Storm warning – the Dublin restaurant scene

Eoghan Conway considers the future of the Dublin restaurant and hospitality sector

Storms are like baking bread: they’re in need of a specific set of ingredients and the necessary atmospheric conditions. Yet the recipe for this storm isn’t an appetising one. Bread flour takes the form of staffing shortages, rising agents are replaced by rising costs and buttermilk is replaced by more than sour overheads. The conditions are a cost of living crisis and a far-from-optimistic economic forecast. In light of recent closures such as Circa in Terenure, Liston’s of Camden Street, and Lenehan’s Bar & Grill in Rathmines, it begs the question, is creativity in the Irish food scene Noah’s ark to the impending flood, or is it a curse in itself? 

I do not know what it is about Irish people and storms. We have this obsession with buying up loaves of bread in times of an impending weather threat. Tea and toast is enough to weather any storm, or so we think. The possible shortage of a sliced pan sends many into hysteria as they raid their nearest supermarket. The line from Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi seems fitting here, “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone”. This maxim is one that certainly hits home when faced with bare aisles that once housed Pat the Baker and Brennan’s Bread. What could be worse than empty bread shelves you may ask? Barren restaurants and idle commercial kitchens. Spaces that once facilitated enjoyment, gratification and hangovers now lying barren. I feel there is a not-so-gentle storm brewing in the Irish hospitality and restaurant industry. However, this incoming storm is not causing the masses to flock to their nearest restaurants. 

“Are restaurants being pressed up and pushed out in Dublin? I’d argue yes.”

On a dreary October night, I moseyed on down to see what some of the most creative minds in Irish food had to say. The Circular Pub, in collaboration with Char Magazine, hosted a panel discussion seeking to survey the lay of the land of the Irish food business. The panel consisted of Hen’s Teeth’s Rosie Grogan-Keogh, Allta’s Niall Davis and Bahay’s Alex O’Neill. Over the course of an hour and twenty minutes, and two pints on my part, there was one main conclusion: we neglect that space is a creative medium. Yet with spaces being hard to come by, rising rents, and locations becoming lacklustre, are restaurants being pressed up and pushed out of Dublin? I would argue yes. 

The case of Hen’s Teeth, based in Blackpitts, is an interesting one. Originally a space zoned for office blocks, it is now a Dublin cultural institution. The business always wanted to “engage the space culturally”, the utilitarian layout of the premises allowed it to become the Swiss Army Knife in the Irish cultural scenes toolbox. The space is one that functions as a restaurant, bar, cafe, exhibition space and lounge. Its recent collaboration with the likes of London-based outfit Top Cuvée and Irish artist Áine Byrne are testament to this. Upon the granting of its late-night licence, which took 18 months to get, the future of Hen’s Teeth seems bright and now able to continue into the early hours of the morning.  

Self-admittedly, food didn’t come first for Hen’s Teeth, the same cannot be said for Allta however. Their relationship with space is a unique one, to say the least, beginning as a brick-and-mortar entity, moving to food boxes during Covid, to its outdoor dining experience on the banks of the River Boyne in Slane to its current location on the fifth floor of Trinity Street car park. I have to come back to the lyrics of Big Yellow Taxi again, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. The irony is self-evident. For me, Allta is an ineffable experience, paradise arrived at the parking lot but it is not here to stay for much longer. Allta Winter House will end its residency at the end of the year.   

Bahay, the highly touted Filipino food truck, was born out of “a dream, a Musgraves account, and last week’s paycheck”, according to co-founder Alex O’Neill. The mobility of a food truck allows them to play the game on their terms, taking the narrative away from dictating landlords. Bahay in the past has also shown a fluid approach when it comes to space. They have been able to step into areas and make them their own. This was seen with their six-day restaurant takeover of Mae in Ballsbridge this past June. Let us hope that there are more takeovers and collaborations to come in the near future. 

“The most creative can make the space work for them. But even creativity has its limits.”

It was stated that chefs are the new artists, we always think about the medium artists act upon: canvas, clay, sculpture, etc., but we very rarely think about the studios in which they operate. The same can be said about chefs and owners. The most creative can make the space work for them, but even creativity has its limits. So back to the question I posed at the start: is creativity a cure or a curse for the teetering Irish food business? Well, it is neither I suppose. Creativity is incredible to see and keeps the Irish food scene compelling, something I have no doubt it is, but creativity and spaces can only do so much to get footfall. Feet can, and will, only continue to enter restaurants if there is money in people’s pockets and in restaurants’ bank accounts. It is a two-way street, yet both are falling victim to the ongoing economic uncertainty. I think it is time for an umbrella. Unfortunately, I can already feel the first raindrops of that aforementioned storm.

It’s not all doom and despair, at least, I hope not. The talent of young Irish chefs is self-evident. The quality of ingredients and the will of restaurateurs are unrivalled. I pray that this is enough to weather this storm. We should all hold off on writing the epitaph for the Irish food scene. The community will cope. The other day, as I walked into Fumbally Stables and saw a quote on the cafe’s chalkboard, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself, “All sorrows are less with bread”. All I’ll say is I hope they aren’t using that bread recipe that I mentioned earlier.