After a few false starts, Pennylane has opened on Great Strand Street. A companion piece to Pantibar, its launch coincides roughly with the 50th birthday of Panti’s alter ego and – perhaps accordingly – promises a more sedate experience for those who fancy a quieter evening than the original offers. “Laid back”, and “chilled”, even, say the early notices. And, while we’re not ready to be put out to pasture with a blanket over the knees quite yet, it’ll be interesting to see what the proprietor’s idea of taking things down a notch looks like.
The new establishment is located, conveniently, only a few metres away from the mothership. The building, Regent House, is a gem – a “significant architectural survival” from 1750, says the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage – and renovating it sympathetically while bringing it up to fire safety and other compliance standards delayed the opening a bit. The result is well executed, the granite and brick exterior echoed in exposed internal walls and complemented by a green-and-gold scheme that runs through various patterned wallpapers and tiles. There are a few more fabulous flourishes, including a large model flamingo and a gorgeous Art Deco bar cabinet that is criminally being wasted as a mere decorative piece instead of being realizing its intended purpose. The music is low and fairly subtle. Yann Muller’s jazzy version of Torn? Well, why not. There is no sign of the Jack Russell terrier who gives the place its name, or of her human. I keep missing out on meeting celebrity dogs.
It’s quiet enough – it is often quiet enough when Barfly visits, the evening of a school night is a good time to get under the skin of a place – but gets busier as the evening goes by. Pride season is getting underway but there’s nothing too out of the ordinary afoot here. The demographic is mostly couples, mostly men, but a smattering of all sorts. At one point a group of younger lads gets as far as the door before deciding they’re looking for something a bit more raucous and proceed to Pantibar itself. The strategy seems to be paying off.
The staff are all neatly turned out – yellow t-shirts, denim aprons – and all charming and attentive, but seem a bit overwhelmed by things, which is strange as there are plenty of them, it’s none too busy, and the punters who are here are as non-threatening a lot as you could hope for. I kick off with “Panti’s Pale Ale”, which is a white-labelled beer from Trouble Brewing in Kildare. It is very quaffable – fresh, uncomplicated, not too hoppy or too strong – but manages to make the eyes water nonetheless with a price of €6.70.
The bar is well ordered and comprises a decent, if uninspired, range of booze. The bottles and shelves are assiduously being dusted, an important if thankless task. When my companion arrives – and now we fit right in — we ask if there is such a thing as a drinks list. Our barkeep stotts like a startled fawn: yes! Or, actually, no! There is no drinks list. There is a wine list. There are no drinks. Or, there are no cocktails, there are mixed drinks. Some popular highball combinations are recited in case we don’t grasp the spirit-and-mixer concept: Gin and tonic, or whiskey and ginger ale, or …?
This is a bit of a quandary, but maybe speaks more to the overall state of the city than anything else. Given there’s a decent bar setup and given the décor, the atmosphere, the whole package, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a small selection of offerings from the canon, at least. Surely the clientèle here isn’t averse to the occasional dry Martini? Why is there even Campari on the shelves if you won’t rustle up a Negroni? I wonder if cocktailing is too often seen as an exclusive realm. It’s not one of the Eleusinian Mysteries, we just want some booze. We settle for gins and tonics – Gunpowder, Fever Tree elderflower. They are fine, but at €11.10 each I’m unimpressed that the garnish is an underwhelming sliver of lemon, and the ice is the thin, machined sort that melts too quickly.
A couple of more traditional rounds will finish off the evening. Guinness and Power’s is a classic for a reason. The pint is nicely poured, the lines are clean, the glassware is all harmonious. And the prices are in keeping with the others. By the time we leave it’s after 9pm and the place is moderately, pleasantly buzzy.
If the intent is to provide a calmer alternative to a “scene” joint, then Pennylane is a success. I’m sure there’s a market for a gay bar that isn’t all lads in budgie smugglers pouring shots with Hi-NRG pumping, but, overall, I can’t help but feel the craic dial is turned a little bit too low. A decent Manhattan would certainly have helped.
Regent House, 2 Strand Street Great, Dublin 1
(01) 561 2375
Words: Ben Walsh
Photo: Killian Broderick