Una Mullally: With the Dublin pub boom also comes the blandness
When a new club or bar opens up, you can almost tell how it will be before you go there
The George. One of the pubs being refurbished as part of a €20 million investment by its owners the Mercantile Group. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
I was celebrating a former colleague’s birthday in a pub the other night when a couple of American tourists happened to stumble upon our party. They were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary by visiting Ireland. Someone decided to serenade them with ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, and as the song progressed, the crowd joined in: “it will not be long love, ‘till our wedding day.” The husband threatened to cry. It was cheesy, and sweet. A friend turned to me and said, “No matter what you say, that wouldn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”
Airbnb recently launched its ‘Experiences’ feature for Dublin, meaning that as well as staying in someone’s home, you can also get a slice of their life, a kind of “disruption” of the tour guide industry, fuelling the urge people have to truly live like a local. Hashtag authenticity. Maybe if an Airbnb experience hunter was in the pub, they could have been inspired by this moment of spontaneity and connection, and figured out how it could be curated and tailored for more couples just like them. “Create unique experiences around your city,” Airbnb suggests to potential “Experience Hosts”, “and earn extra money by bringing others along.” Tech bleeding into real life is so obsessed with creating “unique” moments, it creates so many of them that eventually everything is the same.
It’s impossible not to notice the homogeny that cities have embraced. It’s not just the repeating high street stores that are interchangeable now in most cities around the world, but the other stuff; the cafes, the bars, the restaurants, the menus, the craft beers, the “look” and “vibe” of it all.
Behind this homogeny is a classic Irish property story. When will the boom in bars and restaurants in Dublin peak? Strangely, no one seems to be viewing the eye-watering multi million-euro refurbishments and rapidly escalating leases in anything other than a positive light. How this boom is being written about evokes the property features of 2006. The rapid expansion of groups such as Press Up Entertainment seems to be seen as unstoppable. Their latest restaurant and bar venture, Roberta’s in Temple Bar (which is really nice, by the way), will seat hundreds of people when it’s finished.
Meanwhile, the Mercantile group is planning a €20 million investment programme, including a €2 million refurbishment of Opium on Wexford Street, a €1 million refurbishment of Whelan’s and The George, and a €3 million refurbishment of Dawson Street’s Cafe en Seine. This is in addition to a recent €2 million refurbishment of Nolita, which had already undergone a €750,000 transformation from The Dragon to Soder+Ko. All of this stuff reminds me of walking around The Wright Venue nightclub in 2009 - a complex that cost €38 million - when the finishing touches were being put on it. I remember Michael Wright telling me how he and his team had travelled the world - Miami, Ibiza etc etc - in search of the best clubs for inspiration, while standing on a balcony staring out at the glamour of a retail park in Swords. Who needs a Balearic sunset when you’ve got B&Q?
I wish anyone brave enough to enter what is always a precarious industry well, but what does this boom have to do with how a city looks and how we experience it? I really like plenty of the new bars and restaurants in Dublin, but how do you think the little guy is meant to compete with these behemoths? When bar and restaurant honchos have millions to throw at a venue, or plenty of cash to take a lease at whatever price, how can anyone compete with that? And when a small number of companies are in control of a large number of places, a homogeny inevitably occurs, not by large companies trying to make everything look the same - in fact they go out of their way to manufacture individuality - but by drawing from a broader global palette.
The history of a place has become a brand narrative. Character has become pre-graffitied walls. Atmosphere has become generic background house music. The drinks, the dishes, the walls, the waiters, all feel so similar. I’ve had moments in American and European cities over the past year where places in London, LA, Brooklyn could have just as easily been Dublin, Toronto, Berlin. One place being inspired by another can just as easily create homogeny. Concepts and fit outs of bars in Dublin and elsewhere are often just rip offs of somewhere else. And then, when you’re in that somewhere else, it just feels like everywhere else.
And technology is the driver of this. Before, fashion and trends took longer to disseminate, and would often become influenced by local quirks. Now, a matcha latte appears on a Melbourne cafe’s Instagram feed and a couple of days later you can buy it on Camden Street.
That’s why when a new spot opens up, you can almost tell how it will be before you go there. You could probably even guess 50per cent of the menu, the price of the cocktails, and the range of gins. I wonder why, that in the search for uniqueness and authenticity, those oh-so Instagrammable aspects of cities are increasingly generic. Nothing is safe from commodification, even people and their “experiences”, and no place is safe from replication.