The resurgent restaurant scene

Sat, May 19, 2012, 01:00

In the throes of recession, new eateries are turning up all over Dublin, as restaurateurs streamline their offerings and people spend their nights out at the table rather than the bar

WHAT IN HOLY halibut is happening? Restaurants are sprouting in Dublin like poppies through the cracks. Since when did this happen in the middle of a recession? The new arrivals range from neighbourhood cafes to fashionable fast food and even a high-end bid for the city’s first new Michelin star in years. Why do Dublin restaurants seem to be booming, and could it all end in tears like one big prosecco bubble?

Later this month Joe Macken, the owner of Crackbird, will add a fifth restaurant to his empire, with a 120-seat city-centre Jo’burger restaurant on Castle Market in Dublin 2 in what was, until recently, Bedlam restaurant. Macken says he is still paying “top-dollar rent” for prime locations but the businesses are “smarter, more streamlined”, building trust with landlords and offering the kind of food diners want which is, as he puts it, “nothing that has the bang of the golf-club dinner”.

Much has been made of the ability of social media to generate a crowd of hungry diners. But a huge factor in the success of Macken and others has been the flow of pub euro into restaurants, with people much more likely now to spend an evening around a table than on a bar stool. As the pub trade dwindles, restaurants flourish. People are making casual decisions about going out to eat in the way they used to about going for pints. Faced with a choice between the freezer aisle and a casual bite, they’re choosing the restaurant.

Elsewhere it’s noticeable that the bulk of diners are twentysomethings and over-50s, both sectors without mortgages or childcare costs.

Other factors are timing and set-up costs. When John Farrell bought the lease of a small restaurant in Ranelagh from a liquidator in 2009 the price reflected the climate. He sold his stake in the Dublin restaurant Il Primo and used the money to buy what had been Dylan McGrath’s Michelin-starred Mint, one of the first casualties of the downturn.

Farrell estimates it would have cost more than €300,000 to get the keys of a Michelin-standard restaurant such as Mint at the height of the boom. The key money, a down-payment made before any rent was paid, could have been as much as €200,000 for a coffee shop, “just for the privilege of moving into a location”, Farrell says.

The liquidator’s price for the lease on Mint in 2009 was €50,000, and Farrell put his mid-range Dillinger’s restaurant in its place. In the three years since then he has opened two more restaurants: the Butcher Grill in Ranelagh and a Mexican restaurant, 777, in a former TV shop on South Great George’s Street.

And while rents are still high in good locations, leases on new restaurants have transformed since the downturn. Personal guarantees (where the individuals and not just their companies could be pursued for unpaid rent) are almost a thing of the past. “Restaurateurs used to make a killing, but now we make a living,” Farrell says.

The high failure rate of restaurants is often cited as a deterrent to new enterprises. The common feature of most restaurant openings in Dublin is that a small pool of experienced restaurateurs is behind the majority, and many are sister operations of existing restaurants. Experienced players are being bankrolled not by start-up loans from banks but by investors. “Behind everyone there’s somebody with a chequebook,” Joe Macken says.

Farrell’s 777 is near San Lorenzo’s, opened in November by Temple Garner, who was Farrell’s first chef at Dillinger’s. Last month Garner’s former partner in Town Bar Grill on Kildare Street, Ronan Ryan, opened Bite, a posh fish-and-chip restaurant on South Frederick Street.

There have been some ashes out of which these phoenixes are rising. Ryan’s fingers were badly burned when he opened South, a branch of Town Bar Grill, in Sandyford during the boom. Bite has been busy and well-reviewed, but the climate is much more challenging.

“The rent here is more expensive than at Town Bar Grill,” Ryan says, “but we have more space, with five rooms and a bar.” Leases these days come with better deals, with year-break clauses and no personal guarantees, he says. “But it took seven weeks to get a bank-account number. That’s just to get the digits to open a bank account.” By contrast, Ryan says, he “got the loan for Sandyford over the phone”.

He is level-headed about the success of his opening weeks. “You’ll get that surge, with everybody coming in for the first time. But the real test will be to look at a week’s takings after six months. By then eight more places will have opened.” So even the new openings have to keep on their toes, change their menus often and review what they do.

Elaine Murphy, who runs the Winding Stair restaurant and the nearby music venue the Grand Social, uses social media to keep up with the raft of arrivals. “The recession has been great for creativity, with small places opening, and rents have dropped for new places.”

Is she optimistic that Dublin will see no more restaurants close this year? Not exactly. “Established restaurants don’t get the publicity and attention. The new places have the hip factor, and you have to ensure people remember you. A lot of new restaurants are aimed at a younger generation who tend to go where the wind blows.”

The Winding Stair is already a survivor, having weathered its own trauma in 2008 when the previous owner, the Thomas Read group, went into examinership. A “business angel”, in the form of Belfast businessman Brian Montague, bought the building and saved the restaurant. It has a big appeal for foodie tourists coming to Ireland, and with the number of US visitors down in the first three months of the year it has seen fewer of those diners. “We’re six years old, so at some point you have to figure out ways to reinvent yourself, Murphy says. The trick will be not to change just for the sake of change.

On Wednesday two tweets by the restaurateur Eamonn O’Reilly summed up the rewards and challenges of the busy Dublin restaurant scene. O’Reilly has opened two venues, the Box Tree in Stepaside and the Greenhouse, a fine-dining restaurant on Dawson Street with the Finnish chef Mickael Viljanen, which is definitely aiming for Michelin stars. On Wednesday afternoon he tweeted: “Fully booked at The Greenhouse every evening this week and three tables left at lunch.” Later that evening there was a less happy tweet about Stepaside. “Just got my rates bill. The Box Tree. NO it’s not in Paris, London or NYC, it’s in a small village! €40,800 My God! No wonder the country’s f***ed!”

New arrivals: Recent Dublin openings

San Lorenzo’sSouth Great George’s Street

777South Great George’s Street

Joe Macken’s Skinflint, Crackbirdand Bearand a new Jo’Burgeropening soon

Union Squarein Terenure. A sister of the Mayfield Eatery and Deli 161 Cafe Bistro Upper Rathmines Road. Opened by the former front-of-house man at the Lennox Cafe in Portobello

The GreenhouseEamonn O’Reilly and Mickael Viljanen’s fine-dining restaurant on Dawson Street

Rigby’sA menuless restaurant three nights a week on Upper Leeson Street

Terra MadreBachelor’s Walk

BiteSouth Frederick Street

Mulberry GardenMulberry Lane, Donnybrook. John Wyer’s seasonal restaurant open three nights a week

MusashiCapel Street. Cheap and cheerful sushi and Japanese food bar

WJ KavanaghsDorset Street. A sister gastropub to Stoneybatter’s L Mulligan Grocer