Roadside food worth stopping for

Simple, tasty and half portions for the kids – all the makings of a brilliant family pitstop, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

Simple, tasty and half portions for the kids – all the makings of a brilliant family pitstop, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

IT’S TWO CHALLENGES in one. A family lunch. On the road. Past experience has been, at best, something vaguely edible. At worst, it’s assembled from freezer fare of over-salted, fat-laden stodge that makes you vow to pack a picnic next time.

But we’re stopping off at The Fatted Calf in the Westmeath village of Glasson. The restaurant is in what used to be Farrell’s Village Inn, one of those set-down buildings that looks like it’s hunkered down on the side of the road sheltering from the whoosh of passing cars. The back entrance is a little ramshackle, with a large covered-in smoking area and picnic tables, but once inside that’s forgotten. There’s a real coal fire blazing in the cosy wood-panelled original pub part of the building at the front. A large flatscreen television hanging above the fire has its sound turned down. We’re eating in the roomy extension that has been built onto the back.

After almost two hours in the car, no-one is in brilliant form. We arrive into this tranquil place with our three young boys unleashing a rolling ball of noise for the first 10 minutes, but there are bowls of crayons and pictures for colouring to calm us all down.


Two years ago in April, chef Feargal O’Donnell took over this pub with his wife, Fiona, coming from the nearby Wineport Lodge where he had been head chef. He has done stints in London hotels – the Cumberland and the Mayfair – worked with Michael Deane in Belfast and in Roly’s and La Stampa in Dublin.

The trick to opening your own place after a long cooking career making others look good is getting the tone right. Here, it’s very relaxed, nothing pretentious in the decor or the menu, just a small reinvention of this old pub for a wider audience.

The other immediately attractive thing is the mention on the menu of half portions for children, charged at half the full-portion price. A Nutrition and Health Foundation and Restaurant Association of Ireland initiative, Kids Size Me lifts us out of the Bermuda triangle of nuggets, sausages and fish fingers into something much better.

We get blue tin pots lined with linen napkins and great bread – fresh focaccia and a delicious mud-brown Guinness and treacle bread with juicy golden sultanas that taste of ginger. It’s like methadone for those of us who’ve been mainlining Christmas cake in recent weeks. There’s a good choice of wines, with the majority available by the glass.

I’m so taken by the sound of the starters I order two, a pulled pork with celeriac slaw and salad and a bowl of Lissadell mussels. The boys are on half portions of lemon sole with mushy peas and chips and a half portion of burger with salad. These come in at €7 and €7.50 apiece. My mussels arrive in a piping hot bowl, juicy and delicious. A few at the top are a little overdone but there are plenty of others that are great. The pulled pork is marvellous, a small, densely flavoursome tangle of slightly spicy pork on a raft of toast with a mustardy remoulade on top. There’s honey there too, and a delicious simple salad that tastes freshly chopped rather than tipped from a pre-prepped bag.

Liam opts for the Jane Russell venison sausage and it’s deeply tasty, coming with black pudding, mashed potato and red cabbage on the side. It’s great food, simple, well-cooked and extremely tasty. The boys love their lunch too, their chips coming crisp and delicious and with the skin still on. The mushy peas are so much nicer than this chipper staple can be, made from real peas just mashed in the kitchen. The half burger portion is succulent and gorgeous, one of the nicest burgers I’ve tasted anywhere.

Two kids’ cones (at a pretty cool €1.70 each) and a plate of house-made petit fours are a special end to it all. I get a large bowl of rice pudding. It comes with shaved slices of cinnamon-poached pear and a puddle of apple puree. A stick of rolled chocolate is helpfully eaten by the five-year-old who declares when he sees the bowl: “I love the look of that.” This nursery staple of rice pudding is a bowl of rib-sticking flavour and comfort, a great big food hug.

The Fatted Calf is brilliant, providing one of the best family meals we’ve had anywhere. It’s an example of how things could be done. And that’s not just in small villages, where places like these are a beacon of hope and warmth, but also in big cities where so few good food places are so family-friendly.

Lunch for five with soft drinks and two coffees came to €69.80.

The Fatted Calf

Glasson, Co Westmeath, tel: 0906-485208

Facilities: Standard pub toilets

Music: Country and easy-listening

Food provenance: Very good. Jane Russell provides the venison sausage and mussels from Lissadell

Wheelchair access: Yes

Get on your bike: Rothar

There's something to Flann O'Brien's suggestion that cyclists become part-bicycle. We feel a wrench of separation when the trusty steed has to go to the shop for repairs, not least because we have to schlep onwards by foot (two legs good, two wheels better). This is why the new Rothar cafe on Fade Street in Dublin city centre is a bit of a magical place.

I dropped in recently with a niggly gear problem, bumped into a bike-minded friend and had a cup of very good coffee and a caramel slice while my bike was being fixed in the workshop beside the cafe.

They've done the small space out in dark purple walls, recycled pallet tables and there is a small selection of bikes for sale. The blackboard is decorated with polished gear cogs and, even if you don't have a bike, it's a very pleasant pitstop. Officialdom is still deciding, apparently, whether they can offer more food. So at the moment it's just tea, coffee, croissants and cakes.

A full service would still involve dropping off the bike, but after 20 minutes I pedalled away, gears back in sync. And the bike was going well too.

Rothar, 16 Fade Street, Dublin 2, tel: 01-6772233