South Bend’s Terry and Carol Meehan never set out to establish a fine dining restaurant.
After purchasing a former downtown bar in 2002, the couple intended to create a cozy space where the families could come to sit down and enjoy some good Celtic-themed food, drinks and tunes. With its dimly-lit dining room adorned with hundreds of photos, paintings and trinkets celebrating their Irish-Scottish heritage, the Meehans’ public house, Fiddler’s Hearth, feels more like an extension of the couple’s den than it does a stuffy, high-class gastronomic establishment.
“The idea of owning a restaurant didn’t appeal to me,” Carol says, sipping from a mason jar of water, while sitting at one of the pub’s corner booths during a busy Wednesday evening in January. “It still doesn’t.”
A few moments earlier, Carol had been relaxing on a large leather chair by a toasty fireplace near the entrance of the establishment, reading a copy of the newspaper. On the walls behind her were a number of different knick-knacks, as well as a small piano, while above on her, resting above the mantle, was a fiddle. Over the speakers in the background were the familiar strums of the Irish fiddle — a precursor to the live music that emanated from the pub’s stage later that night.
Over the past 16 years, Fiddler’s Hearth has truly become like home for the Meehans — as well as for the many locals counted as the pub’s regulars. Whether it is because of its laid back Celtic atmosphere, its constant lineup of live music and dancing, or its quality, locally-sourced menu of British grub and suds, the business has become a South Bend fixture.
While the couple may have opened Fiddler’s Hearth to the public in 2002, the idea behind the creation of the public house goes back much further.
For as long as she can remember, Carol — a native of California — has been in touch with her Scottish heritage. Growing up, she and the rest of her family would frequent Highland games, traditional celebrations of Scottish culture that include bagpipe competitions and caber tosses, an athletic event where competitors are tasked with tossing giant wooden beams as far they can.
Terry, meanwhile, draws his roots back to Ireland. A native of South Bend, the business owner is actually a direct descendent of the first non-Native American born in what is now St. Joseph County, Carol said.
Given their lineages, the couple and their children have made several sojourns to Great Britain over the years, including in 2001, where their son, Sean, competed in an international bagpipe event. It was on these trips where Carol and Terry discovered the magic of the nation’s public houses where everyone, even young children, would gather.
“Pubs are supposed to be the community’s living room,” Carol says. “They are places where everyone gathers: families, friends, children. Even the dog comes with you.”
While Fiddler’s Hearth would one day be modeled on these traditional British establishments, what prompted the Meehans to open their own pub were the success of a series of Celtic-themed parties, or céilí, they hosted to raise money for their church’s renovations. Serving traditional meat pies and hosting several Celtic-themed musical performances, the gatherings were smash hits — during one of their parties, the venue they hosted it at was filled to capacity in just 15 minutes, Carol said.
Seeing the demand in South Bend for a permanent venue for Celtic food and entertainment, and with Carol looking for a new career after years in the corporate world, the couple decided to purchase a closed bar on North Main Street and make their vision come to life. Renovation work took only two months, due to the assistance of the various Celtic performers who volunteered their time to get the business up and running.
“There was a lot of the Celtic community in this place, even before we opened,” Carol says. “They were excited about having a place where they could come, play and hang out. [The pub] got off on the right foot.”
Fiddler’s Hearth was a smash hit with locals right out of the gate, and has maintained a loyal following ever since. The business is like a second home to many customers, some of whom have donated different items to decorate the business. Some of these decorations include a photo of a Scottish castle taken by a couple that frequented the pub, and a painting of Celtic Cross given to the owners by former Indiana Governor Joe Kernan, Carol says.
The centerpiece of the business, though, has to be the giant caber rod the couple were given after visiting a Highlands game event in Chicago more than 20 years ago.
The authentic British atmosphere of the pub is matched by the quality of the food. Some popular items from the kitchen include the fish and chips, which are served wrapped in newspaper, just like those served in England; the bangers and mash, made with sausages that are created in-house; the shepherd’s pie, a casserole of lamb, beef and vegetables topped with mashed potatoes; and the steak pie, which is served with a gravy made with Guinness beer.
Another favorite is the Fiddler’s Hearth signature dish, the Salmon of Knowledge, the name of which is based on an ancient Irish legend of a fish that would give great power and wisdom to the person who eats it. While the kitchen cannot guarantee their take on the legend — a pan-seared salmon that is crusted with hazelnuts and served with a caper-lemon cream — will result in diners becoming Mensa members overnight, they can ensure that it will leave people who try it satisfied with a good meal.
To go along with the meals, the pub has a selection of tasty libations at its bar, including 26 beers on tap. Along with a rotation of various craft beers, the bar always makes sure to have Guinness stout and Scottish ale on tap.
One of the main draws of Fiddler’s Hearth remains its live entertainment, with musical performances lined up nearly every day. In addition to hosting performances by popular area bands like Kennedy’s Kitchen or Three Men in Kilts, the pub also hosts regular open Irish and old timey music sessions, where people can show up and jam with other musicians.
Of course, Fiddler’s Hearth is at its most popular on St. Patrick’s Day, when the business is packed with customers from the moment it opens its doors to the second it closes.
The owners will have live music lined up throughout the day, as well as performances by the students from the local Irish dance school. The kitchen will offer a selection of Irish favorites for lunch and dinner, and each table will have an Irish shamrock plant that customers are free to pluck sprigs off of to pin on their shirts.
Those who have never been to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at Fiddler’s Hearth are missing out, Carol says.
“It’s electric,” she says. “Simply electric.”