The Golden Paolos 2012
The economic gloom may have settled on us for longer than expected, but there's a vibrant force out there in our restaurants. I'm constantly amazed at the number of restaurants that open, because to open a restaurant you need lots of money and a huge amount of optimism.
Optimism is one of the first casualties of downturns, as the temptation is to wallow in despair. So seeing new restaurants open around the country is more than encouraging, it's uplifting.
We may have less disposable income, but the habit of eating out hasn't left us. Restaurants around the country have adapted to our new spending habits and have cut their prices hugely.
These days, in the capital, you can find a two-course dinner for €20 and a three-course one for €25 on just about every set menu. That's the sort of money we used to spend in punts, and they've been gone a while.
The year began with a visit to Salt, in Monkstown. It's one of Avoca's outlets, but it's in a different mould to the others. It's a deli, a cheese shop, a butcher's shop, a rotisserie and a restaurant.
The food is perfectly placed for the times – it's well-made, interesting and affordable. I've been back a few times since and I'm convinced that it's a perfect paradigm for the times we're in.
Other restaurants have opened in the same vein, although not identical. Early in the year, I visited Bear, which specialises in unusual cuts of meat. These are economical cuts, not because they're nasty, but because they need some skill in preparation.
What I liked about Bear is just that – it has embraced austerity and turned it into good food.
At the fine-dining end of the spectrum, I really enjoyed my visit to Locks, where chef Rory Carville is working wonders. I wrote at the time that I felt it was worthy of a Michelin star, and I'm happy to report that it has since received that accolade.
A couple of months later, I ate in The Greenhouse, where chef Mickael Viljanen now cooks after his success in Gregans Castle. I thought that what I ate there was astonishing, an absolute tour de force of cuisine.
I'd have given The Greenhouse a Michelin star on the spot, but as yet it hasn't been awarded.
At the value-for-money end of the spectrum, two meals stand out. The first was a very simple meal in Terra Madre on Dublin's quays, where a small band of dedicated foodies run a tiny dining room, producing good food from an even smaller kitchen.
It's the sort of start-up I like to support and it will surely grow into a bigger, successful restaurant.
In Dun Laoghaire, I ate in The Bay at Walters, the newest incarnation of the restaurant above Walters pub. When it comes to value for money, this was the bargain of the year. A long-running promotion gave us a 50pc discount on the cost of the meal, leaving us with a bill for two of €46.17.
George's Street and its continuation of Aungier Street is fast becoming a restaurant hot-spot. I enjoyed two new arrivals this year, which face one another – Whitefriars Grill and Brioche.
They offer different dining experiences, but what they had in common was careful sourcing of ingredients. Like most new arrivals this year, they have pitched their prices firmly at the affordable end of the spectrum.
Every year, I pick the best hotel restaurant out for an award, but this year there are two contenders that I simply can't separate: Samphire in the Waterside House Hotel, Donabate, and Citron in the Fitzwilliam Hotel, Dublin.
Both of these kitchens produced truly excellent food at economy prices.
Tom Walsh is doing amazing things in Donabate and Matt Fuller is doing the same in the Fitzwilliam. I'd urge you to try either of these as soon as you can.
It is worth repeating the mantra that I reiterate again and again. When I mention the name of a chef in relation to a restaurant, it's because I think that the chef has had a huge effect on the meal.
It follows that should that chef leave, the restaurant may or may not be able to keep up the same standard.
Tapas bars are still opening and I visited a couple this year, Las Rada in Naas and The Gourmet Food Parlour in Dun Laoghaire. It's a great way to eat if you're a few diners, as it gives you the opportunity to taste plenty of things without feeling full.
There were a few ethnic meals this year, too: Kai in Galway, Koishi in Ballsbridge, Geisha in Ashtown and Chang Thai in Enniscorthy. All worthy contenders, but the best meal of the year was in Glasthule's Rasam, a restaurant that has been earning accolades and awards for years, and not surprisingly.
Outside of the capital, there have been exciting things happening. Galway got its first Michelin star for its restaurant Aniar, which I've yet to visit.
But, recently, I ate in Galway's Brasserie on the Corner, which, although not aiming at the Michelin star market, is still producing interesting and good food at affordable prices.
I found that same pattern of good and interesting food in Cork as well, dining well this year in Electric and The Cornstore.
What I liked about both of these restaurants was an emphasis on local artisan produce. That's something that, happily, I'm finding a lot more of in restaurants generally, although I'm yet to be completely convinced by the omnipresent beetroot and some of the 'heritage' variety of vegetables.
There's no doubt, Irish restaurants are improving apace and whereas we were once an expensive country to eat out in, that's no longer the case. There's good value to be had if you look for it.
So to the awards.
Best Restaurant of 2012 goes to The Greenhouse, Dawson Street, Dublin.
Best Hotel Restaurant of 2012 is shared by Citron in the Fitzwilliam, Dublin, and Samphire in The Waterside, Donabate.
Best Ethnic Restaurant of 2012 goes to Rasam in Glasthule.