With Saint Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I thought it would be fun to do a combination dining review for a pair of Irish pubs that are popular in the Orlando theme park community. Finnegan’s in Universal Studios Florida and Raglan Road at Disney Springs have some similarities, but they serve different purposes. There is no reason to compare them or decide which one is better. Like many Disney versus Universal debates, it is probably better if we just appreciate that we have both of them. In the weeks leading up to March 17th, I made a concerted effort to visit both of these locations with my wife, so we could try similar dishes at both.
We will start in Walt Disney World. Disney Springs has so many great dining locations that Raglan Road’s toughest competition may not be similar Irish pubs across town; but rather other restaurants in its direct vicinity. Still, Raglan Road serves an important role in Disney Springs. Back in June of last year, I made a special trip to Disney Springs on the day it was set to reopen to the public. I was one of the first five guests to get to sit at the bar. Raglan Road does have a regular crowd. Don’t get it wrong, it is a tourist location. This isn’t Cheers, where “everybody knows your name.” There was, however, a small group of regulars that were happy to get back to their favorite spot on Disney property to have a Guinness.
The visit I will be discussing in this review had a much different atmosphere. My wife Courtney and I visited most recently on a Saturday evening in late-February. It was a much livelier atmosphere. Our reservation was planned with the hopes of being seated right around the time the evening entertainment started. That is exactly what happened. We arrived at 5:10 p.m. for our 5:15 p.m. reservation, and we were seated almost immediately. Considering the Saturday crowds at Disney Springs, and limited capacity inside the restaurant, this was impressive. Right after we put in our order, an acoustic-guitar-playing duo started playing traditional Irish songs. As the evening continued, we were also treated to a variety of Irish dancers. It is exciting to spend a Saturday night at Raglan Road. It feels like you are in a pub filled with friends, even though you hardly actually know anybody.
The food is where we need to put our focus, because the best atmosphere in the world can’t save a restaurant with bad food. To start our meal, we were given a basket of Irish Soda Bread with a Guinness dipping sauce. The Guinness is obviously burnt to put in the dipping sauce, and that gives it a luxuriously sweet flavor. Unlike many Irish soda breads, this was not overly dry. When combined with the Guinness sauce, it is perfect.
As an appetizer, I got the side order of onion rings. In case you are wondering, the onion rings are not fried in the same oil as meat products; making this dish a vegan option. Most importantly, onion rings are the quintessential pub food. The side comes in a cone, and each onion ring is rather large. The breading isn’t too greasy, but it also isn’t so light that you feel like you aren’t getting comfort food. As was suggested, I tried the rings with a little ketchup. I rarely use ketchup in these situations; however, I feel like it is needed to make this a complete dish.
My wife’s entrée was the “Gnocchi Sea Gnocchi Do,” which is a pun so incredible that it deserves an award. Fortunately, the entrée itself also earned an award. Halfway through the dish, my wife claimed it may have been the best meal she has ever had on Walt Disney World property. The ingredients are potato gnocchi, seared Foleys Georges Bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce. When it comes to seafood, the ingredients need to be fresh, and you can tell when they are not. This dish was fresh, and everything was cooked and seasoned to perfection. It is also the perfect type of item to get at Disney Springs. While filling, it wasn’t heavy in her stomach for the rest of the day. She was actually full, but we hopped over to Epcot after dinner. This did not ruin her enjoyment of walking around World Showcase. I want to feel full from a meal at Disney Springs, but not so full that I can’t walk around and do some shopping, or head back out to one of the theme parks.
As a vegetarian, I tried “This Shepherd Went Vegan.” Faro barley, carrots, wild mushrooms, green onion, peas, and rutabaga topped with olive oil mashed potatoes made up the substance of the shepherd’s pie. It sat on a burnt onion gravy. It was gutsy to try a vegan shepherd’s pie that didn’t contain a meat substitute. The way the carrots were cooked and added to this dish (keep in mind that I usually hate cooked carrots) gave it a substantial feel when mixed with the other vegetables. Honestly, the carrots served at the “meat” of the dish. The olive oil mashed potatoes were a great texture. What really made this an outstanding option was the burnt onion gravy. There was so much flavor in the gravy, that I had to dip each and every forkful into the small puddle at the bottom of my plate.
We had such an enjoyable time at Raglan Road on this night, as we do every time we eat there. Sometimes we just stop in for appetizers and sides at the bar. Sometimes we have an entire meal. Raglan Road is a great option for both of those types of dining experiences. When you walk to the restrooms, you will really see the quality of Raglan Road. The hall leading to the restrooms is lined with numerous awards given to honor this wonderful Irish pub.
Heading East on I-4, it is time to move to Universal Studios Florida, and their Irish pub, Finnegan’s Bar and Grill. This is located in the New York section of the park. When it comes to ambiance, that is an important distinction. It is themed to be an Irish pub in New York. It is definitely supposed to be an Irish-American experience. There are pictures of baseball players, mostly Yankees, on the walls. There are signs saying how far you are from Dublin.
Despite being there for lunch on a Tuesday, there was still live entertainment. A man with an acoustic guitar performed traditional Irish songs on a stage in the bar area. Even though we were in the seating area, it was still very easy to hear his performance. Most people in the seating area could even see a good bit of his performance. Being in a theme park, it has space limitations that don’t allow for the same level of entertainment as Raglan Road, but having entertainment at that time on a Tuesday showed a great appreciation for the guests.
We also got complimentary Irish soda bread on our visit to Finnegan’s. It came with butter and apple butter, and there was a flavor of buttermilk in the soda bread itself. Much like the Irish soda bread at Raglan Road, Finnegan’s also made sure the bread wasn’t too dry. It can be an acquired taste, and Universal understands that not everybody is looking to be completely adventurous when eating at a theme park.
My wife got the Fried Cod Fish Sandwich. Containing ale-battered fried cod fish on a toasted bun with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and tartar sauce, this was a solid theme park lunch item. The only complaint was with the tartar sauce, which she felt contained too much mayonnaise, and could have had more relish and seasoning. That being said, the fish was cooked expertly, and all of the toppings tasted fresh. The batter was also done with a nice balance, and the fish was moist.
Because the French fries are cooked in the same oil as some meat and fish items, I decided to go with a side salad with my Beyond Burger Vegan Shepard’s Pie. To be honest, I should have skipped the side altogether, because the lettuce was not fresh, and it left a lot to be desired. It was fine, but not great. Still, the Beyond Burger Vegan Shepard’s Pie was out-of-this-world. The entrée contains green peas, carrots, celery, onion, and mushrooms baked in a casserole topped with vegan red bliss mashed potatoes. This particular visit was my second time trying the dish, and it was head-and-shoulders above the first visit. That first time I tried it was in June of last year, and the parks had only been open for a few weeks. I think they may still have been finding their rhythm with the food service. During this most recent visit, the Beyond “meat” was plentiful, and the potatoes were not as stiff as the first time. You know a meal is good when you mentally have to slow yourself down to enjoy it. I had to do that with this item.
Our server, Lauren, was another bright spot in the experience. She was very helpful going over menu items with us, as we tried to make the perfect selections. She also worked very hard to talk with me about what options may not be available to me as a vegetarian. It was so nice of her to check on how the French fries were cooked, and to be attentive, without hovering over us. Since it was also the middle of the day in a theme park, we were quite impressed with her frequency in refilling beverages.
Raglan Road and Finnegan’s Bar and Grill are similar in that they are both Irish pubs, but they are completely different experiences. They both rank among my favorite restaurants in their respective resorts. You will almost certainly enjoy your experience at either one of these locations, and for my fellow Irish-Americans reading this; you can’t afford to miss either restaurant on your next visit.