Don't expect the warm, quirky architectural vibes that seem to go along with Irish pubs when you visit newly opened An Tobar (which means "the well" in Gaelic). It's built into the side of the Sheraton Orlando North in the office-complex jungle near the I-4 Maitland exchange. (If you're approaching from Lake Destiny Drive, you'll see the hotel before you see the pub.)
But by no means is this establishment a Bennigan's-style watering hole strung with green paper shamrocks. In fact, two dozen Irish craftsmen were flown in to work on the relatively upscale project. The result is a series of design vignettes that are welcoming and relaxing.
The entrance is inspired by a Dublin streetscape, with mock Victorian shop fronts and a real Irish green "telefon" booth. Inside, the seating areas include a "library" of leather volumes and portraits of Yeats and Wilde. The "Victorian railway" area has old-fashioned luggage and travel paraphernalia; and the "Victorian snug" sanctuary recalls the days when women smoked in secret. An occasional seanachaoi (storyteller) invites people to gather around the fireplace, and the two-story bar is a great spot to sip a Bass ale while listening to acoustic musicians.
Some items on the menu might sound arcane but are actually fairly basic comfort food. "Boxty" ($7.95) is a traditional peasant dish a fried potato pancake capped with meats and vegetables. The "Irish breakfast" ($8.95) is substantial enough for dinner, with rashers (bacon), sausage and pudding, as well as fried eggs, tomato, baked beans and soda bread. Potato leek soup ($3.50) is served in an Irish soda-bread bowl, and the shepherd's pie ($9.25) is layered with beef, onions and mashed potatoes.
There's nothing particularly Irish about other items except their names: Fried onion rings are dubbed "Tobar oglalla," and "Galway wings" come with familiar blue-cheese dressing.
We started off with "potato skins from Tobar Naomh Sean" ($4.25), which came topped with bacon, corned beef and Swiss cheese. They were enticingly tender beneath their crisp edges. Large wedges of "Gaelic fries" were speckled with herbs and offered with a splash of malt vinegar. "Shannon salmon" ($12.95) is bright and juicy, soaked with lemon-dill butter. It's presented simply with tender "red bliss" potatoes and vegetables. And the "cottage pie" ($9.50) is a homey casserole of chicken, carrots, sweet peas and onions in a rich sauce, topped with mashed potatoes.
The bar offers the usual suspects: Guinness, Harp, shots of Bushmill's whiskey. An Tobar's combination of able service, a full dinner menu and professional setting makes for an ambitious step up from most other local Irish pubs.