This autumn has seen the reinvention of Belfast. The world’s media came to cover the MTV EMAs, National Geographic Traveller Magazine declared that Belfast should be on your list of ten things to see before you die and the Ulster Museum’s street art exhibition completed a year of extraordinary shows.
So with the millions of big-spending tourists poised to visit us, the pressure’s on our bars and restaurants to be up to scratch.
The Crown Bar will be top of any visitor’s must-do list. And this is a worry. The Crown is not what it used to be. It’s still a beautiful bar, but it seems cleaner and friendlier and to have lost some of its heart. The Crown’s former attractions included the fact that it seemed not to have been cleaned since the late 19th century and the toilets were occasionally sloshing in water like the upper decks of the Titanic minutes before sinking.
But it was also the go-to place for a pint of stout and a dozen Strangford oysters. All those dark oak booths and church pew-like carvings, the tiles and the stained-glass windows transformed the beer and oysters into a Eucharistic experience.
While the stout and three locally brewed Whitewater beers are still available in the Crown today, the oysters are not. They have been replaced by a menu of bar snacks and ‘pub classics’ imposed by the UK Nicholsons Pubs brand, the chain that now runs the Crown.
Nicholsons Pubs is part of the Mitchells & Butlers group. Based in Birmingham they own Harvesters, Toby Carveries and another chain called O’Neills (the website says: ‘Fáilte’ is Irish for warm Irish welcome, and we've built a brand on it!”).
While there is much to commend the appointment of a decent management company to a pub, some care is needed when it’s as iconic as the Crown Liquor Saloon, a bar with a global reputation.
The soul is in danger of being ripped out of the National Trust-owned Crown Bar by the introduction of this mass-volume food culture that has more to do with process and accountancy than it does with flavour or provenance.
Admittedly, the Crown’s soul was always a bit testosterone-heavy, but it was a city centre bar with all the edginess you’d expect of a pub with gobby regulars. It was never charming, but it was always irresistible. The booths provided sanctuary and safety from the bad language at the bar. The service was perfunctory and tight-lipped and if you could catch the eye of the barman within ten minutes of standing there, you were doing well. Sanding down its rough edges was all that was needed, not a lobotomy.
There are olde printe cards on the table urging you to tell Nicholsons what you think of their pub (I was tempted), the bill comes in a cardboard wallet that says it hopes you enjoy your visit and have a safe journey home, the menus are all laminated and centrally produced. Just like a burger chain or Little Chef, you can get exactly the same dishes here as in St George’s Tavern in Victoria, London, the Crown in Oxford or any of the rest of the dozen or more “timeless heritage and hospitality” Nicholson’s pubs.
And it’s the food that lets the whole thing down. My starter of deep-fried calamari was coated in what looked (and tasted) like bright orange sandpaper, the wilted lettuce on which they were served had more flavour. The smoked hake rarebit “topped with mature cheddar cheese and mustard mix, served with baby potatoes, asparagus, peas and spinach and a creamy lemon sauce” was edible but again tasteless, tired and very poor.
It’s very sad that a pub that defines the spirit of Belfast, with all its pluses and minuses, has a food offer that is below mediocre. Better no food than bad food.
It is a pub, and as Benny Conlon of the legendary A1 Bar in Waring Street always said: “You can’t serve food in a pub because it ruins the Guinness.” His theory was that fat particles in the air created by the cooking process had a flattening effect on the head of a pint. For Benny, who took huge pride in serving the perfect pint, this was intolerable.
Maybe the Crown Bar should ban the food and only serve it in the dining rooms upstairs, and stick to serving decent drink (and a few fresh, local oysters).
Hake rarebit £9.95
Glass wine £3.35
46 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7BA.
Tel: 028 9024 3187