Gashead Tavern had a five-year run on a nightlife-heavy block of Mission Street serving English pub fare while also serving as an incubator of sorts for pop-ups that got some serious attention, like Nyum Bai and FOB Kitchen. Its slightly steampunk name and vibe were an ode to a British football club, the Bristol Rovers, whose fans are known as “gasheads.” (If that reference passes you by, you’re not alone.) “Gashead” could almost be evocative of Victorian London streetlamps, but the iconography was considerably less inviting, a hazmat mask someone might put on to clean up a radiation-contaminated Superfund site, and which never matched the inside.
Now a team of nightlife veterans has taken over, and while they’re hanging onto the Gashead name for a couple more months, it’s destined to morph from English to Irish. Sometime in January, Gillian Fitzgerald (Virgil’s Sea Room, Finn Town), Sean O’Donovan (Mission Bowling Club, Driftwood), and Chris Hastings (Lookout, Wes Burger N’ More) will unveil Casement’s, an Irish bar that will upend the stale state of American Irish bars. Named for a gay revolutionary and human-rights crusader hanged for treason in 1916, Casement’s will be a cocktail spot with an approachable, chatty vibe and no trace of leprechaun urinal cakes or other Erin-go-bragh kitsch — “subtly Irish,” in O’Donovan’s words. And it’s in an address with real character, like exposed brick and weathered flooring. Good bones, as they say.
“They did a beautiful job and just didn’t get over the finish line,” Fitzgerald says of the mostly updated interior, a space she’s wanted to get her hands on for years.
While working with O’Donovan at Nicky’s, an Irish pub in the Lower Haight, they used to fantasize about one day opening a place of their own that would bring U.S. Irish bars in line with the contemporary pub experience in Ireland — which is to say, a spot where you might attend a wedding, a christening, a divorce party, and a funeral all for the same family, while also drinking top-quality whiskeys from Ireland’s craft-spirits boom.
“Even from the start, the concept was always the same,” O’Donovan says, “a comfortable neighborhood bar and place where we’d want to drink at, where everyone’s welcome.”
They even had a spreadsheet for possible names for this embryonic non-Irish Irish bar run by Irish people.
“It is an Irish bar,” Fitzgerald insists. “We’re all misfits. We’re all still here and in love with the city even though sometimes it doesn’t love us back. I want people to see our personalities come though, and not just as an Irish bar. We’ll have a picture of Panti Bliss, who helped with the referendum [legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015]. We’ll have Tom Crean, who was a wonderful explorer in the Antarctic. And Phill Lynott, the lead singer of the greatest rock ’n’ roll band that ever was, Thin Lizzy, so it’s more of a celebration of that than of plastic green shamrocks.”
Many of the changes to the interior are inspired by Roger Casement’s story, says designer David Marks.
“He’s a martyr and a humanitarian, and if you’ve read any of his story, he did a bunch of humanitarian things in the Congo and also in Peru, so we’re going to have a few little flourishes from those eras mixed in with some pseudo-Victorian stuff. But we want it to feel like a contemporary space in California. It’s not going to be going back in time.”
Fitzgerald is an inveterate mixologist, whose cocktail lists are subject to endless revision and rotation. Her Bitter Ex (originally a Valentine’s Day one-off meant to assuage the broken and alone) combines fino sherry, Campari, honey, and pineapple with Cynar and a salted rim, and on the other 364 days of the year it might give your tongue just a touch of that beguiling acrimony. But in order to make that sense of welcome universal, they’ll have Tecate on tap and no qualms about making you a rum-and-Coke.
Over in Cork and Limerick, a kind of guerrilla botany has become popular, and Casement’s is keen to follow, via a mezcal-based drink with pea-basil-strawberry shrub called Peas for Bees.
“Two dollars from each one will go into a fund,” Fitzgerald says, “and at the end of the menu we invite them to make flower bombs and compost bombs with indigenous California seeds in them and pelt them at construction sites.”
In the kitchen, they’ll initially partner with Chicano Nuevo, a pop-up that’s appeared at El Rio and Old Devil Moon, and which will ideally find its own forever home. Once the transition to Casement’s is made, they’ll have elevated pub foods like a seafood chowder that only people who already know what it is may recognize as Irish, plus a wide selection of Revenge Pies.
“We’re not trying to have 20 things on the menu,” Fitzgerald says. “We want people to come in and have comfortable food, and enjoy a nice glass of whiskey or something non-alcoholic. Not trying to be precious and pushy about it.”
Hastings, the owner of Lookout, notes the similarity between Irish bars and gay bars as gathering places. As with Lookout, whose second-floor balcony provides unobstructed views of 16th, Market, and Noe streets, Casement’s will have an outdoor component thanks to a permit for sidewalk seating.
“They’re going to build a fenced area so there’s a separate seating area,” he says. “Two outdoor tables and then a little more in the patio. If you look at this place from across the street, it looks like a restaurant that closed, so we’re going to make it look like a bar.”
It’s a bar built around a traitorous/heroic figure who’s still a bit obscure even in his native country. But Irish pride comes through in another way, too. After the 2008 financial crisis, which decimated Ireland, Irish people abroad remained abroad and helped out by buying Irish products whenever they could. Coupled with the craft-distilling boom, there’s been a revolution in Irish whiskeys over the last few years, re-examining the old traditions and experimenting anew.
“There were three distilleries 10 years ago, and now there’s about 40, and I think there’ll be 85 or 90 in the next four years,” Fitzgerald says. “The hope of the industry is to surpass Scotch in the next 10 years. There’s nothing wrong with Jameson — but it’s not just Jameson anymore.”
O’Donovan agrees, citing a new crop of smokier, peatier whiskeys and different barrels and fermentations to escape the “general sweetness” of what people are accustomed to. But in Ireland today, while waiting for their whiskeys to age, people are mad for gin-and-tonics. So there’s been a boom there as well, led by distilleries like Dingle and Glendalough.
That means a need for good spices, so the owners of a bar named for an Irish nationalist executed for securing military aid against the British turned to Diaspora Co., an Oakland company run by a queer woman of color named Sana Javeri Kadri whose aim is to take the middleman out of the spice trade.
“She sources things directly from the farmer in India and mills everything here,” Fitzgerald says. “We’re going to be buying cardamom and turmeric and some other spices from her and creating tonics with her — an anti-colonial colonial gin and tonic menu.”
2351 Mission St., casementsbar.com