By Leo Dillinger
Photography by JPG Photography
Damien Given has seen his share of pubs throughout his 20 years in the industry. When he opened Sona Pub and Kitchen in April 2017, Damien wanted to break away from the norms of traditional Irish bars and give Manayunk a modern spin on a classic concept.
“The new generation of bars in Ireland are brighter and fresher,” Damien said. “They’re building them like this because that generation coming up is more interested in advancing and not living in the past.“
Born and raised in Beragh in County Tyrone, Ireland, Damien first came to the United States during the summer of 1995 on a “working vacation” in Wildwood, NJ. Despite returning home after that summer, he ventured back to Wildwood in March 1996 and has resided in the U.S. ever since.
Damien spent those summers in Wildwood working any job he could find, eventually becoming a manager of several boardwalk shops and a few parking lots. After a few months in the management position, he called it quits and went into his regular watering hole, The Harbor Inn, to ask for a bar-backing job. Within a month, he became a bartender there.
After moving to Philadelphia in 2000, Damien spent the following sixteen years working and managing bars all over the area. He worked at The Bards, Fado, and Moriarty’s in Center City and managed Kelly’s Taproom, Flip & Bailey’s, and Garrett Hill Ale House on the Main Line. In July 2013, Damien got a job with the Dave Magrogan Group and spent three years working at their Kildare’s locations in Newark, DE and Manayunk as well as Red Star in Exton.
When Kildare’s Manayunk closed in September 2016, Damien and his business partners were ready to start a venture of their own. Being familiar with the neighborhood, Damien began negotiating on the property in the winter of 2016 and by January 11, 2017, the papers were signed and the group began renovating the space. On April 27, 2017, Sona officially opened for business.
With a gastro pub concept that would cater to a wide-ranging demographic, Damien wanted Sona to give the neighborhood a breath of fresh air. For many Manayunk regulars who remembered Kildare’s, it didn’t take long to notice the major changes being made from the refurbished walls and hardwood flooring to the ambient lighting and new tap system.
“We’re still the baby on the block, but we now have a regular clientele that’s slowly been growing since we opened a year and a half ago,” Damien said.
While you’ll certainly find the Irish staples of Guinness, Harp, and Smithwick’s on tap, they only account for a portion of the bar’s offerings. With 30 draught lines, Damien says Sona always maintains a wide selection from Philly-area breweries like Wissahickon, Levante and Sterling Pig to give visitors a taste of the city’s beer scene. And if beer’s not your thing, fear not. Sona also offers an extensive list of craft cocktails.
Sona’s food menu also gives slight nods to the old country, but primarily focuses on American pub fare with an Irish twist. Sure, you can get your Shepherd’s Pie or Fish and Chips for dinner or an Irish Breakfast during brunch. But don’t let that stop you from trying their Cheesesteak Egg Rolls or the Paddy Burger.
“The food here isn’t traditional Irish food,” Damien said. “Our Mac N’ Cheese is made with Irish cheddar, but there’s other stuff in there. We try to use a little bit of Irish ingredients in our food, but I’m not putting on Corned Beef and Cabbage because nobody is going to eat it. Instead, we make a burger with Irish cheddar and Irish bacon.”
Perhaps the biggest news out of Sona since its opening is the addition of a new 125-capacity concert space: The Locks. For months, Damien and his team went back and forth trying to reinvent the upstairs bar. Earlier this summer, Damien and his business partner Brian reached an agreement with their longtime friend and former owner of Tin Angel, Donal McCoy, to house a venue upstairs dedicated to singer-songwriters. While Sona staffs and stocks the bar, the folks from Tin Angel and Point Entertainment handle all talent booking and ticket sales.
“It’s such an eclectic mix of people we would never get into this building. They’re coming in, having dinner, and some of them are already coming back,” Damien said. “The Locks is a bonus for us and it’s bringing a new market into the building.”
Aside from dining and live entertainment, Sona also hosts a variety of events and specials. With 12 HD TVs and a 96-inch projector screen surrounding the bar, it’s a perfect place to watch your favorite sports teams (especially for fans of Premier League soccer who get 20 percent off their food by wearing their jerseys during the game). They have 50 cent wings on Mondays, all you can eat crabs on Tuesdays, and burger/trivia nights on Wednesdays. Damien said they’ve also brought back their ticketed Irish-style carvery once a month, where guests can treat themselves to a hearty meal while listening to live Irish music.
The Irish word “sona” means “happy,” “lucky,” or “fortunate” depending on the context. For Damien, the pub’s name embodies what he wants his guests to experience when they step inside. Whether you’re posting up at the bar for a pint, indulging in a savory meal, or catching a show upstairs at the Locks, the team at Sona Pub and Kitchen want you to enjoy your time with them.
“I take pride in this place when I see people having a good time,” Damien said. “A band played here last Saturday and the whole building sang along to the songs they were playing. The atmosphere of positivity is really good for the building and the staff. When you see people walk in here and enjoy the food and drinks you’re making, they’re going to come back. That’s the big driving factor to keep doing this.”