199 Kenmount Road
Ph. (709) 383-0425
Another Celtic themed restaurant pub has opened in St. John’s. It’s part of the Fionn MacCool’s chain, a brand owned by the franchise brand masters of Cara Operations Limited, located in Vaughan, Ontario. St. John’s – population, approximately 214,000 – now has one, in some cases two, of every main brand in Cara’s portfolio: Fionn MacCool’s, Swiss Chalet, Montana’s, East Side Mario’s, Kelsey’s, Harvey’s and Milestone’s.
Those are just the brands owned by Cara in our small, fair city. St. John’s is where chains come to thrive. When you include non-Cara brands, like, The Keg, Jack Astor’s, Boston Pizza, Pizza Delight, Cora’s, Smitty’s, and many more, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, is close to becoming the chain restaurant capital of Canada. Perhaps we should hang a banner at St. John’s International Airport, or place a sign on the TCH, just where vehicles enter the Oldest City.
Fionn MacCool’s young women servers looked like students from an English boarding school in their tartan skirts – slightly shorter, I suspect, than English school skirts – and knee high socks. Instead of blazers they wore black tees with clever quotes like, “Keep your pints on,” printed on the back. One of them showed us to a table on the dining side of Fionn’s. The pubby area, with drinks bar, is to the left as you enter. Altogether, it’s a good-sized establishment, seating well over 100 patrons.
Attractive and comfortable
An operator with deep pockets, like Cara, can afford to hire professional restaurant designers. Its restaurants possess attractive surroundings. Finn MacCool’s is comfortable. The design plays off the “traditional Irish pub” stereotype. Walls are partially clad in dark woods, an area of dining room high above the tables features a suspended tray ceiling. Like many of these chain restaurants, you get the feeling you’re on a movie set, that it’s not the real thing. It just looks a lot like it.
Years ago, I saw Belfast journalist, food writer and author, Niki Hill, being interviewed on a BBC show. The interview took place in arguably the most beautiful and architecturally significant pub in the world, Belfast’s, The Crown Bar. It’s the real pub in which British movie director, Carol Reed, shot scenes for his film noir jewel, “Odd Man Out”. She was waxing eloquent, as many a Northern Irelander is wont, about Irish food and drink.
The drink, of course, was Irish whisky, and stout like Murphy’s and Guinness. The food was champ, the Ulster Fry, soda bread, Irish stew, Irish oysters et cetera. She posited that Irish food was an essential complement to Irish drink, and necessary to negate any nasty aftereffects of the liberally imbibed drink.
“We talk about having a feed of drink, and we have a feed of food too. It’s lovely. Without an Ulster Fry after a night’s drinking, you’d be done for.”
Much of Fionn MacCool’s menu is the kind of food you’d be likely to line your belly with if you believe, like Hill, that, say, a feed of Irish stew and mashed potatoes can prevent a hangover.
Fionn MacCool’s, with apologies to the Apostle Paul, strives to “become all things to all people.” Like many chain restaurants, the menu is extensive. Like it or not, there’s something for everyone. Stereotypical pub food is presented alongside spinach and arugula salad, baked cod and maple glazed salmon.
Sometimes, for spouse and me, Fionn’s food was good, sometimes it was brilliant, and, sometimes it was plain awful. I’ll spare you the awful, for now. How about something that was good?
When I tried Fionn MacCool’s beer bread I had a flash of memory. It vaguely reminded me of the delicious fried bread I once had with a full English breakfast, made for me by an English friend, on a visit to Dorset. The fried bread was fried in beef dripping. Fionn’s beer bread was only similar in that, although the menu said it was drizzled with melted butter and sea salt, it had the taste and crispiness of fried bread.
Cubes of earthy, glistening brown bread were served in a dish next to a bowl of cheese sauce, flavoured with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. We were told the sauce was manufactured at Fionn MacCool’s on the mainland. In a way, it was like a fondue. I dipped the cubes of bread in the cheese sauce, which had a pale taste of pale ale. As I was eating it, my stomach did indeed feel like it was being properly lined.
The calamari came in thick strips and had been dredged and lightly sautéed. I drizzled the tender squid with fresh lemon and was happy. A dish of saccharine, slightly hot Thai sauce came with it, but I preferred something more piquant, like the lemon.
Fionn’s warm potato chips were cooked in-house. They should have been crisp and crunchy but, like something exposed to a soupy St. John’s fog, moisture had invaded, rendering them soggy. Freshly made potato chips should be a treat, not a task.
A classic British style meat pie called, Guinness steak and mushroom pie, was impressive. It was a complete pie, with pastry sides, top and bottom. After cutting the tender pastry, small pieces of steak, button mushrooms and gravy slowly poured out. The pie’s filling could have used more seasonings but, without question, it was a first-rate pie.
Now for the awful, truly awful. I’ve never put anything into my mouth at a restaurant that I’ve immediately wanted to spit out, until Fionn MacCool’s. The first bite I took out of Fionn MacCool’s hamburger was what I imagine it must be like to take a bite out of a piece of coal. Yes, coal, anthracite, whatever you want to call it. The beef patty was blacker than night, like something incinerated.
Why would anybody put such a thing between two pieces of bread and serve it to someone? It beggars belief. Any short order cook with minimal training should be able to produce a properly cooked hamburger. Mistakes happen, but burnt food gets binned, not served. Period. Serving it is wrong and bad for business.
We informed our server about the inedible burger. She apologized and removed the item from our bill. It wasn’t her fault. Unfortunately, apologizing for horrible food is part of a server’s job.
Until the egregious hamburger met our table. Fionn MacCool’s was doing well. The potato chips were soft but everything else was fine. Bottom line? The foul burger left a bad taste, literally and otherwise. I can’t overlook the fact that something only fit for a garbage bin made it out of the kitchen and onto someone’s table.
Price Dinner for two with beer, 18 per cent tip and tax costs approximately $85.
Sound level Moderate to high.
Open Daily from 11a.m.
Reservations Walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Parking Fionn MacCool’s parking lot.
Beverages Fionn MacCool’s offers a selection of classic cocktails, shots, bombers and shooters – a few with outré names, i.e. “Liquid Cocaine” and “Porn Star”. (By the way, Fionn MacCool’s is a family restaurant during the day, which is when I was handed the beverage menu.) There’s also a wide selection of draught, bottled and canned beer. Fionn’s has a token wine list, with mass appeal choices.
Best bets Beer bread, calamari, and Guinness steak and mushroom pie.
Wheelchair access Yes.
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional