Belfast is booming. There are cranes on the skyline, a modern building for Ulster University has shot up in the city centre, with a brutalist but functional block of student accommodation nearby. This means that it is now a city fuelled by young blood, and nowhere will you feel this more than in the hugely vibrant food scene.
The Cathedral Quarter, home to the Merchant Hotel, where I am staying and starting my day with a very fine breakfast in the domed magnificence of the Great Room, is a wonderfully central location. Belfast is a compact, walkable city, and Caroline Wilson, who runs the Belfast Food Tour, is my engaging guide for the day.
Typically, her food tour starts in St George’s Market, where you’ll find a large array of food vendors, but instead we head to Trademarket, an outdoor street-food market with food stalls that range from the Pi Guy (who many say makes the best pizza in town), to Rebel & Ruse for barbecue, Kubo for Filipino food and Pi Queen for sweet and savoury pies. There’s beer on tap, it’s lively at lunchtime and hopping at night.
Nearby, Mike’s Fancy Cheese on Little Donegall Street is worth a visit. It’s owned by Mike Thompson, the man behind Young Buck, the renowned blue cheese made from raw milk. As a bonus, it’s also close to one of Belfast’s hipster dive pubs, The Sunflower, which has an impressive beer garden and wood-fired pizza.
For good coffee, head to Neighbourhood Cafe, Napoleon in Ormeau Baths and Established. For brunch, try Output Espresso, General Merchants and Haptic. Holywood, just a quick jaunt on the train from Belfast, is a popular spot for brunch at the weekend, especially Lynchpin, Suitor and Co, Chapters (a coffee shop with books) and Frae – although you may want to keep Frae for dinner, when they serve delicious small plates and natural wine.
The burgeoning food scene in Belfast now includes a new Nordic-influenced bakery, Bakari on Donegall Street, where almond croissants and sourdough are a speciality, and Roam on Callender Street is the much talked about restaurant opening from chef of the moment, Ryan Jenkins. Eipic, the Muddlers Club and Ox are the one Michelin star stalwarts. Expensive, you might think, but the bargain here is the Saturday lunch menu in Ox (which is better than ever), offering two/three courses for £40/£45. Just be sure to book ahead.
Also good value is Waterman House where, as well as a la carte, there’s a no-choice lunch menu offering two/three courses for £18.50/£22.40. It’s a wonderful room that would be equally good for dinner. Further down the street is The Dirty Onion and Yardbird, which is the ideal place to go if you’re in a large group.
East Belfast is the hotspot that everyone is talking about. Here you’ll find Lottie, a smart restaurant with small plates and good wines, equally suitable for lunch or dinner. Much of the creativity in this quarter is coming from the Portview Trade Centre, where you’ll find Flout! Pizza, a New York-style slice shop; Boundary Brewing Taproom; and Root & Branch roastery. Also here is the Banana Block, a newly established living museum where cheese is produced in a collaboration between Velocheese and Indie Füde. Hearty Growers also has an urban mushroom farm, and Bodega Bagels are made on-site. It’s particularly buzzy on the weekend.
The food scene in Belfast is one of the best in the country. It’s worth starting with the Belfast Food Tour to get a good sense of the city, and be sure to book restaurants in advance. Hotels range from the swanky Merchant Hotel to cooler options such as Bullitt and the Harrison Chambers of Distinction. It is worth considering spending one night out in the Holywood direction, in the newly refurbished Old Inn in Crawfordsburn, which has a hot outdoor pool and spa overlooking the forest. It feels like a mini holiday.
Corinna Hardgrave visited Belfast as a guest of Tourism Northern Ireland
More food-focused weekend destinations
There’s a real energy to the food scene in Cork, with top food traders serving casual food in the Marina Market, including Nua Asador with its Argentinian flame-grilled meat. The wine bar scene along the MacCurtain Street stretch is particularly vibrant, with the opening of Nell’s Wine Bar and the reopening of L’Atitude 51. Goldie is a must for fish, Da Mirco for Italian and Paradiso for vegetarian food. For a casual Japanese bite, grab a stool at Miyazaki. Paladar is the new hotspot with irresistible cocktails and moqueca, a Brazilian seafood stew.
Galway has just about everything you want in a food-related break. There is the bustling Saturday food market, right beside Sheridans cheesemongers with its cosy upstairs wine bar. Newer to the wine bar scene is Éan, where the Loam team are behind the stove for the winter, a cafe by day and small plates venue by night. Rúibín, Kai and Cava are where you want to be for a casual lunch or dinner, and Aniar for a special occasion. Check out Galway City Distillery and head to Salthill for the recently opened Blackrock Cottage.
Nóinín is the new place to check out in Kilkenny with ex-Fumbally chef Sinéad Moclair behind the operation. For all-day brunch, Arán Artisan Bakery and Bistro is an established favourite and segues into a small-plates menu in the evening. Also doing a brunch and lunch menu is former Mount Juliet chef Cormac Rowe at Canal Square. And yet another Mount Juliet alumnus, Ken Harker, is the executive chef at Statham’s Bar & Restaurant. Michelin magic is the €45 early bird and lunch menu in Campagne, and for a more formal experience there’s the tasting menu at the Lady Helen in Mount Juliet.
This is one to plan for a little later in the year. Maison Gourmet is the place to head for breakfast and all things French. Newer restaurants include Lagom and Anois, where the focus is on small plates. For a special occasion, The Falls restaurant at Sheen Falls is a wonderful experience, or check into the Park Hotel and dine at the dining room, which is now residents only. Just a short drive away is Helen’s Bar in Kilmakilloge, where you’ll get great views, fish and seafood. For the inside track, sign up for one of Karen Coakley’s food tours.