Thursday 22 August 2019

Steaks, coffee and a beard barbershop: Is this the most hipster place in the country?

Barry Matchett, barista at Vice, Middle Abbey Street
Barry Matchett, barista at Vice, Middle Abbey Street

Vicki Notaro

Dublin’s latest hotspot is a hybrid of cafe culture and club nights, with a haircut and sirloin thrown in.

The first thing you notice when you walk in to the new Wigwam venue on Middle Abbey Street is how normal it is. I’d been sent in to check the place out because my editor had heard it was a unique place, one with so much going on, it was hard to keep up. But as I crossed the threshold of what was formerly known as the Twisted Pepper (and before that, Traffic), I thought it looked like any other hip bar or restaurant.

The Twisted Pepper was beloved as a music venue. Although it had elements of bar, café and, er, a barbershop, punters went there to dance to the coolest new DJs and scene stalwarts. When it announced it was to close its doors in August, there was a bit of confusion about what was to come next.

Owners Bodytonic promised a “new bar and food focus, mixed with another five to 10 random ideas that will inevitably make no sense”. Um, okay.

They also pointed out that while music would still play a part, it was going to be in a smaller capacity. Musos the city over mourned as yet another place playing alternative stuff turned out its lights.

So it looks like this hybrid of cafe culture, pub grub and music trend, is here to stay post-recession. Originally established by hipsters in New York and later London, it wasn’t long for Dublin’s scenesters to host their own underground club nights in shack-like warehouses or rooftops with exposed electric wires and beer in paper cups.

These underground cesspits evolved to shabby-chic interiors, and Wigwam, in a revitalised Dublin of 2015, is a modern extension of this.

The venue has been extensively redecorated, but it’s not twee — it’s frankly minimalist compared to other Dublin bars.

There are antique finds, but not on every available surface, thankfully. There are booths and tables right to the very back, and it’s clear right away that this is the kind of place you can come and while away the afternoon, as well as a joint that will be packed with young, sexy people at night.

Middle Abbey Street, and indeed the northside of Dublin, is a funny place for nightlife. The Academy up the road does good business with gigs and club nights, and it underwent its own facelift in 2014. There are some hotspots on Capel Street and a couple of more touristy bars around, but the area is not exactly buzzing, so perhaps was ripe for this sort of establishment.

But exactly what kind of establishment is it? Well, not as weird as you think. 

There is still a barbershop in the basement, where Rachel Hanaphy trims the beards and barnets of discerning gents. Boxcutter has had a makeover though, and is distinctly more glam with gold mirrors and navy-blue walls. Why there needs to be a barbers in a bar isn’t clear, but the clientele seem to like it.

Vice Coffee is still in residence too, another element that survived the transition. It’s a separate business with its own menu of toasties, coffee and more, which you can take away or eat in. They also stock the Dublin Doughnut Company’s mouthwatering offerings, and you can buy bags of coffee to make at home. So far, so hipster.

There’s now a drinks shop too called Brewtonic, so everything on display in a glass cabinet up the front is for sale; you can buy Angostura Bitters to make your own Old Fashioneds at home, purchase cut-glass tumblers, and ice-crushing mallets and copper-mixing spoons. This retail element is interesting, and the company promises more additions to it in 2016.

Another new addition to the premises is the fantastic beer garden/balcony/smoking area, aspirationally dubbed The Vineyard. It’s a special little spot that will be a suntrap in summer, but I don’t want to wax lyrical about it because I selfishly want it to be a well-kept secret.

The basement is now a club, where the musical element of Twisted Pepper will live on. There are club nights on Friday and Saturday, run by both the Bodytonic gang and others. I’d heard about a costume kiosk, where you could dress up to your heart’s desire. In reality, there are a few wigs and masks in the cloakroom — perhaps one aspect they shouldn’t big up too much.

But one element that should be shouted about is the food. Brazilian chef Pedro has created an incredible menu, fusing South American and Irish cuisine, and its simply mouthwatering. Try the steak and cassava fries — they’re unbelievable (and healthier than chips!).

The offering is comfort food and the menu has healthy and not-so-healthy options. What’s more impressive is that Wigwam is not even setting itself up to be a proper restaurant.

Pedro cooks from an open-plan short-order area, much like the pizza kitchen in sister pub The Back Page in Phibsborough. There’s a daytime menu that’s like an all-day brunch, and a separate one for night-time nibbles.

I was really surprised at the quality of the grub on offer. Pedro is the man behind Spudbox in the other sibling pub, MVP in Harold’s Cross — loaded baked potatoes that are the perfect partner for a few pints. But I really wasn’t expecting deliciously tender steak, baked root vegetables and an amazing traditional Brazilian accompaniment called Farofa, which is a sort of floury substance that sticks to the steak and melts in the mouth.

There’s brisket on the menu that you can even add to salads, chorizo, croquetas and fried cheese puffs. There are a few spuds, as is Pedro’s specialty, and lots of veggie options too.

And of course, there are drinks. An extensive craft beer menu featuring brews from all over (with a good selection of gluten-free ones too) is impressive, and cider, cocktails, wine and spirits fill the bar. But their specialty is rum, and there’s a good selection of brands for aficionados.

Yes, they make slightly snobby-sounding syrups containing rosemary and black pepper, but they taste good so let’s not hold it against them.

Bodytonic has been knocking around for ages and in several guises, most of them music-related. But their recent focus on bars has gone down well, as proven with the likes of MVP (which is dog-friendly) and the more sports-focused Back Page.

Wigwam feels like it’s going to be its flagship product though. It’s not your average Dublin bar, and the owners are certainly trying new things to see what works alongside the old reliables of the bar biz.

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