Bar food. Pub grub. Often said with a dismissive sneer or the sort of resigned acceptance that comes from needing to eat after a night of pounding a few cold ones at a local watering hole. Because, let's face it: There are places that specialize in good drinks, and there are places that specialize in good food. Finding a place that can do both well is a bit like seeing a flying unicorn. That is, of course, unless we're talking Cregeen's Irish Pub in North Little Rock, which manages to keep true to its Irish pub roots while still serving up some of the tastiest food in Central Arkansas.
The bar itself has a great atmosphere, all warm wood fixtures and cheeky Guinness advertisements along the walls. Sure, it's exactly what every Irish pub in the United States tries to go for, but we find something comforting and compelling about that familiarity. Whether we're bellying up to the bar for a pint and a shot of Jameson, enjoying some Argenta-style people-watching on the patio outside, or ordering up an Irish breakfast spread at one of the tables, Cregeen's just feels like a hometown pub should feel. Service is generally pretty friendly, although we recommend a bit of patience during peak hours — this can be a very busy bar.
It's also a bar where the eating is almost as much fun as the drinking, from appetizers to dessert. Tops on our list for starters are the Duck Wings ($6.99 for six, $10.99 for 12), either dry or coated with wing sauce. Don't be afraid of the dollar-plus-per-wing price tag on these — they are large, meaty and full of the sort of flavor that the chicken variety can only dream of possessing. An order of six wings can easily feed two people, unless you're like us and completely obsessed with them. Given Arkansas's status as duck capital of the world, we find the lack of duck items on local menus disappointing, but these wings are a star.
Not in the mood for wings? Go for one of the pretzel dishes. Pretzels at Cregeen's fulfill their duty of soaking up beer admirably, and with style. Buttery and crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, these delightful carb creations are among some of the best bar eats we've ever had, no matter how they're prepared. For a large group, we recommend the Pretzel Fondue ($6.95), a large plate of warm, salty pretzel bites served with wooden skewers and a bowl of creamy, spicy white queso. For a more intimate sharing experience, the Irish Pretzel ($7.95) is a treat — it takes a whole soft pretzel and tops it with corned beef, spicy sauerkraut, Gouda cheese and whole grain mustard. The result is almost like an open-faced Reuben on a pretzel, and we can't get enough of it.
Speaking of Reubens, Cregeen's ($8.95) is not to be missed. Sliced corned beef floats atop the house-made sauerkraut, and the whole affair is smothered in Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing to make for bite after glorious bite. Want to get your corned beef on without the Thousand Island? The Irish Dip ($8.95) puts all that delicious corned beef and kraut on a hoagie roll, tops it with Gouda, and serves the whole thing up with a creamy horseradish sauce. The pub also serves a Veggie Wrap ($7.95) full of spinach artichoke dip, mixed greens, Kalamata olives and feta that might alleviate the guilt of multiple beers — but we just think it tastes good.
When we're in the mood for something more substantial than a sandwich, we generally turn to the Classic Fish and Chips ($11.95). This tasty pub grub mainstay consists of three large cod fillets coated with a Harp Lager-based batter and fried to a crunchy golden brown. The chips are hand-cut and Cregeen's manages to be one of the few places around that serve this style of fry crisp on the outside and creamy in the center, just as God intended. The tangy coleslaw served as a second side is nothing to be upset about either, and it makes a wonderful addition to the fish. Folks with a heartier appetite would do well to add a bowl of Guinness Onion Soup ($5.95), a delightful take on French onion soup that is great on cold days — or any other day, for that matter.
Cregeen's is, of course, a great place to drink with friends. The atmosphere is festive, the music is good, and the selection of potent potables is among the best around. But even if tying one on isn't what you're looking for, there are still plenty of reasons to stop into the North Little Rock pub, and most of them are topped with corned beef and sauerkraut. It's pub grub at its best, and whether it's lunch, Sunday brunch or an Irish-flavored dinner, we're always pleased with what we find.
Cregeen's Irish Pub
301 Main St., North Little Rock
With 29 beers on tap and a selection of more than 70 bottled beers, folks are sure to find something good to drink at Cregeen's. As a bonus, the pub serves most beers in true, 16-ounce pint glasses, making its beer selection a great value, too.
11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Wednesday, Saturday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
Full bar, all major CC.