Live like a local: Dublin

The warmth and humour remain but an exciting energy is helping to revitalise the Irish capital after hard times.

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 15 Dec 2011, 11:41 GMT, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:14 BST

After a giddy decade of good times, the city that inspired James Joyce's Ulysses has been outed as an Icarus. Dublin flew too close to the sun, and was burnt to a crisp. The surprising thing about all of this? It's probably a good thing. I'm still reeling — we all are — but Ireland's capital is finally pulling itself up off the pavement, engaging with the new reality, and realising that, hey, maybe the blingtastic noughties were a little crass anyway.

There's energy in the air. You can feel it in the pop-ups and collectives of South William Street; in the value-for-money menus being cooked up by genius chefs such as Kevin Thornton; in risky fringe productions — even the new dolphins in Dublin Bay. It says a lot that the hottest property on Wellington Quay is no longer U2's Clarence Hotel but The Workman's Club — a venue whose name alludes to its previous incarnation but is in fact a mash-up of Georgian rooms and down-and-dirty gigs.

Naturally, first-timers make a beeline for the big hits such as Trinity College and the Guinness Storehouse. But it's the less tangible stuff that gets under your skin — a throwaway remark; events like the inspired pairing of Sinéad O'Connor's voice and WB Yeats' poem No Second Troy in the National Library; the fact that you always seem to meet someone you know on the street.

Dublin lies midway along Ireland's east coast, bounded by sea and mountains. The city centre is best-suited to walking and, though Dubliners don't really 'do' neighbourhoods, they do pinball between suburban villages such as Ranelagh and Clontarf, quarters like Temple Bar or Grand Canal Dock, and the yin and yang of northside and southside, eternally cleaved apart by the River Liffey.

This isn't a global city. It doesn't have a Smithsonian or a Soho. But take in a play, go to a Gaelic football or hurling match at Croke Park, or stand beneath cultural gems like Caravaggio's darkly poised Taking of Christ at the National Gallery, and you'll soon get under its skin.

Sure, literary giants like Joyce and Oscar Wilde peer out from one too many souvenirs. But ignore those; head instead for literary boozers like Mulligan's, celebrations like Bloomsday, or the Dublin Writers Museum. The city's latest tale may be one of riches to rags but it's shaping up to be a blockbuster.

Food glorious food

Think of Dublin and food doesn't exactly spring to mind. For decades, this was a coastal city that blanked its seafood and ranked Guinness over gastronomy; a place where fine dining meant fat cats blowing the future on lunchtime bottles of Chateau Lynch Bages.

Thankfully, times have changed. Today's Dubliner can nab three-courses at the Michelin-starred Thornton's Restaurant for just €25 (£21), killer Irish charcuterie boards at The Winding Stair, or full Sunday roasts at gastro pubs such as The Exchequer. And you can check out celeb maître d' Nick Munier's Pichet restaurant over cinnamon swirls as a cafe by day, or suckling pig as an evening bistro by night.

From the ashes of the boom, a leaner, meaner and more exciting scene is emerging. Food provenance and local ingredients are king. At Mulberry Garden in Donnybrook, diners choose between just two main courses — a braised shoulder of Wicklow lamb, say, or roast brill with chorizo — on a constantly changing seasonal menu.

Dubliners have the pick of early-birds, pre-theatres and lunch specials. But don't let the casual attitude fool you. The person you see eating a burger in Stephen's Green one lunchtime could be scrimping for a plate of pan-fried scallops at Cavistons Restaurant the next (Bono and his wife, Ali, are fans). And yes, it's worth the trip to the seaport of Dun Laoghaire for an ice cream cone at Teddy's.

In a sign of the times, the city's trailblazing pop-up restaurant, Crackbird, opened as a permanent fixture on South William Street last August. Old faves like Odessa, One Pico and the sizzling Thai and Vietnamese at Saba remain, but value has improved.

The northside trails in the foodie stakes, but suburbs like Howth and Malahide are a good bet, and the restaurant often voted best in the city occupies a basement on the less-than-salubrious Parnell Square. Ross Lewis' Chapter One is quite simply where Irish cooking is at.

Places mentioned

Thornton's Restaurant: 128 St. Stephen's Green.
The Exchequer: 3-5 Exchequer Street. T: 00 353 1 670 6787.
The Winding Stair: 40 Ormond Quay. T: 00 353 1 872 7320.
Pichet: 14/15 Trinity Street. T: 00 353 1 677 1060.
Mulberry Garden: Donnybrook. T: 00 353 1 269 3300.
Cavistons Restaurant: 58/59 Glasthule Road. Sandycove. T: 00 353 1 280 9245.
Teddy's: 1a Windsor Terrace. Dun Laoghaire. T: 00 353 1 284 5128.
Crackbird: 32 South William Street.
Chapter One: 18-19 Parnell Square. T: 00 353 1 873 2266. 

Party people

You don't have to have hollow legs to get your kicks in Dublin, but it helps. The protagonist of James Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, poses the famous puzzle of how to cross the city without passing a pub, and while cafes, wine bars and micro-breweries might be added to that list today, the pub scene remains the life of the party.

Guinness is the iconic drink, though the city has come a long way since the early 1900s, when one in 30 Dubliners depended on the company for their livelihood. Everyone has an opinion on where to find the 'best' pint, but if truth be told, the science boffins at Guiness' parent company, Diageo, keep it pretty uniform, and the act of quaffing in old-school pubs such as Kehoe's is as enjoyable as the pint itself anyway.

For a little ritz, kick off your night with a blossom cocktail at the Clarence Hotel's Octagon Bar. Or take a cab to the Hemidemisemiquaver Bar (named after the 64th-note in music) at The Gibson Hotel. The docklands hostelry overlooks Dublin's Big Wheel, the bar snacks are Asian, and the fact its name evokes both a guitar and a classic gin martini is not entirely coincidental.

Dublin also has a neat line of grungier pubs, epitomised by  the Bernard Shaw — complete with a big blue, pizza-dispensing double-decker bus in its backyard — and The Workman's Club. Last time I visited the latter venue, Irish singer/songwriter Cathy Davey passed me on the stairs, the DJ kicked off his set under Georgian sash windows, and a Literary Death Match was under way.

Unlike, say, Barcelona and Berlin, Dublin doesn't really do 24/7. Conversation is at its most convivial before the traditional closing times of 11.30pm (weeknights) and 12.30am (weekends), though late licences can stretch things out until 2.30am, allowing places like 4 Dame Lane to blur pub/club boundaries.

Speaking of clubs, the meat markets are on Harcourt Street, while you'll find a glam older crowd in the super-pubs along Dawson Street, celebs enjoying a bop and some bubbly at the members-only Lillie's Bordello, and the best live music at Vicar Street, Whelan's and Tripod/Crawdaddy. The Temple Bar quarter? Give it a wide berth after hours, and you're already living like a local.

Places mentioned

The Clarence Hotel: 6-8 Wellington Quay. T: 00 353 1 407 0800.
The Gibson Hotel: 9 South Anne Street. T: 00 353 1 677 8312.
The Bernard Shaw: 11-12 South Richmond Street.
Kehoe's: 9 South Anne Street. T: 00 353 1 067 78312.
The Workman's Club: 10 Wellington Quay.
4 Dame Lane: 4 Dame Lane. T: 00 353 1 679 0291.
Lillie's Bordello: Adam Court, Grafton Street. T: 00 353 1 679 9204.
Vicar Street: 58-59 Thomas Street. T: 00 353 1 454 5533.
Whelan's: 25 Wexford Street. T: 00 353 1 478 0766.
Tripod/Crawdaddy: Old Harcourt Station, Harcourt Street. T: 00 353 1 476 3374. 

Pile of style

Step into Project 51, Dublin's new design collective on South William Street, and it's hard to know whether to feel delight or dismay. Delight, because edgy threads and jewellery by the likes of Sinead Doyle and Eoin McDonnell are a breath of fresh air. And as a local, dismay, because they took so long to arrive.

Project 51 isn't just about retail. A dozen or more Irish designers are making use of the studios, desks and exhibition space in the Georgian building, in a show of exactly the kind of imagination that went AWOL as rents skyrocketed during the noughties.

Step out of this space, and walk the length of South William Street. Grafton Street and Dundrum Town Centre may be where Dubliners get their High Street hits, but this eclectic strip, and adjoining ones like Castle Market, are emerging as purveyors not just of curry houses, hairdressers and one-of-a-kind pubs like Grogans, but of ideas. Opposite Project 51, Indigo & Cloth runs a pop-up space at street level and a boutique in the basement. Here, you might find fine-art photography interspersed with labels including Oliver Spencer and Dagmar, The National on the stereo, and crisp copies of the fashion paper Thread.

The Old City area of Temple Bar has cultivated an edge too, courtesy of shops such as Industry — which offers industrial and vintage interiors — or the fusion of fine and applied art at the Clyne Gallery.

Not that retail therapy needs to be edgy, of course. Brown Thomas is the local take on Barney's and the Powerscourt Centre, once a glamorous Georgian townhouse, is now a boutique mall stuffed with jewellers, galleries, a courtyard cafe, bars like Lost Society and anchors such as French Connection. Not to mention classics like the James Fox Cigar & Whiskey store.

As with its restaurateurs, Dublin's retailers have had to get smart in the recession. That makes it a very exciting time to be a consumer brandishing a credit card.

Places mentioned

Project 51: 51 South William Street. T: 00 353 1 679 5551.
Indigo & Cloth: 27 South William Street. T: 00 353 1 670 6403.
Powerscourt Centre: 59 South William Street.
Industry: 5 Smock Alley, Temple Bar. T: 00 353 1 613 9111.
Clyne Gallery: Exchange Street Upper. T: 00 353 1 677 0107.
Brown Thomas: 88-95 Grafton Street. T: 00 353 1 605 6666.
James Fox & Sons: 119 Grafton Street. T: 00 353 1 677 0533. 

Top 10 local tips

01 Go to a game of hurling or Gaelic football at Croke Park.
02 Don't be tight, make friends and buy a round. It's the best way to meet the locals.
03 Don't like big tourist attractions? Try The Little Museum of Dublin.
04 Take an alternative walking tour of the city with The two-hour 'experience' hones in on pop-ups, new openings and of-the-moment happenings.
05 Bring a brolly. Or a rain jacket at the very least. Dublin is four-seasons-in-a-day territory
06 Ride the Dart, a suburban train following the curve of Dublin Bay.
07 The Queen of Tarts does a delicious raspberry scone.
08 Eat Dublin Bay prawns. These big pinkies are low on food miles and high on taste, and best enjoyed beside the sea at Stoop Your Head in Skerries.
09 Lighten up. Humour is Dublin's great leveller.
10 Save a taxi fare on Dublin Bus' weekend Nitelink service. All routes cost €5 (£4.35). 

Dubliners by James Joyce. RRP: £7.99.
A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black, aka John Banville. RRP: £16.99.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. RRP: £7.99.
The Dubliner (free magazine with The Evening Herald every Thursday).

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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