Shamrock Cafe (Lancaster City, PA)

Justin and I have an affinity for dive bars, especially when traveling. We prefer them to “scenes”, no matter how gritty or grimy they may be. The less chances we have of running into other millennials, the more we are inclined to try it. While exploring the city, I did a quick Google search for nearby dives. A place called the Shamrock Cafe popped up. It didn’t sound like a dive given the word “cafe” in the title, but we would soon find out that there is a lot more to a place than the name.

They open at 7 AM, which you can attribute to local industry and overnight workers wanting a place to hangout after work. Or you can see it as a club for alcoholics. We were not inside more than 30 seconds when I realized that this is strictly for regulars/locals only. Unlike Ader’s Tavern, no one turned around and looked at the fresh fish that stumbled in, but it was certainly in the air. We sat down at the bar. Justin had a beer and I had a Jack on the rocks. I had just taken my first sip when I heard a voice next to me say, “You used to be able to piss where you’re sitting.” Rather surprised, I turned my head and looked at a gentlemen seated a couple of stools down, halfway into his personal pitcher. All I could muster up was an, “Oh?” when the bartender, a woman, came over and said, “That used to be where the piss trough was when this place opened.” Fascinated by this information, I said, “Do you mind if I ask where you piss now?” she pointed to the back.

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A few minutes later, I had to see for myself. I was relieved to find an actual bathroom and not just a hole in the floor by the pool table. However, lo and behold, the men’s room still contains a trough. The Shamrock does not sell food and I am partly grateful for that. The bartenders were switching shifts and ours walked out without taking her tip off the bar. I called out for her and she seemed annoyed that I stopped her exit, even though I was trying to give her money.

There are dives we have been to which did not seem like much at first and then grew on us. In all honesty, we did not stick around long enough to see if that would happen here. The Shamrock is not intimidating. Other than a disinterested bartender and our lovely resident piss historian, there was nothing wrong with this place. But there is an underlying “we don’t care if you come or go” mentality. Not even Vic’s Wayside Inn has this, and we came to appreciate that place even more after visiting the Shamrock. I am going to give them 2.5 out of 5 stars , right down the middle. The drinks were cheap (even though my pour of whiskey was hardly even two ounces) and the building is loaded with character (can’t forget the piss trough!). The entrance is tiny—you have to be looking for this place to find it. This may be a great hangout for some, but for us, it just didn’t work. We’ll stick to Vic’s to get our dive fill when in Lancaster.

Originally posted on my food blog here.

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Doesn’t the Shamrock allow smoking? Indeed, bars like Roots and Thistlefinch are filled with people who would prefer something a bit more dive-y are there mainly because they don’t allow smoking.

For me, smoking in bars with the biggest surprise in the Lancaster food scene.

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Yes, they do allow smoking. As does Vics.

I’m not a smoker (occasional cigars only) but I’ll light one up when the setting is right :smiley:

For those of us who live here (and I am a 3 minute stroll away from Shamrock) the issue of smoking vs non smoking is a major priority when we choose where we’re going to get a drink. No scene in Lancaster is so compelling that we’d think otherwise.

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Do you have any bar recommendations for next time we’re up there? We tend to like dives or places in between.

Smoking or non-smoking?

Doesn’t really matter.

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Greg, Lancaster has about the best bar culture of anyplace I’ve ever been. I’m going to suggest the Alley Kat and Molly’s for neighborhood places. Both have a strong feeling of community. A bit more upscale and conforming to our current reputation as a hipster mecca are Thistlefinch Distillery and Shot and Bottle - these are where you’d take your Brooklyn friends to impress them. If you’re looking for food along with your drink, go for Red Rose, 551 or Federal Taphouse… If you really need to light up a smoke, try Brendee’s, unlike the Shamrock, it has a kitchen too.

If there’s more interest, I’d be delighted to post reviews, but I just get the feeling that nobody on boards like these is paying attention. It seems to me that Lancaster hasn’t been on the food discussion map since the first edition of Roadfood.

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Thank you so much for the recommendations! As a lifelong Lancaster visitor, I had heard of Molly’s but never been there. Federal Taphouse is another name I read frequently. I did a Thistlefinch tasting at one of their off-site locations in Kennett Square and was not impressed. As for Shot and Bottle your description as “hipster mecca” is spot on. We looked the place over and continued walking.

Brendee’s will definitely on our to-do list next time we are out there. I would like to try Federal and Red Rose as well!

Cheers! :smiley:

You’re welcome!

If the contemporary and chic aren’t your thing, then Lancaster can be a bit of a problem. We who live here like that stuff! Indeed … that’s what we do best. I suspect that Reading is better in the smoke-filled-dive-bar department and maybe even Allentown too. Didn’t Calvin Trillin write about them?

Well … I just checked the Trillin angle and found that in the February 15, 1982 issue of the New Yorker, Calvin wrote about the dive bars of Reading. In his piece A FEW BEERS WITH SUDS AND DREGS he does a great job of describing the Berks County bar culture.

This may well be worth a stop on your way down.

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I will have to check that out.

Spent one night in Reading last summer. Drank at the hotel bar since we had a long day and didn’t feel like exploring. It was actually a fun time. I wrote about it here.

Contemporary and chic is fine occasionally, but in my area of NJ, I am too used to it and it is overdone. It gets old fast. There is no smoking anywhere in NJ, so the “smoke-filled dive” is more of a novelty to me, even as someone who does not really smoke. The less pretentiousness the better, and dives tend to lack that.

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