I’m always moaning about the lack of ‘proper boozers’ in London. When I lived in Gloucestershire, I worked in a pub where the regulars had their own glasses (often engraved with their names), into which I would start pouring their preferred drink when I saw them coming down the road, at exactly the same time each day. There was a lot of decent banter around that bar. I can still recall the names and faces, the lock-ins, the gossip and the horrible feeling when I finally tore myself away and buggered off to university. It was a bit like leaving a family.
If you have a fondness for the same kind of establishment then you’ll bloody love Dublin. There’s a pub like this on almost every street corner, all proudly serving properly poured Guinness, naturally. I tried hard to discern whether or not it actually tastes better in Ireland, as everyone claims, and while at first I didn’t notice a difference, I must admit that every pint seemed to slip down like midnight silk. Either that or I started to become an alcoholic, drinking the black stuff pretty much constantly from mid morning until bed time. The pubs do this brilliant thing too, called the ‘toasted special’, which are sandwiches, and which also bring me nicely to the start of my Dublin food story. We ate from one end of the scale (pub toasties) to the other (faaaahn dining) in just a couple of days and although I do feel fatter – subcutaneously, viscerally, psychologically – I feel we really got the measure of the place, so here are my tips.
1. The Toasted Special.
So all the pubs have these toastie makers where the whole sandwich goes in on its side like a regular toaster and is lowered down with a lever. I found that you can generally have any combination of ingredients you like, providing those ingredients are ham, cheese and onion. In the best places, a pot of English mustard comes on the side. Some try to glam it up by adding a side salad or whatever which is obviously wrong, unless that whatever is crisps. The most old boozery of proper old boozers we visited was J Grogan, with a proper chatty landlord and a clutch of regulars around the bar. I listened in to their conversations with nostalgic jealousy. You can also catch diddly music in loads of the pubs in the evenings. I have on my phone (or had before it CALLOUSLY DIED this weekend), video evidence of my boyfriend dancing with complete strangers. He also bought an acre of vineyard in Tokaj, on a whim. Then there was the three bottles of whisky that turned up at our house a week after we got back, which were clearly ordered from a shop at some point. To be honest, we did a lot of drinking.
J Grogan, 15 William St, Dublin 2.
2. Fried Chicken Surprise.
I was determined to eat mostly Irish food but when one finds oneself stuck in the rain and starving, it’s only natural to be drawn into a restaurant which is rather daintily named CRACKBIRD. Erm. While it wasn’t the best fried chicken I’ve eaten (the coating too thick and lacking crunch), the flavour was great. What I totally digged down to my sodden boots however were the dips that came with. Scotch bonnet sauce was a genuine kicker, the chermoula had its flavours tipped in the right direction to work with the chicken and, best of all, a whipped feta and caramelised lemon number had me swiping around the pot with my finger and wondering just how soon and often I can nick the idea and pass it off as my own. I’ll admit I’d ordered it because I thought they’d balls it up which is, with hindsight, pretty stupid. Lovely to be proven wrong, though.
Crackbird, 60 Dame St, Dublin 2.
3. Two Mid-Range Gems.
Etto had made it onto The List (because everyone knows that Food People do extensive Googling/make spreadsheets/ask everyone on Twitter for tips before they travel anywhere, ever) but hadn’t made the final cut simply for not serving anything ‘particularly Irish’. Sometimes I am truly the fool. Dishes were nothing groundbreaking but cooked with a very light touch: a starter of vitello tonato still tasted of veal, underneath it all, and ‘Nduja pasta had just a hint of the spicy sausage humming through. I had to order a meatball sandwich special, clearly aimed at the lunch crowd but as confidently balanced as the rest. Honeycomb ice cream to finish. Buzzing little room, great service, interesting wine list, reasonably priced.
Etto, 18 Merrion Row, Dublin 2, Tel: +353 1 678 8872
The menu at Fallon and Byrne didn’t get me in the least bit excited either. Different restaurant, same snap judgement. We gave an over-privileged sigh and climbed the stairs to emerge into a surprisingly lovely room, vast and twinkling with waist-coated staff and leather seats – its location above a ‘food and wine hall’ had me expecting something akin to a Whole Foods cafe. A caesar salad was one of the best I’ve ever eaten and a rib eye with bernaise a hunk of very well cooked, quality cow. They can make a solid martini, too. It’s the kind of restaurant that makes you want to stay put and we did, for several hours. The only photo I possess is of a half eaten salad – testament to the amount of fun we were having.
Fallon and Byrne, 11-17 Exchequer Street, Dublin 2, Tel: +353 (01) 472 1010
4. Lunch not Dinner.
The Winding Stair appears to be lauded as one of Dublin’s hottest restaurants but to be honest it left me baffled. I’m a greedy person, and despite my stamina diminishing with age (trauma!), I can still hold my own when faced with the long haul. The portions here though = gargantuan. Laughably large. That’s my starter below, a platter of smoked fish on a board which was larger than a sheet of A4, if Guinness addled memory serves. Be a lovely lunch though, don’t ya think? Not so much a prelude to a pile of mashed potato, fish and onions the size of a small island. I just wonder what they’re trying to achieve; generosity is a lovely sentiment, but not when it leads to serious discomfort.
The Winding Stair, 40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1, Tel: + 353 1 8727320
5. High End Jinks.
The Greenhouse was recommended to me by the human directory of Michelin starred restaurants, Andy Hayler. Despite our lack of agreement on the value of the Michelin guide, there’s no doubt he’s right to say that it’s curious this place doesn’t have a star. Incidentally, I remember first learning about the guide from a regular bar fly while working in that pub back in Gloucestershire in 2000. “You can see them twinkling through the window” he told me and yes, for more than a moment I believed him. The cooking here is serious without taking itself seriously. Well worth the wonga.
The Greenhouse, St. Stephen’s Green, Dawson Street, Dublin 2, Tel: (01) 6767015
So there you have it: the highlights of as much food as it’s possible to consume in the space of 2.5 days without making oneself physically ill. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE.
On non-food related business:
– We stayed as a guest of Trinity Capital Hotel which looked like it was designed by Willy Wonka. I’m down with that, personally, but I believe not everyone wants to spend the night amidst giant purple curlicues.
– Dublin is famous for its taxis (there are more there than in NYC, apparently), although the only one you’ll really need is from the airport. This is a good chance to get the down low on Dublin, if the rest of the internet is to be believed. Me? I got a soliloquy on the moral status of the Gas Board.
– Irish people are incredibly friendly and they can drink like whales, let alone fish. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.