same week – for a one-year-old baby and a 100-year-old man.”
Young or old, all are welcomed to a neighborhood restaurant, corner pub, nationally acclaimed bar, local entertainment venue and Ground Zero for Saint Patrick’s Day – all under one roof.
Irish eyes are smilin’.