Dublin surprises me. I expect the charm of a European city, particularly that certain appeal the Irish hold, but there’s indescribably more. Despite gray days and even incessant rain one day in Summer (plus one glorious, clear night), I fell under Dublin’s eclectic, literary spell cast by Joyce, Shaw, Yeats, and the many figures who came from or made their name in these streets.
Record shops, vintage style, peaceful St. Stephen’s Green, chic shops, literature, eclectic markets, music, and most of all, the people… this city’s cobblestone streets and squares, medieval churches and cozy pubs, welcomed me in. It may not be the prettiest city (though it is by no means an eyesore), or the biggest, but it holds world class charms with a funky edge I did not expect. All this with that incomparable Irish welcome.
The Renaissance Man and I made friends everywhere, chatting with fellow diners, in pubs, and at churches, engaging, intelligent locals blessed with a wicked sense of humor. The people are Ireland’s biggest asset and worth experiencing in their home country at least once in your life.
I had a little preview of Ireland when wandering cobblestone, pedestrian-only lanes in London just days before, stumbling upon a singer and a pianist practicing for their evening concert in (the small) St. Bride’s Church near (the massive) St. Paul’s Cathedral. An Irish lad, Dean Power, his concert was part of Irish Heritage, a preservation organization. He sang Irish folk songs and English ballads in a clear, heartbreaking tenor. I stopped in my tracks to linger and listen. This snapshot moment captured the sadness and longing, the straightforward beauty of Ireland.
Dublin’s charms are many, some of its churches dating all the way back to the 11th and 12th centuries. I was particularly haunted by St. Audoen’s Church, receiving a personal tour from the church’s sweet staff, who take such care with this ancient space. I spent a happy hour out of the rain in the Winding Stair, with its excellent selection of local culinary and cook books. Live music at an out-of-the-way pub (see O’Donoghue’s below) is an unforgettable must in Ireland.
Yet another surprise was how good Dublin’s restaurants were. Having just come from London, I’d had a range of good to excellent meals. Dublin not only kept pace, but in the case of produce and fresh, experimental cooking, Dublin surpassed a number of experiences I had over nine days in London. Whereas vegetables remain limited in London, Dublin was the first I saw even a few types of lettuce or greens in my couple weeks in England and Ireland. I was not remotely ready to leave Dublin and have a list of restaurants still to visit next time.
Last issue I wrote about my visit to New Midleton Distillery where Jameson, Redbreast and many Irish Whiskeys are made. Next issue, I’ll share food favorites from the incredible foodie county of Cork.
Dublin native Dylan McGrath, worked at and helmed his own Michelin-starred restaurant prior to opening Rustic Stone in the heart of Dublin. Their philosophy reminds me of home in Northern California: in homegrown ingredients, creative experimentation, with health in mind. I left here feeling invigorated, with culinary cravings satiated.
Blessedly, the menu offers half and full portions so I was able to try a wide range. It’s a menu where vegetarian, wheat and gluten free dishes are noted, as are the chef’s health notes. Yet the food does not feel hippie or even green, rather smart and fun )one can only be so “healthy” when equally known for juicy, rare steaks cooked on the stone – hence the name). Just head down to the basement where the air is thick with smoke of steaks roasting tableside.
Their most popular “bites” item are enticing chicken wings, tossed in sticky soy, roasted sesame seeds, lime zest, garlic chips, red sprouts and coriander. Salads are worthwhile, like Luscious Lime (9.25 / 6.25) with four types of lettuce, cucumber, pickled ginger, mango, coriander and watermelon. A lime-roasted coconut, dill seed and lime dressing perfects it.
“Soups” or broths are a revelation. I’d like to see this type of presentation more, even in my own city. Poured over vegetables, each was packed with flavor. Carrot broth infused with star anise & tarragon (5.25) is bold over fresh peas, grated carrot, mint, chervil and olive oil. Iced cucumber soup (5.75)is poured over avocado sorbet, cucumber and tomato. Gorgeous.
A range of steaks appeal, cooked on the stone tableside, while even a chargrilled hamburger (16.90) is playfully good, using a range of cow cuts. Herb mayonnaise, tomato lemon chutney, crispy onions and Irish smoked cheddar seal the deal inside a brioche bun with polenta chips (or fries) as a side.
Dessert was the one misstep in my meal. Though Exotic Fruit Sushi (7.50), a roll of sticky rice, wasabi and ginger, sounded delightful, it was cold, sticky and bland. Only caramel passion fruit dipping sauce held substantive flavor.
Coppinger Row may be my top Dublin restaurant. Inviting, convivial and contemporary, the restaurant felt “of the moment” yet not trendy. Service was relaxed yet attentive, and both sets of tables next to us ended up striking up heartwarming conversations with us. I’ll never forget the darling and inspiring older Irish couple we chatted with at length.
Food is the main draw. Garlic & chili prawns a la plancha (9/12) are plump, juicy shrimps with the right amount of spice. Local crab & crayfish (12.50) are tossed with basil and lemon in a salad tasting of Ireland, while grilled and stuffed aubergine (eggplant; 6/9) over lentils and roasted peppers is a vegetarian winner.
My favorite dish was black pudding (blood sausage) and fig rocket salad (11.50) with blue cheese. Hearty yet with a delicate hand, it’s a gourmet version of the beloved spiced sausage recipe originating in Clonakilty in County Cork. I adore the cinnamon and clove type spices that make blood sausages so rich and layered… of course, the blood helps do that, too.
Coppinger Row is the one place in Ireland I had actual creative, current cocktails. Guavage (13) is a recipe of guava, Hendricks gin, and fresh sage. Seemingly simple, its flavor profile melds beautifully, robust yet seamless. They also served a Pegu Club cocktail and lovely Red Currant & Rose Daiquiri.
Dessert was another highlight at Coppinger Row. With various shots of dark, hot drinking chocolate spiked with liqueurs available, I chose the Spiced Cacao (7). It was tiny and shot-sized, but elegantly packed a punch with cacao powder, brown sugar, spiced rum, cream, and a ginger crumble on top.
Indian food is solid in Ireland, if not as exceptional as in London. A place like Jaipur seems to take a few cues from London, fusing authentic dishes with creative flair. However, Jaipur is an Irish standard, having grown to multiple locations over the years.
While I can’t say the meal was as good as some upscale Indian restaurants I visited in London (my favorites here), and as locals tell me there are worthy, more casual Indian spots in town, I found service attentive and enjoyed dishes like Duck Chettiyar (free range Barbary duck breast in southern spiced coconut tamarind marinade) or Samundari Ratan (pan-seared five spice Irish scallops with cumin coconut cauliflower).
Dublin immediately revealed what it was made of in the food realm with my first meal at Eden. In an open and bustling space, the first bite minted pea risotto (9.00 for a generous small plate/15.00 large) made me sigh. Creamy and hearty, it’s laden with grilled courgettes (zucchini), asparagus, wilted rocket (arugula), topped with Parmesan shavings.
I was equally delighted with Castletownbere crab salad (11.50). The crab is from the County Cork coastal town of Castletownbere, is tossed in curry aioli, and carefully molded over slices of beetroot, with toasts and greens atop the mound. Fresh and invigorating,
Food & Coffee
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Fallon & Byrne is a foodie’s dream grocery and should not be missed (wine fans head to the underground cellar for tastings). The striking Powerscourt Centre is an architectural beauty, particularly inside it’s open atrium. It’s worth at least a peek, and is filled with food and drink options as it is with antiques and fashion.
My top treat in Ireland (I went to their shops in Dublin and Killarney, with a third in Dingle), is Murphy’s Ice Cream, lush with ingredients representing the country, from Kerry Cream to Dingle Sea Salt. I went crazy over Brown Bread ice cream: it captures the dense heft of brown bread yet with creamy texture. And they make a killer dark, rich drinking chocolate, too.
Cocoa Atelier is the best chocolate I had in Ireland, a chic outpost of drinking chocolate and elegant truffles filled with local specialties, like pot still Irish whiskey (smile from me).
Fixx Coffee is a fun locals hangout for coffee, not as third wave and robust as Ariosa, but still good with friendly, flirty staff. Bewley’s is far more touristy being actually on chain store-ridden Grafton Street, but is still a decent option for Italian-style coffees/espresso.
Being a lifelong U2 fan, I had to visit the Tea Room in their hotel, The Clarence. It was certainly less (or not at all) edgy as I’d anticipated but it’s a peaceful respite for afternoon tea, lunch, breakfast.
I was pretty disappointed in Queen of Tarts. The atmosphere is as darling and cozy inside as it appears from the outside, but mediocre tarts and dishes from breakfast menu (even the ok coffee) leave a lot to be desired. Pastries and tarts tended towards the bland and did not taste as if they were straight out of the oven. I find this interesting as it has been praised by the New York Times and beyond.
CAFE EN SEINE
Cafe en Seine is like falling down the rabbit hole into a wonderland of a Paris that doesn’t really exist except inside your dreams. It’s fanciful, over the top, and must be seen to be believed. One doesn’t go here for quality drinks per se, but even if you just walk through or stop in for coffee or tea (it operates as cafe, bar and restaurant), you’ll be impressed with this space. There is sometimes live jazz… even better.
BAR WITH NO NAME
This place has many names: The Secret Bar, 3 Fade Street (the address), or the Snail Bar (as a little snail hangs outside the entrance), and is upstairs in the boutique Kelly Hotel.
Its got that secretive feel getting in, but once inside, it’s clear the secret’s out. The place is mobbed and it is tough getting a drink. They do actually serve cocktails (10-12.50), from classic Negronis or South Sides, to refreshers like a Lemon Basil Smash or Lavender Margarita.
The space is one big party in an 1800’s home: massively high ceilings, multiple drawing rooms, and a patio-like area covered by a red and white striped tent. The tent lends an old-fashioned carnival air to the patio. As they’re open every day from 1pm on with free wifi, I’d go back next time for a mellow afternoon respite, skipping the vibrant nighttime crowds.
FITZWILLIAMS HOTEL BAR
The Fitzwilliams Hotel off St. Stephen’s Green looks like any other hotel bar. But a trusted industry source recommended I go and ask for Alex. Alex served us a classic daiquiri and a spicy, off-menu tequila cocktail, all while talking cocktails the world round with us. It’s always heartening to meet craftsmen and women around the globe, and Alex is one at the Fitzwilliams.
A comfortable rainy day respite is the Library Bar (upstairs in Central Hotel). It is mellow, except for the occasional flurry of families and children. Cozy couches and a living room feel beg for a book and a coffee.
Inside the uber-elegant Shelbourne Hotel is the Horseshoe Bar, a classic, horseshoe-shaped bar with red-vinyl bench seats lining the walls. Cocktails aren’t generally excellent in Ireland, but you can get a decent one here. One goes mainly for the atmosphere. It holds a retro, cozy feel, while its history includes a mention in James Joyces Ulysses, and a claim to being the bar where Irelands great band, The Chieftains, was formed.
No. 23 at the MERRION
No. 23 at the Merrion on the stately Upper Merrion Street in a row of high end hotels is a relaxing, if a bit stuffy, respite on a gray, Dublin afternoon. Old world, somewhat dated decor, a fireplace, couches and chairs and professional service are the backdrop for a French 75 that costs well over $20 (ouch!) But it was a quiet place from which to journal and collect my thoughts.
Possibly the most magical moment in Dublin and of my entire trip was had at O’Donoghue’s. Just a block east of St. Stephen’s Green, this tiny pub is crammed with musicians in the front window jamming for hours, alternating between playing all together or in various configurations.
With a repertoire of traditional Irish music, every player is excellent, and one well over the age of 60 bought me a Scotch and started calling me Judy, saying I had Judy Garland’s soulful eyes. He flirted shamelessly with my husband right there, saying goodbye with a big kiss on my cheek.
The unreal moment came when a girl watching quietly from the cozy crowd inside the bar, began to sing a mournful Irish ballad a capella. She had the perfect voice for a ballad of love lost to death and the loneliness that ensues. Clear, angelic, sweet, she sang plaintively and humbly. I could not help but shed tears. This, my friends, is Ireland.
This Irish micro-brewery is actually a rarity: making truly small batch beers served around town (and in London), their multi-floored, wood-lined pub is packed with nooks and crannies in which to disappear with a pint and a book. The Porterhouse is known for their Plain Stout (which even beat out the mighty Guinness in the “Brewing Oscars“). I also like Porterhouse Red.
Dawson’s is billed as “the smallest pub in Ireland” with a max capacity of 24. Enter a narrow door, down even red, twisty stairs into a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled bar that evokes the 1970’s. It feels packed with far more than 24 people, yet not overwhelmingly so. A unique spot for a pint.
It may be touristy due to its claim as the oldest pub in Dublin since 1198 (!), but I find the Brazenhead worth a visit due to its magic atmosphere. It’s just what you want in a pub: stone walls, history, cozy, wood-lined rooms, an open air stone patio, sing-along sessions and convivial conversation. All can be had here and the setting is unbeatable. Far from the rowdy Temple Bar pubs and crowds, it’s mellow and welcoming.
LONG HALL PUB
When it’s not too packed (it can be annoyingly filled body-to-body), I enjoy Long Hall for its Victorian lamps, mahogany bar, and chandeliers reflecting off mirrors. It’s an elegant pub with over 100 years of history.