Saturday 23 March 2019

A culinary tour of McKillen Jnr's empire of pulled pork and pizza

Paddy McKillen Jnr's Press Up Group seems intent on mopping up all of Dublin, writes restaurant critic Lucinda O'Sullivan

WOWBURGER: Popular burger chain owned by McKillen.
WOWBURGER: Popular burger chain owned by McKillen.

Lucinda O'Sullivan

With some 30 watering holes in its Dublin portfolio, by way of restaurants, hotels, cocktail bars and burger bars - and more in the pipeline - Paddy McKillen Jnr's Press Up Group is reportedly considering a stock market flotation to help finance its rapid expansion.

What some see as the virtual takeover of the Dublin dining scene has moved with the speed of a hurricane in recent times, with Matt Ryan and Liam Cunningham, who work for McKillen's father, developer Paddy McKillen Snr, as directors of its parent company, Isle of Man registered Keillan.

With a turnover of €52m last year, and having recently taken over old stalwarts like Elephant & Castle in Temple Bar, best known for its iconic chicken wings; Wagamama, one of the first casual Japanese Asian eateries to hit Ireland; and Residence, the former private members' club set up by the Stokes twins on St Stephen's Green, they plan to open at least nine more ventures in 2018.

There's a certain amount of resentment in the air as to their controlling position in the restaurant arena. There's already a vast shortage of chefs in the country - and of properties available to the ordinary guy who wants to set up his own little restaurant - without Press Up mopping up available chefs, properties and building sites like snuff at a wake.

This is why many hot young chefs have moved to the suburbs, including Phil Yeung (ex Bang) with his Craft Bistro in Harold's Cross; Greg O'Mahony with Ember in Milltown and, most recently, Temple Garner of San Lorenzo in George's Street, with his new Bresson in Monkstown. He told me he thought the central Dublin scene was "overheating".

While you might book your date-night restaurant anticipating some delicious grub you wouldn't cook at home, in most of the Press Up venues I've been in, the food experience has been secondary to the extravagant decor. It's all about glamour - young, urban, bearded guys, and gals dressed up in 'homages' to Manolo and Posh Spice - knocking back pricey cocktails, not in the least bit bothered about whether their prosciutto is from Parma or Portobello as they tuck into the pizza option in many of the venues.

With food tours now the in thing, Press Up venues offer the perfect opportunity if you want to take your own modern-day Joycean-style tour of Dublin from the banks of Anna Livia out to Mount Merrion.

Kick off south of the Liffey at the massive Dollard & Co, the former printworks on Wellington Quay, where they have a selection of eateries over three floors. On the top floor is Roberta's, an enormous contemporary space with a great central bar, which I liked. Below that is their cafe deli where, at the Nighthawks style grill counter, we stared in at heavy kitchen equipment as we ate mediocre, overcooked fish and chips and drank wine from Paddy McKillen Snr's French vineyard, Chateau La Coste.

We felt they'd missed a trick here in not going more up-market to cater for all those loaded lawyers over the bridge in the Four Courts. In the basement they also opened Tomahawk, a steak bar for boys with beef on the brain.

Fortify yourself next door in the Workman's Club or the Liquor Rooms, and then chow down on ubiquitous pulled pork in the adjacent Bison Bar & Grill. Stroll through Essex Street next, passing the Garage Bar, with sawdust floors and petrol pumps, moving over to the Vintage Cocktail Bar on Crown Alley for a Pope Benedictine cocktail of the eponymous liqueur mixed with Calvados.

Leaving Temple Bar, make your way up to Wicklow Street where you'll find Mary's Bar & Hardware facing the side of Brown Thomas. You won't find any screwdrivers here, aside from the alcoholic variety.

The next venue on your tour is Peruke & Periwig, set in a narrow Georgian house on Dawson Street, which I renamed in my own mind as Puke & Periwig because, while upstairs is an extravaganza of French boudoir decor, I hated the revolting-looking 'wigs' bedecking the walls of the ground-floor bar. It was a bit chaotic on our visit and seemed precious and pricey.

Next, grab a Luas and head up to the Dean Hotel on Harcourt Street, where Sophie's rooftop bar does Italian food with great views over Dublin. Jump back on the Luas and on to Ranelagh for a quick peep at the exterior of the new Devlin Hotel, due to open this summer.

From here you can head down to Angelina's at Baggot Street Bridge or up to Rathmines where they've re-opened the former art deco style Stella Cinema, now called the Stella Theatre, where you can take in a movie while chomping on loaded nachos or chilli hot dogs.

Your next port of call is the Union Cafe in another Stella Cinema in Mount Merrion, where they have a casual cafe, an old-style pub, Kennedy's, and a small deli. Residents here vigorously opposed McKillen Jnr and Matt Ryan's plans to redevelop this site into a five-storey block of apartments. Unlike Leopold Bloom, they haven't made the pilgrimage to the Martello Tower at Sandycove, but they're not far away, as I'm told they plan to open in nearby Monkstown, and that they're also taking over the cinema in Bray, Co Wicklow.

In addition, their property development company, Oakmount, bought the convent and prime 10-acre Blackrock site owned by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul for €30m, where they plan to build up to 300 new houses and apartments. Oh yes, they're also in the real capital, Cork, with Suas, a rooftop bar on South Main Street.

While many restaurant chains in the UK and US are paring back their projects, McKillen Jnr and Ryan continue to press on with more and more outlets popping up all the time.

I can't promise you tripe, gizzards, or Molly Bloom, on your Press Up odyssey, but you will find burgers, pizzas, pastas, pulled pork, ribs, sharing boards and booze along the way.

Sunday Independent

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