The Bull & Thistle
102 S. Main Street
Gainesboro, TN 38562
Phone: (931) 268-7170
Wed: 11A – 10P
Thu: 11A – 10P
Fri: 11A – 12A
Sat: 11A – 12A
Sun: 12P – 8P
Each fall, we take a trip to Burgess Falls outside of Cookeville, TN. We hike out to the falls while enjoying God’s wondrous beauty in the form of brilliant hues and cascading water. We usually finish our visit to the Upper Cumberlands by having a good meal in our college hometown.
This year, on our way up to Cookeville, Michelle spotted a sign for The Bull & Thistle, a Celtic pub located in – of all places – Gainesboro, TN. I say, “of all places”, because, as graduates of Tennessee Tech University, Gainesboro was mostly known to Michelle and me as the town where you went to the liquor store. At the time, Cookeville was a “dry” town, having no package-liquor or liquor-by-the-drink sales. Gainesboro had two liquor stores, therefore, the required frequent trips to their fair city. I have many fond memories of making the 34-mile roundtrip drive from Cookeville to stock up on supplies for whatever fraternity party was up next on the schedule.
We knew of The Bull & Thistle because we saw a story about it on one of our favorite TV shows, Tennessee Crossroads. We love to visit restaurants we see on shows such as Tennessee Crossroads and Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives. Over the years, we’ve discovered some fantastic places by watching these shows.
The Bull & Thistle offers the finest Celtic fare from the British Isles and Ireland. They also feature live music on the weekends. The owners hail from Florida, but fate intervened during a trip to visit friends in Monterey. While driving through the beautiful Upper Cumberlands, they fell in love with Gainesboro, it’s historic downtown area, and its welcoming citizens. They purchased a building and spent two years renovating it for use as a pub. From the moment you walk in, the original wood floors and tin ceiling make you feel like you’re in an authentic Irish pub — and that’s because you are.
Chef Barry O’Connor comes to The Bull & Thistle from Cork, Ireland, where he was trained in the finest culinary schools. After working at some of the best restaurants in England, France, and Ireland, he later owned and operated his own restaurant in Cork. Over the years, he opened and owned other pubs, as well, winning Pub of the Year in Ireland.
At The Bull & Thistle, Chef Barry has utilized his training and expertise to develop a menu based on the premise of “Field to Fork.” They make “extensive use of free-ranging meats, wild fish, and locally-grown, seasonal produce.” Shelby, our excellent waitress on this chilly fall evening, told us the names of the farms where they get their meats, as well as how a pub in Gainesboro acquires fresh, never-frozen, seafood daily. Shelby said that, with the exception of ketchup and butter, they literally make everything in-house.
The menu is quite impressive, if a bit upscale. You won’t find any sandwiches or burgers on the menu, but you will be able to choose from an array of traditional Celtic and British fare.
For Starters/Appetizers, you can choose from Seafood Chowder, Smoked Salmon, a Cheese Board, and many others. We did not order an appetizer, but will definitely try one on our next visit. They are priced from $4 – $36, and the more expensive appetizers are designed to feed two.
The entree prices for dinner range from $18 – $33, and feature such items as Fish & Chips, Cork-Style Chicken and Leek Pie, Bangers & Mash, and Char-grilled Cornish Game Hen. If you’re in the mood for steak, your choices are Medallions of Angus Beef, Traditional Filet, or the Porterhouse. All steak at The Bull & Thistle is certified Angus beef. The steaks are served with 1-2 sides or, in the case of the Medallions, a side salad.
For your side dish, your options range from garlic cheese potatoes to homemade chunky chips to fried green tomatoes. You can also have asparagus in either grilled- or tempura-form. The side dishes, if not included in your meal, will set you back about $6 on average.
Right about now, you are probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned Shepherd’s Pie. Doesn’t every pub serve Shepherd’s Pie? The Bull & Thistle does indeed serve Shepherd’s Pie, although it’s not on the regular menu. On this day, it was one of the daily specials. Normally, on my first visit to a British or Irish pub, I will order the Shepherd’s Pie, figuring if they cannot get this right, I don’t want to eat anything else they serve. A long time ago, however, I discovered I don’t really like Shepherd’s Pie. What I really like is the English version of Shepherd’s Pie known as Cottage Pie. Cottage Pie is almost identical to Shepherd’s Pie, the main difference being the use of beef in Cottage Pie. Traditional Irish Shepherd’s Pie is made with lamb. At the risk of making my Irish ancestors rotate in their graves, I’ll have to admit…I don’t like Shepherd’s Pie. I prefer Cottage Pie.
Overall, I was very pleased with the choices I found on the menu at The Bull & Thistle. If I could make one suggestion, it would be to add burgers and sandwiches. Serving a nice Angus burger, as well as some traditional sandwiches, would make the menu more well-rounded, and it would offer diners something to eat in the $10 price range.
For those of you who are gluten intolerant, there are many choices. Each item that is naturally gluten-free, or can be prepared gluten-free, is noted on the menu by the presence of (GF). Michelle had many items from which to choose, which can be a problem. She tends to get overwhelmed with too many choices, and she has a hard time deciding. My usual response when she’s having trouble deciding between two (or more) entrees is, “Please just pick one. I promise I’ll bring you back and you can try the other on your next visit.”
On this evening, she went with something called Bubble and Squeak. It is a mixed seafood, cabbage, butter, and bacon cake. It is served resting on a bed of shrimp in garlic sauce, with a side salad of mixed greens. I tasted Michelle’s dinner, and I must say, it was very good. The seafood taste was not overpowering, and the bacon flavor was the perfect accent. We love garlic, so the garlic sauce was also a nice touch.
The Bull & Thistle makes their own salad dressings. Michelle chose the Passion Fruit dressing, which was a sweet vinaigrette dressing that went well with her side salad of mixed greens, tomato, and onion.
For my dinner, I wanted something traditional, so I ordered the Bangers & Mash. The “bangers” part is char-grilled homemade pork, thyme and apple sausage glazed with a rich onion and Guinness gravy. The “mash” is what most Americans would refer to as mashed potatoes. It’s actually colcannon, which is potatoes and cabbage boiled and mashed together with bacon, butter, and seasonings. The Bangers & Mash was also topped with caramelized onions. The thyme and apple really came through in the sausage, which was very mild. The sausage had a very smooth and consistent texture. Mixing the sausage and colcannon and dipping it in the Guinness gravy brought it all together. It was, as Michelle said, “the perfect fall dish.” For my salad dressing, I chose the Balsamic Pepper. Of the two dressings, we preferred the Balsamic Pepper. although the Passion Fruit was great, as well.
You can’t go to a pub without sampling a pint or two. To help with this, The Bull & Thistle features 20 beers on tap. Here would be a good place to mention all their “pints” are actually 20 ounces. So enjoy! Whenever possible, I like to try new beers, and Calfkiller Brewery in Sparta, TN is one of my new favorites. I had the Calfkiller – WILDCARD, which is a rotating option from the guys at Calfkiller. On this particular weekend, the WILDCARD was All Hallows Ale. The ale was dark in color and made with “all the pumpkin pie spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and clove.” I’m not a fan of cloves, so I can assure you these spices are not overpowering. The beer went absolutely perfectly with the Bangers & Mash. For my second beer, I went with something a little darker, opting for the Pot Belly Porter from Old Shed Brewing Company in Tullahoma, TN. The caramel and chocolate malt flavor in this porter is enhanced by coffee notes and is balanced by a liberal dose of hops. As the folks at Old Shed say, “it warms like a pot belly stove.”
Michelle chose a cider, as the pub doesn’t currently offer any GF beers. Her cider was from Strongbow Ciders and was called Gold Apple. It wasn’t too sweet, and reminded me of champagne or an effervescent white wine. It too was a nice selection for a crisp fall evening.
We are not by habit or tradition big dessert eaters, but hey, if you’re going to write a food blog, you sometimes have to take one for the team, right? The Bull & Thistle offered two GF desserts. One was the Orange and Grand Marnier Creme Brulee. This dessert is made GF by leaving out the shortbread biscuit. Our other option (and the one we chose) was Mrs. Langan’s (Langan’s of London) Chocolate Pudding. This dish is similar to bread pudding, which is to say it’s not really pudding at all. But it isn’t bread, either. It is a dark bittersweet chocolate layer topped with whipped vanilla pod meringue. They then stripe it in chocolate sauce and sprinkle it with powdered sugar. If you like chocolate, you can’t go wrong with this dessert.
At the end of the evening, our tab – including gratuity and David’s Chicken Fingers/Fries kid’s meal – came to $90. This might seem a bit high for a typical pub, but I can assure you, the quality of the food and the service made it a good value. We cannot wait for a return visit to The Bull & Thistle.