Jaunting at Jammet's
. . . and why Richard Corrigan wants to recreate the legendary restaurant
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Richard Corrigan said this week that he would like to re-invent Dublin's celebrated Jammet's Restaurant, certainly the most famous and possibly the best restaurant in Ireland from 1901 until 1967 when it finally closed.
Myles McWeeney recalls the magic of a restaurant that epitomised chic glamour in post-war Ireland, where international stars such as Tyrone Power, Ronald Reagan, Laurel and Hardy, David Niven and Trevor Howard broke bread with Dublin's artistic and business elite.
I can't remember what the Nassau Street facade of Jammet's Restaurant looked like, but I certainly can recall the interior. I was probably about 11 or 12 when I first went there with my parents, and the occasion was my birthday. I wasn't exactly a stranger to good restaurants as my parents always saved hard to eat out a few times a year, but I clearly remember being totally awed at my first sight of Jammet's.
It was the most opulent and beautiful place I'd ever seen -- a big, high room that seemed to stretch back forever, filled with well-spaced tables dressed with linen napery, silver and gleaming crystal glasses.
The walls were painted with extraordinarily vibrant and beautiful murals, the most famous of which was a depiction of the goddesses of the four seasons.
According to Alison Maxwell, whose comprehensive history of Jammet's is due to be published next year, the murals were the work of an impecunious Italian artist called Bossini which were created in exchange for meals.
I now know that it was utterly French in style, and perhaps a little old-fashioned even back in the 1950s, but it was exciting and beautiful to me. Later I came to know that the main dining room was just one of seven bars and dining rooms it operated which made it one of Dublin's biggest restaurants.
The menu was about as big as a pillow case. Dozens of soups and starters were listed, and then just about every kind of fish and crustacean that could be found on a fishmonger's slab served in a dozen or more different sauces. There were long lists of meat, poultry, game and offal cooked in a myriad different ways, desserts by the dozen and, finally, that Edwardian coup de grace at the end of a meal, a list of savouries such as Devils on Horseback and Welsh rarebit.
I remember that I started with a cream of chicken soup and I followed that with steak tartare. I watched with horror as the waiter arrived at the table and proceeded to mix together a lump of raw mince with onions, capers, herbs, seasonings and an egg yolk. When all the mixing was done the ma quietly said to the waiter: "Would you mind taking that and cooking it for him."
Founded by French brothers Michel and Francois Jammet, and subsequently run by Michel's son Louis, the 1950s and 1960s were the restaurant's heyday.
Back then most Irish people seldom ate in restaurants. Office workers and civil servants walked or cycled home for lunch, and factory workers and shop assistants took sandwiches to work with them.
When people ate out it was usually for a special occasion, a birthday or an anniversary, and there were lots of relatively inexpensive grill restaurants in the centre of the city. O'Connell Street had grills at the Metropole, a cinema and dance hall entertainment complex on the site Penneys currently occupies, the Capitol cinema around the corner in Prince's Street had one also, as did the Carlton and Savoy cinemas at the other end of the street.
Also hugely popular was Clerys Restaurant. The fare on offer would have been very basic by today's standards. Roast chicken, grilled chicken, steaks, bacon and cabbage, pork chops and perhaps lamb cutlets, all served with chips, would be the staples.
Starters might include brown windsor soup and -- very exotic -- a half grapefruit with a Maraschino cherry on top sprinkled with brown sugar and flashed under the grill. Tea and bread and butter came with each meal, and wine lists, if they existed at all, were very short.
Dining in top restaurants like Jammet's was, for the most part, the preserve of top businessmen, diplomats, and professionals like lawyers, doctors and accountants -- and, some things are ever thus, government ministers.