The quiet life. That's what Dervla James imagined when she contemplated heading home to Easky to open a cafe in the top floor of a 1990s tourism centre in the Sligo village. She would work front of house and husband Johny Conlon would cook. But Pudding Row has been such a hit they've had to take on staff. Queues form for tables.
Here’s why: the house-baked bagel with cream cheese warmed to drippiness by a slice of free-range bacon (declared by the 12-year-old to be the lunch of a lifetime). My strawberry salad with a nose-tickling smell of strawberries, a reminder it’s still summer on a leaden skied day. It has fried haloumi as a squeaky, salty contrast, and an avocado sliced thinly because it isn’t as ripe as they would have liked. There’s a doorstep of airy house bread enveloping the killer bacon and pear combination. There are the creamiest scrambled eggs, flecked with chives. There’s a chocolate biscuit concoction with golden nuggets of Crunchie bar, a cake that’s butterier than a car salesman’s patter. All proof that if you bake it, they will come. We go back the next day to do it all again.
Pudding Row has a heart-filling view of stone-walled fields sloping gently to a castle and the ocean. Inside, it's become a social hub. James sees old schoolfriends in the flesh rather than in virtual updates. As friends gather at Electric Picnic this weekend, we are reminded that friendships are like plants. They need regular nurturing. Cafes and restaurants are giving pubs a run for their money as the new churches of conviviality. The best venues are casual places with big flavours, where no-one worries if an extra body turns up, or someone wants to just have coffee or a glass of wine instead of a full meal. Here are my other favourite spots for a post-Picnic friends' get together. Wellies not required.
The pigs cheek dish in Wexford Street's Las Tapas de Lola (above) was already good before they dialled it up to greatness by tweaking the cumin, adding a sweet red pepper sauce on one side and tangy salsa verde on the other. And they have lamb sweetbreads now too, fried with sherry, garlic and parsley.
Las Tapas de Lola, 12 Wexford St, Dublin 2. Tel: 01-4244100
In Mayfield in Terenure, they've named a lovely new upstairs space the Yellowbird Room after a song that chef Kevin Byrne's dad would sing at get togethers with family and friends. Check out the flamingo wallpaper on the stairway. Mayfield is the little cafe that has grown without ever losing its charm.
Mayfield, 7-11 Terenure Road North, Terenure, Co Dublin, tel: 01-4926830
At the top of Stoneybatter, chef Matt Fuller is putting fine food on small plates in Boqueria, named after Barcelona's food market. They had a large happy table of friends and family the night we visited. Fuller's barrel chips is a must-order.
Boqueria Tapas Restaurant, 3 Prussia St, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7, tel: 01-8683575
restaurant is a small place with big flavours, a great breakfast or brunch place that also turns into an impressive evening venue. Orso, 8 Pembroke St, Cork, tel: 021-2438000
Glebe Gardens & Café
in Baltimore (above) – which won Best Cafe in this year’s
Best Shops competition – is only open for a few more weeks as they close for the season this month. But if September is kinder than the summer, it’s a gorgeous spot for an outdoor gathering, with tables in the courtyard for breakfast, lunch and (if you get really lucky with the temperature) dinner.
Glebe Gardens, Baltimore, West Cork, tel: 028-20579
In Galway, Jess Murphy’s
Kai Café Restaurant
(left) is a perennial favourite for its cosy welcome and Murphy’s terrific cooking. And on Middle Street, the gorgeous little Japanese restaurant
is where you’ll find chefs eating on their days off. Always a good sign.
Kai Café Restaurant, Sea Road, Galway, tel: 091-526 003. Kappa-ya, 4 Middle St, Galway, tel: 091-865930
The last thing you want on a friends' get together is a pretentious waiter who'll interrupt the nattering with a sit up and listen lecture about the food or the wine. None of this will happen in Ox Cave, the sister winebar to Ox Belfast. They'll just keep bringing delicious platters of cheese, cured meats, and glasses of the greatest stuff to the table, so that nothing interrupts the flow.
Ox Cave, 3 Oxford St, Belfast, tel: 028- 90232567
Only the strongest will look at the picture of the "roast less ordinary" on The Kitchen's Facebook page and not feel a hunger pang. The leg of Slaney Valley lamb with mint and red pepper stuffing with two kinds of potato is the kind of cooking that makes the diversion off the N11 into Gorey worthwhile.
The Kitchen, 4 North Parade, Gorey, Co Wexford, tel: 053-948 0541
Big, roomy places often fail to deliver big flavours. But that's not the case with Drogheda's Eastern Seaboard. In the unlikely setting of Bryanstown Centre, husband and wife team Jeni Glasgow and Reuven Diaz are delivering a truly tasty menu perfect for gatherings. Their sister cafe, the Brown Hound Bakery is a best cafe Irish Times winner.
Eastern Seaboard, Bryanstown Centre, Drogheda, Co Louth, tel: 041-9802570. Brown Hound Bakery, tel: 041-9833792