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This article by Ronan McGreevy appeared in The Irish Times 12/1/2011

IRELAND’S BEST restaurants are not just surviving but thriving despite the recession, according to the co-author of the Bridgestone Guide.

John McKenna said good restaurants had benefited from a form of “Darwinism” where those restaurants that did not offer good service and value closed, leaving the best to benefit from discerning customers who could still afford to go out.

“It seems to be completely contrary to the way the rest of the country is functioning,” Mr McKenna added. “It is bewildering, but ultimately heartening. People are spending their money smartly after years of senseless splurging during the boom.”

The restaurant industry in Ireland is already basking in the endorsement of the hugely influential French guide Le Guide du Routard which in its forthcoming edition says that Irish restaurants are as good, if not better, than anywhere in the world.

However, the Restaurant Association of Ireland did not agree with Mr McKenna’s view of the restaurant sector, saying that 80 per cent of restaurants were losing money.

There are 17 new entries in the top 100 restaurants in the Bridgestone Guide . There are a few high-profile absentees, most notably celebrity chef Conrad Gallagher’s Dublin-based restaurant Salon des Saveurs, which only lasted a year in the guide.

Mr McKenna, who co-authors the book with his wife Sally, has said anecdotally the restaurants his team surveyed were finding turnover up by 20 per cent to 30 per cent.

“The guys who are adapting better are trimming their costs and their staff numbers a bit and their profitability in 2010 was up.

“That was the feedback we were getting across the board in November and December when we were finishing the book.”

Mr McKenna cited the example of Avoca, which owns nine cafes across the country and which increased profits to €1.6 million last year.

The Bridgestone Guide , which will be published today, includes its top 10 places to eat out in a recession, with eight new restaurants and only two previous inclusions – Harry’s Bar and Restaurant in Inishowen, Co Donegal, and The House in Howth, Co Dublin.

Mr McKenna said restaurants were still opening despite the heavy attrition rate, but most had their research done first.

He singled out Gregan’s Castle in the Burren, Co Clare, as one of the best places both to eat and stay in the country.

“A number of people have said to me that his [chef Mickael Viljanen] food is some of the best food they’ve ever had in Ireland.”

He also cited Harry’s Bar, which sources all its food locally, as deservedly thriving despite its relatively remote location. “He did 2,000 people in the week after Christmas. That’s phenomenal.”

Mr McKenna said his exclusion of Gallagher’s restaurant was done with regret. “He’s a genius. He should be the most famous Irish chef in the world, but he wants to run empires rather than restaurants. He loses his focus.”

Mr McKenna also said the recession meant the end to zombie hotels which he described as the “dinosaurs of our hospitality culture”.


Augustine’s Cork in the Clarion Hotel

“There’s a sure hand at work in the kitchen . . . [chef] Brendan Cashman sources ingredients from local artisan producers and the English Market, cooks them confidently and balances the flavours to perfection. Wonderful.”

Gregan’s Castle Ballyvaughan, Co Clare

“Gregan’s Castle is the hottest destination in Ireland right now and Mickael Viljanen’s food is simply awesome . . . this is extraordinary cooking.”

Harry’s Bar and Restaurant Inishowen, Co Donegal

“Every so often an Irish restaurant transcends itself and gets into a space where the magic happens with every service. Harry’s is that place ”

The Cottage Restaurant Jamestown, Carrick-on- Shannon, Co Leitrim

“Sham Hanifa’s lovely restaurant is back on track after the floods of the winter, so don’t miss this exciting personal and very different cooking. Beautiful food, cooked with imagination and care, and great value.”

Juno’s Parkgate Street, Dublin

“Juno’s is a most unexpected and pleasant surprise, a gem tucked away in the less frequented neighbourhood of Parkgate Street.”