The pub and restaurant started in Tampa features its own whiskey and red ale, as well as Irish dishes

From Outback Steakhouse to Hooters, Tampa Bay has long been an incubator for restaurant franchises that eventually expand to the rest of Florida and the country. But one that recently debuted in Sarasota caught my attention — an Irish pub.

Irish 31 Sarasota held its soft opening two weeks ago at its 3750 S. Tamiami Trail location, and officially opened a week later. It's the first Sarasota-Manatee location for the franchise, which originally opened in Tampa's Hyde Park neighborhood in 2011 before expanding to eight locations with more planned, including Lakewood Ranch.

READ MORE: The latest news about Sarasota-Manatee restaurants and bars

Speaking to the Herald-Tribune, founder Jay Mize described his ambitions of Irish 31 becoming the Outback of the Irish pub world. That didn't exactly sound like the idiosyncratic charm of my favorite Irish pubs, often family-owned and featuring a real cast of characters as their regulars.

But I had also never gotten to Irish 31 during my decade living in Tampa, and I was intrigued by the above-average selection of Irish food and drink on its menu. So I decided to pay its Sarasota location a visit.

The atmosphere

I stop by on a Wednesday around 6:30 p.m., thinking that would be one of the relatively quieter days in the week. Yet it's swamped with diners and drinkers alike when I arrive, and I'm only able to snag the second-to-last stool at its sprawling bar.

The bar is straight and to the back of the entrance, with a jet black brick wall and chandeliers hanging above. It's decorated by signs like "The only thing we chase our 31 Whiskeys with are high-fives," as well as five flatscreen TVs airing baseball, hockey and tennis.

There's also plenty of dining table and booth seating, surrounded by their own plethora of televisions. And there's a small covered outdoor section with a view of Tamiami Trail, as well as more flatscreens. (If you're of the belief that an Irish pub shouldn't have any TVs, look elsewhere.)

I'm told Irish 31 plans a week-long schedule of activities in the future, including trivia nights on Tuesdays, a run club on Wednesdays and live music on Fridays.

The drinks

Irish 31's mixed drink list features multiple martinis, margaritas and lemonades, as well as a number of takes on classic cocktails. I try the Bloody Molly ($10.50), a Bloody Mary given a bit of an Irish twist by using Jameson whiskey rather than vodka, and served with blue cheese-stuffed olives, bacon and a pickle spear.

They offer their own small-batch i31 Whiskey, which is available for $6 all day and is quite a solid little whiskey, perhaps unsurprisingly since they worked with Ybor's Florida Cane Distillery on it. There's a separate list of cocktails made using the whiskey, including their take on a Moscow mule called a "Man's Mule" (not sure there was anything particularly non-masculine about a Moscow mule, but alright.)

Irish 31 also serves its own draft red ale, which isn't bad, particularly at the hard-to-beat price of $3.10 all day. There are 17 other beers and ciders on tap, which include Irish staples such as Guinness and Smithwick's, Florida craft options like Sarasota's Big Top and Pinellas' Green Bench and Crooked Thumb, and your traditional domestics.

There's also a smattering of mainly domestic bottled and canned beers, as well as a few white and red wines and one rosé option. Happy hour runs 3-7 p.m. weekdays and features $3.10 domestic drafts, two-for-one well drinks, half-off all house wines and $1 off other drafts and call drinks.

The food

Irish 31's bar bite-size dishes includes their take on boxty, the traditional Irish potato pancakes. The "legendary boxty" ($10) I try are almost more like giant mashed potato-tater tots, which does make for pretty tasty pub grub, particularly when served with a trio of pub cheese, horseradish and a spicy "car bomb sauce."

You can also get the boxty stuffed with shepherd's pie, along with fried pot pie bites or more classic bar appetizers such as nachos and wings served a variety of ways. Sandwiches include classic or turkey reubens and multiple burgers, with a "St. Patty melt" featuring corned beef, swiss and sauerkraut on rye.

If you're looking for something a little more substantial, entree options feature Irish 31's versions of Irish favorites including shepherd's pie, bangers and mash and fish and chips. They also serve blackened Atlantic salmon or chicken breast, coated with a signature i31 Whiskey sauce.

Like much of Irish 31 overall, if you go expecting traditional Irish fare done completely faithfully, you may leave disappointed. But its blend of Irish pub, gastropub and sports bar makes for its own enjoyable enough thing that clearly continues to be popular as it expands to Sarasota.

Irish 31 Sarasota: 3750 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-234-9265; irish31.com

Have a favorite watering hole you’d like to see covered in this column? Email me at jimmy.geurts@heraldtribune.com.