Sunday 4 December 2016

Fabled Unicorn now faces a fate worse than debt

In its day, it was the centre of Dublin's social scene -- but the magical Unicorn restaurant now faces closure, says Barry Egan

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

Giorgio Casari and Jeff Stokes were the men who believed in the rebirth of the Unicorn. But this coming Thursday at the Harcourt Hotel in Dublin's Harcourt Street, Jeff and Giorgio are facing the grim reality that the Unicorn might now become as elusive as the mythical beast from which it takes its name.

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The owners of the Unicorn restaurant will listen as a group of suppliers and lenders hold a creditors' meeting which will decide the fate of their legendary spot on Merrion Row, Dublin.

It was once at the centre of Dublin social and, at times, political life. You'd as likely meet Gayle Killilea chatting to PJ Mara or Michael McDowell as you would Ralph Fiennes with the two Michaels -- Gambon and Colgan.

"I can't think of another restaurant in the world where I've had such great times," Michael Gambon told me during the week, when I met him with Michael Colgan, director of the Gate Theatre. It was there that Colgan held Brian Friel's 80th birthday party in 2009: the guest list included Ian McKellan, Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack, Seamus Heaney, John McColgan, Moya Doherty, Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins, Harry Crosbie, Mike Murphy, Edna O'Brien, and Conor McPherson.

In 2005, Colgan marked Harold Pinter's 75th birthday with a similar bash full of actors and luvvies of international repute. "I had put on a week of Pinter's plays at the Gate but the British Council wouldn't pay for Pinter's party at the Unicorn," Colgan tells me, "and Giorgio Casari then said he would host it for nothing. He paid for it. He is also incredibly generous of spirit, a terrific host. The Unicorn is the hub of social activity and Giorgio Casari set that up -- gave it that spirit of culture and theatre and fun."

In its time, the Unicorn was to Dublin what the Algonquin Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel was to New York in the 1920s. As America entered the Depression, the Algonquin Round Table set fell into decline. A similar fate has befallen the Unicorn with the economic downturn. With the possible exception of Johnny Ronan, the big-spending property developers who practically took over the restaurant for their private parties and the like can no longer be seen to spend big.

"The Unicorn was obviously going to suffer in the slump," says Robbie Fox, boss of Pink nightclub, and a regular for epic lunches on Friday at the Unicorn, with his VBFs Johnny Ronan, Graham Beere, Dave Kavanagh et al. "But I think the Unicorn will survive. Giorgio is a great operator. He will get out of this."

"If it is the demise of the Unicorn, which I hope it isn't," adds Robbie, "let me just say that that restaurant was a central part of Dublin life at one stage. At the height of the boom, it was more like a day-time nightclub than a restaurant. You'd have the politicians and the car dealers and the barristers and the property developers. They all knew each other."

Naturally, I got a lot of the inside information for my Edge column from mixing at those very tables myself over the past 20 years. A great place for delish gossip, you would also see stories unfold before your eyes. Like the early Friday evening, a few years ago, when Eamon Dunphy brought Valerie Roe, Pamela Flood, Elaine Roody and Tara O'Connor into the Piano Bar, where he bought bottles of champagne and proceeded to sing and dedicate 'The Rose' to Ms Roe.

Friday afternoons on the terrace of the Unicorn that edged woozily into the evenings became something of an established ritual -- Bill Clinton could even turn up -- as he did last year. It was all about the interaction between the group. Friends at one table were sometimes joined by others, who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group. There would always be a model or two, a pop star, a visiting dignitary playing out their role on the stage that was the Unicorn. On a good night, and there were many good nights, it was like a rollicking Noel Coward play at the Gate.

"The food wasn't the point, was it?" says Trevor White, who had a run-in for writing just that in Dubliner magazine when he was publishing it. "Giorgio and his wife Noirin are the best hosts in Dublin -- warm, funny, flirtatious and thoughtful. They're a terrific couple, and you'd have to wish them well."

There are also the memories. "When I think of the Unicorn, I always think of my friend Frank O'Kane. We would eat there two or three times a week. He is dead now. But I think of him a lot," Robbie Fox says of the former head of Mercury Engineering. "He was a lovely man. He would tell you the same jokes on Monday that he would tell you again at the Unicorn on Friday."

"I had the best nights of my life in the Unicorn," recalls Eileen Murphy. "I only started going there after I separated from Mike. I remember bumping into PJ Mara in there a few nights. He is great fun. When I was a teenager, he brought me to the cinema. My mother was waiting for me on the doorstep when I got home because she was nervous of me going out with an older man."

Eileen can also recall a glorious night she spent in The Unicorn with Liam Neeson and his late wife, Natasha Richardson. "They were lovely people. As have been many of the people that I've met over the years in there, like Noel Pearson and John McColgan and Moya Doherty and Michael Colgan. But Giorgio is a great man behind that restaurant. He is so charming and I hope the Unicorn survives."

So do most of us who believe in Unicorns.

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