Delicious Donegal: Top 10 places to eat in Ireland's rising foodie county
Is Donegal the hottest food county in Ireland? Aoife Carrigy shares 10 destinations for a gastro-themed getaway...
You either adore Donegal, or you haven't been... yet.
Even for firm fans, this sprawling county with spectacular views at every twist of the road always has something new to uncover - and those revelations go beyond the beguiling landscape or 1,134km of Wild Atlantic Way coastline.
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Right now, Donegal's food and drink scene is one of the hottest on this island. Many of the county's best gastronomic experiences have been local secrets, but word is finally out - thanks in part to an inspired calendar of events co-ordinated by Donegal Food Coast and the efforts of advocates like Sue Glackin, whose Donegal Food Tours connects the dispersed clusters of deliciousness.
Every Saturday afternoon, Sue's 'Taste of the North' tour showcases Letterkenny's best before striking out to the wilds of Downings and stops like Kilmacrennan's picture- perfect cottage café, Coffee Time, where Branden Kern demonstrates traditional butter- making.
On Fridays, a 'Taste of the South West' jaunt starts with creative tasters at Donegal town's The House Gastro Pub; while a group-friendly gin tour includes a sampling of Castle Grove Country House Strawberry Gin in their beautiful walled gardens.
Alternatively, you could jump in a car and ferret out your own foodie favourites. Here are our 10 best Donegal food destinations to get your adventure started.
1. Kick back in Killybegs
Perch on a quayside wall overlooking Ireland's busiest fishing port, or take shelter in the Harbour Bar while tucking into superb fare at Killybegs Seafood Shack: Mairead Anderson's award-winning chowder (officially Ireland's finest), freshly landed scampi, calamari, battered haddock and breaded cod or salad of local Shines Wild Irish Tuna featuring albacore tuna caught in Irish waters. Magic. facebook.com/killybegseafoodshack
While you're there: Take a boat trip with Kilcar-based big-game fisherman Adrian Molloy, who has a permit to catch, tag and release 500lb blue fin tuna in Irish waters. tuna.ie
2. Spirits of Sliabh Liag
Why: As unmissable as Donegal's Sliabh Liag cliffs - voted one of Ireland's Seven Wonders by our readers last week - is a tour at Sliabh Liag Distillers. An Dúlamán Maritime Gin is flavoured with seaweeds foraged by Rosaria Piseri of AlgAran Seaweed (who offers bookable shore walks and cooking demos). Upcoming releases include An Dúlamán Santa Ana, a Rioja barrel-aged Armada-strength gin, and Assaranca Vodka infused with gorse and rowan berries. Owners Moira and James Doherty's current 'gin palace' at Carrick is open to visitors until at least 2020. sliabhliagdistillers.com
While you're there: Try Teelin's Rusty Mackerel bar for fireside food. therustymackerel.com
3. Tour traighenna Bay
Why: A short spin from Donegal Airport lies Traighenna Bay, home to Irish Premium Oysters. Book a guided tour of the family-run farm, where Jimmy Gallagher explains how the local shorescape lends Gallagher's Speciale Oysters their sweet peaty flavour. ipo.ie
While you're there: Continue to the small fishing village of Burtonport, gateway to Arranmore, where Gallagher's oysters feature on The Lobster Pot menu. lobsterpot.ie
4. Lounge at Lough Eske
Why: How better to start the day than with Lough Eske views and a bespoke breakfast ordered directly from one of Harvey's Point's charming young chefs? Talented head chef Colin McKee leads a happy team, and their pride shows in everything from freshly carved honey-roasted bacon to the elegant afternoon tea and carefully considered dinner menu. Service is exemplary, under the inimitable Noel Cunningham. harveyspoint.com
While you're there: Chefs Joe and Brenda O'Hora serve perfectly executed classics in Ballybofey's Benny & Co Coffee Bar & Restaurant. The pastries alone justify a visit, if not a light bite of chicken liver pâté on sourdough, or brill on the bone for supper. facebook.com/bennycoffeebar
5. Love Letterkenny
Why: Chris Molloy is a name to remember. The dynamic young chef heads up his family's longstanding Lemon Tree Restaurant, serving treats like a tasting menu of Donegal's Wild Atlantic Way with small-batch brews from Inishowen's Boghopper microbrewery. He also spearheads the annual Off the Street Festival (27-28 July), gathering the best local chefs, food trucks and producers like John Graham of Ballyholey Farm. thelemontreerestaurant.com
While you're there: Try to catch a tour of Letterkenny's Kinnegar Brewing - though you'll find their top-drawer range stocked countywide. kinnegarbrewing.ie
6. A Taste of Rathmullan
Why: The Wheeler family at the Blue Book's Rathmullan House Hotel do things differently, as fans of their Electric Picnic food truck can attest. On the shores of Lough Swilly, their offer extends from walled-garden produce and pristine Greencastle fish in their elegant Cook & Gardener restaurant, perhaps preceded by a gin cocktail in Batt's Bar, through to stone-baked seasonal pizzas and Kinnegar special brews at their Tap Room. rathmullanhouse.com
While you're there: Enjoy pristine fish and chips at Belle's Kitchen, followed by a Scarpello & Co cinnamon swirl from 9ine Hostages Coffee Co's truck on Rathmullan Pier. facebook.com/Belleskitchen12; facebook.com/9HCoffee
7. Dine in downings
Why: Serving small plates like McBride's crab claws with dulse butter, Fisk is the stuff of holiday dreams: a whitewashed outhouse of the beloved spit-and-sawdust Harbour Bar repurposed by two talented chefs, with sweeping views of Sheephaven Bay, to boot. Nearby, the Grape & Grain wine bar boasts summer-season specials like Big Green Egg steak nights (tomahawk or cauliflower), while the lively Logues in Carrigart adds Goose & Gander Pizzeria to the eclectic mix. fiskseafoodbar.com
While you're there: Swing by The Haven Smokehouse to pick up Declan McConnellogue's acclaimed turf-smoked salmon, before heading to The Olde Glen for a creamy pint or their limited-edition gin. thehavensmokehouse.com
8. Divine Dunfanaghy
Why: Brave the summertime crowds for one of the monthly Summer Live Jazz & Seafood nights at Arnold's Hotel - or hold out for the Dunfanaghy Food Festival, a roast goat feast at the foot of Errigal and the Donegal Dish countywide celebration (September 27- October 1). The impeccably conceived Breac.House retreat on Horn Head hosts autumn residencies from Donegal chef Ciaran Sweeney of Dublin's Forest & Marcy (September) or Tony Davidson and Lina Reppert of Fisk (October). See donegalfoodcoast.ie for all event details.
While you're there: Don't miss The Rusty Oven for thin-crust pizzas or The Mill for well-sourced traditional cooking with unexpected twists like home-smoked olives.
9. Mighty Moville
Why: At Inishowen's Foyle Hotel, chef-proprietor Brian McDermott (author of Donegal Table, named 'best cookbook by a restaurant chef' at the 2019 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards) and head chef Derek Creagh (formerly of Harry's Shack fame) make a formidable team. Book in for their Friday Fish Feast demo of local delicacies like megrim sole fresh off the boats at Greencastle. foylehotel.ie
While you're there: Explore the oyster farming exhibition at Doagh Famine Village to understand the complex local history of this natural gift of the sea. doaghfaminevillage.com
10. Cool Culdaff
Why: Chef Gaz McPeake keeps things up to date at McGrory's Hotel, a fourth-generation Inishowen institution, by transforming Donegal's finest into distinctly contemporary dishes inspired by eclectic international cuisines. Share a Donegal tasting plate of Bhutanese bhajis, tempura Atlantic prawns, Donegal-reared chicken wings and Irish goat cheese fritters, before McGrory's famous Kinnegar ale and seaweed battered fish n' chips. mcgrorys.ie
While you're there: Wild Strands Caife in Malin Head showcases local seaweeds in modern Irish dishes. facebook.com/wildstrandscaife
For more to see, do and eat in Donegal, visit the recently revamped govisitdonegal.com.
Donegal Connect is a new project aiming to engage with the county's diaspora. It runs September 27 to October 6. Find more at donegalconnect.com.
Donegal town and Letterkenny are a three- to four-hour drive from Dublin and Galway. Both are well served by national bus routes (see buseireann.ie, johnmcginley.com and busfeda.ie) and Letterkenny is a busy hub for local bus services. Alternatively, fly to scenic Donegal Airport in the northwest at Carrickfinn (donegalairport.ie).
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