Rhythm & Booze pub offers great burgers and a touch of the Emerald Isle, too

for The Brooklyn Paper
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McBear’s, a dive bar with greasy, prison-sized windows wasn’t the kind of place a woman entered alone. On any weekday, men huddled around the bar drinking pints while a TV flickered in the background. With its dank scent of cigarettes and old beer, McBear’s possessed the end-of-the-road sadness that Edward Hopper captured in his paintings.

McBear’s closed three years ago. Renovation on the space began immediately. What emerged in December 2000 after the lengthy overhaul was Rhythm & Booze, a bar that beckoned to a tonier crowd. Gone were the peepshow-sized windows; after the revamp, large casements let the light in. Sponge-painted gold walls made the perfect backdrop for the rest of the interior’s Irish-proud color scheme. The floor tiles are deep green and ivory, the ceiling is deep green, and so are the leather-covered bar stools, the chairs in the dining area and the tablecloths and napkins.

At night, emerald velvet curtains drape the windows. In honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, the windows are painted with leprechauns, gold coins and shamrocks.

Rhythm & Booze is the long-held dream of owner Jamie Lawson, who grew up not far from his bar. A smooth-skinned man in his mid-30s, with short, brown hair and blue eyes, Lawson experienced resistance to the new bar from McBear’s displaced clientele.

"People who had a connection with McBear’s felt like I was invading their clubhouse," said Lawson. "My idea was never to shun anyone. I wanted to open the doors to the neighborhood - new and old." Since its opening, the old-timers have returned "in droves," he said, and people new to the area, or longtime residents who found McBear’s "men’s club" atmosphere intimidating are discovering the place, too.

"When I was growing up here in the 1970s, people came from two parishes; if you went to Holy Name you were part of the Holy Name parish, or you were IHM. I was IHM, Immaculate Heart of Mary," says Lawson of the area between Ninth and Greenwood avenues bordered by Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery.

Lawson’s father, James, was an ironworker who moonlighted as a bartender in the defunct Paddy’s, a neighboring bar in Windsor Terrace.

"Growing up as I did meant the conversations - politics and sports, everything - happened around the kitchen table or in Paddy’s.

"Some of my happiest memories took place in a bar. I remember that one-game playoff between the Yankees and the Red Sox. It was a Friday night and my father was tending bar," he reminisced.

In addition to keeping the neighborhood well lubricated, Lawson wanted to offer sustenance. The restaurant at Rhythm & Booze opened in August 2002.

"There are very few quality restaurants in the area. I wanted ours to be the kind of place where local people, who maybe weren’t bar people, could walk around the corner and have a good burger and a couple of beers," said Lawson.

The restaurant’s chef, Dennis McQuillen, an imposing, gray-haired man with gentle, blue eyes, is Lawson’s kindred spirit. McQuillen’s family was in the bar and restaurant business for 50 years.

"My family owned The Chimes [a restaurant in Marine Park]. I worked in the kitchen. I have cousins in the business, chefs. The whole family is in the business, all around New York," says McQuillen.

After The Chimes closed 15 years ago, McQuillen worked for an Irish pub on Nostrand Avenue and Avenue X in Sheepshead Bay called Buckley’s and later opened a steakhouse, The Lion’s Den, on Staten Island.

I spent some time with McQuillen in the restaurant’s small, immaculate kitchen. I watched as he bustled about the space, calmly adding dried porcini mushrooms to a mushroom bisque for that evening’s soup du jour. Tomato sauce bubbled on one burner of the stove; near it was a big piece of pork liberally doused with red pepper flakes and vinegar. The pork would become the restaurant’s popular pulled-pork sandwich.

When I commented on the delicious aromas emanating from the oven, McQuillen said, "That’s sauerbraten [a German pot roast]. I marinated it for four days in vinegar and sugar, celery, onions and carrots. It’s popular here."

McQuillen describes his menu as, "Good American comfort food! That’s what people are asking for. They want meat loaf, pot roast. That’s the stuff that sells."

While the restaurant is gaining popularity for its roasts and special entrees, it’s their glorious burger that is drawing carnivores from outside the neighborhood.

McQuillen makes the best burger I’ve had in a Brooklyn bar, superior to the much-touted Corner Bistro burgers in Greenwich Village. Served on a lightly toasted English muffin, the Rhythm & Booze burger is a plump yet manageable handful of richly flavored grilled meat. It comes with hand-cut fries that are crisp and salty.

The kitchen will close on Sunday March 16, the day of the Irish-American Parade that marches down Prospect Park West. All the tables and chairs in the dining area will be stored to accommodate the crowd Lawson expects to fill his bar.

"I take pride in St. Patrick’s Day," Lawson said. "The holiday is about a family getting together and having a great meal. It’s just a day to celebrate everything Irish. It’s a great day."

For St. Patrick’s Day, Monday, March 17, the kitchen will open at noon.

"Whoever wants to come in can have coffee or Irish coffee. Dennis makes his own soda bread. We’re serving free corned beef and cabbage until dinnertime. I have contemporary Irish music like the Cranberry’s, the Pogue’s, groups like U2 and a lot of Van Morrison, going all day. For the older guys there’s Bing Crosby and the Clancy Brothers," said Lawson. For the evening meal, McQuillen will add corned beef and cabbage, a lamb dish and shepherd’s pie to the dinner menu.

"On St. Patrick’s Day weekend last year, we had a group of firemen from Dublin who came in at around 6 o’clock at night. They marched in the parade. One of the guys said to me, ’This is the way the pubs are in Ireland. This bar reminds me of home.’ I loved hearing that," said Lawson. "That was my intention all along."

Rhythm & Booze (1674 10th Ave. at Prospect Avenue in Windsor Terrace) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $7.95-$13.95. For information, call (718) 788-9699.

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