Banbridge is famous for two things: Irish Linen and David Meade. The Coach House features on my list of Banbridge landmarks, but only because as teenagers in the Seventies we would sneak away from Armagh to the irresistibly sleazy nightlife of Banbridge which, for us, was a kind of Reno, a poor man’s Las Vegas, where anything could happen, and occasionally did.
Thirty years later and there is much more to the Co Down town. Thanks to the foresight of the district council, Banbridge now boasts one of the most fascinating, intriguing and high quality art galleries in Ireland. And because you can work up a hunger contemplating quality art, the FE McWilliams Gallery also puts on a decent spread.
The centre’s restaurant, Quail’s At the Gallery, is a democratic place, bathed in bright light, even on the dullest day, thanks to the huge windows overlooking the sculpture garden and the trees outside.
This tourist information centre, restaurant, art gallery, lecture space and visual arts hub, strategically positioned at the junction of the main road from Dublin to Belfast and the Banbridge slip road, is an independent island. It is self-contained with its own car park and everything, and when you step onto the glorified traffic island you actually get the sense of being cut off from the rest of the country.
I met television mentalist David Meade in there for lunch. Naturally, he knew I was coming, what I’d be wearing and what I would order. He’s very proud of his home town and particularly so of this gallery. Banbridge, he says, is a town of industrial creativity. This is most evident in its position as the heart of the Irish linen industry and Meade believes this sense of creativity is making a comeback. Reliance on the arts — the proper, pukka, quality, aspirational kind and not just community arts — is heavy. Hence the good idea to house the FE McWIlliams collection here.
We were quickly shown to a table by the window where we embarked on interminable conversations about everything under the sun.
We were both hungry and ordered the soup of the day, a spicy tomato and lentil potage — just the kind of thing you’d expect a country art gallery to come up with. But this was no bland soup devised for the well-heeled fiftysomething ladies who clearly keep this place ticking over. This was a robust and wholesome broth with chillies and bits of ham and other great components, giving off a healthy, winter warming kick of flavour and comfort. This was something made with attention and love and came with wholewheat bread and butter.
David ordered the steak sandwich, a mountainous construction that looked very American. The brisket was tasty and tender, the accompanying salad a celebration of colour with peppers, leaves, tomatoes and scallions all gently doused in a good olive oil dressing.
The quiche — how disappointed would I have been had there not been quiche on the menu of an art gallery — was equally impressive in size. They must be using Cadillac-proportioned kitchenware in there, I thought.
It was a crumbling edifice providing a small cliff-face of quality, brittle shortcrust pastry behind which was held the egg mix of bacon, onion, pepper and ham bits. It was fresh and chaotic, spilling out everywhere and fighting for space on the large plate with the salad similar to David’s.
We both finished very politely with tea and pavlova as big as a pillow and light as a cloud.
The food in FE McWilliams is prepared on site by Fernando Correa, the Mexican chef brought in by Quail’s, the food deli people based in the town. Quail’s know all about quality, having previously held Bridgestone Guide and Great Taste awards 2011. This year Quail’s At the Gallery features in Georgina Campbell’s reliable Ireland for Food Lovers guide.
They have a real winner in Chef Correa. His use of local quality produce is enhanced by the Latin flair and lack of fear of introducing some spice and heat.
This is a great spot and the traybakes, tea and coffee are equally top notch. You really can’t go wrong; take in some international standard art (FE McWilliams commands big prices), visit the exhibition that is currently on — when David and I were there, there was an excellent and comprehensive retrospective of Basil Blackshaw’s work — and have something to eat that is just as inspiring.
Soup x 2 £7.90
Diet Coke x 2 £3.40
Sparkling water £1.70
Tea for 2 £2.80
Desserts x 2 £7.90
FE McWilliams Gallery, 200 Newry Road, Banbridge BT32 3NB. Tel: 028 4062 3322