Some of the most fun I had eating out in 2017 was in Belfast. It’s a long way to go for dinner but, if you’re there for 24 hours, as I was (twice!) it’s not difficult to make the most of a short visit and the energy and fun in the city around food makes it hard to beat.
The first trip involved the legendary ABV Fest, my third time at this feel-good beer festival, which is held in the atmospheric Carlisle Memorial Church. With a brilliantly sourced line up of beers from NI, the UK and ROI, a seriously good food offering (Mike Thompson’s Fancy Cheese selection, including his Young Buck, is always a winner while Ispini Charcuterie was a new and tasty discovery this year) and a series of tutored tastings, the only problem is dragging yourself away. But it’s always worth breaking free for a while.
Stay central and walk everywhere to build up an appetite. Co Couture is a good spot for warming / sobering hot chocolates, venture into Hilden Brewery’s Molly’s Yard to maintain the beer theme, taking your choice of that brewery’s offerings alongside some local slow-roasted kid goat, and enjoy some civilised time out over a contemplative glass of manzanilla paired with aged manchego in OX Cave.
General Merchants on Ormeau Road gives good morning-after-the-beerfest-night-before brunch, with Zac’s Bakehouse sourdough serving as the backbone for an Antipodean Vegemite-inclusive breakfast. Don’t caffeinate yourself up too much there, tempting as it is with quality beans from suppliers like Roasted Brown, The Barn and Dear Green. Just a five minute walk and you’re at Root & Branch, the snuggest little coffee roasters you’re ever going to find, tucked away on Jameson Street, just off the Ormeau Road. Brew classes, flat white heaven, live music on Sundays and always a new bag of freshly roasted coffee beans to discuss and purchase.
Second time round, my sister and I were supposed to be going to Dublin for the night. At the last minute we decided that we could go to that city at any time while Belfast, post-Brexit, might just disappear out of easy reach. So we kept on driving, bypassing Dublin and making reservations for Belfast in the car as we continued to travel north. We arrived into a freezing city with a warm welcome on every corner, from the off-duty waiter in General Merchants that intuited our need for a glass of something strong after the trip, to the gents that we ended up hanging out with at the Belfast Beer and Cider Festival and the random conversations we had with people in shops, bars and festivals everywhere. Friday night in Belfast and everyone was out for the chat.
Dinner was a late one, in the busy, buzzy Coppi. Their cichetti (Venetian for small plates) made perfect post-beer nibbles. Crunchy whitebait came with a tangy aioli, duck ravioli fritters were dark and savoury, truffle honey was a sweet counterpoint to salty feta fritters. Soakage, of the very best sort. You shouldn’t, and we didn’t, bypass the Merchant's Hotel legendary cocktail bar on our way home. The trick: wait to be seated - the staff have a very firm idea of how their whole system works, mess with it at your peril - take your time perusing the cocktail book and choosing one perfect drink, then spend the rest of the evening people watching.
Saturday morning, make time for a wander through the food / fish / fruit / crafts for sale in St George’s Market en route to Established Coffee for late breakfast. Make sure you stalk Established on Instagram for whet-your-appetite weekend brunch pics. Dishes like potato and celeriac waffle with cauliflower chatt, cucumber yoghurt and pomegranate photograph well - but taste even better.
Their coffee game is strong too. Just as well. It’s a long, long drive home.
But we’ll be back, back for lunch at OX, egg-bacon-sausage Belfast bap breakfasts in the St George’s Market, brunch in Hadskis and back planning a stop off at Danni Barry’s new venture, Clenaghan’s restaurant in Aghalee. There’s a lot to eat, north of the border. Worth driving for.