Catherine Cleary: Waving goodbye to restaurant reviews – for now

My reviews are on ice. What will be left of our restaurant industry when the thaw comes?

Irish Times restaurant reviewer Catherine Cleary: ‘Serious State support will be needed to salvage anything from the wreckage.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

Irish Times restaurant reviewer Catherine Cleary: ‘Serious State support will be needed to salvage anything from the wreckage.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

 

It ended appropriately on a night of weirdness. I stood outside Amy Austin on Dublin’s Drury Street last Friday, unsure if I could go in. It was packed, the mill of people that feels like a warm hug on a cold night, but it suddenly felt wrong to be in a small hot space with lots of people. How quickly that happened.

The restaurant review is not fast food. We cook it up 10 days before you get to see it. There was one I made earlier due to appear this Saturday. It was an account of the brilliant tacos the lovely crew in Órale Street Food were serving out of an airstream trailer in a yard in Stoneybatter. The Belfry Pub, where we sat on creaky leather couches and wolfed the delicious food down, has been closed. I’ve been thinking about all those empty places, their stillness, how they’ve dropped out of our lives in the new normality.

Beside Amy Austin last Friday night, Luna already lay in darkness, the big whale of a place a metaphor for its time, with it’s too big a reach, too big prices, velvet plushness, maroon tuxedoes and gilded dessert trolley. Amy Austin was John Farrell’s leaner operation, hard concrete ceiling, industrial grade carpet and a band of hard working chefs and wait staff struggling to hear our order over the noise.

The noise got to my friend. She turned on her biggest smile, hopped down from her stool and sweetly said to the loudest of three blokes that she didn’t want to spoil his night but could he turn down the volume? He did. But as the night went on resentment was set to a low simmer. “Let’s get her back over,” one of them said. We smiled, ignored them and enjoyed our desserts.

We ate food. I won’t go into details. Let’s save that for better times.

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The bellower came over in person to say his goodbyes. He said he wanted to thank my friend for pulling him up for “acting out” and by the way could she kindly go f**k herself. Then he turned on his heel and beat a path to the door before we had time to pick our jaws off the counter. My friend smiled and blew him a kiss.

“How are you going to write that?” undaunted she asked outside later as we stood in the quiet of the cold street. “I don’t know.”

This last review for a while goes out as a tribute to the lovely professional hard working staff of that surreal pressure cooker of a restaurant. They were mortified, apologetic and ashamed of the behaviour, as if they had any responsibility for it. The encounter would never have made it to print but for my sense that this is the kind of stuff people in the hospitality business face regularly in a pumped up little city full of pumped up little people.

And now presumably most, if not all of those staff, have seen their jobs put on ice. They’re living in this pumped up little city with its pumped up rents. On Tuesday, the Taoiseach warned it could be months before we get this done.

The restaurant business is the toughest of businesses. Margins are typically 10 per cent, with the other costs splitting three ways depending on the type of restaurant; 30 per cent fixed costs like lighting, heating, rent and rates, 30 per cent labour – both kitchen and front of house – and 30 per cent food costs. Not many restaurants have large pots of money to tide them over, to keep paying staff, rent, rates. It’s hand to mouth.

Nimble operations can transform, as many have, into food businesses. Food buying has become the new everything, supermarket profits must be through the roof. Shelf stackers, warehouse managers and logistics staff to keep feeding the supermarket shelves with pasta and Pringles can barely have slept.

But even when we get some distance from social distancing and can share hot sweaty spaces again, will the disposable income that has driven a boom in restaurants still be there? The silver lining could be a crashing of rents (bye bye key money). We know from last time around that the recession seeded plenty of new talented chefs in rooms they could otherwise not have afforded.

Worries about a restaurant bubble have long been simmering. The burgeoning restaurant scene and its bullish restaurant groups soaking up all the locations and staff have been riding a tourism boom and domestic prosperity for the last number of years. That has ended with a bang. Serious State support will be needed to salvage anything from the wreckage.

So I’m hanging up my fork. For as long as it’s possible, I’ll be going to the farms where it all starts, our gorgeous food culture, that has been such a source of interest, desire and comfort over the years. Questions about our food security have never felt more urgent or important. Welcome to the new Coronanormal.

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