I always liked the old James Joyce on Seventh Avenue. It was a breath of fresh air — despite there being little of such inside — to escape the chaos on the Ybor Strip and enter an upstairs pub with little or no pretensions. Beer, whiskey, darts, piano, and that was about it.
But things change, even in Ybor. The Orpheum moved clear down to the other end of the strip, and I lost two of my favorite late-night eateries — Sula's Deli, purveyors of the best falafel in town, and Mema's Alaskan Tacos, my go-to nacho joint. The James Joyce even briefly closed before quickly reopening in the space vacated by Mema's.
Although it's sad to see Mema's go, the new James Joyce is intriguing, with 50 beers on tap and a diverse lineup of premium whiskeys. A big change from the old spot, where I suspect much of the beer consumed came in beer pong cups and the whiskey was used more as a fuse to an Irish Car Bomb than as a spirit to be savored on its own.
The drink menu wasn't the only improvement. The dinginess and colorful scents of the old location were replaced by open, clean quarters, with polished wood floors, new furniture, and a noticeable lack of cigarette smoke, since smokers can congregate on the outdoor patio.
The new pub makes good use of relatively small quarters. Fans of Mema's will be surprised to see that the dining area and service counter now contain a roomy lounge, enough high-tops to seat a few dozen, and a bar stretching all the way back to the kitchen, with an impressive centerpiece — 50 tap handles in front of a huge mirror bearing a portrait of the bar's namesake.
The lounge consists of a large L-shaped sofa, two rocking chairs, a coffee table and a shelf filled with books and board games. Nearby is a small electronic fireplace. Another can be found on the other end of the bar, next to a piano that guests are welcome to play. All this gives the James Joyce a welcoming, homey vibe — just the kind I like at an Irish pub, where the focus is on socializing rather than binge drinking.
A good drink is always welcome, of course, and the James Joyce can supply one, with its aforementioned monumental beer list, as well as a full selection of spirits ranging from fine scotch to novelty flavored vodkas, attractively arranged on wooden shelves, backlit by white Christmas lights. The Irish whiskey selection is especially strong, featuring the standards along with lesser-known brands.
Should one decide to tackle the entire roster of draft beers, finishing one pint from each of the 50 taps in 30 days, he or she will become a member of the James Joyce Irish Drinking Team, which rewards players with a jersey that entitles the wearer to $1 off all beers, as well as other occasional specials. Similar food and whiskey challenges are in the planning stages, I'm told.
If you're looking for the old James Joyce, you might not find it here. What you will find is a comfortable pub where you can find good whiskey, a rocking chair and a copy of Dubliners all in a single room, and that's not half bad.
Times correspondent Justin Grant can be reached at [email protected]