Restaurant Profile: Meet a restaurant owner and his uncle, who are keeping the family establishment alive and well in its new life as an Irish Pub, and discover what makes this location so authentic.
Don’t even think about ordering a Budweiser at this Irish pub; you won’t get it. If, however, your taste runs toward Guinness, or any of the 30 European and specialty drafts sold here, your eyes will be smiling, Irish or not. There’s also a selection of 60 scotches and whiskeys, along with an impressive array of wines.
But O’Riley & Conway’s Irish Pub, 214 W. Milwaukee St., Janesville, is as much about food as liquor. Its robust menu offers entrées like bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie and Irish stew. Among 16 appetizers are giant Gulf shrimp steamed in Guinness, and Blarney spinach dip – artichokes and baby spinach broiled with Wisconsin cheese and Killian’s Irish Red, served with French bread and blue corn chips. The list of sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads is long, and Irish breakfast is served on weekends, like Irish Benedict, or Joe’s Scotch Eggs.
Owners Ed and Joe Quaerna are partial to the corned beef and cabbage and the Reuben sandwich. “A lot of people tell us it’s the best Reuben they’ve ever had,” says Ed, Joe’s uncle and a retired Janesville school teacher.
“Our family’s been in the bar business since my great-grandfather, Oscar Quaerna, opened Quaerna’s Tavern on Franklin Street in 1933, just after Prohibition was repealed,” explains Joe, who lives in Madison. “We ran it as a local bar until 2008, when we decided to shut it down and renovate the space.”
And what a space it is. “Joe’s a woodworker who specializes in finishing Irish pubs in big cities,” says Ed. “So he really knew what he was doing when he renovated this place. He even made the woodwork for an Irish pub at Cork Airport in County Cork, Ireland.”
Quaerna’s Tavern reopened as O’Riley & Conway’s Irish Pub in March 2010, on St. Patrick’s Day. The original 1920s tin ceiling, exposed brick walls and 65-foot Art Deco back bar easily blend with Irish-style black booths, heavy wooden tables and stunning inlaid hardwood floor – hand crafted by Joe. Colorful Irish crests and maps, and photos of old-time Janesville and past Quaerna barkeeps line the walls. A rusty old safe stands sentry near the door.
“That safe was Oscar’s, from the original tavern, and it’s been stolen twice, once in the ’50s and again in the ’60s,” explains Joe. “Both times, thieves threw it into the Rock River and the police recovered it. We don’t even know what’s inside.” It’s this kind of Quaerna family lore that charms guests and seems oh-so-Irish.
“I go to Irish-themed joints all the time, and this one blows them all away, including the ones in the Madison area where I live,” says customer Pete Finnegan. “You’ve got to take a number to get in here on St. Paddy’s Day.”
Asked whether Quaerna’s Tavern might have been a speakeasy during Prohibition, Ed and Joe both smile and shrug. “We don’t have any evidence that it was,” says Joe. “But it does seem like Oscar opened it awfully fast after Prohibition ended.”
Joe describes the atmosphere as “inviting and not cliquey. It’s cross-generational, so people age 25 or 75 feel equally comfortable. Irish pubs are known for being smaller in size, cozy and welcoming to anyone who stops in.”
Ed’s father, Ed Quaerna, Sr., took up the bartender’s mantle after Oscar, and Ed spent more than 25 years pouring drinks. He’s also owned and managed other local bars.
“We felt that Quaerna’s Tavern had run its course as a beer and shots joint,” says Ed. “At first, I wasn’t sure about reopening with the Irish theme and food, but I’m glad we did.” The pub’s name is authentic, too. Joe’s wife was an O’Riley; Ed’s, a Conway. Ed admits to scratching his head a few times during renovation, especially when Joe laid mismatched 2-inch square floor tiles in the front of the house.
“A lot of Irish pubs date back to the 1500s,” explains Joe. “Over the centuries, as floor tiles broke, they were replaced with whatever was available, so a kind of collage mosaic emerged.”
The Quaernas have purchased a neighboring building in order to accommodate parties and wakes in the future. Patio seating likely will be open by summer 2012.
The pub sometimes features live musicians, such as Irish singer Ian Gould, and stages special celebrations for Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day “and Halfway-to-St. Patrick’s Day, in September,” says Joe.
The pub serves lunch and dinner daily and is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m; the kitchen closes at midnight. Irish breakfast is served on weekends from 7 to 11 a.m. ❚