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Forget green beer - St. Patty's for gourmets now

AH, ST. PATRICK'S Day. Pub crawls, yards of green beer and bowls of mushy corned beef and cabbage. But if that's not your idea of fun, you're in luck.

AH, ST. PATRICK'S Day.

Pub crawls, yards of green beer and bowls of mushy corned beef and cabbage

If that's not your idea of fun, you're in luck.

At many local bars and restaurants, the holiday traditionally celebrated as a raucous rite of spring has gone upscale.

This means that if you love to paint shamrocks on your cheeks, pile obnoxious plastic green beads around your neck and get in line outside your favorite taproom at 6 a.m. for your chance to chug dyed Miller Lite, you may find yourself in the minority this year. Eateries are aiming their signature drinks, microbrews and specialty menus at much more discerning revelers.

From Old City to Center City, Manayunk to Headhouse Square, bars and restaurants will be serving specialty house beers and hundreds of other new or imported Irish brews, and their kitchens will be cooking up dishes like Guinness-braised beef, "Gaelic streudels" of beef and puffed pastry, and a host of gourmet desserts.

Philadelphians know their food - and their beer - and they have high expectations, even on this hoot-and-holler party day.

"For me the green beer is definitely out," said Mike Carney, 31, of Havertown. "Most of the time it's of lesser quality, and nobody wants to drink bad beer."

Carney is a loyal customer of Kildare's who plans to be at the West Chester location bright and early Monday along with hundreds of other revelers.

At this local chain of authentic Irish pubs - its six locations include Headhouse Square, Manayunk and West Chester - an extensive Irish menu will kick off on St. Patrick's Day with a brunch that includes eggs, bangers, mash and black-and-white pudding.

When the Irish dancing begins at 2 p.m., a gourmet menu will roll out, offering bar goers Irish-themed specialties such as corned-beef-and-cabbage spring rolls, farm-raised pork chops and Guinness ice-cream floats. For those who need to start their party early, a $20 "VIP Weekend Pass" is available that includes free cover all weekend, a gourmet breakfast and a pint of Guinness on the big day.

"People are coming in expecting more than a stew nowadays for St. Patrick's Day," said Kildare's corporate executive chef Brian Duffy. "They want good local foods. They want foods paired with beers. People aren't going from bar to bar anymore. And they are more aware of the quality they are drinking, not necessarily the quantity."

Quality, not quantity is also the motto this year at the Irish Pub, at 20th and Walnut, where co-owner Mark O'Connor refuses to serve green beer and even shuns Guinness in favor of microbrews. He'll have 16 beers on tap, including an Irish stout and a lager made for the pub by Downingtown's Victory Brewing Company.

"On that day, we say, 'Taste one of these, and if you don't like it, it's on us,' " said O'Connor.

At Rittenhouse Square's Tria, where all things fermented - beer, wine and cheese, to be exact - are holy, St. Patrick's Day is an excuse to offer a plate of creamy, imported Irish Cashel Blue cheese with a Bell's Kalamazoo Irish Stout from Bell's Brewery in Michigan, and some house-made chocolate fig jam.

Sound too high-brow? Holidays past have seen packed crowds. "People who come here that night are coming to sort of get away from the pub crawl thing," said Michael McCaulley, one of Tria's owners. "We are in the spirit of the holiday but in an entirely different way."

Pub and restaurant owners attribute the cultural shift away from binge drinking to the fact that younger consumers are more savvy about the specialty beers and microbrews that have flooded the market.

Couple that with the fact that in the last 10 years, Ireland - once known for its bland, meat-and-potatoes cuisine - has produced celebrity chefs such as Rachel Allen who have garnered international attention with their Irish interpretations of continental cuisine.

"When I left Ireland in the '80s the food was awful," recalled Ken Merriman, general manager at Tir Na Nog, the hip Irish pub nestled in the bottom floor of the Phoenix apartment building at 16th and Arch streets. "But things have changed. The food scene is different now, and the perception is now different [for the younger crowd] than that of their parents and grandparents. Irish food has drastically improved."

Merriman added, "Not a lot of people like the traditional stuff, so what we try to do is get a more mass appeal."

Twenty-one beers will be on tap for the holiday at Tir Na Nog, and though the day's menu will include Guinness beef stew and corned beef and cabbage for the diehards, it will also feature dishes such as petite Kobe beef cottage pie, Irish oak-smoked salmon tartare and sautéed Cashel Blue cheese and mango crab cakes.

If, after reading about all these tastebud-tantalizing brews and foods, you still need your green beer and beads, fear not. There are places for you to party old school-style into the wee hours of the morn.

Center City mainstay McGillin's Olde Ale House on Drury Street is proud of its St. Patrick's Day atmosphere, described as a cross between a Mummers parade and an Eagles game, with all-day shots of Jameson to go with the watery beer and limousine-ferried partygoers.

"We're not ashamed of celebrating it the way we've done for 140 years," said owner and general manager Chris Mullins.

We're green just thinking about it. *

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