Miriam Lord: Drought goes on as indoor pints prove hard to find

Many publicans opt to wait as clarity over indoor hospitality arrives at 11th hour

James Whelan in Doheny & Nesbitt. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

James Whelan in Doheny & Nesbitt. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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At long last, indoor hospitality was back.

And with the Big Reopening came the Great Staggering. Only to be expected, some might say. But it wasn’t down to a skinful of drink; more to do with a surfeit of caution and confusion.

It seems publicans and restaurateurs decided to ease themselves slowly into the new hospitality regime, resulting in staggered starts for parched drinkers hoping to get stuck into a few pints again inside the now unfamiliar walls of their local hostelries. The 11th-hour finalisation of the new rules left publicans little time to digest them properly, so many decided to delay opening.

In the Pebble Beach in Clontarf, owners Mark and Paddy Grainger sat inside their silent bar, hugely disappointed their regulars would have to wait another while before they could set foot inside their local again.

It’s only a couple of days, but they wanted to reopen on Monday. The brothers, the third generation of their family in the pub trade, had been preparing for the best part of a year. The pub has been repainted twice and new upholstery put in. A little snug has been built between the bar and lounge. They spent thousands on “mobile perspex screens at “€450 plus VAT each”.

They set up a mobile drinks service and then an off-licence to keep the business ticking over. After many false dawns, they hoped Monday, finally, would be the day.

“We spent the last two weeks cleaning. Honest to God, you’d be amazed the amount of dust that builds up,” said Mark.

“It’s easy to close a pub. A whole different, expensive ball game to open it again,” Paddy pointed out .

On Sunday night, with no sign of the final guidelines as the day wore on, they made a final call not to open as intended. “How can you open your business when you don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to do? We just want to welcome people back safely, but we hadn’t the confidence to do it.”

Short supply

Around the city centre, pubs and restaurants weren’t rushing back into business either. Wednesday appeared to be the start day of choice for the ones not already running an operation outside.

One big clue to the slow start was in the job notices posted in front windows all around town. Chefs, waiters, bar workers, front-of-house staff and kitchen porters are in big demand and short supply. Businesses have been hit with the double whammy of losing staff during the closure while trying to operate a strict new admission regime requiring extra staff if they want to open up.

Granted, early Monday afternoon on a warm summer’s day is not the best time to gauge customer turnout in popular watering holes, but apart from tourists in search of an authentic Dublin pub experience, locals in search of a drink or a bite remained firmly in an al fresco state of mind.

In O’Donoghues on Merrion Row, manager Kevin Barden said he was sticking with the outdoor option in the short term. “We’re just going to play it by ear and see how the week progresses and see how the rest of the hospitality industry gets on with it, but at the moment we are not going to open. We just feel the guidelines were published too late in the day. There are too many issues to deal with, and a lot of demands on the staff as it is.”

Across the road in Doheny & Nesbitt, the lure of its comforting snugs hadn’t tempted customers away from the seats in the sunshine. Bar manager John O’Brien kept an eye on things as staff checked Covid vaccination details and proof of identity.

“So far, so good, we’ve had no problems,” he said. “I think things will be slow to begin with. We will have a few regulars in this evening, but a lot of people are still afraid to come inside. Every table we have outside is taken, though.”

Crete expectations

One couple forsook the sunshine for a drink inside, but they were visitors from the Greek island of Crete. “The weather is cold for us here. Forty degrees at home,” laughs Katrina Daeskalaki.

Because of Crete’s reliance on tourism, they say hospitality reopened fully a couple of weeks ago. “But we have many now with Covid, ” says Panaziotis Bompo. He points his finger skywards. “It goes up. Every day.”

Panaziotis Bompos and Katrina Daeskalaki, from Crete. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Panaziotis Bompos and Katrina Daeskalaki, from Crete. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

James Whelan from Santry is studying the racing page and happy to be back in what he calls his “southside local” for a few pints and a bit to eat. “I think this Covid is exaggerated for some reason,” he says, although he has had his two jabs.

It’s his first pint indoors since Christmas. Was it worth the wait?

“Oh, yes.”

Mae Robbins, who teaches conversational English, is sitting outside Olesya’s wine bar and bistro on Exchequer Street. It is early afternoon and, like almost all the establishments in the vicinity, clients prefer to stay outdoors.

“I have been coming here for at least 10 years. The food is divine and the wine selection is superb,” she tells us. However, because she has allergies and has had bad reactions to the flu vaccine, she is not in a position at the moment to take a Covid job.

“I’m one of those people who is in medical limbo. Today, I cannot go inside here except to use the facilities. And in my local coffee shop in Phibsborough this morning, where they used to let me sit in a room at the back on my own, I walked in and he told me: ‘Out!’ I am an Irish citizen, otherwise in good health, and I am being treated like a leper.”

Anti-climax

Back in Pebble Beach, a group of golfers from nearby Royal Dublin turn on their heels and leave when they cannot get a drink inside.

Wednesday, they say. Definitely. Wednesday at 5pm.

“It’s been an anti-climax, not getting open immediately. But we’re really looking forward to seeing people in and the pub busy again. We’ve be been waiting for this for the guts of 18 months. Now we just have to hope that the customers remember to come back, because they might have developed new habits over the period of closure.”

But they’re confident Paddy the Galway Man and Toby the Clock Man (he keeps the two 100-year-old clocks behind the bar in good time) and Ross the Rugby Man will be back for their afternoon card games of 25s.

“And Christy, who’s nearly 90, he came down yesterday to investigate. He says, ‘When are yis going to be open, lads? This could be my last year.’ Sure we can’t keep disappointing him.”

When they open, the staff and customers will raise a glass to neighbour Mossie O’Donovan, a Pebble Beach regular of many years with his little dog, Scoobie, who had his own high stool at the bar. Their picture hangs on the wall.

Maurice had been looking forward to returning with Scoobie for the first time since September, but he died tragically in a drowning accident last week.

“We’re all absolutely heartbroken here about it. It puts everything in perspective,” says Mark.

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