With its chic cabaret and fantastic food, the wonderful Teatro could be the real starting point for Belfast’s Latin Quarter
As a city, a place where hundreds of thousands of us live, work, raise families, eat, drink and go out, Belfast is a sanctuary. To some it is also a dangerous and inhospitable place, just like any urban centre.
If a city embodies the spirit of the people, then the split personality of the Belfast citizenry is remarkably clear. Belfast is a hard-edged but ultimately happy kind of place. If you think of cities as people you might start to understand what I’m getting at. For instance, for some of us Paris is a blousy girl who shows a bit of ankle and flutters her eyelashes seductively. London is a fat old man in pinstripes who still has a lust for life (and booze). New York is a stagey, gorgeous, mixed-race performer who sings and tap dances into the night.
But what of Belfast? Is it more steeky wee spide than wise old soldier? Or a religious old aunt with whom we aren’t quite sure as to which topic of conversation might be the safest and least offensive?
It is recognised and remembered as a city once torn apart by severe and sustained violence, although nowadays it doesn’t quite have the global status of Beirut as a post-conflict capital.
But judging by most visitors to the city, the big attraction still is the Troubles. Although Lord Ken Maginnis became incredibly exercised back in 1992 by a bold Northern Ireland Tourist Board report that identified the ‘curiosity factor’ as one of the reasons why visitors bothered with us at all (Ken mistakenly thought the Tourist Board was exploiting the grief and horror of the Troubles and asked questions in Parliament about it), the fact remains that people don’t come here for a sunshine holiday.
Belfast has in recent years begun to acknowledge tourism as a revenue generator and job creator and while the city has an enviable portfolio of cultural and entertainment facilities in its infrastructure, the sense of place, history, relevance and context is remarkably underdeveloped. For instance, the industrial fabric of Belfast has been largely demolished or camouflaged or repackaged as a series of meaningless façades fronting a city-wide retail operation. The heritage of commerce and trade has been so sanitised as to erase the pride and identity that were once tied up with the very activity that shaped the place into what it is.
More specifically, the parts of Belfast that used to be red-light or a bit boho (around the Albert Clock where Dubarry’s used to be) are now gone. A few hookers around Adelaide Street do not a Latin Quarter make.
But now that Teatro, the new restaurant in Botanic Avenue, has opened, Belfast may brace itself for a fresh era of funky and nouveau bohemian fun.
Botanic Avenue has seen its fortunes rise and decline in recent years. Shops and cafés have come and gone, yet the tree-lined avenue remains the best possible location in Belfast for a proper Latin Quarter. There are a million students in the vicinity, there’s the magnificent QFT and Botanic Gardens at the top, a very good sushi restaurant, the Rock School at the corner of Cromwell Street, plus the bar in the Madison. There are good Chinese restaurants, a brilliant fancy dress hire shop and, of course, a train station. There used to be the Arts Theatre too, but it closed and now lies rotting like a repulsive carcass on a beach. A few doors down, however, life is being breathed back into this part of the avenue with the arrival of Teatro. The brainchild of Kyron Bourke and Fleur Jackson, the most exotic couple in Belfast, Teatro is the missing link between the city and its deeply hidden loucheness.
Bourke was the beating heart of Larry’s Piano Bar back in the days when it really was the last-chance saloon. There was nowhere else to go after Larry’s ... until all the table dancing stopped when some fool jumped off the balcony and aroused the interest of the health and safety people a few years back.
Teatro is too small and bijou to engender the kind of shenanigans Larry’s was famous for. For one thing, Fleur Jackson’s interior is so feminine and soothing that whatever Kyron’s musical talents (and they are remarkable), this is not the place you’re going to end up going nuts in. On the other hand, it’s just the place if you want to enjoy dinner, well-judged live cabaret music and a leisurely digestif.
While the service is on the slow side, it is friendly and acknowledgement of the slow pace is expressed through peace offerings and appeasement gifts of marinated olives, fresh-baked bread and excellent tapenade.
I took a group of eight there last week for an early dinner and not one of the dishes was less than exquisite. Big Mediterranean flavours were evident everywhere, even in the plainest lemon chicken and chips. There is a tapas menu, lots of vegetarian stuff and the wine list reads like a Madrid cellar inventory.
The garlic and chilli prawns were out of this world. Presented modestly in a little brown bowl, these little shrimp were succulent, perfectly cooked and infused with the garlic, chilli and a little white wine. Chipirones lentejas, squid in a lentil stew, were exciting and distinctly Spanish with subtle hints of tomato and chilli. The patatas bravas that accompanied some of the dishes were as good as you will have anywhere in Spain. Beautifully sautéed little square inch blocks of potatoes smothered in a spicy-yet-painless sauce were bang on the mark — as was the roast monkfish on skewers served with tabbouleh cous cous.
The food in Teatro is incomparable to Larry’s. The food is the priority here. But served in the special glow of Fleur Jackson’s interior and the sounds of her and Kyron (and whatever other musicians they attract), Teatro is a Latin Quarter all to itself.
Lemon & Thyme chicken X 2 £13.95
French fries X 4 £2.95
Chipirones Lentejas £11.95
Vegetarian mezze £6.95
Gambas al ajillo (prawns in garlic) £4.95
Sirloin steak £17.50
Monkfish kebab £15.95
Cokes X 10 £1.75
Lge sparkling water £2.50
Peroni x 2 £2.95
Lge glass wine £4.75