Tavares grew, O'Keefe's continued to evolve and people started to notice - particularly on St. Patrick's Day!

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0'Keefe's celebrates with Irish brews, food and music not the American versions.
March, 1995

TAVARES - Clutching a pint of dark Irish stout, the eager salesman reached into his case and pulled out his big seller for St. Patrick's Day - a bright green plastic beer glass.

"These would be great," he gushed to the bartender at 0'Keefe's Irish Pub and Restaurant. "I've got three cases in my trunk."

The polite rejection didn't sway him.

"Look here," he said a couple pints later, pulling out a crinkly paper garland of interlocking shamrocks. "Two dollars a pop."

Sorry, Christopher O'Keefe told him. No deal. What's this? No garish St. Patrick's Day decorations? No silly souvenirs to commemorate the drinkfest? No green beer?

Not at 0'Keefe's, Lake County's only Irish bar. Here at this dark, quiet tavern on the shores of Lake Dora, the O'Keefe family celebrates St. Patrick's Day in true Irish style. That doesn't mean a shortage of fun, food or fellowship. Irish beer will flow all day, lively Irish folk music will pump up the revelers, arid the kitchen will whip up traditional Irish potato soup, Gaelic steak and Irish stew.

But don't expect the treats and trappings usually associated with St. Patrick's Day - or at least the Americanized version of Ireland's holy day.

"I think green beer is rather tacky," said Frank O'Keefe, who opened the pub and restaurant that his son, Andrew, has owned for the past eight years. "The Irish don't drink green beer, they drink black beer."

It turns out the Irish don't do a lot of things Americans think they do on St. Patrick's Day. Take the whole corned beef and cabbage myth - just an American adaptation of the traditional, but pricey, boiled cabbage and Irish bacon. Or the tunes "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" and "Toora-Loora-Loora" - neither of which were penned by Irish musicians. Even the shamrock is a sham. Despite American folklore, Ireland's national symbol is the harp.

It should come as no surprise then that St. Patrick's Day is taken "very seriously," said Fintan Whelan, an Irishman who recently relocated to Lake County.

"But it's also a good excuse for a party," Whelan said.

The Irish national holiday is a celebration honoring St. Patrick, a Welshman who brought Catholicism to the pagan nation. In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day usually starts with Mass and a town parade, followed by a huge family meal. Then it's off to the neighborhood pub to tip back a pint of Guinness or Harp, sing some Irish folk songs or do a little dancing.

Whelan doesn't relish seeing his entire heritage reduced in this country to a drunken beer blast, but he said the whole green beer scene amuses him more than it offends him.

"American people don't really have a heritage of their own," he said. "They think the Irish heritage is a good one, so they hang onto it."

Once most Irish-Americans learn a little about their culture, though, their green beer days are over.

"They have no idea of the strife and the struggle Irish people have been going through for over 3,000 years," said Christopher O'Keefe, bartender at the pub owned by his brother.

That's why he's proud to say he has never had a green beer. And it's why he's less than enthusiastic when patrons come in, like one guy did last year, demanding a tinted brew.

"He was already drunk," Christopher O'Keefe said, "So I threw him out."

There may be a time to teach people a bit about Irish culture. But St. Patrick's Day isn't it.

Neil Patten, a guitarist who plays Irish folk songs at O'Keefe's, usually sticks to the serious, socially conscious ballads he favors. Tonight, though, he'll be picking up-tempo Irish sing-a-longs.

"I'm resigned to it," he said.

That's the best way to deal with St. Patrick's Day in the New World, Irish-Americans say.
Remember the true meaning of the holiday. Know what it means to people in Ireland, and to their descendants abroad. And above all, enjoy the all-day, all-night celebration that honors everyone Irish - even if being Irish is a temporary condition.

"I think everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day," Andrew O'Keefe said. "They make a good attempt at it if they're not."

Fast forward 10 years to another St. Patrick's Day and a glossy spread in Lake & Sumpter Style magazine!
Feeling Irish At O'Keefe's, An Authentic Pub In Nearby Tavares
By Dianne Copelan o Photos By John Jernigan

You don't have to wait for St. Patrick's Day to head to O'Keefe's Irish Pub and Restaurant in Tavares. An institution along Lake Dora for the past 19-plus years, the pub brings together the atmosphere of the old world pubs and classic Irish food and spirits in a setting that is both cozy and colorful.

That includes the beer, at least 85 different labels at last count. O'Keefe's is open all year, seven days a week, with the bar staying open until the last customer leaves.

Lunch is fun at O'Keefe's, but dinner is an experience of new tastes and fine cuisine. The ambience is worth noting, too. In fact, you can't miss the obvious decor -1400 ceramic beer mugs hanging on the wall, each with its own name and number.

Our waiter, an enthusiastic fellow named Will, explained that O'Keefe's owner, Andrew O'Keefe, organized a mug club for his customers serious about the consumption of good beer from all over the world.

THE RULES ARE SIMPLE. A mere $40 gets you started on a journey around the tasty world of beer. Once you have completed the task of drinking beers and ales from at least 24 countries, you receive a validated passport and your name - engraved on a brass plaque is placed on the Wall of Fame under your own mug. On Mondays, club members also get a dollar off each bottle of beer.

Will cautioned that it takes time to travel the world, so he urged my dining companion, Benny, and me not to attempt the trip in one sitting. Good advice, since one of us had to drive anyway. Will knows his beer and has traveled the world tasting them in person. The mere mention of Munich, Germany, turns on a wide smile as he recalls Oktoberfest there. So it was easy for him to recommend I start with a pint of Guinness Stout; Benny ordered a glass of Smithwicks (pronounced "Smit-icks") Irish ale. We could have, of course, chosen a Pilsner Urquell from Czechoslovakia (known as the first Pilsner on earth), a Carlsberg from Denmark, or any number of English ales on the menu. But in keeping with the spirit of St. Patrick, we opted to stay in the Emerald Isle.

Will brought us large menus to study while we started our beer journey, and then he recited a list of specials the chef had whipped up for the evening. Catch of the Day that night was a tempting grouper, but we held off for those dishes that have put O'Keefe's on the culinary map of this area. We took his advice on the appetizers and ordered a platter of Scotch eggs, hard-boiled halves wrapped in breakfast sausage and deep fried. Wow, what a find! And a great breakfast idea as well. Another tasty appetizer was the spicy Chicken Quesadillas made with tightly rolled tortillas.

We went back to the printed menu for soup and salad, as well as our entrees. Not to be missed, of course, is O'Keefe's tasty Potato Soup topped with a generous helping of bacon bits. Their Clam Chowder is worth a try as well. Benny ordered the Pub Salad served with a large helping of grated cheese slivers sprinkled over the top.

THEN IT WAS TIME for a beverage refill and another stop on our beer itinerary. Remembering my own travels throughout Europe, a Hoegarden White from Belgium tempted me. A Peroni from Italy could have too if I hadn't made up my mind to focus on Ireland that night. So I sent Will back to the bar to get a Beamish Irish Stout; Benny took a bottle of Harp, also Irish, and one of the pub's popular draft beers.

Talk about ambience and color. As we were dining, a bagpiper walked back and forth in front of the restaurant playing a number of Irish tunes. He wasn't a part of the scheduled entertainment, Will told us later. He just wanted to practice his pipes in front of an audience and drink some beer afterwards.

Will explained that the Corned Beef and Cabbage dish was a menu favorite and that on St. Patrick's Day, O'Keefe's holds the record as the largest consumer of corned beef in the area.

MY ENTREE CHOICE, however, was a very tender Creole Steak, a Black Angus Filet that I ordered medium rare. The juicy filet, smothered with crawfish and petite shrimps, really did melt in my mouth, cliche or not! Will proudly boasted that O'Keefe's has the best steaks in town and we agreed. Served with the meat was a Boxty Potato, a crusty covered potato whose insides have been battered, breaded, and deep-fried. They're a specialty of the northwestern part of Ireland.

Benny opted for a Mixed Shellfish Saute, a combination of spicy crawfish, petite shrimp, plus large succulent sea scallops that have been seared in lemon garlic butter. An order of appetizing steamed vegetables accompanied the entree.

O'Keefe's also carries wine and stores the bottles on a large wine rack that provides a wall between two rows of tables. Most of the labels on the wine list are California Merlots, Chardonnays, and Cabernet Sauvignons, but several sparkling wines and a Dom Perignon (the real thing) was also available. The Cabernet could have been great with my steak, but I stuck with the fact that I was practically in Ireland. A glance at some of the entrees on the menu reveals that the chef uses a lot of wine when he cooks.

Will insisted we try the chef's special dessert of the day: Strawberries Romanoff. Who could resist a plate of vanilla ice cream smothered with fruit in a hot sauce and topped with whipped cream?

AS DESSERT LINGERED on our palette, Andrew O'Keefe, owner, chef, and chief everything there, came out of the kitchen to greet us and talk about his namesake pub and restaurant. Drew, as he is called by friends and staff, has been running the place for nearly 19 years, he explained. He bought it from his dad, who had originally taken it over 21 years ago when it was a town tavern and pool hall. Drew went to culinary school and worked as a pastry chef in the Chicago area before moving south and putting his own personal stamp on O'Keefe's. One of eight children, he said that his brother Terrence, the bartender, is the only other member of the family who stayed in the business with him.

Last year, Drew added a large open-sided deck in front of the restaurant that enlarges his seating capacity to 156. It also satisfies the smokers who have that sudden urge to light up during meals and can't do it in any other restaurant in the area.

O'Keefe's is open for lunch and that menu is filled with sandwiches and more corned beef. We'll try it another day and keep traveling on our beer journey around the world.

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