Photos | Daniel Anderson / Lagniappe

Lucky’s Irish Pub, in the former Paddy O’Toole’s building near the Beltline, is a destination for burgers, fish & chips, shepherd’s pie and bangers & mash.

Lucky’s Irish Pub • 3962 Airport Blvd., Mobile 36608 • 251-414-3000

It’s not what I expected. Use whatever euphemism or metaphor or idiom you wish, but you can’t judge a book by its cover. Things aren’t always as they seem. These phrases come to mind when I think of my experience at Lucky’s Irish Pub.

Why was I so quick to prejudicially turn up my nose at this restaurant? The answer is simple. In another life I once spent many an evening within those dollar bill-splattered walls drinking pitchers of beer in unhealthy numbers, amid a haze of cigarette smoke and poor decisions in the mid ‘90s, when it was known as Paddy O’Toole’s.

I think they served food, but you’d not say, “Hey, let’s go eat at Paddy O’Toole’s” when your old buddy from college came to visit. It was really just a watering hole hell-bent on ruining livers and saving the night crowd from melanoma, as the regulars hoisted their personalized mugs in the dark, windowless cavern that could’ve been a vampire hideout. It was a place for people who were comfortable with Vitamin D deficiency and Skynyrd covers, not for culinary and musical elitists.

If you think I’m bad-mouthing the place, think again. Many a relationship (platonic and otherwise) was forged between those narrow walls. We loved it because of what it was, not in spite of. Our home away from home, so to speak, but it was not a place I’d visit with the idea of dining.

You hear things and time passes. It’s not what it used to be, they say. It’ll be good, they say. I guess it was time for me to take their word for it.

In a little pre-dinner pep talk I told Katie, my Mississippi gal, a handful of stories about this old haunt in the middle of a shopping center, and how we were going to try to stay open-minded toward what we were about to receive. After all, it’s still a bar with live music and a pool table.

I can’t tell you the last time I walked through those doors, but when I did a wave of nostalgia hit me hard. It didn’t look that different, to be honest, but it smelled a whole lot better. Gone was the familiar cigarettes-and-stale-beer smell of the past. Dollar bills still adorned the walls, but I’m certain it’s a new crop. For the most part it still looked like good ol’ Paddy’s.

A Budweiser ($3.25) for me and a water for the little lady got us into the spirit. Our waitress, dressed in a smart-looking kilt with knee socks, kept our Scots-Irish spirits high and convinced us to try the soup of the day. Tomato basil ($3.99 per cup) was served surprisingly with a half of a grilled cheese. Nice! Sweeter than you’d expect, Katie nailed the cinnamon first bite, which was confirmed, as well as brown sugar. This sort of thing is right up her alley.

I couldn’t resist ordering something with a name like Chicks with Sticks ($7.99). Still not the chicken-on-a-stick I grew up with, but a grilled version with marinated chicken, peppers, onions and grape tomatoes skewered and served with a sort of whole-grain mustard dipping sauce. We were tempted by the Reuben egg rolls with corned beef and kraut, but Katie isn’t as big a fan as I am.

She was, however, a fan of the special. Fish and chips ($9.99) had Katie’s attention since we’d walked past the sidewalk chalkboard, and not even the burger could persuade her otherwise. Served with either fries or honest-to-God American chips, she chose the sidewinder fries. There was no malt vinegar, a disappointment, but a heavy-on-the-pickle tartar sauce was a great stand-in. The fish was cooked perfectly and the golden batter was exactly as we’d hoped.

Everyone you ask raves about the burger. I’ve been told it was the missing element of my abbreviated burger guide a few weeks’ back, but frankly, after a 13-year-old’s birthday and the research for that article, as well as normal summer grilling, I was burgered out. Instead of heeding the call, I dove headfirst into the Bangers and Mash ($8.99).

The plate was a welcomed mess of green beans supporting aromatic sausages on a bed of mashed potatoes that were less than sturdy. The accompanying gravy must have had a little Guinness in it. If not, then I dreamed it. Chunks of onions made it all the better, and I could say I was delighted with my pub fare.

I was done for the evening but not done with the ordering. Our waitress, Shae, recognized my need for attention and helped me decide on something to take home for tomorrow’s lunch. Blarney Wings ($9.99) were her recommendation. “Try the sweet red chili flavor,” she said. “They are even better the next day.” I happily paid an extra buck to get all flats. Chilled wings are better and these didn’t make it past breakfast. I took them to work and tore through them before I turned on the “OPEN” sign.

Here is the skinny: It isn’t fine dining, it’s elevated bar food. This place still has a bar vibe and I guess that’s why we were so surprised with the quality. If it sounds like I’m gushing, remember that I was expecting Paddy O’Toole’s and got something much better. I do like the food, though, and should go back for the burger. There’s definitely enough there to make it worth a try.