For the last decade, it has seemed as if finding value for money, and eating out in restaurants, have been polar opposites.
Restaurant critics discussed meals that cost several hundred euro for a single dinner. Stories of bankers and hedge fund managers dropping several thousand euro on exotic, rare vintages of great wines in a single evening became the stuff of legend.
And then, suddenly, just like a cheap teen slasher movie when someone suddenly spots the bogey man outside the window and everyone is stunned into terrified silence, we have woken up.
Reality bites. And reality has bitten us. Hard.
And it’s not just the punters who have been shaken into a new sobriety, a new cost-consciousness. Ireland’s restaurateurs are quickly adapting to a new world where money is too tight to mention.
Derry Clarke of L’Ecrivain restaurant in Dublin, the leading city restaurateur of his generation, may have all the stars, gongs and awards that any restaurateur could garner. But in cutting his prices – you can get a superb lunch at L’Ecrivain for €25 – and in controlling the portion size of his prime cut offers, he has simply told his staff: “Do you want a restaurant with stars and no customers? Or do you want a restaurant with customers that isn’t concerned about the stars”.
Restaurateurs like Jay Bourke, who has been one of the pioneers of affordable eating out with his CafeBarDeli chain, is serving offcuts and bin-end bottles of wine in Shebeen Chic, his clamorous George’s Street restaurant. Rib of beef with stout costs just over 14 euro in Shebeen, whilst a true Dublin coddle of wild pig sausage and pork belly is just €15. Wines by the glass are a fiver.
Over in Fairview, at Kennedy’s Food Store, where they offer a dinner special with a glass of wine for a tenner, Sarah Kennedy has just opened a new, 35-seater upstairs bistro and bar to cope with the crowds.
Aside from the dinner special, prices at Kennedy’s start at €6 for starters, with main courses ranging between €11.50 and €16.50.
What is changing at breakneck speed is the way in which we conduct our relationships with restaurants. The champagne fizz is gone. The red carpet has been rolled up. We should have been aware that the love affair was too hot not to cool down.
And cool down it has.
The good news is that this new cool era is going to be very good for restaurant customers. €25 will now get you lunch at most of Dublin’s finest restaurants.
In Ranelagh’s Mint restaurant, where chef Dylan McGrath is cooking what many professionals regard as some of the finest cooking this country has ever seen, they offer an early tapas menu, with matching wines, for €55.
That’s like being able to buy a Faberge egg for a fiver. Or getting a Porsche for a hundred euro. Or picking up a Picasso for a couple of hundred euro.
And it’s not just cost-cutting and value-consciousness that is motivating restaurateurs.
In Dungarvan’s Tannery restaurant, chef-proprietor Paul Flynn has begun a large new vegetable garden and polytunnel, just around the corner from his restaurant and cookery school, right smack in the centre of the town.
“We will have all the veg we need for our restaurant, at least, and with any surplus we will be looking to do barter, and we will probably sell some surplus to our suppliers so they can sell them on to other restaurants”, says Mr Flynn. It’s an audacious plan, and it’s working. Mr Flynn’s new cookery school and his restaurant are hummingly busy. “The ‘phones are ringing, the bookings are coming in, we are optimistic”, he says.
Derry Clarke has also suggested that sharing staff, and sharing their huge purchasing power, can also help restaurants get through the recession.
It’s an idea that the new chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, Adrian Cummins, has seized on for the RAI conference at the end of March. “Successful Strategies for 2009 – A crucial time to share ideas” is the theme that our restaurateurs will be exploring.
In the meantime, there is better value in the Irish restaurant world today than there has been at any time over the last decade. A little silver lining to that big cloud overhead.
10 Places with great value for money
Alexis, Dun Laoghaire
Some restaurateurs are ahead of the game, and Alan and Patrick O’Reilly have never been more ahead of the game than in Dun Laoghaire’s Alexis. Three courses for €20 may be the best bargain of 2009, but right throughout the menu Alexis offers what is possibly the best value for money eating in Ireland. Don’t miss their outstanding baked shoulder of lamb, and their skinny chips, at €3 a bowl, are the best and the best value fries in the land. (www.alexis.ie)
The Mill, Dunfanghy, County Donegal
Donegal restaurants have always had the keenest value for money in Ireland, but the value-quality nexus at Derek Alcorn’s The Mill is outstanding. Dinner, at just over €40 for the finest bespoke cooking, would gladden any skinflinty heart, and the Greencastle lemon sole with anna potatoes is unbeatable. (www.themillrestaurant.com)
Ginger, Belfast, Co Antrim
Simon McCance offers a pre-theatre menu for just a tenner, but everything in this buzzing bistro is the best value in the northern capital. Braised and roasted belly of pork with apple sauce and soy jus hits the spot every time. (www.gingerbistro.com)
One Pico, Dublin, Co Dublin
“The best value lunch in Dublin since L’Ecrivan had a £13.50 menu back in 1991” says Bridgestone editor and Evening Herald food writer Leslie Williams. €19.95 for a three-course lunch of this quality is incredible. Foie gras parfait with pear and vanilla purée and brioche is textbook perfect. (www.onepico.com)
L’Atmosphere, Waterford, Co Waterford
Arnaud Mary’s restaurant is a legend in Waterford for incredible value for money, and for pitch perfect cooking. Believe it ornot, but they offer foie gras with cocoa beans and duck jus for €12.50 Bring it on! (www.restaurant-latmosphere.com)
Nautilus, Ballycotton, East Cork
There are no linens and nothing fancy in Leo Babin’s little restaurant, just ace food for little more than €30 at dinner. They use snow-white pollock in their fish and chips, and it makes for a dream dish. (087-613 5897)
Roadford House, Doolin, County Clare
Value for both the early bird and dinner menus in Frankie Sheedy’s restaurant are fantastic, and make sure to save space for his grandstand desserts. Chocolate truffle cake with white chocolate chip ice cream is one of our desserts of the year. (www.roadfordrestaurant.com)
The Ballymore Inn, Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare
Georgina O’Sullivan’s early-bird menus let you taste the work of one of the country’s smartest cooks at little more than €20 per head. Lamb pizza with yogurt and mint is pizza like you have never experienced it before. (www.ballymoreinn.com)
La Marine, Rosslare, County Wexford
Eugene Callaghan is one of the country’s best chefs, and to be able to eat food of this quality at little more than €30 for dinner is a steal. Mr Callaghan’s crispy duck confit is the finest example of this dish cooked by any chef in Ireland. (www.kellys.ie)
The Fern House Café @Avoca, Kilmacanogue, County Wicklow
Avoca may well be Ireland’s leading luxury brand, and the weekend dinner opening at the Fern House, with Matt Murphy and Giorgio Ramano at the stoves, is putting out not just red-hot cooking, but terrific value for such care and accomplishment. Tempura of Arctic char with coconut, Asian chilli and lime dressing and dipping sauce, with herbed salad, gets dinner off to a roaring start. (www.avoca.ie)