Wednesday 24 January 2018

The tills are alive with the sound of people toasting end of the bad times

We have not returned to the excesses of the Celtic Tiger but, writes Barry Egan, the country feels alive again as foodies with a taste for fine dining flock back to our top eateries in Dublin and beyond

PARTY TIME: Restaurateur Geraldine Fitzpatrick says people are in party mode
PARTY TIME: Restaurateur Geraldine Fitzpatrick says people are in party mode
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Is the worst over? I'm not a fecking economist but I do take the Dart. So I am perhaps, possibly, better qualified to hold forth on the state of the Irish economy than most economists.

Allow me to explain. Last Friday morning, I was racing for the Dart in Monkstown when my Leap Card wouldn't work and I didn't have any cash on me. Hearing my distress, the nice young chap at the Nomad coffee cart ran over and, without being asked, handed me €3. He said to pay him back the following morning, as I departed with all the other morning commuters en route to our respective places of employment.

Now, I'm not mad enough to think that the guy from the coffee cart in Monkstown rushing over with Dart fare is hard evidence that the recession is at an end in Ireland. But it wouldn't have happened in 2008. Also in 2008, you wouldn't have noticed the amount of high-end, luxury motors on the road that there are now. Range Rovers. Audis. Porsches. Luxury motors with bling new regs are everywhere on our roads. (57,000 cars were sold in 2009. They are predicting at least 125,000 cars will be sold this year.) Also, in 2008, you wouldn't have seen the restaurants and the bars and the cafes of this fine nation as filled as they are now with people out enjoying themselves and - whisper it - spending their money.

Granted, they mightn't have as much money as they used to, pre-recession, but they are out spending whatever little they have in the recovery.

Restaurants such as Marco Pierre White's, L'Ecrivain and Sophie's and beyond are hopping; and not just on Friday and Saturday nights. Sophie's, in The Dean Hotel, on Dublin's Harcourt Street, was jammers last Sunday night. Are 37 on Dawson Street, the downstairs bar in Fallon & Byrne on Exchequer Street or Avoca Food Market & Salt Café in Monkstown ever not busy?

Perhaps the Heino has gone to my head but the quality of life seems better this last year. There is a definite mood of positivity about the place in Ireland. At the very least, there is less despair, despondency, general doom and gloom about the place. The country suddenly feels alive with hipsters and old bon vivants alike. There is more of a spring in people's step. At the risk of having a public effigy of me burnt outside the GPO by Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy, the bad times appear to be over.

Yes - people are still emigrating;

Yes - people still can't pay their mortgages or their water charges or make ends meet;

Yes - young people still feel that the Government or the banks have stolen their future;

Yes - the financial crisis will have shaped many of our whole outlooks on life.

But things appear to have improved. It is not quite that we have swapped the credit crunch for the crunch of Caesar salad in upmarket D4 and Galway/West Cork/Kerry restaurants and cafes. Still, we are definitely out more and having more fun. Though, thankfully, we are not buying property again in Bulgaria.

Even Ronan Ryan - the Irish restaurant industry's very own Icarus who flew too close to the sun and got his wings burnt back in the boom -is being upbeat.

"It's rocking again alright, but it's got a bit more cop-on. Like those rave classes people go to now before work. You know, the ones without the drugs!

"That's the new wave right there in Dublin," says Ronan, who now runs Pizza e Porchetta in the Malting Tower on Dublin's Grand Canal Quay.

Sallyanne Clarke, co-proprietor of L'Ecrivain, the Michelin star restaurant on Baggot Street in Dublin, said: "It is great to see people confident enough again to be out spending money. The spend is creeping back, definitely. Lunches haven't recovered, but dinners have almost returned. We are starting to see corporate dining again. We were one of the first restaurants to be hit - because L'Ecrivain is the top end of the market. There were people who were not hit by the recession who couldn't be seen in our restaurant. We met customers who told us that we'd love to come in but if we were seen having more than a pint and a sandwich it would look bad.

"It has been a very difficult seven years but there is a definite improvement," Sallyanne said, adding: "The ladies lunches for charity are back around the town. They have no problem selling tickets which is great, too."

"We have noticed over the past year that people are coming more to our restaurants in party mode," says Geraldine Fitzpatrick, one of the owners of Marco Pierre White Courtyard Bar & Grill in Donnybrook and Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill on Dawson Street.

"Our motto is affordable glamour. People are rewarding themselves for the hard work that has gone on over the last number of years by going out and enjoying food and drink," Alan Clancy, owner of 37, House and Xico - all impossibly hip spots in Dublin - said.

"A lot of places have raised their game and given a better experience to their customers. Dublin city has picked up a lot over the last two years. It is a great place to go out in."

It is not just in dear old Dublin, the good times are also spreading nationwide.

Neven Maguire, the esteemed chef proprietor of MacNean House & Restaurant in Blacklion, county Cavan, said: "We were fortunate to be very well booked through the last few years. But people were definitely more cautious than they had been. In the last year, there has been a noticeable increase in what people spend. I opened the cookery school in 2013 and that was a tough time. It got off to a slowish start but there has been a massive pick-up again in the last 12 months. There's a big interest in learning the basics and to cook something a bit more special and I am amazed at how many men are coming here.

"In 2008, we entered the darkest possible period of business," said John Brennan of The Park Hotel in Kenmare. "In 2011, it levelled out and the recession ended in February 2014 for us. The last 18 months have seen a dramatic change in customer sentiment, confidence and commercial activity. So much so the next cloud on the horizon is staffing. We would be optimistic for the future but mindful of the mistakes and business costs we experienced in the boom."

Sandra Murphy, owner of Cork's Rising Tide - Lady Gaga dined in the restaurant in 2009 on the night of her concert in Cork - said: "The hospitality industry is a challenging industry but I think that we, in Ireland, do it like nobody else. This year, 2015, I have felt a shift in trends. There is a sense of positivity that hasn't been around for a while. I feel a change happening - and it's a good change."

Jennifer Senior wrote in Recession Culture: "Just as some New Yorkers danced their way through the Great Depression to the supper-club stylings of Cole Porter and Champagne send-offs on the Normandie, some will live through this historic recession by summering in Sagaponack." No doubt some Irish gadabout grandees will soon be spottded dancing deliriously to Kanye West's BLKKK SKKKN HEAD in Krystle or House over magnum bottles of Cristal.

The rich are different from you and me, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald, but they can teach us to enjoy ourselves, not least now the bad times appear to be over.

Sunday Independent

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