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My first job in Richmond was directing a small history museum in the Jackson Ward landmark, Steamer Company No. 5, the 19th-century fire station that houses Gallery5. It was a beacon for the local firefighters who stopped by for coffee, doughnuts and fried bologna sandwiches. It was an ad hoc diner then, yet no money ever changed hands; only stories and handshakes were traded over coffee and lunch.
I was struck by their boisterous camaraderie and healthy appetites, an energy I encountered again in Shockoe Bottom's newest watering hole, The Halligan Bar & Grill. Several recent visits found the space filled with fire-eaters. Department patches tacked to the walls and graffiti (think hoses) on the bathroom wall speak to the pride and competition among stations and departments.
My first visit was on a Thursday afternoon for lunch, and the place was hopping for a weekday -- firefighters making up most of the clientele, including local living legend Chief Robert Creecy. The décor is all firehouse: black ceiling, smoky walls and a diamond-plate running board lining the bar. Hoses hang from the ceiling; helmets hang as light fixtures over the bar, which is the pièce de résistance. It's a 1973 Seagrave fire truck, sliced down the middle, beer taps running out of the pump panels. With operational siren and lights, it is the restaurant's command center.
My companion and I split a few baskets for lunch. The Texas beef brisket is a big sandwich piled with thinly sliced smoked beef smothered in a richly spicy sauce (tomato-based and peppery). The beef is done in-house in a smoke box that can handle up to 10 briskets a day. The Federal Q is a smoked pork tenderloin sandwich with bacon, pepper-jack cheese, lettuce and tomato. The pork was terrific, but the pepper-jack was superfluous. Crispy seasoned fries make a nice addition to most baskets, as do effusively dilly homemade pickle spears.
My second trip was a family affair. No one loves fire trucks like little boys, and my 2- and 3-year-olds are no exception. We went for an early dinner on a Saturday afternoon and found the bar bustling. Most of the stools were filled with couples and groups enjoying a beer and a basket of wings. We were welcomed by a ceremonial siren blast and flashing lights from the bar. The kids went wild.
We sampled from the "First Due" appetizer menu with an order of Dalmatians, corn-dog nuggets served with a spicy brown mustard. They were lightly fried, slightly sweet and a solid rendition of a classic. The Chinese Fire Drill consists of mini egg rolls, tightly wrapped cabbage and carrots a bit on the mushy side deep-fried and served with a spicy red-chili sauce. While the flavor was passable, they lost big points on texture. Wings of Fire came in several varieties. We had Fully Developed wings, a version of traditional Buffalo wings slathered in a sauce of cayenne and black pepper; the lingering spiciness was more Jamaican jerk or curry than the quick pop of a jalape¤o.
We moved from grazing on appetizers to a few main courses. The Battalion Burger is a tasty half-pound bacon cheeseburger, perfectly seasoned and grilled and served with spicy fries, homemade slaw peppered with caraway seeds and a homemade pickle spear. The Rural Water Supply, Halligan's version of fish and chips, was the only dish that missed the mark. While the batter was light and the seasoning on target, the fish was more mushy than flaky.
A final visit refocused my attention on what I feel is the strength of the kitchen-smoked meat. The Carolina pulled pork was smoky and tender, topped with a hybrid of traditional vinegar-based and spicy tomato-based sauces. The baby-back rib platter was a little dry, but the flavor was right on and the meat fell from the bone. A side of High Rise Rings gives O'Toole's some serious competition in the onion ring Olympics.
My first read of the menu had me searching for meat loaf, mashed potatoes and other comfort foods that I associate with the communal table and hearty meals of the firehouse. While I think Halligan's has a great menu, eventually I'd like to see it take advantage of its proximity to the 17th Street Farmers' Market with seasonal specials that reach beyond the safe confines of smoked meat and bar food.
Owner Shawn Gregory, a 17-year veteran with the Henrico County Fire Department, should be pleased with his new venture just a few months into the game. The Halligan Bar & Grill excels in what it is trying to be. With one of the most original and authentic bars in town (serving Hook & Ladder beer from Silver Spring, Md.), a loyal customer base of our community's finest, and a solid repertoire of smoked fare and tasty sandwiches, a bright future lies ahead. SThe Halligan Bar & Grill
3 N. 17th St.
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.Style Weekly restaurant critic John Haddad writes a blog, Food for Thought,