When someone steps into The Dubliner, the iconic Irish pub near Union Station, who they’ll see there really depends on the time of day. Around lunchtime, it’s bound to be a round of suits, Capitol Hill’s masses discussing the day’s happenings. Once the sun sets, it’s time for tunes, as the restaurant prides itself on featuring live Irish music every single night.
But regardless of the time of day, one item immediately becomes apparent: a brass-engraved sign hanging to the immediate left near the entrance.
“YOU DO NOT WANT TO SPEAK TO THE OWNER,” it reads.
“You know the people that will say ‘I wanna speak to the manager! I wanna speak to the owner!’ And I’m like you don’t want to speak to the owner, it is not going to go well for you,” says co-owner Gavin Coleman, laughing from across a table at the pub.
The plaque was a gift from Gavin Coleman to his father Danny Coleman, who opened the restaurant in 1974. The Dubliner has become a fixture of D.C.’s restaurant scene since, and has thrived on Capitol Hill for decades. It’s now a part of the Long Shot Hospitality group, which boasts a diverse family of restaurants including the Salt Line, Sixth Engine and Town Hall.
The gathering place attracts both locals and tourists, and has become a destination for Irish expats and diplomats passing through. Anne Anderson, Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, is a known fan, and President Obama even famously dropped in on St. Patrick’s Day 2012 with his Irish cousin.
In a city where many restaurants come and go, The Dubliner attributes its staying power to its emphasis on good old fashioned Irish hospitality — with a Coleman twist.
“Our motto has been ‘the customer always comes second,” Daniel Coleman says. He’s adamant in his belief that employees are his first priority. “I’ve got 200,000 customers a year and I’ve only got about 50 employees. The employees are much harder to come by.”
Leading the Irish pub community in D.C.
Over the years, Daniel Coleman established himself as the undisputed patriarch of the district’s Irish pub community. According to the Colemans’ records, his former employees have gone on to open more than 30 establishments in the DMV area alone. He was recently recognized for his contributions to D.C.’s hospitality community with the 2018 Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award, which the restaurant association gives out each year to honor “dedication and leadership that has helped transform Washington’s restaurant scene into today’s vibrant restaurant industry.”
When asked what about The Dubliner particularly inspires employees to set out on their own, the Colemans believe it to be a combination of two things: an empowering hands-off approach with employees, allowing them to truly learn the details of operating a restaurant, and the exposure that comes with working at the pub. From politicians to Irish expats, Dubliner employees are able to build an incredibly strong and international network simply from making conversation across the bar.
“Stepping out on your own and opening your own restaurant is a tough thing and you deserve every credit for doing it, but there are people along the way that help you get to that point. And without fail, every single one credits my dad and what they learned here for their success and the ability to open up their own place,” says Gavin Coleman.
The Dubliner has been inspiring its employees to venture out since nearly the beginning. A few years after the pub first opened its doors, Daniel brought on a co-owner: Hugh Kelly, a fellow Irishman who had arrived in the U.S only a few years prior. Kelly had a knack for discovering live Irish music performers, and was the catalyst for the pub’s running tradition of featuring Irish music every night of the week.
“He really describes The Dubliner as a blessing,” says his son, Brendan Kelly. Just four years after coming on board, Hugh Kelly decided it was time to open his own pub, Kelly’s Irish Times — right next door.
“I know for a fact he looked for a place all over the city, but next door was the only place he could find available,” says Daniel Coleman, laughing. “He said ‘You must be mad!’ and I said ‘Why would I be mad? That just means i have to work harder!’”
That mentality is how the Colemans view the plethora of Irish outposts that have been inspired by The Dubliner. While others may see such offspring as competition, the Colemans are happy to see Irish hospitality grow and spread throughout the DMV area.
“When my dad opened up The Dubliner ... he showed how appealing Irish pubs are to a wide breath of consumers,” says Gavin Coleman. “I’m sure there are some people that used to come here that are now going to another one, but that’s fine. The Dubliner keeps growing, and most of these pubs have all had lasting power as well.”
Brendan — who is now the owner and operator of Kelly’s Irish times and close friends with the Colemans — reiterates the camaraderie the Colemans promote: “There [are] a lot of places in this town that wouldn’t do anything for their neighbors,” said Brendan Kelly. “But I’ll say, ‘Gavin, I need to borrow three kegs of Guinness! I screwed up my order!’ And he’ll let me borrow it.”
The Dubliner today
Having a front row seat to the evolution of D.C.’s cultural landscape over the last 44 years has given the pub — and its employees — a unique outlook on the city’s rapidly changing food scene.
Christy Hughes immigrated the U.S. on March 8, 1974 — coincidentally the same day The Dubliner opened its doors to the public — and became the restaurant’s first-ever general manager soon after. He now owns the Irish Inn at Glen Echo and Lahinch Tavern and Grill in Potomac, Md., and also opened Ireland’s Four Provinces in Falls Church before selling it to yet another Dubliner alum.
“It’s almost insane what’s happened in Washington in the last couple years,” says Hughes. “When I first came here there were a couple Italian restaurants, couple French, few Spanish and that’s it. But now almost every nationality has a restaurant and they’re all doing very well.”
That escalation in sheer volume of establishments has, in turn, pushed standards to rise across the board. It’s why in recent years the Colemans tasked their chefs with completely revitalizing the restaurant’s menu, making sure all of their Irish offerings were made from scratch. From shepherd’s pie to fish and chips — Daniel Coleman’s personal favorite — the menu was given an elevated approach.
“You just can’t send it in anymore in D.C. For a while you could but that’s not the case now,” says Gavin Coleman. “You have to really be offering something that people see as quality.”
Gavin set out to revitalize the bar’s offerings as well, setting up “a cocktail program I’d put up against any Irish pub in DC.” He’s developed an impressive Irish whiskey collection that includes rare selections like Midleton Very Rare — one of the only Irish whiskeys with an exclusive annual vintage. Depending on stock, 13-16 different years of the whiskey are available behind the bar at The Dubliner at any given time.
So what’s next for the Colemans? Gavin Coleman says that the Long Shot Hospitality Group plans to have another restaurant on the books by the end of the year — but don’t expect it to at all resemble their storied Irish haunt.
“It would be very hard to recreate what we have here at The Dubliner ... it’s just something very special, and I’d like to keep it that way,” he says.
The Dubliner’s unique blend of traditional Irish hospitality with modern adaptability is precisely what keeps the establishment standing, and what inspires employees to keep branching out. It’s also what keeps Daniel Coleman coming in to work each day over the decades.
“I practice a straight face and try to tell my wife, ‘oh crap, I have to go to work!’ and I just come down here and goof around and make people happy,” says Daniel Coleman, with a giant grin on his face. “Have 50 cups of coffee, some fish and chips and go home. Say ‘that was a tough day of work,’ but I’ve gotten away with it for 50 years. It’s just fun.”