Simon’s swansong – Frank McNally on the passing of a much-loved Dublin café

Cherished cafés come and go, like the generations that love them

Simon McWilliams of the much-missed Simon’s Place Cafe. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

On the last occasion I would ever visit Simon’s Place – the café in Dublin’s South Great George’s Street – just before Christmas, I was presented with a free sandwich.

No, it wasn’t a reward for loyalty, or for being the millionth customer, or any special reason. It was a routine Saturday, near closing time. And as they started cleaning up, staff just offered the unsold sandwiches to those of us still lingering.

They were out of tuna – my first choice – so I had make do with ham, in the usual chunky brown bread wrapped as always in clingfilm.

And of course I ate it later. But if I’d realised the sandwich’s historic nature, I might have had it stuffed and mounted instead, as another relic of disappearing Dublin.


For the next thing I knew was that, over Christmas, Simon’s had closed for good, after three decades in business. It went quietly, in apparent keeping with the personality of its proprietor, Simon McWilliams, now retired.

A new café was promised on the site, meanwhile. And in the months since, I assumed this would retain the look of its predecessor, with the wooden chairs, long communal table, and ubiquitous music and theatre posters.

Perhaps even the heritage sandwiches would be listed for preservation? But no, when I visited the new place recently, only the view out the window at the ear-and-nose piercing shop in the Market Arcade remained.

So, somewhat stunned, I made a short, 180-degree phone video, panning from the window to the new food counter, across a floor with no tables, communal or otherwise, and tweeted:

“In what used to be Simon’s Place. Same view of George’s Arcade, otherwise unrecognisable. No cinnamon buns anymore & the sandwiches are white bread now.”

Wistful as that may sound, it was meant to be stoical. I wasn’t protesting anything, really.

But the news must have shocked a lot of former customers, because the 21-second clip went viral, with 97,000 views to date. And barring a few positive responses, reactions ranged between sadness and anger.

“Shame!”, “It’s a travesty!”, and “Killing everything about Dublin that was Dublin!” railed the critics of the “generic” new café. “Civilisation is hanging by a thread,” commented somebody else, possibly with tongue in cheek.

“No [more] dusky beauties,” sighed one of the nostalgists, meanwhile, reminding us of another Simon’s Place tradition: that even before Dublin was multicultural, the café's staff had a remarkable tendency to be female, foreign, and fetching.

I was stoical rather than angry because I think that much-loved cafés come and go, like the generations that love them.

And unless there’s a case for the venues’ architectural importance and/or vitality in the social fabric of the city, as with the flagship Bewley’s and its famous windows, it seems unreasonable to freeze them forever.

In fact, speaking of Bewley’s, some of us retain a special fondness for the one they used to have in George’s Street, just down from the arcade.

It was the least glamorous of the company’s outlets and, unlike Simon’s, was staffed by Dublin matrons of mature years – perhaps transferred there when the pace of life in the busier branches became too pressurised.

But I especially remember, as a newly arrived rural emigré in the early 1980s, reaching the top of the queue with my lunch once and being embarrassed to realise I had no money.

Whereupon the motherly woman on the till waved me through with a “Don’t worry, love, you can pay us tomorrow.”

Of another occasion, more telling of the branch’s eventual demise, I recall a mouse running across the floor one day.

A calm young female customer humanely captured it under a soup bowl – she must have been a mouse whisperer – and returned it to the George’s Street wild. But that café has long since disappeared and there are increasingly few of us to romanticise it.

Speaking of which, one of the most bitterly lamented losses in the demise of Simon’s will be the aforementioned cinnamon buns, which emerged from the oven around lunchtime every day, flooding the café and arcade with their redolent aroma.

And yet it must be said that, visually, they were always a bit of a disaster. They lacked the structure – square or round – that US-style cinnamon buns have.

Instead, they were usually splat-shaped, as if someone had forgotten to add the self-raising flour. Despite which, they were enormously popular. So maybe their shapelessness was an ingenious marketing strategy, to appeal to the bohemian clientele.

Anyway, they’re gone now, with the rest of Simon’s. And maybe the replacement café is part of the boring “baristifaction” of Dublin, as one critic put it. Or perhaps it will endear itself to a new generation and be lamented in turn eventually.

In its defence, it does still have window seats at least. And it remains a corner café, a crucial component in the life of any city. The interior may seem a bit soulless now. On the plus side, you can still look out in two directions, and watch the world go by in four.