Now that Ireland?s Celtic Tiger — the name given to the Irish economy as it transitioned from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest — is more of a kitten, some would have thought Dublin?s restaurant scene would have followed suit. But, while the economy may have cooled, the capital?s kitchens are heating up. Thanks to a combination of falling rents and customers? tightened purse strings, a wave of youthful and well-travelled restaurateurs have moved in, bucking the trend of overblown excess and opening smaller establishments with a decidedly more personal feel.
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One of the first to open was Coppinger Row, tucked down a side street that skirts the edge of the stately Powerscourt Townhouse Centre just off Grafton Street, the city?s main shopping thoroughfare. Coppinger Row?s winning formula is a buzzy, informal atmosphere and a menu that sticks to a vaguely Mediterranean slant. Try the garlic and chilli prawns cooked a la plancha (grilled on a metal plate).
A few streets away, 777 is the city?s first upscale Mexican joint, a far cry from the Tex-Mex that normally counts as authentic in the Irish capital. Its owner John Farrell has proved himself an expert at appealing to post-boom diners with his first success, Dillinger?s, an industrial-chic local restaurant that opened on a site vacated by a Michelin-starred eatery. With a long, communal table and a killer list of tequilas and cocktails served alongside sophisticated renditions of Mexican staples, 777 is styled alone the lines of a Latino speakeasy (similar to New York?s La Esquina or London?s Bodega Negra). A tiled wall depicts a couple in a sultry embrace. Ceviche, tuna tostadas and taquitos, plus various meat and fish dishes cooked over a wood-burning grill, are presented on beautifully decorated places and enamel bowls.
Two doors down, San Lorenzo?s is another new arrival run by two veterans of Dublin?s dining scene, Temple Garner and Gerry Crossan (they ran the closed but much-loved Mermaid Caf? and boom-time favourite, Town Bar and Grill). Tiffany-style pendant lights lend the only flash of colour in an otherwise monochrome and sparsely decorated room. Its hearty, Italian-inspired dishes, such as char-grilled squid with borlotti beans, change on a daily basis.
Restaurateur Joe Macken?s establishments, which offer thrifty, quality food in hip surroundings, have also proved successful with recession-conscious diners. His previous venture, Crackbird, serves just one thing — an upmarket twist on fried chicken accompanied by a choice of homemade sauces. His most recent venture, Bear, champions less-fashionable cuts of meat, like Argentine-inspired rosary cut ribs and flank steaks char-grilled over an open flame.
Something of a diners? crossroads has sprung up a short distance from the city centre in the shadow of Aviva Stadium, with diminutive Juniors being one of the first to take up residence. The New York-style deli (though not a part of the New York City-based chain) was conceived by two brothers, one an ex stockbroker and the other a chef. It morphs into an Italian-inspired cafe by night, serving crowd-pleasing plates of spaghetti alla vongole (with clams), pints of prawns and heartier dishes like roast rump of lamb. There are just a handful of tables facing a small open kitchen, while hardier souls wrap themselves in complimentary blankets to brave the outside chill.
In 2010 the same duo opened Paulie?s Pizza just around the corner from Juniors. Taking its cue from the age-old Neapolitan tradition, pizzas are made from slowly proofed sourdough, San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella singed in an extremely hot wood-fired oven.
Across the road, the Chophouse is a large-windowed gastro pub that serves a menu of comfort food classics like fish and chips, and an exemplary Charolais Rib Eye steak, which has been dry-aged for 32 days.
L. Mulligan Grocer is a traditional style Dublin pub set in the inner city neighbourhood of Stoneybatter, just north of the River Liffey. Open since the 18th Century, its future looked grim until it was taken over by three enterprising friends: Seaneen Sullivan, Colin Hession and Michael Foggarty, who all had a passion for food and drink. They kept all of Mulligan?s historic charm and supplemented it with a seasonal menu diligently sourced from Irish producers, plus a lengthy list of craft beers and whiskeys. The formula has been so successful that the trio recently gave new life to another old city centre pub, WJ Kavanagh (4-5 Dorset Street; 00-353-1-873-0990). Its menu is more inventive than Mulligan?s, but still uses Irish ingredients in the likes of dishes such as black pudding wontons and an Asian-inspired laksa made with locally caught mussels.
Pop-up street food markets are becoming a regular feature for the bustling lunchtime trade. One of the best is the Mespil Village Market, which takes place on Thursday afternoons along the banks of the Grand Canal. Visitors can sample paella from the Paella Guys (one of the partners, Ian Marconi, manned the stoves in the kitchens of London?s trendy, Moorish-inspired Moro restaurant) and there is an array of other stalls, such as the Choux Brothers? lollipop stick cakes (small scale cakes on sticks) and Dave?s Wood Fired Pizza, cooked to order in a specially converted wagon.