Photo © Cedric Angeles
The bright side of Ireland's economic malaise? Dublin's food and drink scene is more fun than it's been in years. Writer Lauren Collins spends a weekend inside the city's booming DIY restaurant world.
When my father's grandparents left—for reasons now forgotten—their homes in Roscommon, Dublin and Belfast, and arrived in New York Harbor after 10 weeks at sea, they were greeted by an official who turned their eyelids inside out with a buttonhook to check for signs of infectious disease. They made it through Ellis Island to Brooklyn, and then to the innermost rungs of Long Island. Postmen begat real estate agents whose sons became attorneys and Presbyterians.
This spring, more than a hundred years later, I undertook a reverse migration of sorts. My assignment was to check out Dublin's newest restaurants. But my personal mission was to search out meals that might constitute the culinary patrimony that I had somehow never absorbed. My paternal relations were not the sort to have passed down splattered cookbooks, or the self-mythologies that accompany them. From the Irish side of my family, I have exactly one recipe—it is for a pumpkin pie with a graham cracker crust, and it was bequeathed to my grandmother by the Carnation milk company.
When I landed in Dublin, I handed over my American passport.
"Are you here for work or for pleasure?" the immigration officer asked.
"Sort of both," I said.
As I cursed myself for having offered the spoken equivalent of a hanging chad, the officer broke into a smile.
"I've got a tip for you, then!" he said. Minutes later, my phone vibrated. It was an email from Caroline Byrne, a Dublin food and wine writer. "Welcome to Dublin!" she wrote. "You've arrived to sunny weather and one of my favorite members of the Garda Síochána (that's Irish for police)!"
The only other time I'd been to Dublin was at the tail end of the high-flying days of the Celtic Tiger: I recall martinis served amid piano music at crushing prices. The economic crash has been devastating, but almost everyone I met in Dublin said it had incubated the sort of scrappy, DIY places that suit straitened circumstances—places like The Fumbally, an all-day café run by a group of chef friends. I breakfasted on Cáis and Mil (buffalo ricotta made in West Cork and served with honey) and a glass of lemon-and-gingerade (one of the minor surprises of Ireland is that it has excellent nonalcoholic beverages). Later, I met Byrne and her mother, Clair, in the "wine cave" at KC Peaches, a gleaming deli inspired by the whole-foods ethos of San Francisco. (Byrne's many gigs include a job in the marketing department of KC Peaches.) This past June, KC Peaches launched Dublin's first food truck, run out of a converted London ambulance and christened The Fat Peach. The name hints at the truck's menu of not-so-diet-friendly sandwiches inspired by diners and delis around the US, such as a Philly cheesesteak and another exotic delicacy advertised as "the spectacularly hangover-friendly, all-American Grilled Cheese."
Byrne said, "Ireland has gone through an awakening, coming out the other end of wanting to be fancy, and realizing you don't have to be pretentious. Good food is no longer a new thing, so we're happy to see it delivered in all shapes and sizes." She took a slug of wine and continued, "The best thing that ever happened to this country, besides getting rich, was getting poor."
Eventually, I ended up at the bar at 777, a riotous cantina and tequila spot with subway-tiled walls and mosaics of lowriders. At the bartender's recommendation, I ordered an El Gigolo de Goma—chile-infused pisco, triple sec and mandarin puree, served in a martini glass. John Farrell, 777's handsome owner, told me stories ("Since an early age, I've had an interest in alcohol") over guacamole with pumpkin seeds (an improvement, which is saying something, since guacamole is more or less unimprovable). "Since the recession, Dublin is a much better place," he said. "Before, it was hard for young people to get into the business; all the menus looked the same. It's more interesting now, to be honest with you."
On Saturday afternoon, I planned an early lunch with Joe "Jo'Burger" Macken—a man-about-Dublin who most recently, with rugby star Jamie Heaslip, opened his fifth Dublin restaurant, a steak house called Bear. Macken wears the part of his hair that isn't shaved in a silver topknot and can abbreviate any word that is more than three letters. He shambled in to Bear with his boyfriend. They were hungover: "Prosecco, please!" "Obvs!" Macken is Dublin's impresario of the sort of raucous, attitudinal dining that Ken Friedman, of The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, has pioneered in New York. He doles out free meals to his followers on Twitter, using the hashtag #tweetseats. The house rules include "No kids after 7 p.m." and "No split bills." He explained, "Inexpensive is big. We sell the more obscure parts of the cow." In the novels of Edna O'Brien, Dublin was pink gin and black lingerie; now, it's forgotten cuts and new media.
Recently, I read somewhere that you can now hire people to kidnap you. (This is apparently big with bachelor parties.) It might just be cheaper to fly over to Dublin and call Joe Macken. Soon, we were off to Grogans, a dank pub with Guinness on tap and a mini-refrigerator full of toasties. We sat drinking pints at an outdoor table, where Macken exchanged fist-bumps with passersby. "The sense of connectivity—that's what Dublin's about," he said. He called an employee at his chicken place, Crackbird, who dropped by with a greasy brown bag tied with a red ribbon. We tore into thighs and wings marinated in soy-and-garlic sauce—stoner food for boozers. Around the corner at Murphy's, we ordered brown-bread ice cream. If this was a poor man's chocolate-chip-cookie dough, I was glad to be the descendant of poor men.
When we arrived at the Damson Diner, we sampled Oisin Davis's gin, which he had infused with elderflower he picked in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The tour continued: Clement and Pekoe, a posh tea shop with homemade Oreos and Mars Bar squares, marbled like Florentine paper; the campus of Trinity College, where we watched white-clad men play cricket. In Macken's parlance, we were "socialing." Before the sun set, I made a daring escape from The Terrace of the Merrion Hotel, where Macken had just ordered a bottle of Chablis.
Fine dining in Dublin, Macken said, once had "the bang of the golf-club dinner." But The Greenhouse, just off St. Stephen's Green, is as precise, clean and ambitious as anywhere I've been in Spain or Denmark (the chef, Mickael Viljanen, is a native Finn). At a table of prosperous-looking thirtysomethings out on a Saturday-night quintuple date, no one was wearing an argyle sweater. The five-course tasting menu cost 75 euros ($98). In my favorite dish, the evanescent coolness of a sorbet made with sea buckthorn played off the funk of a foie gras parfait. The Greenhouse also passed what a friend once proposed to me as the ultimate test of sophistication—it had furniture in the bathroom. It does not have a Michelin star, but it should.
My last morning in Dublin, I tried to slip undetected out of Number 31, the guesthouse where I was staying. (I wanted to see the Yeats exhibit at The National Library of Ireland.) But Noel Comer, the friendly owner, lured me into the dining room with the promise (or threat) of scrambled eggs. The eggs were good. Comer, a retired army officer, said that many of his guests are members of the Irish diaspora, returning, if that's the word, in order to remember the land they never knew. Even as I was aware of the fallacy of conjuring roots out of seaweed and elderflower, I felt I had seen flashes of my family—in the ice-blue eyes, on the liver-spotted hands and, most of all, in the buoyant hospitality of the people I met. "A telephone and a sleeping bag, that's all the Irish need," Comer said, draining his coffee. "We never needed Facebook."
Lauren Collins is a staff writer for The New Yorker who is based in Geneva. She profiled Ireland's star chef Rachel Allen in the August issue of F&W.