Dalkey fish restaurant The Guinea Pig on sale after 40 years
Long established restaurant has a loyal clientele and has had many famous diners
Mervyn Stewart at The Guinea Pig restaurant in Dalkey. Photograph: Eric Luke
One of Dalkey’s best known and longest established restaurants is for sale through agent CBRE at more than €850,000.
Yet Mervyn Stewart, proprietor of The Guinea Pig at 17-18 Railway Road for 40 years, is keen to point out that the famed fish restaurant will remain open seven nights a week until an acceptable bid is received. “We’re not in wind-down mode at all. It’s business as usual until we get the right price. We’ll probably be here till the end of the year.”
The Guinea Pig, which first opened in 1957 and was acquired by Stewart in 1977 for £46,000, is very much a family restaurant where the emphasis is on the food rather than décor. It stretches over two adjoining properties, one dating from 1891 and the other from 1823, and can accommodate 64 diners in its premises across the road from Finnegan’s pub.
“Since I bought The Guinea Pig the world has gone through cuisine nouvelle, cuisine minceur, cuisine gourmand, cuisine moderne and now all the Asian influences,” says Stewart. “We’ve ignored them all. Our menu has barely changed in 40 years. We know our customers. We know what they like. My customers like simply cooked fresh fish, prime beef, lamb and pork.
“Our lobster and crab comes mainly from Bullock Harbour in Dalkey, while our fully traceable fish is caught in the Atlantic and transported to us from two agents in the west of Ireland. The fish, bought six days a week, is ordered at midnight and on our customers’ plates the next evening. My clients are keen on sole-on-the-bone, scallops, lemon sole, hake, prawns, and salmon stuffed with crab.
“Roast duck is also a big seller. We do it in a half-duck size, boned, glazed with boiled honey that becomes caramelised, and you get this lovely sweet skin on the duck with no fat. People love that and keep coming back to us for that. In fact people come back to us time and time again for our signature dishes. If we changed that they wouldn’t come back.”
This approach has resulted in a loyal clientele and many famous diners. Stewart describes the late Dalkey writer Hugh Leonard “as probably my most influential customer” who was “a big prawns and sole-on-the-bone man”.
Fellow Dalkey author Maeve Binchy was a regular who liked “sole-on-the-bone with a double portion of chips at her favourite table”, while Bono pops in now and then for a “steak with fried onion and mashed potato”.
Other well-known customers were Liam Neeson; Gloria Hunniford with Cliff Richard “who liked his fish”; Martin Sheen; Paddy Maloney “who liked his duck”; Jim Sheridan “who liked a steak”; Sharon Stone; Sean Connery “who was all talk and didn’t care too much about his food”; while Mel Gibson was “a difficult customer who just had dessert and a bottle of beer”.
Stewart says he has seen “80 to 85 restaurants opening and closing” over his 40 years in Dalkey, where they are currently “over 23 food licensed premises” – a concentration he describes as “stupid” as almost the only thing people come to Dalkey for these days is to “eat and drink”. His loyal clientele have kept The Guinea Pig going while other “trendy” restaurants had failed to survive as his “somewhat old-fashioned formula” has gone the distance.
His biggest satisfaction, even after 40 years in the trade, is to see his restaurant full of happy people “enjoying my food” and the fact that “so many world famous people come here because of a recommendation”.
“To survive a recession in the restaurant business you’ve to tighten up your cost base, manage your water and waste bills better, and cut your back-of-house operations to fit. But don’t ever interfere with the quality of food or front-of-house operations.”
Stewart, who started training as a chef aged 14 in the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street, is 73 and still cooking seven nights a week. However he now plans to spend more time pursuing his archeological interests in Malta where he has had a second home for 13 years.
He trained under a master of “classical French cuisine” at a time when Dublin’s principal hotels – the Shelbourne, Gresham, Russell and Royal Hibernian – attracted Europe’s elite to dine in a country without the food shortages being experienced on the continent in the immediate post-second World War period.
“We had the food, no rationing, and top European chefs were brought in to cook for Europe’s mega-wealthy and teach Irish chefs classical cuisine,” says Stewart. “I was very lucky to have benefited from this wave of top French, German and Swiss chefs in Dublin at the time.”
An adjoining house was acquired in 1980, and incorporated into the restaurant building. This brought seating capacity up from 32 to 64, and also meant more upstairs accommodation for Stewart’s growing family.
The family has since built a house to the back of the premises with separate access, and divided the over-restaurant accommodation into two apartments which produce a rent roll of €23,000 per annum. Combined, the restaurant and apartments extend to 383sq m (4,119sq ft), and it is these elements – not the family home – which are for sale.