The best places to eat and drink on a weekend break in Kilkenny

Gourmet Getaways: Irish Times restaurant critic Corinna Hardgrave shares her top places to visit in Kilkenny

Nóinín owners Sinéad and Maeve Moclair. Photograph: David McClelland

Kilkenny is far from a secret, with its layers of history, majestic castle, 13th century cathedral, warrens of medieval streets and the gracious flow of the river Nore, which sweeps under St John’s Bridge right in the heart of the city. But what is probably lesser known is that it has its quiet spots, and as much as Kilkenny is about culture, and indeed pubs, it is also about food.

Wander around the walled gardens of Butler House behind the Kilkenny Design Centre and perhaps get afternoon tea, or pick up some takeaway food in Kilkenny Design and eat it in the tranquillity of the gardens. Explore the Medieval Mile and find the Butter Slip, where 17th-century butter sellers once traded, and drop into Laura and Rory Gannon’s Cakeface patisserie in Irishtown for creative cakes and excellent coffee. Or take a two-hour stroll (or rent a bike from Kilkenny Cycle Tours) and head 12km down the banks of the river Nore to Bennett’s Bridge. There you’ll find The Little Mill where the Mosse family has produced stone-ground flour for seven generations. Most of the wheat comes from one of three farms, none of them further than 20km from the mill.

Chocolate tart at Cakeface Patisserie. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan
Laura Gannon of Cakeface Patisserie in Kilkenny. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Across the road is Nicholas Mosse pottery and cafe, where there are viewing areas to watch the different stages of the pottery being made. Pro tip, head to the first floor for the seconds, which are perfect to the untrained eye. The salad bowls are a lovely buy. The cafe is a nice spot for soup and home-made bread, quiche and home spun tarts and crumbles.

The cafes in Kilkenny city have a sense of individuality. At the charming Book & Coffee Shop, run by Marian O’Neill and Stephen Buck on the quiet stretch of William Street, you can buy second-hand books (from bargain to rare) as well as enjoy home-made cakes with your cup of Joe. At John Street Tea Rooms in Langton’s Hotel there is an Alice in Wonderland sense to the afternoon tea. And in The House of Pretzels in the Market Cross Shopping Centre, Stefan Cadar brings a taste of home from Romania with his hot pretzels which are sweet as well as savoury.

Nicholas Mosse cafe

Perhaps the biggest change to the cafe and baking scene in Kilkenny came with the arrival of Bart Pawlukojć and Nicole Server-Pawlukojć, who opened Arán Bakery & Bistro in 2019. The couple met and fell in love when they worked together in Noma in Copenhagen and spent more than six years in Denmark, with Nicole moving to Mielcke & Hurtigkarl to work as senior sous chef, while Bart worked as butcher, charcuterie and cheese maker at Christian Puglisi’s Bæst, renowned for its focus on sustainability.

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There was much work to be done on their premises on Barrack Street, but within a month they had it up and running with a pared-back Scandi vibe, serving sourdough made from local heritage flours and food that draws on the Kilkenny larder. It is all-day brunch, with world flavours punched up with umami and acidity from the jars of pickles and ferments that line the high wooden counter by the kitchen. They are renovating the room and plan to be back open for dinner later in June. Be sure to check out their bakery across the street, which they opened in 2021, where you are likely to see queues for their sourdough, pastries and coffee. Go especially for their Sunday deal of two loaves of sourdough and four pastries for €20. It’s the perfect thing to take home after a gourmet weekend.

Sinead and Maeve Moclair. Photograph: David McClelland
Mexican pork and black bean stew at Nóinín. Photograph: David McClelland
Squash and bean laksa at Nóinín. Photograph: David McClelland

Nóinín on John’s Bridge Street is another gorgeous cafe to visit, where ex-Fumbally chef Sinéad Moclair and her sister Maeve serve a limited lunch menu using local organic produce, with additional dishes at dinner time. It’s walk-in only during the day, but be sure to book for dinner, where dishes might include Mexican tacos, red lentil dahl, spiced lamb flatbreads and fresh Pollock in tempura batter. The short wine list is carefully chosen, featuring small producers making low intervention wines.

Statham’s at The Pembroke Hotel

For a restaurant where wine is a central focus, Rinuccini on the Parade by Kilkenny Castle has an enviable cellar of Italian wines to go with their home-made pasta, grilled fish and meat dishes. The bistro classics at Zuni have long been a favourite with Kilkenny people, and for something more casual, there is Statham’s at The Pembroke Hotel. Ken Harker, the former executive chef at Mount Juliet, heads up the kitchen here where the menu is less about cheffy flourishes of sauce and more about spice bag chicken tacos, braised pork nachos and good steaks using top quality produce. The Pembroke Hotel also makes a very nice base to explore Kilkenny, with smart rooms and mid-range prices.

Bart Pawlukojc and Nicole Server-Pawlukojc, owners of Arán Artisan Bakery. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Calum Johnstown head baker at Arán Artisan Bakery. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Campagne, down by the arches close to the Arán Bakery, has long been Ireland’s most affordable Michelin star restaurant, with a particularly attractive three-course early-bird and Sunday menu for €48. Garrett Byrne’s food is as good as ever, unfussy and delicious, rooted in the French classics. He has a particularly good way with fish, serving grilled octopus with chickpeas and a touch of Middle Eastern spicing, and roast hake with fregola and mussels in a saffron sauce. Quail is honey and mustard glazed, served off the bone with coco de paimpol beans; and desserts are suitably light, a blackberry soufflé or elderberry jelly with cinnamon doughnuts.

For a blowout celebration, a stay at Mount Juliet is quite wonderful. I have always loved the Manor House, which more recently has seen the introduction of a new cellar bar, the 1757. John Kelly’s food at Lady Helen, a one-star Michelin restaurant, has changed completely since I was last there. There were some exceptional dishes, artichoke custard with shimeji mushroom, mi-cuit foie gras with dashi and the most ethereal brioche imaginable, turbot with pickled gooseberries and a seriously savoury pigeon confit leg and breast. It is a restaurant worth visiting and certainly one to watch as they quietly keep pushing things with the clear ambition of landing a second star.

The Hunters Yard accommodation, which is also on the estate, has been seriously developed, and although there is very much a golf focus here it doesn’t feel too clubby and has a relaxed vibe. The food at The Hound is very good. You won’t find farmed fish, instead it’s Dublin Bay prawns, cod in prawn bisque and catch of the day as well as steaks from the grill.

Hunter's Yard at Mount Juliet has been significantly developed. Photograph: Bradley Quinn
1757 Bar at Mount Juliet Estate.
Chef John Kelly of Lady Helen Restaurant at Mount Juliet

Head down the road from Mount Juliet to Jerpoint Glass, where all are welcome to visit the studio and watch the glass blowers at work. It is fascinating stuff. And if you fancy any of their opulently coloured glass, there is a shop opposite the studio.

Close-by is Thomastown, a pretty village where Spanish chef Rodrigo Gonzalez is serving tasty dishes in Tābú Tapas, which he opened with his ecologist wife, Dr Amanda Greer, last year. There’s a South American and global slant to many of the dishes, with delicious bites like pan de yuca, which are mini cheesy buns made with tapioca flour. You can take the three-course route if you prefer, and as the summer rolls in, there will be pizza from the wood-burning pizza oven in the very smart garden they have at the back.

Rodrigo Gonzalez and Amanda Greer at Tābú Tapas in Thomastown Co Kilkenny. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan.
7-4-2024 Tabu Tapas in Thomastown Co. Kilkenny. Picture Dylan Vaughan.

Warmer days are perfect for food markets, and on Thursdays and Saturdays the Kilkenny Farmers’ Market on The Parade is bustling with traders selling produce like fruit and vegetables from Crainn Nua organic farm, cheeses from The Blues Creamery, breads and pastries from The Speltbakers and hot food trucks which include pulled pork baguettes, sweet potato fries and fish tacos from The Bula Bus, tapas from Tābú Tapas and grilled steaks, burgers and chicken from Breagagh Valley Artisan Meats. A container kitchen is due to open in July with lobster rolls.

Chef at Lady Anne restaurant, Keith Boyle. Photograph: Laura Hutton/ The Irish Times

Head to the Mountain View market on Sundays, a 120-acre estate on the hills overlooking Kilkenny. Now managed by chef Keith Boyle, you will find his new food truck there, Loaded, which involves piling different toppings on Ballymakenny baked potatoes or chips, which could be influenced by Thai, Korean or American barbecue. There is a huge amount of choice from hot food stalls here, including Socafro African and Caribbean cuisine, Hell’s BBQ, El Fuego Tacos, Breaking Buns and Farm Hog Roast.

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Kilkenny, of course, is renowned for its pubs and every local has their favourite. One pub that everyone seems to agree on is Tynan’s Bridge House Bar which was established in 1703 and is very easy to spot, with its distinctive blue facade reflected on to the river Nore. The patina of years adds glory to the original fixtures, fittings and mosaic tiles. Head down a slip of a lane off High Street for The Hole in the Wall, which lays (admittedly disputed) claim to being the oldest pub in Ireland. It’s in a room of an Elizabethan house which dates back to 1582, with ancient oak beams, storytelling and music illuminating the magic. At John Cleere’s in Irishtown there’s a weekly trad session on Mondays and there’s a mix of music, theatre, and comedy in the 100-seat live venue at the back of the pub. And, if the sun shines on Kilkenny, Sullivan’s Taproom has an impressive outdoor area. It’s no secret, but with a good line-up of their own craft beer and pizza from a wood-burning oven, it is the ideal place to soak up the atmosphere.

Corinna Hardgrave was a guest of Fáilte Ireland