Monday 20 August 2018

WATCH: What does Bewleys mean to you? Iconic café celebrates first Christmas after re-opening

Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

Former patrons of Bewleys experienced a few surprises when the iconic café re-opened its doors - but perhaps not as much as the family behind the landmark cafe on Grafton Street.

After almost three years, the much missed barista finally pulled away its scaffolding following a multi-million-euro refurbishment, and customers were struck by the familiar features which had been retained.

Customers recognised that the Harry Clarke windows, the banquettes, the ten open fireplaces and the Egyptian-motifed façades on Grafton Street and Johnson’s Court that distinguished the original café were carefully restored.

"The design understated but that's the nature of Bewleys, the aesthetics were already there - it's just been enhanced," Col Campbell told Independent.ie.

"The only sort of layer that we wanted to achieve was a sense of order, well being and calm. Stepping away from the hurly burly of Grafton Street and into the place where you feel that you belong."

But the Dublin city building has now been opened up to allow more natural light, and new design elements throughout including both black Carlow oyster limestone and white Carrara marble.

"We said we would pay attention to the small details. So that if the customer came in for the 10th or 20th time, you'll always notice something different," said Campbell.

"When you come in you don't have to look to find anything, it's all open plan...it should be intuitive to walk around. It's more about the things you don't put in than the things you do, principally walls and barriers."

Customers who work their way up the sweeping staircase from the first floor are "blown away by the space", according to Campbell, but it's not their reaction to the cafe's design that leaves him overwhelmed.

"People come in and might say 'oh, you've kept the banquettes and the coat stands' but the very next thing out of their mouths is a story about someone that they know or love - and their connection with Bewleys.

"Certainly we never thought about that and in retrospect we should have realised how people would react to it.It's incredible the people coming in from all over the country. They are making the journey, it is a destination."

It is these stories - and this connection - that strikes a chord and is perhaps why many think of Bewleys with a touch of nostalgia and sentimentality. While Campbell believes the cafe is just a "fleeting figure" in these stories, he said that people are seeing a relevance of Bewleys which "perhaps has never been there before".

"It's utterly humbling; it gives you goosebumps as you hear these stories from people of all generations," he said.

"People want that sense that they somehow belong; there is that desire in people that connect, not least among the number of solo diners that come in here."

One of these solo diners Denis repeatedly asked Cól over the period of refurbishment when the cafe would be open. Denis, a man aged in his 80s, requires the use of an electrolarynx device so that his voice can be heard.

When he finally got through the newly opened front doors, Cól sat down with the diner as Denis was insistent that he wanted to show him his sister's dog.

"It was probably about three days after we opened and he pulled out this beautiful black stuffed dog and said he bought it in Bewleys in Mary Street," said Campbell.

"We had this arrangement with the zoo over 20 years ago and they were selling the stuffed toys and the souvenirs from the zoo to our patrons. Denis bough the dog for his sister and she left it to him when she died. He was so happy to be able to share this story. For him, it's not about Bewleys it's about his sister."

It's just one of the stories that come from the various patrons which cross the cafe threshold: from schoolgirls buying hot chocolates to parents coming in with buggies to the older generations having a catch up to the office workers having a quick business coffee.

"A neighbour of ours went through his father's papers when his father died and was looking for legal documents but he found love letters and they were written from Bewleys," said Campbell.

"His mother was living in Rathgar at the time and his father was corresponding to her. He must not have been doing much work as the lot of them were written from Bewleys!"

Old customers' favourites crafted by a French patissier and a French bakers such as the Sticky Buns are available on the new Bewleys menu alongside latest offerings that suit a more "sophisticated Ireland". A raspberry mousse and mince pies were the only additions made for the festive season. But what's selling best?

"The feckin' almond buns! The top seller before we closed was the scone; our scone was good but it wasn't exceptional. We've got a decent business out there with the takeaway coffees but what we weren't expecting the people who would want to take the almond and the cherry buns home.

"The new range sell steadily but they haven't shifted quite the same - they've been overshadowed by the heritage."

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