It’s mean to snark but the new Bewley’s is disappointing

Review: The iconic Dublin cafe was never about the food – but now it’s hard to know what it is about

Sat, Dec 2, 2017, 06:00



Somewhere in this building is a ghost of me. She is hiding from the world between a hot fire and a tepid coffee with a milk skin thicker than her own. Sorry folks. This review wasn’t supposed to start with a cloying My Memories of Bewley’s opener. But then I stepped in the door, got a waft of the fainter but still distinct blend of coffee, yeast and sugar and all the ghosts pressed forward to have their say. 

Since the clattery old Museum of Memories that happens to be a cafe reopened on Grafton Street, there have been queues of us with skin in the game, standing in line for a gawk and an almond bun. We’re wondering if Bewley’s is still the same or maybe we’re wondering if we’re still the same. It’s a big responsibility being curator of all this goneness. 

I’m bringing homeless activist Alice Leahy here for lunch. Leahy knew Bewley’s as a place to go when you didn’t feel like you fitted in, or needed refuge from the rain and rush of outside (Bewley’s was fika and hygge before the Swedes and Danes dreamed up the words). Leahy came here half a century ago to celebrate her first pay cheque from the Royal City of Dublin Hospital on Baggot Street with a cake stand of sticky buns and coffee slices. Later she would go to Bewley’s for an audience with Margaret Gaj, whose restaurant on Baggot Street was the birthplace of modern feminism and liberal activism. Margaret’s seat in Bewley’s was guarded by Kathleen “Tattens” Toomey, Dublin’s most famous waitress.

We wonder what those formidable women would make of the lovely young waitress who tells us she’s not allowed to serve soup on the mezzanine “in case we [the staff] spill it on ourselves”. If we want soup we will have to follow her downstairs. 

It’s early days and Bewley’s is thronged, so maybe they’ll get that daftness sorted out. But there are other heart-sinkings moments, such as the fauxhogany wall panelling on the mezzanine. It looks like it came from the Book of Finishes for Posh Airport Lounges. I guess you don’t spend €12 million polishing the oldness, travelling the world seeking the best almond buns and sending your waiting staff to competitive soup-carrying events. But I wish they had. The unchanged feeling I was hoping for is probably strongest down the back of the room. Those Harry Clarke windows still glow and the plain old fireplaces are still there. But there are no fires lit in them. 

A large chunk of change must have gone on the skylight in the middle of the big room, which changes everything. Velvety dimness has become brightness, reflected from the marble floor as startlingly white as a bleached smile. There’s interrogation-level light from the open kitchen. We’re now sat beside the roped-off queue, which feels like being in a petting zoo as curious queuers file past. Health and safety assessors can relax. Leahy’s leek and potato soup is safely cold. She sends it back and it is replaced with a hot bowl by our whip-smart waiter. The leek element is a small tangle of vegetable on top and the rest is mainly hot cream. My pea and ham hock soup is pea soup with a faint trace of ham, possibly from a ham stock. The thready pink meat I expected from a €7 bowl remains in my imagination. 

There’s a rubbery open sandwich with halloumi cheese you could safely use to mend a puncture on the old iron Bewley’s bicycle down the back. A ham and cheese croissant is good, the croissant is house-made, flaky and papery as a scroll. But they’re out of almond buns. There’s a new batch on the way. We decide to wait, although we’re starting to feel like a pair of bed blockers in a busy A&E ward. A man in a Bewley’s suit comes to apologise for it all, bearing a carrot cake in thin layers like mille feuille. 

The eventual almond bun is pillow-soft and warm from the oven, not the big yeasty “ignorant buns” as someone once described them, but nice, and “the nearest thing we’ve had to Bewley’s since we came in”. 

I wish I had better news for those coming to Dublin for the Christmas shop next week. It feels mean-spirited to be all snark and sentiment about new Bewley’s as Starbucks advances on the city. But there’s something oddly human about its expensive facelift. The end result is neither young nor old. It just looks “done”. Bewley’s isn’t a public memory depository. It can’t be put in a glass case and have sugar thrown at it (the insult in our house when anyone got precious). 

Nostalgia tourists might be disappointed but maybe they’re aiming for a new generation who are neither the lost nor the lingerers. Old Bewley’s was never about the food. If things don’t improve that’s one of the few things that will have survived the revamp.  

Bewley’s, 78 Grafton Street, Dublin 2 

Lunch for two with two coffees and a shared almond bun came to €38.50 

Verdict: 4.5/10. Go all Paddington. Stick to the buns and coffee

Facilities: Fine

Food provenance: All cream comes from “grass-fed Irish Jersey cows”

Wheelchair access: Yes

Music: None audible over the din of happy chat

Vegetarian options: For the strong of jaw in the form of that halloumi and beet sandwich

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