When Expedia asked me about my favourite places to eat around Ireland, a lederhosen-bedecked part of me could hear Julie Andrews singing about a few of her favourite things in an alpine, Sound of Music setting. Not that I’m about to burst into song or – worse, still – parade about in lederhosen, but you might indulge me, all the same, if I wax just a bit lyrical on the subject of favoured spots for supping.
If the entry for Earth in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was “Mostly harmless,” then my entry – making the rather colossal assumption that I’d have one – would probably read: “Mostly spuds.” However, even if it is (mostly) possible to do so, man – or, in my case, woman – does not live by potato alone, and my favourite food places, inevitably, serve much else besides.
Coming up with a list such as this is always fraught. Through the good offices of this blog, and in being a contributing editor for John and Sally McKennas’ Irish Food Guide, I’ve had the privilege of eating in many fine places indeed, more than I could do justice to here. In the end, the selection below is as much about favourite food people as favourite food places – the one almost invariably determines the other.
Kristin said I made it sound like hard work. She was referring to this: a tweet I sent out in advance of attending the first full-blown beer-matched dinner at W.J. Kavanaghs, a pub and restaurant on Dublin’s Dorset Street that I am lucky to call my local:
— Aoife Cox (@DailySpud) June 7, 2013
Be assured, however, that nothing about visiting W.J. Kavanaghs, or its sister pub, L. Mulligan Grocer, is hard work; not the delight of five courses of thoughtfully matched and enthusiastically presented beer and food pairings, as served at the aforementioned dinner, and not the everyday pleasure of dropping in for a crafty ale and fish and chips because you’d much rather someone else cooked. In the case of owners Seáneen Sullivan, Colin Hession and Michael Foggarty, it’s the thought that counts: they put a great deal of collective thought into their food, beer and whisk(e)ys, and it shows.
Its location in a warehouse in the thick of a northside industrial estate ain’t exactly glamorous, but on Saturdays, the Honest To Goodness market in Glasnevin is a joyful place to be. Though your visit is ostensibly about stocking up on good eats and indulging in some fine, market-based sustenance from the café alongside, the experience is, more than anything, defined by the people there: Bríd and Colm Carter, the joint source of the market’s energy, who import fine European wines and will enthuse about this cheese, that butter and whatever else looks particularly good today; Vlad Rainis, Peter Flynn and the crew at the Arún Bakery stall, where sourdough is king and cinnamon rolls, unless you’re early, are gone; Lily and Alan Foran’s Mexican Shop, for sauces that are properly hot and smoky, and where the corn tortillas – like everything else, including Lily herself – are the real Mexican deal; there’s Kate Packwood with Wild Flour Bakery creations that intrigue and delight, be it coffee macarons with Gortnamona cheese and honey or dark chocolate and sea salt caramel brownies; college student, blogger and GIYer Adam Hoban always has a new jam here or an eastern-inspired chutney there as part of his developing Purple Pantry range; and Nicola Smyth’s Big Red Kitchen is the home of a warm smile and the bestest lemon curd around.
You’d expect to get a good coffee from Colin Harmon. He has, after all, placed in the top four in the World Barista Championships on no less than four occasions. And you’d expect to get a good coffee in 3FE, Colin’s place on Grand Canal Street (a business which, through its wholesale trade, has done a great deal to up the standard of coffee in Dublin in general).
But while the emphasis in 3FE may, understandably, be on the coffee, you should equally expect good café food to go with the good coffee menu, because Colin gathers to himself staff like chef Pete Williams, whose enthusiasm for the job at hand and downright giddiness when it comes to good food shows. So when you visit, as well you should, you can rest assured that those lunchtime stalwarts – the soup, the salad and the sambo – are, like the espresso, in both safe and imaginative hands.
I found myself, a few months back, with Des Valelly and his wife Tara Dalton on a barge – the rather swishly decked out MV Cadhla – docked on Dublin’s Grand Canal. In theory, we were having lunch; in practice, lunch was far too small a word for the succession of piled-high plates and platters that came our way from stalls at the surrounding lunchtime village market.
The event was to mark eight years of these lunchtime markets, which were established by Des and Tara, and which now take place at nine sites around Dublin, over five days of the week, with 50+ traders on their books. And while I wouldn’t normally eat from every stall at one sitting – even my appetite’s not that big – the meal demonstrated, in a very literal way, how Des and Tara have brought a great deal of lunchtime choice to hungry office populations, be it roast pork from Spitfire; top-notch beef and lamb burgers from Mango Catering; fresh fish and very chunky chips from Say Fish; the almost inescapable chicken and chorizo paella from The Paella Guys; or my favourite from that particular lunch, the fancy pants cheese toasties – with cheddar, masdam and provolone on a buttery sourdough crust – from The Big Cheese. As places to eat go – and go it does, from Sandyford to East Point and Mespil Road to Blanchardstown – the lunchtime village market is Dublin’s very own moveable feast.
I freely admit to having an immense soft spot for Gallagher’s Boxty House, both for its longevity – this year will mark its 25th anniversary – and its unashamed focus on all things spud. With a menu centred around Irish dishes and the potato speciality of boxty in particular, the restaurant – located in the heart of Dublin’s Temple Bar – gets through more than 50 tonnes of potatoes a week (some of which even makes its way onto the dessert menu, which now includes boxty ice cream – think brown bread ice cream, but with caramelised pieces of boxty loaf).
Mostly, though, I’m fond of catching up with owner Pádraic Óg Gallagher, boxty fanatic and fellow potato anorak. Having been recently elected to the presidency of the Restaurants’ Association of Ireland, Pádraic is on a mission to bring even greater focus to Irish dishes on restaurant menus and if that means we’ll be seeing more boxty in more places then I, for one, won’t be complaining.
Quite apart from those mentioned above, there are, of course, a great many more food places to love: Kinara in Clontarf, which specialises in Pakistani cuisine, is a long favoured location for get-togethers with friends; Avoca, at various locations in Dublin and around Ireland, is consistently good, particularly when it comes to fresh, creative salads, while its shops and deli counters leave one’s wallet in constant, delicious danger; Chapter One on Parnell Square is a warm and special place for warm and special occasions. I could name many others on my doorstep in the capital, and a great many more beyond: places like Eastern Seaboard in Drogheda and the beautiful Brown Hound Bakery alongside, which bring a great deal of style to an unlikely location; Glebe Gardens and Café in Baltimore in West Cork, where you can admire one of the most charming gardens in Ireland and then eat from the bounty that it has produced; The Cottage in Leitrim for being what it is, where it is. And let’s not even start on the places to which, for shame, I have not yet been – that list is long and is, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might say: “Mostly embarrassing.”