There's an Irish bar on just about every block in New York City, and if you want to drink at all of them, start at McSorley's and keep going until your liver falls out. There aren't quite as many English pubs, but they're still not hard to find, and they've got great names like Cock & Bull. Want to hang out in a proper Scottish pub? I can count them on two fingers. There's St. Andrews, a polished, proper pub in Midtown, and there's Highlands, a more casual gastropub on West 10th Street in the Village. If you've never been to them, now's a great time for your first time, as the two will be hosting Burns suppers this week. A celebration of the life and poetry of Scottish national hero Robert Burns (1759-1796), the events feature bagpipes, poetry readings, whisky (no e), and, of course, haggis.
The Burns supper at St. Andrews will be held on the poet's birthday, January 25, which happens to be a Friday - perfect for sleeping it off. I'm sure it will be lovely. But since I'm more of a downtown guy, I'm intrigued by what's going on at Highlands, so I picked up the phone and chatted with Highlands co-owner Donal Brophy, who gave me the lowdown on why Burns Night is important, and what they've got lined up. Highlands is going big for Burns Night this year, offering two sittings on both Wednesday and Thursday nights before hosting a Burns supper at the hallowed James Beard House on Friday, a ringing endorsement of the Highlands crew's Bobby Burns bonafides.
"Robert Burns was kind of the rock star of his day," Brophy explains. "He was the first writer to forge the national consciousness and cultural identity of Scotland, and he holds a hallowed place in Scottish culture. When we celebrate, it's a paganesque evening where we try to conjure up the spirit of all of these poems he wrote, because some of them are quite supernatural."
A bagpiper named Jerry Dixon will set the tone, dressed in the full kilt and related regalia, before a prix fix menu by executive chef Chris Rendell is served. The main course, of course, is haggis. As is the custom, the haggis will be paraded through the restaurant so everybody gets a good look, and will be "addressed" with the reading of Burns' famous poem, "Address to a Haggis." Whisky, of course, will play a serious role, with a series of expressions from Compass Box being paired with each course. In all, it sounds like a ton of fun, and, unless you're in Scotland, New York is the place to be to do it right.
"New York is one of the few cities in America you can do something this culturally obscure," Brophy says. "But it's a rich experience."
The Burns Supper will take place Wednesday, January 23 and Thursday, January 24 at Highlands with 6:30 and 9:30 seatings each night. The dinner is $55 per person, plus an extra $35 for a whisky pairing. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-229-2670 for more information or to make a reservation.