When will the Dublin restaurant bubble burst?
Top capital based restaurateurs give Tanya Sweeney some food for thought...
When Dylan McGrath closed his Michelin-starred restaurant Mint in 2009 at the apex of the recession, there was only one place to go ... and that was back to the drawing board.
A year later, he opened Rustic Stone (17 South Great George's Street); in 2012, Fade Street Social (6 Fade Street) followed.
Along the way, the Belfast-raised chef learnt some invaluable lessons. "It's not just the name above the door, and sometimes it's not even just the food," he says.
"It's about the marketing structure and the business being managed like a business. To afford the right staff, you have to do volume, be at an appropriate price-point and offer value for money."
Above all else, offering an experience – a buzz – to diners was paramount: "[A restaurant] is supposed to have a feeling," he adds. "I don't want to go to a place with three or four tables; I want to be among the action. It's part of the human condition to want to observe people and be amongst them."
Whatever the whys and wherefores of Mint's demise, Rustic Stone and Fade Street Social do an impressive and lively trade seven nights a week. McGrath certainly hit on a winning formula, but here's the curious thing; during those key years a number of players – both seasoned and green-horned – were thinking exactly the same way. Out went the fussiness and bombastic excess of the Celtic Tiger, white-tablecloth set ... and in swept a more personal, youthful and low-key feel. While the economic climate did its worst, Dublin's kitchens were in fact hotting up.
Fast forward to 2014, and the result of reduced rents, ambitious new gunslingers and a more exacting clientele has resulted in a culinary boom. In scenes reminiscent of 1980s New York, restaurants in Dublin now open with metronomic regularity. In the last eight months alone, Drury Buildings (52-55 Drury Street), Opium (26 Wexford Street), Super Miss Sue (2-3 Drury Lane), Zaragoza (18-19 South William Street), Bunsen (36 Wexford Street), Bagots Hutton (28 South William Street), Umi Falafel (13 Dame Street), Peruke & Periwig (32 Dawson Street) and Pitt Brothers (Wicklow House, South Great George's Street) have set out their stalls within mere yards of each other. As such, Dublin diners are dutifully following the sound of white-hot buzz from joint to joint with zeal.
The mid-priced restaurant reigns supreme, but instead of offering shepherd's pie or stew and hoping for the best, the fierce sense of competition has resulted in staggering attention to detail.
"The innovation with food was very often happening at the high end of things," says McGrath. "In the last ten years, people have pared back minimally and the creativity is happening in the middle level. The recession has bred that quirkiness, that innovation."
It's become a perfect storm: Ireland's bounty of fresh produce; a keen sense that young diners want to buy into an aspirational lifestyle; restaurateurs upping their game amid their rivals. It's no longer enough to rely on the passing trade of moneyed tourists.
"It's a food awakening," says Oisin Davis, a restaurant consultant who until recently was general manager of Damson Diner (52 South William Street). "The only restaurants we had before were mediocre Italians. We finally started copping on, started travelling, and experienced different types of cuisine."
It stands to reason that artisanal, personal touches are now a big part of the Irish restaurant experience. The interior of John Coady and Leah Duxbury's Dux & Co (Wellington Quay) is shot through with features they sourced themselves, while down at the Damson Diner, Davis has long prided himself on his signature cocktail infusions. It smacks of a breed of entrepreneurs simply fed up with the crass pretension of the Noughties; people who love food, have travelled elsewhere and are bringing the best of the US, UK and Australia home.
Mark Bradley, executive chef at the Vintage Cocktail Club and the newly opened Peruke & Periwig was sent by his bosses to the US to gather inspiration for his own menus.
"I went to have a look in LA at various themes ... to be honest, Dublin was quite far behind," he admits. "Dublin is definitely upping its game, but I went back to the US a few weeks ago and the scene had changed again."
Leading the charge of new restaurateurs is Jo'Burger (5 Castle Market) founder Joe Macken, whose mini empire rose from the ashes of a 2009 examinership. Joining forces with John Roberts not long after, the two went on to become one of the boom's first notable successes, opening Crackbird (60 Dame Street), Skinflint (19 Crane Lane) and Bear (34/35 South William Street) in quick succession.
"What we do is the fast, casual market and we make it an experience with music and DJs," explains Roberts.
Indeed, the likes of Crackbird and Skinflint have hit upon a wily trick: make people come for the food, then stay for the atmosphere. Mid-priced restaurants have become relaxed hangouts. It's a sentiment echoed by Davis.
"We saw a gap in the market when we concentrated on food first and foremost," he explains. "If we had just opened a bar, it wouldn't have stayed open. Food is the backbone of Damson Diner, but now, the Damson Diner is a place to eat, then drink, club and hang out in. People are starting to realise that if you're knocking back loads of drink, it's not a bad idea to put food in your belly."
Frank Gleeson opened Opium on Wexford Street with much the same modus operandi. The in-house DJ and clubby vibe ensures that customers stay long after the plates are cleared.
"Opium fuses a restaurant, bar and club into one," he explains. "This is common in bigger cities such as London or New York. So we wanted to experiment with this. We are catering for significant numbers week in week out since we reopened our doors."
So far, so encouraging ... but pretty soon, the question looms large. Just how long can this buzz sustain itself in a city the size of Dublin? Is this restaurant boom careening towards a bust?
For many restaurateurs grouped in diner-dense areas like Wexford Street, South Great George's Street and South William Street, there is nary a lack of rivalry. Rather, many of them believe – or hope – that a rising tide raises all boats.
"We are delighted to see more new businesses open on Wexford Street," asserts Gleeson. "For one, it adds to the eclectic mix which is that street and makes it more of a destination for foodies. There's nothing like a bit of healthy competition."
Still, there are several considerations: rents aren't as reasonable as they might have been three or four years ago; insurance rates are rising, too. Good staff are reportedly hard to find. Add to this the real possibility that eating out in Dublin is not dissimilar to online dating: we're so overwhelmed with the sheer choice of restaurants that we've become obsessed with the new, the next and the now. A restaurant can maybe expect to enjoy a month, maybe two, of curious patrons filing through the doors before someone else's jam jar cocktails, Asian tapas menu and attitudinal waiters catch their eye.
"What will happen now is a bit like the law of the jungle; survival of the fittest," observes Roberts. "We just make sure we're confident of what we do. We're not worried about a bust: everything is going our way in terms of the shift away from the pub towards eating out. And, as people have realised in the last few years, things do bounce back as long as people are positive and keep their heads down."
McGrath adds: "If you're not putting your heart and soul into your working team, there's a very good chance you'll be left out in the cold. If you keep control of all elements, there's a chance you'll be left standing."
Yet Gleeson is cautiously optimistic that the best is yet to come for Irish diners.
"The industry is attracting in some really talented people who are passionate about the industry and confident about its future," he says. "The only fear that I would have is the increased demand for commercial property in Dublin city centre driving rents back up to the heights of the boom."
So, where to from here? McGrath is shifting his focus back to fresh produce that's not overworked. "In my younger years, I was hell-bent on proceeding, but now as I grow up, I've become much more relaxed," he admits.
"The big boys like Chapter One and Thornton's will stay afloat, but in the next year, I'm not sure if everyone will still be around," surmises Bradley. "The good news is that a lot of Irish people have gone away, and they'll be back in the next few years with all of their ideas from their travels. If you've left Ireland and come back with a few different foodie ideas, you'll be laughing."
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent