Jammet's serves up tasty memoir of salad days

Fri, Dec 9, 2011, 00:00

LIKE A fine French wine that requires time and patience to reach its peak, a manuscript that lay in an attic for 20 years has matured into a book about one of the world’s finest restaurants of the 20th century.

Jammet’s of Dublin: 1901-1967began as a diary by sommelier Shay Harpur on his 10 years working at what he called the “palace” on Nassau Street.

It has been developed by author Alison Maxwell into a history of the city’s once-renowned culinary stomping ground for Hollywood actors and Irish literati.

“There was a gleam of satisfaction on [manager Roger] Martiny’s face as he showed us some of the bookings for the week ahead,” Harpur, who died in 2001, wrote. “David Niven; Ralph Richardson; Richard Todd;

Boris Karloff; Ingrid Bergman; Anna Neagle; Ronald Reagan; Deborah Kerr; Burl Ives; Rita Hayworth; Vivien Leigh; Rock Hudson . . .”

During Harpur’s time at the French restaurant, from 1953 to 1963, Jammet’s – a labyrinthine series of opulently decorated rooms in a Victorian building set between Nassau Street and Grafton Street – was owned and run by Louis Jammet and his artist wife Yvonne.

The business had been set up by Louis’s French-born father, Michel, and his uncle François, who had bought the Burlington Hotel on St Andrew’s Street in 1900. They moved to 46 Nassau Street in 1926.

More than 20 years after Jammet’s closed in 1967, Harpur began writing his memoir of working at the restaurant, where he had progressed from cloakroom attendant to sommelier in five years.

His wife, Jackie, typed a page of the diary each night as he completed it, but the manuscript was eventually abandoned and stored in a box in the attic of their Brittas Bay home.

When Maxwell, a family friend, visited one day three years ago and mentioned to Jackie she was looking for a subject to write about, the box was reopened.

“We’re just delighted to have Shay’s words down on the printed page,” says Jackie. Their five daughters had read the diary and attempts had been made to get it published, “but without Alison, and Andrew Gallen who did the illustrations, this would never have come to light.”

The main restaurant at Jammet’s was all dark wood, gilt and marble, its walls adorned by a mural of the four seasons by an artist called Bossini. According to Maxwell, Bossini completed the work in payment for “a sizeable debt in the restaurant”.

The establishment’s Edwardian mirrors reflected “that darkly ruddy face, that amused smile, those myopic, yet all-seeing eyes” of Louis Jammet, wrote Micheál Mac Liammóir. He was a regular diner who was often found whispering conspiratorially in the shadows with Yvonne Jammet, and whose “bickering like an old married couple” with his partner, Hilton Edwards, ensured silence among curious diners at nearby tables, Harpur recalled.

Edwards, when asked once if he would care for some spinach, replied: “Oh, yes please. I must look after my schoolgirl complexion.”

In the austere Dublin of the early 20th century, Jammet’s was indeed a bastion of fine dining, wines and service, and later epitomised chic glamour in post- war Ireland. Some say the Dublin expression “you jammy bastard” derives from the envy of those who never got to dine out at Jammet’s.

John Lennon signed the visitors’ book with a self-portrait and wrote: “The other three are saving up to come here!” Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald dined there to celebrate the end of filming The Quiet Man. Harry Boland is said to have had his last meal there, on July 30th, 1922.

Other diners included the Aga Khan, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O’Toole and Orson Welles.

The restaurant even features on Leopold Bloom’s walk in Ulysses. James Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, said such was Jammet’s reputation for food cooked the French way that the Joyce family referred to the restaurant as “Underdone’s”.

Each morning, Harpur wrote, Louis Jammet drove to town with his 1948 Citröen car packed with vegetables from his home garden at Kill Abbey in Kill o’ the Grange.

Harpur notes that Jammet himself and his son Patrick, then in training for restaurant management, used to lunch together on a simple meal of dry toast and “bowls of petite marmite”, a stew or soup.

Harpur overheard Jammet snr confess that he had a liking for “good plain food such as roly-poly pudding and apple dumplings. ‘It’s a matter of some amusement to my wife,’ he said. ‘She says if everyone had my taste, we’d be sweeping the streets’!”


Anyone who worked at Jammet’s is invited to the launch of the book at Lillie’s Bordello, the original Jammet’s site, on next Tuesday, December 13th, at 6pm.