Thursday 22 August 2019

When stars ended Dublin nights with fine wine - or baked beans

Our culinary scene has moved on, but we must never forget the Mirabeau and The Manhattan, writes Liam Collins

Sean Kinsella.
Sean Kinsella.
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Walking through the streets of Dublin on Friday night, with young people spilling out of restaurants and bars, sipping pints and smoking cigarettes in the cool night air, suddenly transported me back to another time, another place, a drab city of the not-so-distant past that now seems like an alien land.

If there were two restaurants, at opposite ends of the culinary scale, that symbolised pre-Michelin Star Ireland - when most people went home to bed after the pubs closed on the dot of 11.30pm - they were the Mirabeau restaurant in Sandycove and The Manhattan cafe at Kelly's Corner.


Both are now long gone, but among a certain class of ageing hipster those times live on as the heyday of loose living, when the so-called 'Swinging Sixties' arrived in Dublin a decade after London and New York.

The Mirabeau was famous for its fine dining and a menu that included ridiculously-priced French wines accompanied by fresh delicacies sourced with great care for its opulent customers. The Manhattan, because it was the only 'all night' cafe in the city, specialised in mixed grills and 'wine of the country' - a pint of milk... in the bottle.

The international soccer player Niall Quinn showed his poetic side when he described it as "the sort of place you'd imagine exists only in songs sung by The Pogues".

Both stayed open late in an era where the pubs went dark before midnight, when taxis were impossible to get and when, as one refugee from that era puts it, "drunk driving was compulsory, there was no other way to get home".

Late-night revellers enjoyed ‘The Works’, a mixed grill with the addition of baked beans and fried liver, at The Manhattan cafe.
Late-night revellers enjoyed ‘The Works’, a mixed grill with the addition of baked beans and fried liver, at The Manhattan cafe.

There was even a certain class of late-night prowler who was known to frequent both establishments, depending on their financial situation at any given time.

The clients of the Mirabeau included Neil Diamond and Charlie Haughey and a string of celebrities mixing with local plutocrats eager to introduce their wives and mistresses to fine dining.

The Manhattan was patronised by a rolling maul of late-night revellers, sometimes including members of U2 and other would-be rock stars.

In the Mirabeau the rotund Sean Kinsella, a former ship's cook, replete with goatee beard, became the first Irish 'celebrity chef' with the opening of his restaurant. Half chef, half showman, he and his wife Audrey set the tone on Marine Drive with a vintage Rolls-Royce, once owned by tobacco heiress Lady Granard, of Castle Forbes, Co Longford, parked half on, half off the footpath.

Fred Astaire danced in the kitchen during his visit; the massive Greek singer Demis Roussos ate five dozen oysters, three lobsters and a duck; Peter Ustinov sat in the kitchen eating his dinner. Guests included members of the Kennedy and Rockefeller clans, the actors Laurence Olivier, Burt Lancaster and Richard Burton - and John McEnroe and his family on their way to or from Wimbledon.

There were no prices on the menu - if you complained about the food, queried the bill or couldn't afford to pay what was requested, you were escorted quietly to the door by the patron and told never to call again.

The other side of Sean Kinsella was that he dispensed leftover food to the needy of the parish and was exceedingly generous to charitable causes. In his latter years, he told Sunday Independent writer Brighid McLaughlin that one night he had to stop "a well-known bishop, a barrister and a judge" pouring Mouton Rothschild over each other, telling them "this is my home too".

On my one official visit to the Mirabeau for a dinner in honour of Peter Kavanagh, the contrary brother of poet Patrick Kavanagh, a crowd of journalists ate and drank until daybreak, throwing in £20 a head as dawn broke over Scotsman's Bay.

As I was trying to unchain my bicycle from the railings outside, Sean, who insisted on seeing every guest to the door, suggested I put it in the boot of the Roller and he would drive me home - an offer I foolishly declined.

Although altruistic and generous, Kinsella had trouble with his tax affairs and the Revenue Commissioners hit him with a large tax bill which he couldn't pay and which eventually forced the closure of the Mirabeau in 1982 after 12 years of glorious headlines. When he died at the age of 81, he and Audrey were happily living in a modest home in Shankill, Co Dublin.

The fate of The Manhattan cafe, on the other hand, was not chronicled in the newspapers in the same way as the more publicity-conscious Mirabeau. Its passing went unmourned but if you are passing through the canyons of office blocks at the top of Harcourt Street in the direction of the South Circular Road in Dublin's south inner city you will see a couple of semi-derelict buildings, over one of which is the last remnant of a cheap plastic sign with a 'The' and half the M... all that now remains of the sign that once stood over the door of The Manhattan.

For the denizens of early- morning Dublin between the 1950s and the late 1990s, The Manhattan was well known as the last refuge of the lost and the lonely, the riotous drunks and the rock stars slumming it in a city before velvet ropes, security details and after parties in trendy nightclubs.

When you entered the premises you were in the smaller of the two rooms and if you didn't pass muster with May - or Auntie May as she was known to regulars - you didn't get into the inner sanctum.

Knowing most of her customers didn't want to be confused with a menu in the early hours, May kept it simple with a mixed grill or the alternative, which was known as 'The Works', and included the mixed grill with the addition of baked beans and fried liver.

Requests for a "mixed girl and wine of the country" which may have amused the customers were probably tiresome for May, but orders filled quickly and without further discussion.

While May ruled the roost from behind the counter and personally threw out those unruly types who didn't know how to misbehave properly, the food was usually served by the younger and more energetic Bernie. The cook appeared only when things got very, very ropey.

In his autobiography Head First, Niall Quinn described his first, typically Irish date with the girl he would later marry. "I knew Gillian Roe was the woman for me when I picked up a piece of hairy bacon from the floor in The Manhattan at 3.30am in the morning and took a bite out of it. She took the rasher off me and ate the other half. Jaysus, I thought, I've never gone out with a girl who'd do that on the first date..."

The late Irish Independent restaurant reviewer Paolo Tullio found himself famished at 4am after an award ceremony for Van Morrison in 1999 and, accompanied by Garech Browne, the Squire of Luggala, the film director John Boorman and his wife Isabella, socialite Sarah Owens and Paul McGuinness, then the manager of U2, washed up at The Manhattan.

"There's a nice friendly feeling to the place," he wrote, "I've no doubt there are plenty of people who treat it as a kind of club for those who choose to spend their nights awake. It looks pretty much the way I remember it from long ago - an example of the old adage 'if it works, don't fix it'. Walking out into the warm night air after our fried feast, the idea of driving back to the Wicklow hills didn't seem like so much of a hardship - £11 didn't seem like a lot to spend for a fresh start to a new dawn."

It wasn't always that civilised - I recall two diners having a disagreement after one of them robbed a sausage from the other's plate, a common enough occurrence at 4am. The offended party scooped up a handful of beans and rubbed them in the other's mullet hairstyle. But that's the way it was settled, nobody was prepared to fight, that would lead to getting barred - and no regular wanted that.

Although myself and a friend, Dermot, once accompanied Auntie May to 7am Mass in Whitefriar Street on a Sunday morning, I never really talked to her about life in the restaurant or the people who populated it between the hours of midnight and 6am when the last of the exhausted revellers were thrown out.

But around the time it was closing down May told journalist Catherine Foley "the clientele ranged from the high ups to the low downs - taxi men, gardai, bank managers, actors and people like Richard Harris, Joe Dolan, Dickie Rock, Charlie Haughey, Bono and others".

Whatever about the others, I cannot picture Charlie in those dingy surroundings, but you never know, it may have been a case of 'any port in a storm'.

I lost touch with The Manhattan sometimes in the 1990s, but according to the Dublin writer Mel Healy, whose fictional detective Moss Reid is a regular, it staggered on until the Millennium, when, enigmatic as ever, it was locked up one morning and just never opened again.

"What's the vibe here? 'Clubby', that's it. Clubby in the sense of a secret society, a den, a private members' club, with the fug of too many fags and wet overcoats. That's another thing: every second person is smoking," wrote Healy in his blog Moss Reid's Places. "Tonight's clientele is the usual rattlebag of taxi drivers, off-duty guards and hotel and hospital staff, cooks, musicians, thespians, hacks, other shift workers and night owls, plus the students and strangers and other late-night party-goers on their way home. Slurring their words, worse for wear, dozy heads on wooden tables and sleepy chairs."

What remains of The Manhattan and its adjoining building, on the left as you turn toward Rathmines, looks like one of the last pieces of valuable derelict real estate among the forest of cranes on the city skyline.

The Mirabeau and The Manhattan were the chalk and cheese of dining in Dublin before the advent of the mid-priced restaurants, fancy menus, food inspectors and form filling.

They were part of a freewheeling lifestyle that is as dead as the Ford Capri, the telephone box and the barmen roaring "have yis no homes to go to?" at 11.30pm on a Saturday night.

Sunday Independent

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