Monday evening at half past six and we're lucky to nab one of the last tables at The Old Spot on Bath Avenue, having rung ahead half an hour earlier. Friends who arrive at seven without a booking are not so fortunate, and have to make do with eating in the bar.
The place is hopping, and there was me thinking that my usual Monday night routine of knocking up some dinner from the leftovers of the Sunday roast was the norm. Apparently not, and while I've been busy trying to come up with something creative to make with the scraps of roast chicken, the other half - the child-free - are out and about, tucking into burgers and steaks without a care in the world.
Our American waitress - affability and efficiency in perfect balance - tells us that, as word has spread the place is booked out every night, and that they will soon start opening the second, upstairs, dining-room during the early part of the week as well as at weekends.
Of course the location - within a short stroll of Silicon Docks - might have something to do with it. The customers are 30-somethings who look as if they have well-paid jobs and Leinster season tickets, and still find time to go to the gym (essential if they plan on eating at The Old Spot regularly, as the menu is a tad light on wholesome, healthy options).
With books by the yard and vintage signage, The Old Spot's gastro-pub interior is attractive if formulaic. The owners are Paul and Barry McNerney, who also have the successful Junior's and Paulie's, both within a hundred metres and both consistently busy.
Clearly the McNerney brothers understand their demographic; it's the same affluent young clientele that you'll find in Slattery's or Ryan's Beggars Bush after work of a Thursday or Friday evening.
We're seated at what I'm reckoning is the best table in the house, a curved corner banquette that's an excellent vantage point for a spot of people-watching. (I know that it's the top spot because at lunch a few days beforehand we asked to sit there and were told that it was being held for the owners' dad.)
At the next table is a couple on an awkward Tinder first date. She's American, he's Irish. We want to lean over and tell him to stop banging on about his running regimen as she's glazing over. "Ask her about herself," we want to say, but manage to restrain ourselves. Over in the corner is a disgraced accountant, his back, understandably enough, to the room.
The food is slow to arrive, but our waitress checks in often enough to reassure us. Crispy egg is almost ubiquitous in Dublin these days, having first appeared on the menu at Pichet a few years back. At The Old Spot it's paired with a house-made black pudding boudin and a handful of watercress tossed in a hazelnut jus. It's very good, the egg perfectly runny.
Tuna tartare comes on three little tostadas with guacamole and a chipotle mayo that delivers more than the expected kick. Three scallops seem a bit stingy as a portion when the price is €12.50, and the strong flavours of the accompanying fennel and pink grapefruit salad overpower their delicate sweetness.
For mains we go with the flow and order the cheeseburger (€16) made with good strong cheddar (Hegarty's perhaps?), served on a soft brioche bun. With a small mountain of good skinny fries it's as successful an iteration as I've tasted. Having put our name on the last of the evening's blackboard special, cote de boeuf for two (€54), we do our best not to gloat as a table of German and Dutch techies realise that there is none left for them. When it arrives, accompanied by plenty of fries, it's cooked more than the medium-rare that we ordered, but is still a very good, juicy, flavoursome piece of meat that's nicely charred on the outside. It comes with a too-small pot of bearnaise (or perhaps we're just greedy? don't answer that) but there's no quibble about bringing another. Greens are a tasty mixture of beans, spring onions and spinach.
We share a piece of chocolate truffle cake that's everything a chocolate cake should be, rich and moist. With a bottle (€34) and two extra glasses of an unexciting French pinot noir and a few soft drinks, our bill for three came to €171.80 before service. There is no early bird deal, which makes The Old Spot a pricey enough option for a midweek supper, unless you opt to have only one course and stick to the water. The lunch offering is smaller than that for dinner. It's busy then too, but without the same buzz that you get in the evening.
There are daily pie, sandwich and salad specials, and on the day that we visited the chicken pie with watercress and mash got the thumbs up from one of the group, as did the pork croquettes with smoked paprika aioli and the steak sandwich with caramelised onion.
My salad of roast figs, pickled beetroot, pomegranate, barley, quinoa and goats curd was bland and disappointing, but that's what you get for ordering the vegetarian option in a restaurant that's clearly geared towards meat-eaters. A spiced Tunisian orange cake was excellent.
The menu at The Old Spot sets out to be crowd-pleasing rather than inventive, which fits in with the gastro-pub sensibility. And it's clearly doing just that, pleasing the crowds. Book early to avoid disappointment.
ON A BUDGET
At lunchtime, the sandwich/soup combo is a tenner.
ON A BLOWOUT
Scallops, followed by rib-eye steak with a salad, and chocolate truffle cake, all washed down with a bottle of Terrabianca Campaccio 2007 from Tuscany would set you back €140. Ooof.
THE HIGH POINT
It was great to see such a buzz in a restaurant on a Monday night. Perhaps we really are coming to the end of this long and very dark tunnel. Fingers crossed.
THE LOW POINT
The kitchen seemed under pressure and we waited too long for our food to arrive.
7/10 value for money
Imen McDonnell worked in film and television production in the US until she fell in love with an Irish farmer and traded in the glamour for a pair of muddy wellies.
Her blog, Farmette, is as beautifully photographed as you would expect, given her background, and a terrific source of recipes, both traditional and modern. Unusually, Farmette reads as well as it looks, and a book is in the pipeline for Spring 2016. In the meantime, the blog is one of six shortlisted for a prestigious Saveur award in the best writing category. You can vote online at saveur.com/content/blog-awards-2015-vote.