“Dawson Street?” Anton protests. “Why are you always bringing us to these posh kips?”
“Because it gives me something to bounce off, Anton,” I explain. “I can’t really review places I’m totally comfortable with; this makes for more entertaining copy.”
“Watching you try to interact with people in places like this is embarrassing. The things you write are terrible, too. I’m the only thing keeping those reviews afloat mate. Why can’t I decide where we go? Next month: Doyle’s. But not till after 12.” He sighs audibly on sight of the Oriental-style veranda that greets our arrival.
Stepping into Sam’s Bar feels like stepping inside the mind of someone trying, without any great success, to forget the Celtic Tiger Dublin pub. With bars on either side of it — Café en Seine, 37 Dawson Street, Peruke & Periwig — having confidently fashioned consistent, if borderline grotesque, individual identities, Sam’s, in its relative understatedness, gives the distinct sense of being, so to speak, a ship without a captain. Its interior (and veranda) is an incoherent assortment of Indian-looking stuff left over from Samsara (perhaps, I’d never been there) and a weird, transition year-level mural of the inside of a woman’s skull that’s just one aesthetic notch above the council-subsidised skate park graffiti it unsuccessfully attempts not to evoke. It’s an expensively assembled design failure that distracts and bewilders, creating a mood of unease that might only be lessened by the distraction of a lot more people being present which, on this evening, there aren’t. It’s the ghost at the feast, except the ghost literally is the feast, and you’re eating the ghost. Terrifying.
On top of this, Sam’s seems to have adopted the image of an anthropomorphised, top hat-wearing Basset hound as its mascot-cum-logo. He makes his first appearance on the wall by the entrance, but will recur in other places throughout our stay. This image, of a vaguely humanoid dog (is he Sam?) — his head disproportionately, almost cruelly large, his unmistakably human hand gripping a cane with its opposable thumbs, his inscrutable, dead-eyed expression — is upsetting in the visceral way that distress of animals has a tendency to be. Oddly, it seems as though it is the only area of Sam’s Bar’s design or outfitting in which a significant amount of thought has been spent. It is the product of a mind with more money than humanity, with sufficient malice to bring a half man-half dog with a head of elephantine proportions (or is it the human half of the body that’s much smaller?) into existence (if only theoretically), but not enough to inflict another Hail Mary of Dawson Street interior design decadence onto Dublin pubgoers in the process. In the end, Sam’s Bar’s non-commitment to extravagance, its insistent mildness, is its greatest barbarism.
Having said all that, the margarita I order is absolutely magnificent (like, genuinely ten out of ten), hitting all the right notes, while Anton’s bramble goes down easy, met with enthusiastic approval. Having disconcerted with its ambience, Sam’s Bar (I hesitate to say) thoroughly redeems itself with the restorative power of its cocktails. It’s possible you might need several more, however, if you’re planning on staying for the whole evening.
“I’ve been catching dogs for almost three years now, and there is absolutely no way you’d be able to catch that thing with most conventional nets,” Anton explains, pointing to the image of the dogman by the door. “Its head is simply too big. It would be a real game changer.”
“What if it’s the human part — the body — that’s small, and the dog’s head is normal sized?” I ask. He pauses for a moment.
“I’m afraid if that was the case, Oisín, then it wouldn’t last two minutes in the streets,” he replies, with what I think is the faint trace of a tear on his cheek.
36 Dawson Street
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall