Where the mixed grill is king
Wander into almost any cafe in Dublin and you could be forgiven for thinking you have been transported to Italy, France or the US. Gone are the days when you couldn't find a cup of decent coffee or a salad which didn't include coleslaw. Fancy a cappuccino and ciabatta? An espresso and panini? Or an Americano and an organic wrap? Easy.
What is harder to find is a small traditional cafe offering ordinary food. Garlic chicken on tomato and olive bread may be good for our cholesterol level, but does it do anything for our emotional or mental states? I doubt it. Before becoming European, we were Irish - and there are times when all the lollo rosso and balsamic vinegar in the world won't cheer us up. We need the food of our childhood. The sad news is, it's only just possible to find a cafe that hasn't been gentrified, cappuccino-fied or completely reconstructed. Dublin's transformation from depressed provincial city into fashionable European cultural centre has seen the disappearance of popular cafes such as the Ritz and Dinty Moore's and the revamp of Bewley's.
The Alpha - which celebrated its 100th birthday on January 1st this year - is one Dublin institution which has survived the cappuccino coup. "We're an oasis," says Patricia Di Stefano, who has worked at the Alpha for 33 years. "With the five windows overlooking the street, it's like a country crossroads. We get all ages, from babies to pensioners, and the customers mix well." The Formica-topped tables, red linoleum, neon "teas" sign, old-fashioned dumb waiter and gas fire give the place a 1950s feel - like something from a Maeve Binchy novel.
On the corner of Wicklow Street and Clarendon Street, the Alpha has a menu which reads like a trip back to your childhood, or even to your parents' or grandparents' childhoods. Mutton chop and fried potatoes, mushrooms on toast, jelly with ice-cream and milk pudding with jam sauce are all favourites, especially with regulars such as 83-year-old Max Ingrams, who has been eating at the Alpha once a day for more than 20 years because the food is "like home-made". Younger regulars, such as students and office workers, tend to opt for the all-day jumbo breakfast (£5), which includes chunks of fried potatoes just like my mother used to make.
The "luncheon" menu consists of daily specials, such as roast beef with horseradish sauce, mashed potatoes and carrots, with a dessert of Eve's Pudding and custard, and a pot of tea (£4.50). Most evocative of days gone by though, is the Special Evening Tea (from 4 p.m.) which consists of half a sandwich, either a pancake or two deep-fried potato cakes, a slice of sponge cake, bread, butter and jam, and a pot of tea - all for £2.95. Another traditional cafe which has not suffered a 1990s make-over is Sheries' on Lower Abbey Street, established in 1947. "We get a lot of emigrants who are here on holiday and they say it's not changed," says the manager, Breda Smith. "They come in because they met their husband here, or used to come here a lot, 25 years ago or more." Forget about the 1950s decor of Eddie Rockets - Sheries' is the real thing. A red carpet, red checked lampshades and leatherette stools placed at a long Formica counter create a cosy, relaxing atmosphere. Although Sheries' regulars include shoppers, theatre-goers and people heading to Busaras or Connolly Station, most of the clientele are not Dubliners: "It's very popular with country people and American tourists - they love the bacon and cabbage," says Breda. Do customers still want things like a mixed grill or have the Euro-cafes and fast-food places lured them away? "We've not been affected. Traditional, homely Irish food will never die."
More down-to-earth than Sheries' but just as authentically Irish is Nellie's Cafe on Moore Street. Not surprisingly, it's used as a canteen by the street-market traders, and at 10.30 a.m., it's packed with women having breakfast, smoking, getting warm, and filling their Thermos Flasks with tea. "We get all kinds of people in - families, pensioners, shoppers," says Trish Clarke, who took over the cafe with her sister, Catherine Ward, after working there for 11 years.
"People still like the traditional meals. Friday is still fish day, and there are men who always come in for liver and onions. At the weekends, mixed grills are popular," says Trish. It's real home-style cooking and wonderful value: a perfect bacon sandwich (thick fat-free bacon, melted butter and soft white bread) with a pot of strong tea (enough for 3 cups) costs £2, while the big breakfast is £3.50. Brendan's Coffee Shop, opposite the red-brick Victorian splendour of the fruit and vegetable market on Dublin's northside, is another welcoming, lively cafe. Many of the customers know each other. "I only come in to slag Brendan," says one regular, who has his own mug. Customers can sit facing the market, watching fork-lift drivers manoeuvre perilously-high mountains of fruit, or at the counter enjoying the banter, while Brendan O'Brian fries potatoes and grills sausages, rashers, tomato, mushrooms, and black pudding for the large breakfast (£3.95). Some people eat here twice a day - first breakfast and later the daily special, which is usually something traditional such as baked ham, potatoes (or delicious chips made from real potatoes) and fresh vegetables (£3.50).
The cafe opens at 6 a.m. "They're waiting in the street," says Brendan. "We get truck drivers from the Continent; fishermen from Howth who come for the fish auctions; people from restaurants; farmers delivering to the market; and supermarket wholesalers from down the country who come to buy fruit and veg. Then during the day we get people going to the Courts, who come in for what might be their last cup of coffee and on Saturday mornings, it's people from the nightclubs." What about introducing a cappuccino machine? "The customers wouldn't have it," Brendan laughs.
While it is great to have so many stylish cafes in Dublin, there are times we would rather eat baked beans on toast than a bagel; mashed potatoes than pasta. Then, we'll make the trek to the few surviving real Irish caffs - but don't drink the coffee.
The Alpha, 37 Wicklow Street (entrance on Clarendon Street), Dublin 2. Open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.; Sheries', 3 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1. Open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Nellie's Cafe, Moore Street, Dublin 1. Open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Brendan's Coffee Shop, 10-11 Mary 's Lane, Dublin 1. Open Monday to Saturday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.