A vegetarian and a non-drinker visit Ireland: here’s their verdict

I’m not one of those Americans who think the Irish diet is solely beef, butter and Guinness

Jacqueline McKeon and her husband having the Vegan Afternoon Tea at The Merrion Hotel, Dublin

Jacqueline McKeon and her husband having the Vegan Afternoon Tea at The Merrion Hotel, Dublin

 

My husband and I can sometimes make for an awkward and unwelcome dining pair – I’m a vegetarian and he doesn’t drink alcohol. In the United States, where we live, I’ve struggled through my fair share of uninventive cauliflower dishes, while my husband gets blank stares, along with the occasional smirk, when he asks if there are any non-alcoholic beers on tap.

As a result of our experiences at home, I had low expectations for our dining options when we travelled to Ireland over the Christmas holidays. It’s not because I’m one of those Americans who thinks that the Irish diet is solely composed of beef, butter and Guinness.

I spent a magical summer vacation studying at Ballymaloe Cookery School, in Shanagarry, Co Cork, where we cooked and baked with seasonal produce grown on the school’s organic farm (I still dream about the heavenly strawberries that I used to decorate a meringue).

I also experienced one of the most inventive meals of my life at Michelin-starred Loam in Galway. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the delicious vegetarian and non-alcoholic options that we would encounter during our recent visit.

At Cornucopia, the family-owned vegetarian restaurant founded in 1986 on Wicklow Street in Dublin, I enjoyed a savoury vegetable pie and crisp sprout salad. The pie was perfectly spiced and represented winter comfort food at its best, just without any of the meat or dairy that is so often associated with this type of cooking.

Before leaving, I purchased Cornucopia: The Green Cookbook as a souvenir, and I find myself dreamily flipping through it on an almost nightly basis searching for recipe inspiration.

At Sweet Beat Café, a popular vegan cafe in Sligo that opened in 2015, I warmed up with an oat milk latte and devoured an almost too-beautiful-to-eat blueberry-glazed doughnut at a table overlooking the Garavogue River. This petite cafe recently expanded nearby with a new vegan restaurant concept, Sweet As …Diner+Deli. I’m not surprised, considering that we arrived shortly before Sweet Beat’s official opening time, and it seemed to fill up with hungry diners almost immediately.

During all of our restaurant meals, my husband had a variety of non-alcoholic beverage options to choose from, ranging from non-alcoholic beer to locally brewed kombucha, to fresh pressed juices, all offered without any judgmental or confused looks from the wait staff.

Vegan Afternoon Tea at the Merrion Hotel, with a Irish Maltini, a non-alcoholic cocktail made from Irish malt tea, demerera syrup, and topped with fresh cream, on the left
Vegan Afternoon Tea at the Merrion Hotel, with a Irish Maltini, a non-alcoholic cocktail made from Irish malt tea, demerera syrup, and topped with fresh cream, on the left

The bar scene was no different. At the Shelbourne hotel’s 1824 bar, my husband ordered a citrus non-alcoholic cocktail from a special section of the menu entitled The Drivers’ Collection. I took a sip, and I would have happily exchanged my glass of Champagne for his cocktail.

My husband must not be the only guest interested in this type of offering because the hotel partnered with the Virgin Mary Bar, a non-alcoholic bar on Dublin’s Capel Street, on a bespoke menu of non-alcoholic cocktails for the month of January.

On our final day in Ireland, we booked a table for two at the Merrion hotel for vegan afternoon tea. The hotel added the vegan option last summer in collaboration with Holly White, a vegan blogger and cookbook author.

Our twentysomething server beamed when we placed our order. “I’m vegan,” she said with a smile. “It makes me so happy when guests order this.” While we waited for our tea, my husband sipped an Irish Maltini, a non-alcoholic cocktail made from Irish malt tea, demerera syrup, and topped with fresh cream.

As we boarded the flight back to the States, my New Year’s resolution was clear – to return to Ireland as soon as possible to continue exploring its inspiring vegetarian and dry drinking scene.

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