Sunday 21 January 2018

Special Report: Restaurants start to sizzle again as customers hungry to spend

Stephane Robin, restaurant manager, in the kitchen at Patrick Guilbaud. Photo: Mark Condren
Stephane Robin, restaurant manager, in the kitchen at Patrick Guilbaud. Photo: Mark Condren
Niall Sabongi in Rock Lobster
Adrian Cummins

"After breaking 7,500 wine glasses, we thought why not make our own?" Stephane Robin, manager of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud says.

"They needed to be perfectly balanced, crystal-clear and, of course, 'soufflé bouche' - blown by the mouth."

I'm not surprised to hear that the three men behind Ireland's only two Michelin-starred restaurant spent months customising carafes and Bordeaux glasses.

Everything about Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud is carefully and considerately crafted - from the Roderic O'Connor paintings on the walls to the embossed porcelain plates and exquisite floral arrangements decorating crisp tablecloths. It's been a good month for the immaculate dining room.

Not only was Mr Guilbaud himself awarded France's highest decoration, the Legion d'Honneur, but in 2014, the Dublin restaurant enjoyed its busiest year on record since opening its doors 33 years ago.

Profits jumped by €88.039, increasing from €356,256 to €444,295. "Not bad," Mr Robin says, as he shows us around the gleaming kitchen.

Mr Robin believes 2015 would have been another record-breaking year were it not for next door's renovation works, which have forced the restaurant to suspend its lunchtime service until November 1. "But I have a feeling 2016 will be another promising year," Mr Robin says confidently.

A team of 43 sous and partie chefs begin filing into the restaurant about 4.30pm and start boiling, basting and bias-slicing with military precision.

A three-course meal at the restaurant can set diners back €105, while an eight-course menu costs in the region of €185.

According to Mr Robin, 85pc of business is local, with 70pc of diners celebrating something special.

"They come here for an occasion," he says. "People aren't afraid to spend any more but they want high quality."

In urban enclaves around the country, restaurant proprietors are noticing an increase in business.

"The restaurant trade is a barometer of economics," Anthony Remedy of Taco Taco and San Lorenzos says. "It's the first sign things are going up or going down. And things are definitely getting busier."

Niall Sabongi - the brains behind seafood restaurant Rock Lobster in Dundrum - agrees.

"It is not a return to the Celtic Tiger days by any means," he remarks. "The recession hit the industry very hard, but footfall and turnover of tables has increased."

Mr Sabongi believes diners are now more educated, thanks to travel and reality-TV shows.

"Irish diners have been to different countries, sampled different cuisines, seen recipes and cookery demonstrations on TV and online," he says.

"They're adventurous, they know food, and they're willing to try new things."

Following on from the success of Rock Lobster, Mr Sabongi will open a crab shack called Klaw next week, where punters can shuck crab claws while they sup Bloody Marys.

According to Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Ireland, "experiential restaurants" such as Klaw have become increasingly popular with Irish consumers.

"Three-course meals are a thing of the past," Mr Cummins says. "Most people want two courses, a pre-dinner drink and, most importantly, to be entertained while they eat. It's a whole experience now - not just a meal."

Mr Cummins believes young professionals with no mortgage worries have brought a new lease of life to Ireland's restaurant scene.

"They want to go out, experience a new way of eating and tell all their friends about it on social media," he says.

But Mr Cummins is keen to stress that not all restaurants are booming and many rural areas have yet to experience the same sharp increase in trade.

"Middle Ireland hasn't seen a major upturn," Mr Cummins said. "It's important to look at the whole country.

"The restaurants in rural areas need the most support."

Irish Independent

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