Walk into Fenian’s Pub–even at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon–and you immediately feel yourself transported to Ireland. Part of that experience comes thanks to the building itself: it’s 75 years old. (Not old by Irish standards, mind you, but aged well enough to offer a sense of history.) The interior is full of dark wood accents, and the stained-glass windows let in just the right amount of dimly filtered light. No matter that it’s a sunny, spring day outside; in here, it’s a drizzly Irish evening just perfect for a pint and a plate of shepherd’s pie.
But the authentic feeling runs deeper than that. Chef and General Manager Ryan Cassell works hard to make Fenian’s the kind of place where everyone feels at home, and that work has paid off.
“Fenian’s is a melting pot,” Cassell says. “Pub stands for public house, where everybody’s welcome. You come in with your family for dinner–we have good food. You want to come in here late night and do karaoke? We got you. You want to come in here and drink a couple beers? Whatever you want, we try to be a little bit of something for everybody.”
That outlook is somewhat new for Fenian’s Pub, a Belhaven icon that has been in business since 1996 and historically offered a basic selection of typical pub fare. But in 2015, the pub was struggling and very near to closing down entirely. That’s when Cassell arrived with some big ideas. Fresh off a six-year stint at an Irish pub in Charlotte, where the Irish owners and staff had exposed him to a wide variety of authentic Irish pub food, Cassell knew exactly what he needed to do to save Fenian’s. He started by changing up the menu.
“We’ve got really traditional, really good Irish food, but at the same time people don’t want to eat shepherd’s pie every day! We’ve succeeded a lot, our sales are way up. I think it’s cool to surprise people,” Cassell says.
Cassell, a Madison native, attributes his decision to return to Jackson to a challenge from his philosophy professor at The University of Southern Mississippi. “He was like, ‘I challenge you to leave, go do your thing, go learn your profession, go learn something, but at some point bring it back. If more people did that, Mississippi would be a lot better place.'”
He’s not wrong: Mississippi’s population actually shrank slightly in 2015, and the primary cause was the number of people moving out of the state. Leaders in the state from universities to city governments are constantly bemoaning the “brain drain” phenomenon. But Cassell, at least, has done his part to reverse that trend.
“We’re taking a place that’s been here for a long time, it’s a Jackson staple, it’s been here for 20 years, and I feel like we’re moving in the right direction to keep it here for another 20 years,” he says.
So what do the locals have to say about his changes to a longstanding neighborhood favorite? “We have a lot of regulars, Belhaven is really tight knit,” Cassell says. “We have people that we see five days a week, they’re in here all the time, and I feel like they’re all a little prouder to be here.”
Cassell isn’t sitting still, though. He’s continuing to work on small improvements, from fresh paint on the exterior of the building to a new walk-in cooler in the kitchen. “We’re about to do a menu change. We’ll always keep prices fair, but I want to go as nice as we can with the food. We want to just keep getting better every chance we can.”
It’s hard to imagine how Fenian’s could get much better. The food menu has a wide variety of options, most of them fresh and locally sourced. The beer selection is large and growing larger, the specialty cocktails are creative and delicious, and the atmosphere everywhere from the outdoor patio to the wooden bar is authentic and relaxing.
But Cassell tells us they’re about to begin making their own sausage from scratch and grinding their own meat for burgers and corned beef. They’re also adding blue-plate specials, which will likely be a big success with the Belhaven locals and the office crowd. All in all, it seems Fenian’s is still a place to watch for new ideas and creative menu items.
So with all the ongoing improvements and menu changes, what is Cassell’s ultimate goal for Fenian’s Pub? “We want to make people happy, give them a little bit of that flavor of Ireland and a little southern charm with it.”
We’ll drink to that. Sláinte!
901 E Fortification St, Jackson, MS 39202