Bewley's historic café is back, but is it too late to save Grafton Street?
Last Monday, I counted 40 people queuing outside Bewley's Café on Grafton Street.
When the doors opened at 10am, revealing that iconic, bun-bracketed walk to an inner sanctum blossoming with plush banquettes and stained glass windows, owner Paddy Campbell was on hand to greet his customers.
"Welcome to Bewley's," he smiled. "Thanks for waiting."
They'd been waiting almost three years, in case you'd forgotten. And it's not just a €12 million renovation that brings Bewley's back with a bang.
Much has been made about the sense of soul it returns to Grafton Street - embodied by its heritage, Campbell's genuinely warm welcome and the giddy excitement of punters piling back in for a long overdue dose of Dublin DNA.
Their affection is a good sign for brand Bewley's, but it's a sad reflection on the once great Grafton Street.
On my walk last Monday, I also counted a glut of international chains. There were 10 shoe shops, seven jewellers, several phone stores, pharmacies and three fast-food outlets on the street, yet just a handful of businesses I'd describe as dyed-in-the-wool Dublin - Brown Thomas and Weir's among them.
Aside from these, and the odd, accidental bloom of atmosphere (at the flower-strewn crossroads with South Anne Street and Harry Street leading past McDaid's pub to the Westbury, for example) you could be anywhere.
Grafton Street really is that generic.
The issues don't stop there. I often skip the street to avoid its amplified buskers, and lately I've been advising anyone looking for a true view of Dublin as it enters 2018 to bypass it entirely.
Capel Street, Drury Street and Aungier Street are far more rewarding for anyone interested in getting under the city's skin.
Maybe this is inevitable. Cities need global brands. Customers vote with their feet, big rents squeeze small businesses, and concentrating chain stores in strips like this and Henry Street, like outdoor malls, might do us all a favour.
But do we really want to sacrifice Grafton Street?
With prices rising, a hotel room shortage and no substantial new attraction in the works, Dublin needs to distinguish itself not just from big tourism competitors, but smaller ones with better infrastucture and galleries like Prague, Valencia and Copenhagen. A richer streetscape would be more liveable and engaging for locals too.
It's not too late. When its Christmas lights come on, Grafton Street still has the power to seduce. As Bewley's shows, a few choice Irish businesses could build on that aura (Bewley's Café Theatre returns in March, incidentally), restoring a bit of balance and turning a generic strip into a magical main street once again.
Maybe the whole street could take a leaf out of Bewley's book.
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