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An Irish staycationer’s guide to eating well on the road

Joe McNamee, Irish Restaurant Writer of the Year, offers his low-cost tips, tricks and insider info to eating well on the road

Some 80% plus of visitors to Ireland arrive with little or no expectations of Irish food; Fáilte Ireland surveys show they leave professing themselves to be “absolutely blown away” by our national offering.

No surprise, for it is now possible to eat world-class food at all levels of dining from street food to casual to special occasion fine dining.

Yes, the sea change for the better in Irish hospitality is not entirely complete and you can still come a culinary cropper at certain tables around the country, but if you know what to look for it is possible to spend a week or two travelling the country, eating well every day and, if you do it right, not have to flog the family silver at vacation’s end.

Everyone has a travel tale of wandering in off the street into some backstreet gem to find magnificent food all for the price of a pint back home — my own involves finding a tiny trattoria down a narrow alleyway in Genova, in Italy, serving only locals, including a young professional with Tourette’s who shouted and swore his way through dinner, nobody paying him a blind bit of notice, while we ate cheese, olives, bread, swordfish, salad, two bottles of wine and four litres of water to take back to our room for what was then the price of a mid-level restaurant’s single main course back in Ireland.

But every one of those fortuitous finds is usually balanced out by the amount of random culinary encounters involving grim fare and snotty service, that would be overpriced even if it were free, and I’ve encountered far too many of those abroad as well. Doing it right involves some pre-holiday planning, whether at home or abroad, and pre-planning and even pre-booking some upcoming dining experiences substantially improves your chances of enjoying good food on holidays.

Failing that, at least take the trouble to source a decent and authoritative guide to the food of the region or place to which you are headed and I don’t mean Trip Advisor — with all due respect or none at all to the general public who supply the ‘expertise’ on TA, they know sweet FA in comparison to professionals who evaluate hospitality for a living.

In Ireland, that means checking out guides from food writers such as John and Sally McKenna or Georgina Campbell.

Scan back issues of the national broadsheet newspapers and the Sundays, whose food critics are all respected and knowledgeable, especially seeking out reviews of restaurants in destinations on your itinerary.

Follow those critics online, and pick up recommendations. Check out the Michelin Guide with its ever-growing list of Irish inclusions that extends far beyond the fine dining Michelin-starred wallet-strainers, featuring plenty of inexpensive options as well, most especially the Bib Gourmand restaurants, offering some superb cooking for a very reasonable price.

Look up the members list of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild and follow some of those who are also active online. Don’t push it but maybe even ask for the occasional recommendation. Personally, I’ve never yet refused an online request for a recommendation.

It’s also a good idea to work out a dining budget for the entire holiday, a daily allowance that includes the flexibility to have one big blowout. Then, at least, there won’t be that sinking feeling at holiday’s end that your gastronomic tour of the Oul Sod has cost you the price of a small yacht.

Pre-planning and pre-booking becomes an ever more splendid notion if you’re also child-herding along the way for, as any parent will testify, there is nothing more stressful than trying to magic a suitable restaurant out of thin air that will still the plaintive wailing of starving progeny while at the same time offering ravenous adults a variety of decent fare that stretches beyond stolen chicken nuggets and greasy chips.

If there’s one thing they do well on the continent, it’s feed the kids for under a tenner a head, while offering adults a decent selection of suitable options. Certainly, we can do that here as well, but it’s the extras that add up, that second bottle of over-sugared fizz that’s near enough the price of a beer.

‘Al fresco’ dining

So here are our suggestions for the family-friendly options, all equally applicable for those blessedly unencumbered by small fry.

Don’t be afraid to ring up and ask if ‘family friendly’ really does mean family-friendly; for example, do they have high chairs; do they have a kids’ menu that stretches beyond chicken goujons and spag Bol; what time can kids stay until; do they have a bear pit and tasers for especially fractious offspring and so on, you know your own, you know the drill.

The ‘local’ picnic

Research should also include finding out about the local specialty food producers in the area you are visiting and then seeking out their produce, most likely available in independent food retailers though local branches of Supervalu tend to be good at supporting local producers in their hinterland. The closer to ‘home’ you buy a product, the better it is likelier to be, and you may even learn to taste the ‘terroir’ of the product. Look out for cheesemakers, baker-members of Real Bread Ireland for real bread, charcutiers and producers of cured meats, fish smokers, local growers, for fresh fruit and salads. Buy a good bottle of wine, find a stunning location and enjoy one of the finest inexpensive meals in the country, anywhere in the country.

Street food

Street Food is a comparatively recent concept in Ireland as previously local authorities were never really sold on the idea but The Covid has changed that entirely and some very decent hot food from carts, trailers and trucks is now available the length and breadth of the country. Again, not all street food is good food; as in bricks and mortar hospitality, standards vary. Do your research (Instagram is especially good), follow the largest queues. You can easily wind up feeding a family of four with a delicious, nutritious meal for as little as €40; bring your own beverages to the party.

The food tour / the farm visit

In many parts of the country, it is possible to do a food tour and all stops invariably offer an opportunity to at least nibble and most definitely purchase for later. These might comprise a guided tour of several local producers in one package or individual farm or production centre visits such as Burren Smokehouse, in Co Clare, which comes with its own restaurant attached.

The farmers’ market

Not all farmers’ markets are equal but you are guaranteed the makings of decent meal from each and everyone, even if you have to do much of the hard yards yourself, either in your rented kitchen later that evening or at an al fresco picnic. But hit up some of the behemoths of the Irish market scene, such as Mahon Point Farmer’s Market, Skibbereen Farmers’ Market, both in Cork, or the most beautiful market in the country, Limerick’s Milk Market, and you can not only eat a choice of breakfasts, brunches or lunches on the hoof from various hot food stalls but come away with a smorgasbord of goodies to keep you sated for a further week on the road, so do, if possible, find space for a cool box or bag. Top tip: do just that, enjoy a course or two in a restaurant, and finish back in your digs with some of your farmers’ market treats and good bottle to keep the overall costs down.

Eating your dinner in the middle of the day

Once upon a time, urban sophisticates, having discreetly shed the habit themselves several generations back, took to patronising, even sneering at any rural cousins who still chose to eat their main meal in the middle of the day (even though that was the French way for generations, and surely them boys can do nothing wrong when it comes to the grub). But having your dinner at lunchtime can be a very cost-effective way of sampling some of the finest food in Ireland for far less than it costs to put away nocturnal dinner in the same establishment. Dublin’s Michelin two-starred Chapter One offers lunch for a remarkable €65 (yeah, I know, you’ll have to leave the kids locked in the boot for this one), pricey perhaps for your usual lunch, but staggering value when it comes to sampling chef Mickael Viljanen’s truly superb food over three courses plus teas/coffees and petit fours as the cost of doing so by night really is reserved for our next and final category.

The big blowout

If you’ve knocked out a sufficiency of scratch cards to have won enough shekels to fund multiple blowout meals along the way, then more power to your wrist. However, the bulk of us, most especially those with two-legged young leeches attached directly to bank accounts, will at best manage one, maybe two big blowout meals over the course of our staycation. No matter that you are the blithest of blithe spirits, preferring to leave your fate, culinary and otherwise, to be decided upon by the universe, the cosmos and magical pixies on unicorns, do, do, do plan this one and once you get there, forget about the expense and enjoy a once in a lifetime experience, a superb expression of some of the very finest food in the world.