Gastro pubs: fine food without airs and graces
Diners have never had it so good, writes food reviewer Alan Kelly
Our love of gastro dining is going off the scale. Michelin's Eating Out in Pubs guide for 2016 includes 32 entries that hit the right culinary note.
Cork has five, Clare four, Kildare has three, Dublin, Galway and Mayo each have two listings, with Kerry, Leitrim, Louth, Sligo, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow each having one.
In the North, Co Down leads the way for the island of Ireland with six listings, while Antrim has one.
I'm not sure when the first gastro pub officially opened in Ireland but I certainly remember when my first experience of real food in a bar. It was in the Angler's Rest in Chapelizod C.1975 on the way home from a match in the park.
Back then half-starved teenage lads had two options: the chipper or the mammy, or maybe 10 bags of Tayto with a pint - okay, that's three options, but you get the picture.
Sometimes, though, like that night at the Angler's, neither the chipper nor the mammy were around.
That's when I had blistering hot roasted pork between two batch loaf slices and a plate of chips.
It was proper elbows-on-the-table grub that required skill and determination just to get it to your gob. I can still taste it, and even washed down with lukewarm Harp it was awesome.
It wasn't just the taste that was so pleasurable - it was the simplicity, and the honesty, and the complete lack of toffee-nosed airs and graces that won me over.
There was no wine list, of course, or menu flim-flam with scary unpronounceable ingredients from quare foreign places either.
I know all things have to move on but, thinking about it now, the Angler's, and other places like it, were the template for all the great pub eateries we know and love today.
And also I think it's fair to say that the old-fashioned Irish local is pretty much dying out (which is not necessarily a good thing, either) and unless they crank up the food offerings a notch or two, most of them will soon be history.
Ashley Marcilliat, of the outré cool Old Spot in Ballsbridge, would agree.
"Amazing food in a relaxed place - that's how we want to go," he said.
And it's worthwhile noting that he also says: "The secret behind the success of The Old Spot is its epic roasts!"
Unlike restaurants, gastro pubs are frequented by any-and-all types at any time of the day.
In fact, it's the old egalitarian non-exclusive vibe of the local that has sensibly been hooked up with gastro pubs that makes them so successful.
Places that also fuse über posh ingredients with everyday stalwarts like pulled pork, roast beef and roast chicken, and then magically bring them together between two slabs of chunky toasted sourdough, are always on to a winner.
Cooking quality meat on a volcano-hot griddle not only brings out new levels of taste and glutton - it also elevates a simple steak, raising it head and shoulders above the awful monsters from the past.
And of course, when you think about it, the upmarket hamburger is also a variety of sandwich - except with added layers of yum-yum, accurate seasoning, and artery-clogging deliciousness.
There's many a road to a foodie disaster, but even the humble sandwich can be made snoggable by using the finest possible ingredients and cooking them with a modicum of pride and interest.
The owner of the Chop House, Kevin Arundel, agrees: "It's about using the really good ingredients we have in Ireland and cooking them properly, with respect."
Employing staff who genuinely look pleased to see you also helps with enjoying a relaxed evening out - which brings me to a couple of my favourite gastropubs that I regularly visit again and again, and which are listed in the Eating Out in Pubs guide.
Among them is Deasy's near Clonakilty. The seafood there will make you weep with foodie pleasure.
Also listed is The Poachers in Bandon. These guys are on a high right now and maintain it by looking after the essentials: fine ingredients and great cooking. This is a gastro pub that just gets on with the job and does it with style.
I eat there quite a lot and have never had a bad meal.
Harte's pub, listed in Kildare, is another fantastic pub that is always worth taking a spin out to visit.
For obsessive food fans like me, eating out really has changed dramatically since those strange days of the 1970s.
Back then it was dangerous to put anything hot into your mouth if it came from behind a bar counter.
I wouldn't say it's impossible to eat badly or there's no such thing as a bad lunch now (Jeez, don't get me started!!) but pub food has really hit the heights.
And if that doesn't inspire you to go out and eat then the words of Anthony Bourdain might: "Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. So why not enjoy the ride?"
In other words, we are practically obliged to taste, savour, and luxuriate to our heart's content.
Diners nowadays - ach, sure, they don't know they're born.