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Is fine dining dead? What we’ll be eating and where in 2024

Trends that look set to continue into next year include tasting menu fatigue, a preference for earlier dining, and lunch for weekends only

If you have been scrolling through restaurant accounts on Instagram, you would be forgiven for thinking that 2023 was the year of caviar and flimsy wisps of gold. One redolently delicious, the other quite tasteless. This may or may not be an analogy.

Bord Bia’s annual Foodservice Market Insights report reveals that the Irish out-of-home sector (spending by diners within all food service channels) was up nearly 13 per cent this year to a new record high of €9.3 billion across the island. However, this may well be a reflection of escalating prices. It is against a backdrop of closures in the industry.

Closures

The shuttering of Keith Boyle at The Bridge House was a bit of a shocker for the industry. A heartbreaking post on social media announced that Farmgate Cafe in Midleton, which had been seriously affected by flooding, would not be reopening in its existing location. Flaneur and Sprezzatura in Rathmines closed quietly, and others, including Loretta’s, Richard Corrigan’s The Park Cafe and Clanbrassil House are trading until Christmas and then calling time. Industry sources say that there will definitely be more casualties in January.

By the time the next round of Michelin stars for the UK and Ireland are announced on February 5th, four Michelin star restaurants in Ireland will have closed this year, reflecting the challenge of maintaining Michelin-level prices in the current economic climate. Enda McEvoy announced the closure of Loam in Galway in January, Aimsir closed its doors in April following Jordan Bailey’s departure, Michael Deane will be closing Eipic in Belfast in January, and Takashi Miyazaki’s Ichigo Ichie in Cork will change to a casual bistro with natural wine in January.

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A number of top-end restaurants that are adapting with a high-low approach include Michelin-starred Chestnut in Ballydehob, which introduced two price points on its tasting menu and a temporary, more casual experience upstairs, which will continue if the demand is there. Bresson in Monkstown now has its Mermaid pop-up as a permanent feature in its covered courtyard, and the new Allta restaurant will include Glovebox, the highly successful cocktail lounge with live music concept it had on Trinity Street.

It raises the question: is fine dining dead?

I don’t think it is quite yet, but there’s more than a soupcon of nuance.

“It is existence [survival] for most restaurants at the moment,” says Kevin Hui, owner of China Sichuan. “And in Dublin, the riots didn’t help. I think a lot of people are banking on a good Christmas, and then will take stock in January and just either get out or keep going.”

Cost pressures

Restaurants are grappling with multiple cost pressures, including inflation in food and energy prices, warehoused debt, a recent return to a 13.5 per cent VAT rate, and the impending €1.40 increase in the minimum wage to €12.70 per hour in January, among other regulatory requirements. Predictably, the phrase “challenging trading conditions” is doing the rounds.

Press Up, the group behind a plethora of restaurants, including Sophie’s, Angelina’s and Doolally, recently announced that it was making 32 of its 110 head office staff redundant.

The operator that was scheduled to take the top-floor restaurant in the Central Bank Plaza, has pulled out. Alan Clancy’s Nolaclan hospitality group is now taking over the 250-seater restaurant space and multiple bars at Central Plaza. ICRAVE is working on the space and the restaurant is due to open in the summer of 2024.

Price sensitivity

It seems that we have perhaps reached a tipping point when it comes to what a diner is willing to spend. Bord Bia’s research finds that 86 per cent of Irish people believe that dining out has become “too expensive to do on a regular basis”. It is now reserved for special occasions. It’s not just the reduced frequency that has affected the industry: diners are “cutting back on alcohol, not ordering secondary courses or choosing to split starters or desserts. There has also been an increase in choosing less expensive and smaller dishes to keep to a budget.” This chimes with the anecdotal reports from operators I’ve talked to.

Early birds

According to Hui, we are also eating a lot earlier. Everyone wants the 6pm slot, and it can be hard to fill a restaurant beyond 9pm.

Bye bye, tasting menu

If the trade is to retain loyal customers, a move away from tasting menus (often used as a mechanism to manage costs) and a return to a la carte menus would be wise. With the exception of some Michelin-star restaurants, diners prefer to have more say in what they’re ordering and how much they spend.

Barry Fitzgerald, who owns Clanbrassil House with his wife, Claire-Marie Thomas, says that they had a tasting menu there during Covid and gradually pulled it back to run just on Saturdays. “It seems to me that the busier restaurants around are perhaps a la carte-based and I think that’s totally understandable from a diner’s perspective, and whilst it might be a little trickier for the kitchen to run and you might need extra staff – it can be difficult running a busy a la carte restaurant – I think they are essentially what people want and that’s fine.”

Fitzgerald says that the key issue with Clanbrassil House was a drop-off in midweek trade. It was “up and down” with October and November considerably slower than expected. Surprisingly, August was the top-performing month for the couple’s other restaurant, Bastible, with tourists happy to travel beyond the city centre for a Michelin experience. As much as we relish giving the tyre guide a solid kicking, it is rated by tourists, who are important for sustaining restaurants at this level in a relatively small market.

If the outlook sounds bleak, tinged with 2008 deja vu, it’s not quite the full story. There has been a steady stream of new openings in Dublin, with Eric Matthews and Richie Barrett’s Kicky’s, Cellar 22 on St Stephen’s Green, The Dunmore in Rathmines, and the much anticipated opening of Allta.

At the more casual end of things, Mani pizza and Bootleg have opened on Drury Street. Sydney has replaced Counter in the Dundrum Town Centre (with an interesting menu of burgers, flatbreads, fish and loaded fries). L-Blanc Mezes is a new supper club in Cloud Cafe on North Strand road. Ryon Wen, who is behind Nan and Bullet, has taken over the restaurant in the Confucius building in UCD (it’s like a Chinese canteen but is open to the public); and in January, John and Sandy Wyer of Forest Avenue will be opening a bakery, Una, in Ranelagh, just a few doors down from Night Market. Development work on the Bullitt Hotel, in what was Boland’s bakery and biscuit factory in Capel Street, is continuing, with the opening of a cocktail bar, garden, public house and restaurant scheduled for spring 2025. If it’s anything like its Belfast counterpart, you can expect top notch cocktails and serious food.

Openings

In Greystones, Sheerin Wilde has opened The Harbour Kitchen; the people behind The Pigeon House in Delgany are close to opening their new restaurant, Caladh; and Scéal Bakery is working on their new premises, with an opening date to be announced. In Roundwood, Co Wicklow, Simon Pratt and his wife Monique McQuaid and Teresa Byrne have bought The Coach House, an 1820s building adjacent to their Roundwood Stores, and have opened a gastropub. Luke Matthews (former chef at Muse in Baltimore) and Ciaran Kiely are in the kitchen, making full use of Denis Healy’s organic produce, there is an interesting wine-by-the-glass list, and dogs are welcome.

In Midleton, Barry and Colin Hennessy and chef James Cullinane (formerly of Castlemartyr) have opened Church Lane, a gastropub with live music in the evening to offer the full night-out experience; and in Northern Ireland, chef Alex Greene and front-of-house star Bronagh McCormick have left Eipic in advance of its closure and plan to open a “farm-to-plate experience” in a new restaurant with rooms in the Mourne countryside.

Chain reaction

As ever, the rumours that English chains are sizing up the Dublin market abound. The operators behind the Wolseley were in town a few months ago, and Franca Manca and The Ivy Asia are mentioned in the same breath.

Small-town successes

One of the big changes in the restaurant scene according to Colin Harmon of 3FE is how smaller operations have contributed to the revitalisation of towns around the country. In the past few years people have had the opportunity to test the viability of the market with coffee trucks and there has been a considerable move to bricks and mortar businesses. Newer cafes such as Hey Darling in Naas, Seven Wanders in Louisburg, Tree Bark in Moycullen, Town in Mitchelstown, No Filter in Clonmel, The Keep in Cahir and Coffee Angel in Monaghan are providing an important social hub for these towns.

Venue troubles

Success in the restaurant industry is driven as much by location as it is by the operators behind a venture. Richie Castillo and Alex O’Neill of Bahay have been on the hunt for a permanent home for some time and have been flummoxed by the price of suitable units and landlord demands. Barry Fitzgerald would be interested in opening a casual restaurant in Dublin city centre, but says units are in short supply.

Similarly, Simon Barrett and Liz Matthews of Etto and Uno Mas have been keeping an eye out for a suitable premises for a “fish on plate” kind of restaurant, the sort of simple food made from great produce that we associate with holidays, with a Mediterranean influence rather than being specifically Italian, French or Spanish. “Why does everything have to be so complicated?” asks Barrett.

If you’re a follower of trends, this may just be the future. The word is, culinary minimalism is on the rise, a move away from food-porn and tweezered dishes. Which sounds like pretty good news.