Dublin city centre is ‘dead, completely dead’ for restaurants

‘There are no tourists, no corporate business . . . It’s a serious situation’

Gaz Smith outside his restaurant  Michael’s of Mount Merrion, which has now become Mike’s Takeaway. ‘I see the blended use of space being with us for a while.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Gaz Smith outside his restaurant Michael’s of Mount Merrion, which has now become Mike’s Takeaway. ‘I see the blended use of space being with us for a while.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

“Dublin city centre is an absolute disaster. It’s a tumbleweed situation, especially after 6pm when businesses close. Last night we did 16 people, and the restaurant can hold 110. Tonight we’ve got 10 booked. It’s really scary.”

Restaurateur Eamonn O’Reilly is in the second week of trading post-lockdown at One Pico on Molesworth Place, one of his two Dublin city centre restaurants. The other, the Michelin two-star The Greenhouse, is due to reopen next month.

“There are no tourists, no corporate business, and when you have big office buildings all around you and you’re hearing they won’t be reopening until November, and for some it’s next January, it’s a serious situation,” he says.

O’Reilly, a veteran of the restaurant business who opened One Pico 23 years ago, says his restaurant is doing only 20 per cent of its normal business since reopening, and the situation doesn’t look like improving anytime soon. “Future bookings are dead. There’s really nothing,” he says.

July and August can be a quiet time for restaurants in Dublin city, but this year, with no tourists and a muted response from the home market to the reopening of the capital’s dining rooms, the situation is grave.

“Everyone seems to be gone down the country, understandably so, they want to get away, but no one is coming to Dublin,” O’Reilly says. “There needs to be a marketing plan for Dublin city centre to get people back in the city.”

Gallagher’s Boxty House in Temple Bar, Dublin, which is closing down after more than 30 years’ trading. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Gallagher’s Boxty House in Temple Bar, Dublin, which is closing down after more than 30 years’ trading. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Those who do venture into the heart of the city for dinner are finding a much changed hospitality landscape, with many pubs boarded up and some restaurants and cafes still mothballed as their owners weigh up whether or not it is financially viable to open with social distancing protocols to be observed, prebooked time slots at tables to manage and PPE costs to factor in to already squeezed margins.

The news this week that the Boxty House in Temple Bar has closed indefinitely, after more than 30 years’ trading in Dublin city centre, has been seen by many as a precursor of things to come. Pádraig Óg Gallagher’s restaurant, which derives up to 90 per cent of its trade from tourists in the summer months, served just six people last Friday night, instead of the 400 covers it would normally do on a busy July weekend night.

“The city centre is dead, completely dead,” Gallagher says. “Temple Bar is all boarded up, who is going to come down and look at boarded-up pubs?”

‘The streets are empty’

Elsewhere in the city, at Hugo’s on Merrion Row, owner Gina Murphy paints a similarly alarming picture. “The streets are empty,” she says. During the first two weeks of July last year, Murphy’s restaurant had 843 walk-ins and same-day bookings. For the same period this year, it had just 74. Murphy estimates that her restaurant is currently doing only 30 per cent of its normal business.

“We need to get people back to their places of work and get this economy moving again,” she says.

It’s a sentiment shared by Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, which represents the interests of more than 2,500 restaurants, gastropubs and cafes. Cummins is calling for a return-to-work strategy to kickstart business for cafes and restaurants in cities.

“Every Government office seems to have relocated to the bedrooms and kitchens of Ireland. We need to safely return people to work on a phased basis. Even if we got 40 per cent of the workforce back to the city centres, it’s a start. I really fear for jobs and businesses. Large urban areas like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway are really feeling the pain.”

We’ve given a commitment to the staff that we will retain all jobs, so now it’s a case of driving the business

In contrast, some neighbourhood restaurants are faring better, with reports of an upturn in business as diners opt to stay local rather than travel in to the city centre to dine out.

“We’re seeing a slow yet sure recovery,” says Gareth “Gaz” Smith, chef and proprietor of two Dublin suburban restaurants, Michael’s and Little Mike’s, both in Mount Merrion. “We’re offering a blend of dining in, garden dining and meals to go. Between them all, we’re just about avoiding operating at a loss.”

Smith says that he has been reassured by support from regular customers. “They all seem to know what they want and how comfortable they are with the different options. I see the blended use of space being with us for a while, and the takeaway will complement the restaurant. We’ve given a commitment to the staff that we will retain all jobs, so now it’s a case of driving the business and honouring that commitment.”

New models

Remaining flexible and responding to shifts in customer demand are key for restaurants hoping to ride out the Covid-19 crisis. One of the first to dramatically alter its business model was Forest Avenue, the critically acclaimed restaurant run by husband and wife John and Sandy Wyer at Sussex Terrace in Dublin 4.

On St Patrick’s Day, March 17th, just days into the national lockdown, the couple transformed their restaurant into what they described as a “neighbourhood greengrocer”.

Out went the elegant tables and gleaming glassware and instead they began selling organic vegetables and fruit, carefully sourced fish and meat, handmade pasta, ready meals made by the restaurant kitchen, along with bread and desserts, and a sourdough starter created by John Wyer that, coupled with his how-to video, became a runaway hit with lockdown bakers.

Sandy and John Wyer transformed their restaurant Forest Avenue on Sussex Terrace, Dublin, into a ‘neighbourhood greengrocer’. Photograph: Eric Luke
Sandy and John Wyer transformed their restaurant Forest Avenue on Sussex Terrace, Dublin, into a ‘neighbourhood greengrocer’. Photograph: Eric Luke

“What began as a necessity to help save our business during the pandemic has now changed into a desire to evolve the space into a bona fide grocery store, offering an alternative shopping experience for the area,” John says.

“We plan to refine the space and improve the offering and eventually re-introduce Forest Avenue restaurant within the same space. Eventually we see the Forest Avenue space working as an upscale grocery by day and a high-end gastronomic restaurant at night.”

For now, the restaurant is operating out of the couple’s second site, formerly Forest & Marcy, on nearby Leeson Street Upper. It is a smaller space, where they are serving a surprise menu costing €74. The couple are continuing with their plans to open a third business, a casual eating spot called Little Forest, in Blackrock, Co Dublin, which they say is “nearing completion”.

The Wyers are not alone in having to rethink their restaurant model to survive the Covid-19 crisis. Host restaurant in Ranelagh, Dublin 6 has also been reinvented by owners Chloe Kearney and Niall McDermott, and is operating as a grocery shop where you can pick up many of the ingredients the restaurant kitchen uses, to create Host at Home, or order a ready-to-go meal for two. In Midleton, Co Cork, Kevin and Réidín Aherne turned their Sage restaurant into a gourmet food shop, with meals to go, and have moved their dining room entirely outside, under a covered, heated terrace.

The option of dining outdoors, rather than in a confined space, is proving a big draw for customers, despite the vagaries of the Irish weather. In Mount Merrion, Gaz Smith is using the space in front of his restaurant as an outdoor “garden” dining space, to add to his dine-in and takeaway options.

No-shows and late cancellations are happening with increasing frequency in recent weeks

Saba, the Thai and Vietnamese restaurant, opened an outdoor space seating 40 behind its Baggot Street branch in Dublin 4, with a canopy on order to make the astro-turfed and graffiti-artwork-bedecked space more weatherproof.

It’s a move that has met with approval at local government level. Dublin City Council is trialling pedestrianisation of some streets in the Grafton Street area, beginning this weekend, and has provisionally approved plans to use the parking spaces at the end of South Anne Street for outdoor seating. Cork City Council is supporting an eat-on-the-street initiative, with the creation of a pedestrianised outdoor dining zone at Prince’s Street likely to be extended to other areas of the city. In Limerick, the City and County Council has waived fees to businesses for on-street furniture.

No-shows

However, no matter how proactively restaurateurs react and adapt to face the challenges presented by Covid-19, one aspect of customer behaviour continues to cause problems. No-shows and late cancellations are not a new phenomenon in the restaurant industry, but they are happening with increasing frequency in recent weeks. As a result, credit card booking deposits and no-show fees, more usually applying to more expensive, fine dining restaurants, are becoming more common across the board.

From this weekend, a credit card deposit will be required to book a table at Galway restaurateur JP McMahon’s restaurants, Cava and Tartare, and no-shows or late cancellations will be charged a €20 fee. The move comes after 15 people cancelled their reservations at Tartare at the last minute last weekend, just over a third of the restaurant’s bookings for the night. “With 40 per cent fewer seats and few walk-ins, we cannot absorb this,” he says.

In Mount Merrion, Gaz Smith has also revised his booking policy, with cancellations allowed up to four hours before the reservation, but no-shows hit with a €50 per person fee. “We put a great deal of thought into a compromise between providing people with a chance to cancel if they get cold feet, or aren’t feeling well, and zero tolerance of no-shows. So far so good, everybody seems to be respectful of this,” he says.

Since introducing a €25 fee for no-shows and late cancellations at Sage at the beginning of the month, Kevin Aherne has not once had to apply the sanction.

“I can’t understand why people are taking bookings without card details,” he says.

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