Restaurant survivor

Sat, Jul 31, 2010, 01:00

NEW DEPARTURES:The Winding Stair nearly fell foul of the downturn; for manager Elaine Murphy, it wasn't the first time she was at crisis point in a restaurant. Now, the Stair's future is secure, and Murphy's embarking on a new venture that will give more than one Dublin icon a new lease of life - Pravda is about to become a multi- purpose venue that she hopes to call Hector Grey's, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

IT IS LATE MONDAY morning and a group of "brides" is trotting across Dublin's Millennium Bridge in wedding dresses and trainers. Nothing quite fits. The too-big dresses are held together with safety pins, the too-small ones spill open with gaping zips.

They could be an artists' collective or a hen party, but they provoke bemused grins from drivers on the north quays. Below them, the Liffey is green and fat with weekend rain, a tidal current bringing a briny tang to the city.

At a window in the Winding Stair restaurant, a story evokes the hope that poppies could sprout through some of the cracks in post-boom Ireland. Next month, the name Hector Grey's will hopefully be back in shiny letters above a premises nearby, not far from where the famous trader had his first stall. The woman behind the new venture is Dubliner Elaine Murphy, who started baking for a restaurant on North Great George's Street when she was 13. While studying history at Trinity College she did a variety of restaurant jobs, and her first big job was managing Restaurant 101 on Talbot Street. Just over a decade ago, she opened her own restaurant, Moe's, in a basement on Baggot Street. The critics loved it, but the punters failed to find it. It was located too deep in the office district and it wasn't a sandwich bar.

At a time when failure was not in season, Murphy picked herself up and moved on, building her reputation as one of the city's best restaurant managers. In 2006, the Thomas Read group head-hunted her for an exciting project on Ormond Quay, the reopening of the Winding Stair bookshop and cafe as a restaurant.

From the moment Murphy stood in the middle of the dusty, deserted, first-floor cafe, with its battered floorboards and huge windows overlooking the river, she knew it could work. "To me the building felt almost scholarly. The books were here. There was the slight feeling of a factory. It combined all my favourite things - food, literature, politics." She settled on a schoolroom feel and a style of food that would remind customers of grandmother's cooking. Getting the tone right was crucial. "There was the massive iconic place it had in Dubliners' heads. Many crises were had and discussed here. Books were written and films were made." In a sense, she had become the custodian of a generation's living room.

And it worked. The critics and the customers loved it. Singer Tom Waits came in with his family. They fed Anjelica Huston and Sophie Dahl. It felt like "everyone's secret place", up a rickety staircase and through a firedoor into somewhere authentically Dublin.

Then came the crash. The Thomas Read group went into examinership in December 2008 and receivership last year. The ensuing 12 months were "hellish". But Belfast businessman Brian Montague, a customer who had enjoyed the restaurant, decided to buy the business. So having lost a restaurant during the boom, Murphy has managed to keep one in the downturn. She is now in partnership with Montague, a former chief executive of A&L Goodbody, and a new opportunity has risen from the ashes. When Montague bought the Winding Stair, it came almost as a job lot with Pravda, the nearby superpub. On their first joint visit, Murphy experienced a familiar tingle.

A short trot outside and into the former superpub finds the builders at full pelt. A new mural depicts a spiky, cartoonish black and white Dublin. The final touch could be a name change from Pravda to Hector Grey's, after the famous trader, whose Liffey Street shop once sold everything from beaded purses to cap guns. Stocking fillers all year round. Murphy liked the lilt of the name and also the idea of reinventing a bit of Dublin's recent history, and is in discussions with the family to see the name back up in this historic part of the city. In the process, she discovered that Hector Grey was Ali Hewson's grandfather, a little-known fact. "Hector Grey started right outside this door with a street stall. He was actually quite the philanthropist, a bit of a lefty and it all kind of worked for us.

"The more we looked at the building, the more excited we became by it," says Murphy. "It's an amazing space, very underutilised. There's a load of space out the back." The upstairs mezzanine room has a vaulted ceiling with roof lights making it a perfect gallery and event space for both day and night. "The idea is that we will make it not just a music venue but an arts hub. We want to provide free rent to a group of visual artists. They would work in the space, perhaps sublet some of the space and then help us with the initial decor and on ongoing projects. So it would be like having an inhouse group of designers.

"We would like to do something committed and serious that's about a real sense of community, particularly because we have such a massive group of arts graduates and those people are bereft. There are so few places they can afford to rent." Murphy would like to see other venues join together to create a buzz about the area.

The artists' studios will go in above the new public spaces in Hector Grey's. A caged keg room is to be transformed into a 1950s-style living room with carpet and wallpaper, standard lamps and a telephone table with a Bakelite phone connected to the bar. (It sounds like the kind of venue at least one book club I know would love to spend an evening in.) The finished venue is due to open for business at the end of August.

At the Winding Stair, she has provided a place where visitors can experience Irish food. "The only ingredients we have that are not produced in Ireland are lemons, olive oil, coffee and some wine. You can actually come in here and have your entire dinner with produce which comes from a radius of 250 miles, which is pretty impressive. We're thinking of replacing our olive oil with rape seed oil from the midlands."

There are also plans to expand the Winding Stair. The building has another floor with even more space upstairs, which needs a new fire escape to open it to the public. Murphy envisages a place where people can have antipasta and a glass of wine or poppyseed cake with sherry in the afternoon.

"I did put all my energy in here. During the economic disaster a lot of the dross in every facet of the world has come to the surface. Places that were all about all style over substance, for example, a lot of those have closed, but people who had a real sense of identity have gotten through it. I just felt through receivership that something good would happen. There was great goodwill towards us throughout."

The famous customers keep coming. "Arcade Fire were here for lunch yesterday. They come in everytime they're in town. They wrote the sweetest note about how it was their little sanctuary in Dublin, an escape from the nondescript fancy hotels, with house music blasting at them at breakfast time."