It’s Northern Ireland’s oldest bar, but Grace Neill’s is keeping pace with the food trends
If you think it’s difficult to open a new restaurant, you should try running an old one. Not that new means better or, for that matter, that old is superior. It’s just that when a new place opens it tends to be pretty rough around the edges. New restaurant owners have cunning plans to cover up these early flaws and teething problems.
The invariably enthusiastic and bubbly 500-watt smiley service of the newly recruited floor staff is designed to distract the diner from the problems in the kitchen causing delays. Servers do this by smothering the customer in kindness and flattery. The customer goes away inflated and pleased with himself for being so tolerant and patient, and delighted to have been offered a bottle of house white in acknowledgement of his saint-like composure in the face of lengthy delays/wrong orders/missing pepper sauce or whatever. Having been groomed, he’ll be back with his mates or family. What suckers we are.
Take Little Wing, the new pizzeria in Belfast that only opened last month and where the pizzas weren’t bad but weren’t brilliant either. It didn’t matter that they were still on the improvement curve because the sheer might of the servers’ collective will for the thing to work was infectious and even as paying punters, we became caught up in the positive thought vortex. Which really meant we had been successfully groomed to become repeat business. Sure enough I was back a week later (and the pizzas were much better).
Older, established restaurants generally don’t need to concern themselves with teething problems and so the service tends to be more relaxed, confident and smooth. By the time an eaterie has become established and the owner is content with the consistency of quality of its food and service, a degree of boredom sets in and looking for something to tweak and work on he may turn his attention to the third force that determines a restaurant’s identity: the decor. To some owners and diners, the decor actually matters more than the food or service. Never be swayed by this — the decor should be at the bottom of the diner’s essential checklist. If the food passes muster and the servers are fast and friendly, then as long as it’s clean and comfortable it doesn’t matter if the place is country baroque, madey-uppy-olde-worlde, minimalist, Laura Ashley, contemplative Buddhist temple or revivalist gothic.
But today’s sermon is not about the special effects brigade. It’s about the survival of a truly ancient and venerable restaurant that has become a standard bearer by which many other old places are judged. In New Earth Creationist terms, Grace Neill’s in Donaghadee, established in 1611, is the equivalent of the dawn of warm-blooded mammals on the planet. The earth was barely five minutes old when Grace Neill’s opened and, lo and behold, it’s still there. Even Jackie Flavelle who plays in Grace Neill’s every Sunday afternoon (from 2 to 6) looks like a holy relic from an age of Old Testament prophets and preachers.
And that’s about it when it comes to Grace Neill’s playing its ‘oldest pub on the planet’ card. Despite what you might think, it barely trades on this at all. As soon as you enter, everything about the place is youthful and buzzing. The atmosphere is distinctly anti-formal and there are no cobwebs or people in rural 17th century peasant outfits. In fact, the servers all look like they have day jobs as presidential personal security details in the White House and are dressed in tight black outfits to highlight their sinews. They are mostly charming and efficient — although one struggled a bit with what was on and what was off the menu that day. Initial disappointment was lifted when the prawn cocktail turned out to be very much available after all.
Respect to Grace Neill’s, because the prawn cocktail is the very cornerstone of a robust family Sunday lunch and nothing disappointed here. Beautifully cooked squidgy prawns in marie-rose served in a bowl weighed heavily on a tall bed of lettuce an unexpected red onion relish, all coarse and chunky, lurked at the bottom. This was a very good mix, according to the adviser who nodded her approval adding that while it shouldn’t work with prawn cocktail it did, in a kooky, quirky way. She imagined under her breath the scene in the kitchen: ah sure we’ll buck in a bit of that red onion and see how it goes.
The curried monkfish starter was an even finer thing. Three decent-size pieces of fish coated in the lightest golden curry spice like tikka and fried in butter were sensational. The deep curry flavours were not so overwhelming as to hide the fresh fishy flavours. Light curry sauces with fish and seafood are becoming common but this was very different; there was no curry sauce. Instead there was a spicy tomato salsa on the side to dip into along with celeriac chunky chips. I still think the only way to eat celeriac is raw, shredded and with mayonnaise because the taste of the root vanishes when cooked.
A braised pork dish with mash and roast root vegetables was excellent and heralded in a wintery evening that actually never came. Instead, fortified by the pork and ready to take on the elements, we walked into the balmy October night and blustery warm winds of the Donaghadee coast almost regretting the lack of cold.
The adviser’s main dish of chargrilled chicken on ciabatta was fine with the fillet cooked through but not dried out, as is too often the case, and still tender.
Grace Neill’s may be nearly 400 years old but in the last decade I’ve seen it change with the times and for the better. It always had a good reputation among the grubberati. The food and the service are both commendable and the breadth of choice of experience goes from a weekday lunch for under a tenner or even just a coffee or a pint to a full-on multi-course blast with a choice of more than 15 wines served by the glass.
The prices are better than reasonable, which may partly explain its current popularity, but the quality of food is a joy. By the way, the decor is totally acceptable because it doesn’t try to recreate a 17th century inn. Instead, there are plain white walls adorned with particularly compelling blown-up, hand-coloured colour postcards of late 19th century Donaghadee. Tasteful and informative.
Prawn cocktails x 2 £11.30
Curried monkfish £5.95
Braised pork £10.50
Chicken on ciabatta x 2 £19.90
Apple crumble £4.50
Ice creams £4.50
Diet coke x 2 £3.30
Pint Guinness £2.90
Glass Esmerelda white x 3 £12.45