Lurgan has been written off for many years, but places like Palomo are leading the regeneration of this neglected town.
Lurgan. If you wear pyjamas to Tesco, this is your kind of town. Ever since the M1 was built 50 years ago, Lurgan has been left behind, by-passed and abandoned. It has been written off by developers, ignored by the burgeoning arts sector and given a wide berth by most investors.
Like a mad old street drunk, Lurgan is shouting angrily, randomly and pointlessly at anyone who’ll listen. The knowhere.co.uk/|lurgan website provides an insight into the collective thinking of Lurgan’s younger population. It’s a litany of fury and self-loathing and defiance and is not for the faint-hearted. It is very funny. Like Millwall supporters in London’s East End, Lurgan’s youth seem to be chanting in unison: “Nobody loves us and we don’t care”.
When the adviser recently said to me when I was feeling a bit low “At least you’re not living in Lurgan”, I was struck by the comment and how widely shared it is. My dad had taken us to Lurgan on Saturdays to the swimmers there when we were small and we thought Lurgan was great. It was great because Armagh had no pool at the time and nor did Portadown. Lurgan had a fabulous pool with diving boards and all, and we were happy to schlep all the way there just for an hour’s splashing about. It’s hard to let go of this image of modern watery grandness, no matter how many years and horrific events go by to convince you otherwise.
So imagine the pleasant shock of walking around a sun-soaked Church Place in the middle of town last week to see a two-year refurbishment of the urban centre come to elegant fruition, flowers in the pots, clean footpaths and tidy shop fronts. There were a few pyjamas about but they were clearly struggling for survival as a new generation of Lurganites seemed to be moving in. Houses in the area are affordable to young couples and the commuting distance to Belfast is totally tolerable for first-time buyers. Which means that nice people are in Lurgan once more.
One of the three centres of Craigavon Borough, Lurgan is the last remaining town of substance east of the Bann to undergo a revitalising nip and tuck. One of the consequences of this will be the awakening of potential visitors to the place and in particular to Palomo, a restaurant that has survived 10 years in the town.
Nowadays Palomo employs a public relations agent to help get the word out. To some cynics this might be a bit like a kidnap victim shouting for help from the air-tight dungeon of an abandoned gaol. Still, I went, with a Lurgan man for security. He doesn’t live in Lurgan anymore — he lives in Moira, five miles away. The difference between the two is about £150k for a semi.
Palomo is good by any standards. If it were in Dublin or Belfast it would pass muster among the urbanites. The couple who own Palomo, Gerard and Jo Skelton, spent years in California (imagine the shock of coming home) and the influence is distinct. Yet there is nothing at odds, pretentious or mis-judged about Palomo. It is cosy, clean, airy, instantly attractive to first-time visitors and operated by floor staff who know their business.
The menu layout is familiar to anyone who has ever eaten in the US in fancy diners, casual restaurants and cool, slow food places. The American influence is welcome and distinct. It opens at 8 in the morning (except Sundays, when it opens at 10) and breakfast choices include pancakes with syrup and fresh fruit options, hot porridge, crispy bacon with French toast and the like. There’s also a deli for take-away sandwiches.
Ambitious but not over-stretching itself, Palomo has a seafood menu, lunchtime menu, menus for the evening and a blackboard of the day’s specials. The Skeltons must have figured out that this choice is what Lurganites want because it’s busy here on a Thursday lunchtime.
The crab on toast was as fresh and flavourful as any I’ve had — not too heavy on the mayo or herbs, allowing plenty of the gentle crabbiness through. And there was lots of it too. Crab is so precious we tend to be served tiny portions of it. Tiny portions don’t help enjoyment unless you’re talking about Marmite. Anything else should be served in spadefuls. In Lurgan, the importance of volume is understood and they don’t stint on the crab in Palomo and still only charge £4.95 for it.
A cottage pie, on the other hand, was boring and it was my own fault for going simple. I should have stayed with the slightly more glamorous stuff on the blackboard. Across the table I watched the hake, spinach and a creamy mash beckoning to me. Lurgan man pronounced it to be as good as it looked. I persevered and, in fairness, there was nothing wrong with the pie. It’s just that some days are right for it and some aren’t. The hand-cut chips were a consolation — not entirely crispy but fresh and tasty.
Desserts were a refresher course in the wonders of simplicity. Fresh fruit and ice cream was presented as if it were the last remaining fruit on earth — something entirely unique and special. Yet it was just a simple arrangement of sliced bananas, clementines, apples, a bit of melon and grapes. The fruit mix was imaginatively and respectfully laid out on the plate with a little dusting of icing sugar so as to appear like a celebration, a reminder that the everyday can be exciting. It was a humbling moment. The sticky toffee pudding was unexceptional although generous and pleasant.
Lurgan is worth a detour if you’re interested in seeing an Ulster town being slowly brought back from the dead and that has a palpable and distinctive new sense of dignity. If you’ve no interest in that whatsoever, however, go to Palomo just to satisfy yourself that I’m right about the central importance of good restaurants as an asset to any town.
Crab on toast £4.95
Bread and oils £2.95
Shepherd’s pie £6.95
Fruit and ice cream £3.95
Toffee pudding £3.95
Coffees x 2 £3.90
Pure orange £1.70
Glass wine £3.50