Wednesday 26 September 2018

Raise a glass to Ireland's greatest hostess - the Unicorn's Miss Dom

Unicorn Restaurant
Unicorn Restaurant
The late Miss Dom
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The late great PJ Mara once described Saturday lunch at the Unicorn in the mid-1980s as a hugely enjoyable "exchange and mart for scurrility and calumny". Charlie Haughey's sultan of spin was neatly sidestepping the fact perhaps that he was one of the main lubricants for both.

And it was all courtesy of a petite refined Italian woman named Miss Dom who ran the Unicorn restaurant off Dublin's Merrion Row and turned it into a golden age of fun when long Saturday afternoon lunches for the great and the good - and Eamon Dunphy - carried on long into the evening.

Sadly, Miss Dom is no longer with us.

Sandra Sidoli posted on the Unicorn website last Tuesday: "Together with my sister Flavia and brother Lino, I wish to inform all those Unicorn friends who may remember Miss Dom (our aunt Domenica Fulgoni) that she peacefully passed away this morning at the age of 91 in the Apennine town of Bardi (Parma), Italy, where she had retired in the Nineties after leaving Dublin and 'her' Unicorn."

Her Unicorn was an institution in all possible connotations of the word. The fact that the restaurant was within falling distance of Leinster House, the Shelbourne bar and Doheny & Nesbitt wasn't a problem with the political and legal golden circle of that era, who made it their second kitchen. Drama was the norm. It was like the night of the long knives and forks, with pasta...

With Miss Dom's energy to propel it, the restaurant produced more than its fair share of apocryphal tales: among them the tale that one famous evening, once upon a time, many, many years ago, after eight of the household staff at Aras an Uachtarain had been given their P45s by a new President's incoming administration, PJ Mara saw some of the President's advisers at a table in the Unicorn. Mara and his coterie (among them Adrian Hardiman, then a judge of the High Court) began to chant of "two-four-six-eight, reinstate the Aras Eight!"

Vincent Browne would pop in for what one former Unicorn waiter described as his regular "fractious" coffee with others journalists, before the then Sunday Tribune editor would storm off again.

A clubbier mix of the Algonquin Round Table in New York in the 1920s and some sort of wine-soaked cultural salon, the Unicorn was where the Establishment rubbed shoulders with movie stars, rock stars, TV stars, poets, authors, models, property developers, bankers, tycoons, a visiting dignitary or two, and lowly journalists looking for a scoop.

It was a pre-mobile phone era and there was a public payphone at the end of the restaurant, which was regularly used by hacks phoning in copy after picking up a news yarn from their invariably very liquid and profitable lunches.

According to a source who didn't want to be quoted, PJ always wanted the best seat in the middle of the restaurant by the window and Miss Dom always ensured he got it. He was like a king holding court, and it was the noisiest, funniest, smokiest, most garrulous table in the house.

And while he was holding court, his young son John would be hanging out with Adrian Hardiman and Yvonne Murphy's twin sons, while the parents mingled around with Michael McDowell.

Miss Dom treated everyone, not just the famous, as if she had known them all her life. On a good day, it was like a Noel Coward or George Bernard Shaw play, and there were many good days.

The Unicorn was opened by Renato Sidoli in the early 1960s. Renato and wife Nina handed over the business to their son Tranquillo, aka Lino, and Nina's sister Dom. The latter ran the Unicorn with a certain va-va-zoom until Jeff Stokes and Giorgio Casari bought it in 1994.

Not much over 5ft, what she lacked in stature Miss Dom more than made up for in bustling energy; she was seemingly ever-present at the front door to greet the those who descended on the Unicorn every Saturday. The regulars in the mid-1980s would have included Paul McGuinness, Miriam O'Callaghan's late sister Anne, actress Jeananne Crowley, Eamon Dunphy, Oliver Barry, various assorted RTE types like John Bowman and Brian Farrell, Olivia O'Leary and her husband Paul Tansey, as well as barristers, businessmen and politicians of every hue, and writers like Ulick O'Connor (who passionately hated anything containing onions).

Miss Dom would try to do the impossible - walking the high-wire act of balancing too few tables with too many egos. She was a legend.

Miss Dom never married, never had children, went to Mass every day in the church on Clarendon Street, and lived in an apartment above the restaurant. "It was very much her life, and she loved it," said Rhona Blake. "Miss Dom was charming and had a welcome for everyone. She knew everyone's names and treated everyone like they were family."

"I'm still working in the Unicorn and even after 29 years, customers still ask after her," Jenny Reilly told me. "That says a lot about a person."

Miss Dom has joined her old regulars in the great Unicorn in the sky.

I assume it is at PJ's usual window seat.

Ciao, bella.

Sunday Independent

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