The Dáil diet: what are the Oireachtas eating?
‘You go from meeting to meeting and end up grazing’: Well, Oireachtas dining has come a long way. Chips and the full Irish can still be had, but sometimes salad bar line is longer than one for meat and two veg. Miriam Lord explores the exclusive Members’ Restaurant and the open-to-the-plebs canteen
A little bit of George Bernard Shaw sharpens the appetite for the more upmarket diner in Leinster House. A quote from The Revolutionist’s Handbook appears at the top of the menu in the Dáil Members’ Restaurant: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”
That’s open to argument; some of our more self-regarding politicians could easily test that claim. On the other hand, if they were made of chocolate, they’d happily eat themselves.
This bright and airy restaurant is the preserve of parliamentarians. Mere mortals can only cross the threshold as their guests. They get impeccable table service, fancy menus and the good cutlery. On occasions, stray pieces of Houses of the Oireachtas china (the small milk jugs are particularly prized) have been known to sneak their way into constituents’ handbags after a complimentary feed from the local TD.
Few members of the Dáil use the Members’ Restaurant as their main refuelling station. Those days are gone. They don’t do long lunches now, as a rule – that sort of thing happens off campus. The restaurant is a venue for entertaining, impressing and, of an evening, some casual hugger- mugger away from the twitching noses of wandering journalists. But it’s not a place for serious plotting, unless the conspirators want their presence noted and gleefully relayed to the media by a colleague straining to earwig from a nearby table.
It’s a somewhat soulless space, with not much atmosphere. But the food is very good, of top restaurant quality and the best of Irish provenance. The steak and the prawns are particularly popular, though pricier than most main dishes, which come in at around the €8 mark. Desserts average a fiver and cappuccino is €2.50.
Down the corridor from the silver service and starched napery is what’s known in Leinster House as “the self-service”. A huge kitchen links both facilities, each with its own service team. The self-service is the hub of Leinster House, catering to visiting citizens and the army of people who work in the Oireachtas.
It’s your standard busy work canteen. Despite the myth of privileged politicians living high on the hog with subsidised grub, the reality is more mundane. Although certain self-important TDs (usually the ones who have least to brag about) like to underline their status by skipping the queue.
“Some of them are like babies, always demanding special treatment,” a former staffer told us. “But they get treated like babies in here anyway. They’d argue over the price of a cup of tea while swiping leftover bottles of wine from tables in the Members’ Restaurant.
“Then you’d see them on the telly like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth. I used to hate them. You’d be praying for them to lose their seat because then you mightn’t see them again.”
The menu changes daily, with plenty of options to satisfy the meat-and-two-veg brigade. There is always a choice between red meat, white meat, fish and a vegetarian dish. The restaurants are run as a business but, without the overheads that could crush similar operations, the food is excellent value.
So what do our TDs and Senators eat?
We will resist the temptation of characterising elected male representatives from outside The Pale as mountainy men with hearty appetites who scoff enormous dinners in the middle of the day. If anything, it’s the young male public servants and journalists who fit that bill.
But political life can very quickly become an unhealthy one. The canteen opens for breakfast on sitting days at 8.30am (and 9.30am on non-sitting days). Once upon a time, a dirty big fry was the only game in town. Not anymore: porridge, prunes and vitamin-packed juice shots fuel the virtuous. But the fry still reigns supreme.
Cork TD Jerry Buttimer is chairman of the Health Committee. When he first came to Leinster House as a senator in 2007, he settled into the traditional eating routine: full Irish in the morning, dinner in the middle of the day, a second dinner with chips in the evening and the occasional pink schnack with tea in the bar.
“It’s so easy to fall into bad habits,” says Buttimer. “A politician’s lifestyle isn’t great – you have long working days and an erratic schedule. People end up eating on the go, loading up at every opportunity because they don’t know when they’ll get a chance to sit down and eat again.”
After three years of this in the Seanad, Buttimer signed up for the weight-loss television show Operation Transformation. He lost three stone and has kept it off since entering the Dáil.
“You go from meeting to meeting and end up grazing,” he says. “And that would be on top of the two dinners. I realised I had to recalibrate my habits. But they’ve broadened out the menu in recent years and it’s much better. There are always healthy options available.”
It makes a change from the old days, when you’d see an eager young politician enter Dáil Éireann on their first day and watch them expand with the years (and some of us expanding in sympathy with them).
Buttimer now has a strict regime. Porridge and a boiled egg with tea and brown bread in the morning; soup at lunchtime; and in the evening, a chicken stir-fry in the Members’ Restaurant if he’s being good or something with chips in the self-service if he wants to break out.
The move away from the nursery food mentality came about gradually. The younger TDs and Senators are very health- and body-conscious. Often, the queue at the salad bar takes longer to negotiate than the meat-and-two-veg serving line.
The restaurant flirted briefly with putting calories counts beside the various hot food offerings, but it didn’t last.
Meanwhile, the introduction of an expanded food offering in the Members’ Bar has been embraced by those parliamentarians who don’t want to mix with the great unwashed in the self-service. And it stops them accidentally tucking into a three- course feast while hiding in the posh restaurant.
Back in the real world, the usual offerings in the canteen are now augmented by a daily “artisan” menu. These are more spicy or exotic dishes, displayed in earthenware cazuelas and fancy pots with flatbreads and salsas and the like.
The world is gone mad.
Not everyone likes the healthy approach. Chips, for example, are never (officially) served at lunchtime. One veteran TD, who tells us he wouldn’t give tuppence for “your aul fancy dinners”, looked at the dessert selection (prepared in-house) and plaintively wailed: “I miss the tapioca! Why won’t they bring back the tapioca?”
By the way, there’s a second quotation at the end of the Members’ Restaurant menu. It’s from Voltaire: “Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.”
And in the case of necessity over pleasure, even politicians have to eat.
LUNCH MENU MEMBERS' DINING ROOM (Oct 1st 2015)
Mushroom Soup €2.50
Chicken liver pate, citrus sauce, toasted brioche €4.95
Salted cod goujons, garlic and walnut sauce €4.95
Roast loin of bacon, Dijon mustard sauce €7.95
Baked salmon, tomato, olives and basil €7.95
Lamb and chickpea curry, basmati rice €8.20
Macaroni cheese bake €7.50
(All served with seasonal vegetables and potatoes)
Warm apple tart, vanilla ice cream €4.25
Raspberry meringue roulade €4.25
Something different . . .
Antipasti platter: Cured meats and cheese and condiments and artisan breads. Individual platter €12
Sharing platter for two €18