DublinWords Holly O'Neill
Photography Helen Cathcart
Dublin has long been a popular weekend getaway destination. It’s only a short, cheap flight away, it’s easy to navigate by foot and the promises of friendly pubs and ‘craic’ can’t be spoilt by bad weather. However, these same reasons have made it popular with those on hard-drinking weekends, including hen and stag parties, who hit the Temple Bar area.
The city’s food culture has never been as big a draw as its pubs. Sure, there are some well-established high-end restaurants, some of them Michelin-starred (such as Chapter One), but for a long time, the budget and mid-range end of the market were under-represented. That’s started to change in the past few years, despite, or because of, the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom of the Nineties and Noughties.
“I think a lot of it is to do with the recession,” says Kate McCullough, a regular recipe stylist for Jamie, and a Dubliner born and bred. “People want to spend less, but still go out, and if places aren’t good enough, they haven’t survived.” Kate makes frequent trips to her homeland, and says each time she’s surprised by what’s new and changed, so she offers to show us round the city – and a few of her favourite haunts.
We start out in Ringsend, where there’s a growing pocket of foodie ventures – good news for those visiting the Aviva Stadium for the rugby. Along with local favourites Juniors Deli and Paulie’s Pizza is the small but sensational Food Game. “I call this the vitamin bomb,” says the cheery waitress as she presses a beetroot, orange and ginger juice. Like everything else in this small café, the juice delivers more bang than you’d expect from so few ingredients. It’s all seasonal and local, where possible, and the staff love to chat about food and places to eat. After a breakfast of muesli and stewed fruit, they send us to Brother Hubbard on Capel Street across the river.
On the Northside, the working class side of town, Capel Street is undergoing gentrification. Rents are still cheap enough to support new ventures, and this street alone has several new food spots. James Boland and Garrett Fitzgerald opened Brother Hubbard in 2012. After quitting their jobs a few years ago, they went travelling with the dream of opening their own business when they got back. Unfortunately, while they were away the economy collapsed. They returned trepidatious, not knowing what to expect. “We discovered that Ireland was still open for business,” says Garrett, and that quality-focused restaurants and cafés were doing well. “People were really responding to those places – they still wanted to eat out, they just didn’t want to pay €80, but instead have a nice brunch.”
With that in mind, Garrett and James focused on quality. Apart from the bread for their sandwiches, they make everything from scratch, even the drinks – you won’t see Coke on the menu. They got cool local designers Designgoat to do the fit-out in native Irish ash, and created a garden courtyard, complete with fennel, sweet geranium and a quince tree.Recognising the foodie interest in seasonality and provenance, savvy chefs and restaurateurs highlight Irish ingredients on their menus. Or perhaps it’s national pride – for such a small country, Ireland has a a good number of people making top-class food. You’ll see cheese and cured meat producers specified (Toonsbridge Dairy, O’Doherty’s, Milleens, Gubbeens), and the landing port of fish. The Winding Stair, on the Northside, above a bookshop, is a benchmark of modern, hearty home-style Irish fare. The decor is stripped back – all the focus is on the plate. On the Southside, this idea is further refined at the excellent The Pig’s Ear.
There’s a sense of excitement about the Dublin food scene. Staff are happy to spend time to talk about what’s opened and what’s good. When we tell Garrett and James at Brother Hubbard that the crew at Food Game sent us, they laugh and say “We love those guys!” before asking us if we’ve checked out the sushi place across the road, and if we’ve been to the Cake Café, where James previously worked.
But it’s time for a pint. We leave the new craft beer pub up the road for another time, and cross the river to find a Guinness. Kate hurries us through Temple Bar, quiet in the day but hectic at night – Dubliners don’t go out there, she says, unless they want to pick up tourists. Instead we head to the shopping area and a pub called Grogan’s.
“This might be my favourite place in the world, apart from my mum’s house,” Kate says, as she takes the first sip. She says it does ones of the city’s best pulls of Guinness – this has to do with the length of hose to get beer from keg to tap, and the frequency the beer is served (it shouldn’t sit around for long). Looking around, everyone is drinking Guinness. Kate also cites good toasties as a draw, the relaxed atmosphere and the no-frills decor (it’s basically a partitioned room, with changing art of varying quality on the walls). And, of course, the diverse clientele and the potential for genuine Irish-pub banter. In a moment sent to us by Perfect Travel Experiences Ltd, we have a brilliant, random conversation with a very tall man called Vladimir, who tells us he’s a Viking and wants to share the crystallised ginger he won as a prize in a joke-telling contest. He tells us the joke, but can’t remember the punchline. Google later reveals that he is indeed a Viking – in a TV show being filmed in Ireland.
If you prefer your drinks on-trend and dive-style, there’s 777, round the corner. This tequila bar offers a good range of cocktails, and tasting flights of tequila and mescal. The Mexican menu has tacos that aren’t quite US-good but hold their own against most in London. The very hip, very stylish style bar couldn’t be more different in decor to Grogan’s, but there’s a similar inclusive vibe, as an older couple in suits share the counter with 20-somethings dressed to impress.
Dublin’s food scene is changing, but its relaxed all-are-welcome atmosphere remains the same as ever, making the city even more alluring to visitors.
Check out issue 37 of Jamie Magazine, out now, for a full and comprehensive listing of great places to eat and drink in the Irish capital.