Saturday is going to be amazing. Saturday is going to be terrifying. It all depends on your point of view. When St. Patrick’s Day falls on a weekend, Boston is engulfed in a sea of green beer. (When St. Patrick’s Day falls on a weekday, Boston is also engulfed in a sea of green beer, just a slightly smaller one.) The revelers will be out in force, and you will either be among them or you will be hiding at home on your couch. But even the most reluctant St. Patrick’s Day celebrant can appreciate a taste of Irish fare this week.
There are plenty of places around town to sample it. Ask people their favorites and the same names crop up: Matt Murphy’s Pub, the Druid, and James’s Gate. We recently took their measure, with particular attention to two classic dishes: fish and chips and shepherd’s pie.
In Brookline Village, Matt Murphy is an indispensable neighborhood standby. It’s dark as a lair, tables lighted by tiny candles. Quipsters with charming accents take your order and make you laugh. And the food is very good.
This is no secret. The pub is often crowded. You’ll find less-traditional fare: a compelling version of poutine, fries topped with gravy and melting nuggets of cheese; the croque Siobhan, a heart-stopping sandwich of baked shaved ham, Irish cheddar, tangy mustard, and Mornay sauce topped with a fried egg.
But on the week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, go for the classics. Beef stew is a hearty version, heavy on beef and light on vegetables. Shepherd’s pie is even better. Tender pieces of lamb and roasted root vegetables nestle beneath mashed potatoes that have been lightly crisped on top. And for fish and chips, it’s hard to do better than the version here.
The dish arrives at the table wrapped in newspaper. Pull back the edges and you’ll find a plate of gold: generous pieces of fresh cod cloaked in light batter. It’s tender but not soggy, with a tempered crunch, not the shattering, tempura-esque batter found in some versions. The chips’ crisp exteriors yield to tender innards. Nothing at Matt Murphy’s is too salty - you can apply your own seasonings, to your own taste. Squeeze some lemon over the fish and douse the fries generously in malt vinegar; break up the flavors with bites of the pickled onion that comes on the side. The tartar sauce is excellent, tart, thick, and luxurious. Ask for curry sauce on the side and you get a little pot of something with the texture of pudding, not the usual runny condiment. The homemade ketchup, however, is just weird: It tastes too much like relish, sharp and out of balance.
At the end of the meal, when a server recites the words “We’re cash only, but there’s an ATM over there’’ with robotic reflex, one wonders whether it might not be worth the pub’s while to just accept cards already. But Matt Murphy’s fish and chips are worth a trip to the bank.
In Jamaica Plain, you’ll find restaurant and pub James’s Gate. It’s the pub side you want - tiny, cozy, with wood tables and a roaring fire. It’s a brilliant place to spend the afternoon, with Wi-Fi and Guinness, all the requirements for productivity or a total lack thereof.
At night you’ll have more options on the restaurant menu, but the pub serves filling standards all day. Fish and chips aren’t quite to the level of Matt Murphy’s. The fish is wan, thin pieces of an indeterminate variety, fine but not anything that makes you sit up and take notice. It is nicely fried, as are the chips. The tartar sauce, again, is splendid, with a bit less tartness than Matt Murphy’s.
James’s Gate’s shepherd’s pie does stand out. It’s a generous crock of ground beef and chunks of lamb, interspersed with carrots and topped with thick, creamy potatoes. Over the whole thing is a very thin layer of cheese, broiled crunchy and brown at the edges, sealing everything in. It may not be the most classic rendition, but the dish is more flavorful for it.
In Cambridge, the Druid is a friendly pub with live music and above-average versions of fish and chips (not quite as good as Matt Murphy’s) and shepherd’s pie. Crisp and hot, the fish and chips come in newspaper here, too. (Who says print is dead? It’s not so long as we’ve got Irish pubs.) As for the shepherd’s pie, the potato topping is so rich and delicious it almost overshadows the fork-tender lamb and turnips underneath.
For those in search of specifically Irish fare, the Druid’s menu offers variety: potato leek soup, tender Irish sausages with baked beans and mash, beef stew. And for those who want something different, the burgers - both beef and veggie versions - have justifiable fan bases.
So how do the three stack up?
For food, my pick is Matt Murphy’s. For all-around fun, I vote for the Druid. For coziness at any time and lingering lunches, I like James’s Gate. In other words, you can’t go wrong - unless you go this Saturday, when a relaxed meal at any Irish pub is likely an impossibility.
On St. Patrick’s Day itself, your best bet for a taste of the British Isles might be a culturally inappropriate one: the Haven, a Scottish restaurant, where owner Jason Waddleton is frequently spotted sporting a kilt. But the fish and chips here are tremendous, as is the puff pastry-topped crofter’s pie. So is just about everything else on the menu, from the smoky fish stew cullen skink to the Scotch egg with deviled yolk. After dinner, head to the nearby Brendan Behan, one of Boston’s best Irish pubs. Too bad it doesn’t serve food.
If you go:
1357 Cambridge St., Cambridge.
5-11 McBride St., Jamaica Plain.
MATT MURPHY’S PUB
14 Harvard St., Brookline.