Top class dining is a hit with Antrim coast visitors
Dulse and yellow man is off the menu for many holidaymakers as a vibrant dining scene has helped rejuvenate our seaside resorts
Published 12/08/2014 | 09:46
Holidaymakers used to visit our north coast for the 'amusements', donkey rides on the beach and the taste of dulse and yellow man. Now it's more sophisticated flavours which are drawing tourists to destinations along the Antrim coast and the Glens, including Portrush, Portstewart, Bushmills and Cushendall, with some visitors basing their entire weekends around a trip to restaurants like the Ramore, Bushmills Inn or Upstairs at Joe's.
Indeed, so popular is the Ramore complex – which also includes the Harbour Bar and Bistro, Coast, the Mermaid and the latest opening, Neptune & Prawn – that fans have coined the term 'Ramoring' for their dining experience. From Bureau on the Lough in Newtownabbey right around to Browns in Londonderry, the Causeway Coastal Route is now as famous for its eating places as it is for its fantastic scenery.
Chef George McAlpin's Ramore stable of pubs and restaurants overlooking Portrush harbour have been causing a stir since they first opened back in the late 1990s. Its no reservation policy – with diners queuing for a table, paying at point of order and picking a dessert from a selection on show – was unusual in a town once more famous for post-nightclub fry-ups and fish and chips served in newspaper.
The new Neptune & Prawn premises, decked out in seafaring memorabilia, is also courting mild controversy for a 'no under 15s' policy and a ban on hen and stag parties.
But despite this, McAlpin's publicity shyness and the fact that he rarely advertises, his premises are still bursting at the seams.
A host of other restaurants have now followed in its wake, including 55 North and Jackman & Pye, both in Portrush.
Irish food writer John McKenna, who along with his wife writes the influential 'John and Sally McKenna Guides' on the best places to eat in Ireland, said that despite breaking with tradition, the Ramore has led the way for other eateries in a previously barren culinary landscape.
The growing food reputation of the area could even be likened to Kinsale in west Cork, where a number of acclaimed restaurants are now clustered.
"Back a few years ago, Northern Ireland's north coast would not have been a food destination, but that has well and truly changed," said John McKenna.
"The faded glamour of the seaside resort has been replaced with a vibrant eating scene. Food seems to be key to rejuvenation. People want to look out at the sea and enjoy a fantastic meal.
"The quality of the food is key, because businesses have to make enough in the busy seaside season and go flat out to tide them over during the winter months.
"Those who make a success of it do so on the quality of their food. Mediocre food and a mediocre experience will not keep you going through the off-season.
"So I say fair play to George and the Ramore. He opened at a time when people were less food-obsessed than they are now. He offers a mix of experience through the different restaurants and bars, he didn't compromise, he stuck to his own way of doing things, he doesn't talk to the press and he doesn't advertise – and he doesn't have to.
"His customers do the advertising because the experience he offers them is so good.
"He has almost singlehandedly "done a Kinsale" for the north coast and he must be congratulated for that."
And Mr McKenna says that everyone now wants a slice of the north coast action.
Donal Doherty, proprietor of Harry's at Bridgend in Co Donegal, is opening Harry's Shack, a beach hut on the National Trust's Portstewart Strand, this week.
His flagship restaurant has thrived in a tiny border village once better known as a stop-off for cheap diesel for northern drivers on their way to Buncrana for their holidays.
"Bridgend isn't really much more than a truck stop – blink and you'll miss it," said Mr McKenna.
"But Donal has turned Harry's into a landmark, serving thousands of people every week. He is proof that if you have the right offering, the people will come.
"I hope he can recreate that success on the north coast."
Mr Doherty hopes so too.
"We don't think there is anything like Harry's Shack on the island of Ireland," he said.
"It will open right onto the strand, there will be sand on the floor, people will come straight out of the water or off the beach in their shorts to have coffee and cake and lunch and dinner.
"We're influenced by the beach, the sea and the outdoor element, we'll be doing shellfish and fish, salads, good burgers, chips, pork and a really fantastic hot dog.
"We've gained our own reputation, we have a two-acre garden where we grow our own produce and we collect all our fish from Greencastle in Donegal which is visible from Portstewart and we're also working with local fishermen."
Mr Doherty agrees that food is what is bringing people to the area in droves and says he looks forward to further expansion in the region.
"The National Trust has recognised the value of good food and food provenance. They want to attract people to the area with food and they realise that people from all over Ireland, England and further afield are prepared to travel for the right meal and will base their whole break around it," he said.
"The National Trust is doing this right and I hope that if this place is a success we can continue this partnership and I would definitely not rule out more opportunities along this coastline."
On around the coast, Pol Shields runs Upstairs at Joe's, which occupies the first floor of McCollum's pub in the village of Cushendall, better known as 'Johnnie Joe's'.
He previously worked in the kitchens of two of the Hastings hotel group, the Stormont and the Ballygally Castle, before becoming head chef at the Kiln in Larne.
Mr Shields took the helm at Joe's in 2007, just before the recession hit, and knows the value of working smart in a seaside village.
As a result, the venue is thriving and his wife Sinead and two children work front of house, making it a real family affair.
"When I started, everything was sweet, but then things went to the wall," he said.
"We had to drastically cut our opening times and we rode the storm. We are flat out during the summer and the good thing is that seafood is cheap to buy, cheap to eat, and from these waters, it tastes amazing.
"At the moment, scallops are flying out the door. We do a dish with gnocchi and another with risotto and we just can't make enough of it.
"In the past week we have had people from Israel, north and south America, Australia and Italy, as well as the locals."
Mr Shields says he is looking at his options for the winter, but has received an added boost after landing work with Chris Bell, who is behind the new Eagle restaurant at Galgorm Castle in Ballymena and the River Room at nearby Galgorm Manor.
"Working with Chris will be brilliant and will give me some fresh ideas," he said.
"Last year we opened from June until the end of September and then during weekends only, but I think this year we may close completely from September – it's something we are still looking at."
He said that despite being a small place, Cushendall has a lot of good eating places – including one just across the street in the form of yet another Harry's, which is run by Paddy McLaughlin, also the local lifeboat helm.
"You have everything in a small village – Chinese, Italian, chip shops, the golf club, a hotel up the street and ourselves and Harry's," said Mr Shields.
"There is a friendly rivalry, you're always looking at what the other is doing but we look out for each other as well – we're both packed at the moment and that can only be good for the area."