LIAM COLLINS IN A country described at the time by a leading economist as "a basket case", Le Coq Hardi restaurant in Dublin's fashionable Pembroke Road was a symbol of 'Dublin 4' and how the other half lived.
It was where those in the know told tales of the torrid affair of the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey and social diarist Terry Keane. It was where captains of industry dined on lavish expense accounts and where a crowd of Russians once bought a £5,000 bottle of 1870 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild to drink at Dublin Airport while waiting for their plane to take off.
But most of all, Le Coq Hardi became famous because its owner, John Howard, was the country's first celebrity chef and because his restaurant was patronised by a young minister for finance, Charles Haughey.
His patronage would continue right through his term as Taoiseach and on until, it is claimed, he had his last lunch there just hours before Terry Keane went on the Late Late Show to reveal details of their affair and begin her "kiss and tell" memoirs in a Sunday newspaper.
In his new book, Le Coq Hardi, the story of John Howard and his Restaurant, Michael O'Sullivan, who was once an intimate friend of Terry Keane and one of the Coq Hardi 'set', says that "a great deal of nonsense has been written about how much of their affair was conducted in the intimate opulence of the private dining room of the restaurant".
He goes on: "The tales ran the full gamut of sordid tabloid invention. There were inaccurate reports of the chandeliers in the downstairs main dining room shaking from the vigorous lovemaking which went on above. The truth was otherwise. The most strenuous activity taking place upstairs was the pulling of Champagne corks."
While dismissing the stories that Mr Haughey spent "vast sums of money on expensive wines", he goes on to recount how he witnessed the former Taoiseach spend £500 on a bottle of 1967 Chateau d'Yquem when dining with a group of guests, who included the wine critic of a major British newspaper. "The wine in question is a legend of its type," he says.
"Over the next few years, I dined intermittently with Charles Haughey at Le Coq Hardi," says O'Sullivan, a biographer of Sean Lemass. "The pattern rarely varied. Be it lunch or dinner, he arrived on time and left early. If it was a Monday luncheon he left at 2.30pm for his weekly doctor's appointment. If it was dinner, I rarely recollect him staying in the restaurant after midnight. He did, however, insist that his bill remained open, so that guests who wished to remain on after he left could enjoy his hospitality without his being present. I never saw this gesture abused. Noblesse oblige."
However, many people were shocked when the huge bills run up by Mr Haughey in the restaurant were revealed to the Moriarty tribunal in 1999.
It emerged that in one year £15,000 was spent from the 'Leader's Allowance' in the restaurant. The allowance was taxpayers' money and John Bruton, then leader of Fine Gael, called it a "flagrant abuse" of public funds.
The book is to be launched at the trendy L'Ecrivain restaurant in Dublin tonight by Ben Dunne, the one-time supermarket tycoon whose cocaine binge in a Florida hotel led to the establishment of the Moriarty tribunal.
Legal papers prepared for a dispute with his sister, Margaret Heffernan, started a chain of events that eventually revealed Mr Haughey had received £1.3m from Ben Dunne. Mr Haughey's famous reply, "thanks a lot big fellah", has already become part of popular folklore.
Mr Haughey has been asked to the launch tonight as has his daughter and son-in-law Eimear and John Mulhearn. Also expected to attend is Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson who is staying with another great patron of the Le Coq Hardi, barrister Colm Allen - he is representing the Scot in his legal wrangle with Coolmore millionaire John Magnier. Former Taoisigh Albert Reynolds and John Bruton and businessman Michael Smurfit are also on the extensive guest list.
The book also recounts an 'apocryphal' story of Charlie Haughey treating his Cabinet to dinner at Le Coq Hardi. The then Taoiseach chose beef as his main course and when the waiter asked him "And the vegetables, sir?", he is said to have replied: "They'll have the same."
He also enjoyed the "occasional swipe" at the media, and in particular targets like RTE and the Irish Times. He once described the editorial writer in the Irish Times as "like an auld one sitting in the bath with the water growing cold around her fanny".
According to this book - which is part biography of John Howard, part history of his restaurant with a collection of his recipes - Charles Haughey marked "many of the triumphs and at least two of the low points" in his public life at the restaurant. The book claims that he last dined there at a lunch with Terry Keane when she informed him of her decision to go public about their affair on the second-last edition of the Late Late Show with Gay Byrne as the host.
"Mere speculation, not history, records Mr Haughey's reaction. Charles Haughey never dined at Le Coq Hardi again," concludes the chapter on the former Taoiseach.
Le Coq Hardi has since been sold by the proprietor John Howard, a well-known racing man who now acts as a food consultant. The building is no longer used as a restaurant.
See Double Edge, Living Section