What are the restaurants and cafés that you are most attached to? I ask because this strange four months has made us all acutely aware of the restaurants we haven’t been going to.
Some of that comes as a relief – no one is missing the loveless places, the places with cheap horrible set menus (badly made carbonara is a very sad thing), or a clumsily executed fusion concept, or bad pricey cocktails, or the places that have lost their sparkle and now make all their sauces made from gloopy catering pastes.
Or the places we had a fight with someone, or an awkward chat or a standoff with a waiter on something that now seems very silly. Or somewhere that gave you a dodgy tummy. Or worst of all, the places that should have been good but got too big for their boots and forgot to be hospitable, or generous, or both.
But there are some lovely places, the ones you can’t stop telling people about, that you keep going back to, or wish you could. Often there is some link with them being places you were with someone you really like or love (it’s rare you have the best meal of your life with a client!) And when you’re in a great mood, it’s easier to look over a few small failings; sometimes they can even become part of the charm.
In Ireland, I note that most of the restaurants that have moved to ‘at home’ models, be they cook at home or new to the takeaway scene, tend to be places that are very loved. One of my all-time favourite cafés, Bibi’s on Emorville Avenue in Portobello (and no, not Bibi’s the muffin place for the millionth time), has been doing breakfasts and dinner in this cook-at-home kit format – modular versions of their most popular dishes – and they look great.
And of course they do – everything they create in there is perfect. What they do is focus on some wonderful ingredients – Ummera smoked chicken, Gubbeen bacon and chorizo, Hegarty’s cheddar, crisp rocket, chilli mayo made with rapeseed oil, free range eggs, roasted squash, and then they riff on those in dozens of ways – we always get the butternut squash eggs and the chorizo & manchego toastie.
They’re famous for their baked goods too – little home-baked scones with nice homemade jams, peanut butter and cheesecake brownies – and their coffees are lovely.
I haven’t had the Bibi’s cook at home kit (and can’t because I’m in London right now) but I have had a couple of others. And I’ve been reading about loads of them – consuming vicariously perhaps. I’m trying to work out whether these kits offer some escapism because they offer something of the experience of that place you love. Or maybe it’s from the satisfaction of achieving an impressive result yourself. Or is it just that the food in these kinds of places is good enough to stand alone?
Perhaps that’s all it is. Food that is better than what you cook because there are a few extra steps than you’d usually take. A few extra processes that are manageable because you know what you need to do next rather than trying to work it out along the way. Maybe they work so well because they bring a bit of uniformity to the way we cook things, which keeps us on track, giving better results.
When everything is back to normal, my question is whether the butternut squash eggs will always be better in Bibi’s, with its beautiful bright rooms, its view out onto two sides of the neighbourhood, its smells of cooking billowing through the rooms and doors open, its beautiful interiors, its power-people watching, its style. Or whether that dish will be just as good at home. I have to think that it will taste better at the restaurant because it is a fuller experience; with all the theatre and energy of being in a very social place.
But while the restaurant version of the experience feels more worthy of protection (the jobs alone make that an obvious point), I hope that these kits keep going alongside. Sometimes something special at home is more manageable, and can be meaningful at a personal level.
I think being able to have the choice will result in a better experience overall for both offerings – restaurants will need to up their game at being great places people want to spend time and money in to keep capacity being met, and at-home offerings will need to stay special to have cut-through in a saturated market. Maybe we will move more to ‘at home’ for certain sorts of offerings, and ‘at restaurant’ for others. Or maybe everywhere will silently turn off the tap on these kinds of kits once the going gets good.
Either way, it’s imperative that we do support the places we love as lockdown ends and life as we know it never quite returns.
Spend your money in places that worked hard to create a viable, creative, radical alternative during lockdown, the places that added colour to your very dull weekends in March with their quickly built but efficient apps and safe new store-front set-ups.
Spend your money in places that went above and beyond any time you went there before lockdown.
Choose an at-home kit when it suits, but commit to never being a no-show for a restaurant booking.
Most importantly of all, in the words of Warren Zevon, whether you’re eating at home or in a restaurant or on a table on a street, enjoy every sandwich.
All the restaurants I’ve loved before
just limited to the island of Ireland; some now gone 😥
Bibi’s (obviously. I love it so much I even worked there, unsuccessfully, for a short period)
Gruel on Dame St (RIP)
The Fumbally, for its beautiful, swooping levity and its incredible food
Lemon on Dawson St (RIP) – the most levelling cafe in all of Dublin. Everyone went there – students, poets, politicians. The staff were so sound. The food was so good – I think about their cheese toastie every week.
Itsa Dun Laoghaire (but not the other ones so much)
Two Boys Brew
Airfield café, in both its incarnations, but especially the old one with the rickety wooden tables and the clacky painted tiles and the terrace doors and the scones. I also worked there for a while and found it even more wonderful because of that)
Avoca (although that is a little conflicted at the moment, but I do still love it)
The Cake Café on Camden St (but more in the past, not so much now)
Strandfield in Dundalk (I love you)
Ard Bia in Galway. A little bit of magic on the pier.
Harry’s Shack + Babushka + Lost & Found Coleraine + Established in Belfast
Poulet Bonne Femme (not a full café)
Luna (RIP). A bit ahead of its time, but with a very good buzz. Didn’t realise it was a super pricey restaurant because we always just ordered the bits we wanted and they were very nice about it, which I respect
O’Connell’s in Donnybrook. A strange mix of old fashioned and trend-led but I suppose I am too 🙂
The Box Tree in Stepaside (RIP). This was a place where I had a standoff with a waiter, which I regretted of course, but the food was so bloody good here
Kennedy’s Gastro Pub in Glenties. A meal that took me by complete surprise. There was a very, very good chef in the kitchen there who really cared about the little things. I hope that’s still the case!
Kinara Kitchen in Ranelagh. Why is your food so nice.
The Fallon & Byrne restaurant. Such a beautiful space, such lovely food, but they need to do something about the acoustics.
The Indian Brasserie in Rathfarnham (RIP RIP RIP. Much missed, never topped)
O’Looneys in Lahinch. Even on a busy sunny day at the height of summer (and it does get very busy), the staff here manage to be hospitable and generous
Bombay Pantry (just a takeaway)