The white neon glow of the signage flanked by two green, equally bright four-leaf clovers, better known as the lucky Irish shamrock is the only sign of life in the otherwise dark strip center on Gessner a couple of blocks southeast of Highway 59 (errr, now Interstate 69).
The Sharpstown area may never end up on a What's Hot list, but brave the barrio and you'll find yourself in one of the friendliest dive bars in the city. The Shamrock Inn Pub is oozing with charm, maybe not so much on the outside, but open the nondescript wooden door and you'll be greeted with shades of Houston history from ceiling to floor. Long-time employees and regulars make for a scene right out of Cheers, where everyone really knows your name.
The bar's namesake comes from a number of the interior fixtures collected from the historically infamous Shamrock Hilton Hotel that stood for decades at the southwest corner of Main and Holcombe in the heart of the Medical Center. Built in 1949 by local oil tycoon, Glenn McCarthy, the hotel was known for its lavish rooms, restaurants and shops that attracted celebrities, athletes and Houston socialites of the '50s, '60s, '70s and into the mid '80s.
Elvis Presley and Ol' Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra) himself had performed there; the Beatles had stayed there and some employees say the spirits of past guests may have made the ethereal transition from the hotel to where some of its history lives now at 9161 South Gessner in Southwest Houston.
Daytime bartender Sharon Carter told us about the strange, but cool happenings she's experienced since working at the pub. She'll celebrate her eighth year come next St. Paddy's day. "Once, all the televisions came on by themselves," she said. "I've seen a beer bottle and glass fly off the rack, all by itself."
There's a lot of history in these walls. Carter mentioned that for 20 years now, a local group who call themselves the Shamrock Literary Society meet every Friday for lunch. "The oldest members are 96 years-old," she added.
The original owners bought and installed the light fixtures, banisters, mirrors, glass racks, even the wood paneling and other items that once graced the interior of the hotel before it was demolished in June 1987.
Current owner Debi James took over the Shamrock Inn Pub in January 2002, a few years before Houston's non-smoking ordinance came into effect. By then, decades of smoking had carved its place into the upholstery, walls and carpeting of the bar, which have since been updated and replaced, but the divey feel of the Shamrock still remains true.
We ventured into the bar several years ago upon the recommendation of some good friends with a knack for stumbling into hidden gems disguised as run-down, old bars. The four-sided central bar is manned by friendly bartenders who aren't shy about belting out a Rebel Yell at the request of regulars in the wee hours of the night.
Cocktails are stiff and non-pretentious; there's nothing crafty here except the cheese dripping from the pub nachos. Drink prices are very reasonable and rounds of shots are fun to share, but the home-cooked food is what turns folks into regulars.
There are daily specials like fried chicken or chopped steak served with mac n' cheese, peas or baked potatoes. Sandwiches like the beef dip and Reuben reign supreme, with tender, juicy, hot meat, slow-cooked and served on fresh French rolls and rye bread. French fries and onion rings are salty, crispy and delicious. For over 26 years, Reyes Vinaja has been manning the kitchen and cooler-than-cool weekend bartender, Greggo, has been slinging Jack and Cokes and Jager bombs close to a dozen years.
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It's the kind of place where you hear things like "put that guy's beer on me" or "how's that hot beef in your mouth?" and no one bats an eyelash. In fact, it rouses a round of friendly banter and chuckles, while a less-than-harmonious version of Billy Joel's "The Piano Man" is inspiring a crowd-sing-along in the background.
Karaoke happens every Wednesday and Saturday nights, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Local KJ (Karaoke DJ) Brigette Nays (on Saturdays) has sung the night away with happy barflies for the past three years. Don't expect state-of-the-art equipment. Even though there are several flat screens scattered about showing local games, one of the televisions used to guide singers along still sports a dinosaur CRT and sits atop the far corner.
The Shamrock Inn Pub is located at 9161 South Gessner. There's plenty of parking in the shared lot and food is available until 10 p.m. Lunch and dinner specials are offered Monday through Friday. The Monday Chicken Marsala with baked potato and peas was $6.95. Brunch is available all day Sunday with $1 Mimosa, Screwdriver and Bloody Mary cocktails with any brunch purchase. Breakfast is served all day, everyday.
Catch you next Saturday night for a sweet rendition of Johnny and June Carter Cash's "Jackson."