Armagh's ancient history used to be a burden on its citizens. Until recently some thought the city should reflect its position as ecclesiastical capital of Ireland by closing everything down at 6pm.
As a result of such piousness, the beautiful, Beresfordian streets of Armagh (developed by Buck Whalley, the same riotous, womanising genius who created Georgian Dublin) had, over the years, become almost museum-like, where no normal human life could be enjoyed without being asked to leave or pay a fine.
When I was growing up there, it was just how I imagined a small east German or Lithuanian town might be — full of gloom, despair and slow-cruising grey Land Rovers. There used to be corners of defiance, however, in small and discreet pubs such as the Glencoe, Mullan's and Red Ned's. These provided the only escape for those of us desperate for some kind of kinship, a place where we could drink beer and safely whisper rubbish about anything from music to football, women to theology.
Whereas other towns in Ireland may have lost their olde worlde bars and replaced them with super pubs, Armagh just lost them. Except for Red Ned's which has actually expanded, few pubs of character and quality in Armagh city centre exist any longer.
But now newcomers are introducing a bit of lightness, fun and frivolity to the place. There's a good French restaurant at Manor House, a popular Australian eating house called Uluru, an Italian and other internationals. There's a busy little cinema and two hotels. And, to cap it all (surely Armagh's older citizens are breathless and dazed by all this activity) a futuristic arts centre in the middle of town which is known, loved, and cherished by Armagh's emerging young middle classes as Armagh Market Place Theatre.
Built on a steep hillside in the heart of Armagh, this arts centre has its priorities right. The first thing you see before even entering the giant glass automatic doors is a two-storey restaurant, the Stage Bar and Bistro. At entrance level the dining room is bright and gallery-like thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass and marble floors — even at night it's bright thanks to some very sexy lighting. It's a much more clubby affair downstairs with soft seats, low lights and cosy corners. Unusually, you can choose to eat slouched or sitting. There is a choice of table — you can have a conventional dining table with proper chairs or (and I hate eating at these), a sofa with a low table. It must be a modern youth thing.
The food and service are neither slouchy nor pretentious. Attentive waitresses in black trouser outfits are helpful, knowledgeable and on the mark, keeping a close eye on everyone's dishes so as to judge a well-timed swoop to move you on to the next course. You won't feel rushed, but you will sense you are being looked after and that your time, rather than theirs, is precious.
As thoughtful as the floor staff, is the menu with its simple lists of eight or so starters, main courses and desserts, with a chef's special for good measure. Settled into this very comfortable dining room (apart from the draught from that big bloody door each time someone comes in) the menus quickly reveal intelligent and thoughtful appreciation of what we all like — fresh, and tasty dishes made from, where possible, local and organic produce.
Last week, the menu included a heart-warming potato and leek soup
which would keep an Armagh orchard farmer plucking the whole day, a dainty but generous crab and shrimp salad with spicy sauce and an absolutely stunning little bowl of button mushrooms cooked in a creamy and slightly curried garlic sauce. These three starters came with various breads, well-presented and quickly devoured.
Some places do great starters and fall down at the mains, which is why, particularly at lunch time, it may be best not to risk going into a restaurant for the first time by ordering a starter and main dish but to stick to two starters. I plunged in nonetheless and asked for a rare sirloin. That's the other thing — in Ireland rare is often interpreted as medium. It came just as I had hoped — medium.
Tender and juicy, the steak was spot on. Enhanced by the lightest cream and pepper sauce, this was as good a combo as you'll get anywhere. George and Jeannie, who accompanied me, looked on enviously but the chef's special of the day, halibut on mash and the sea bream, which they had ordered, were equally impressive. Well-cooked, moist, firm and both with a crispy skin. A side order of garlic sumo chips shared among the three turned out to be crispy, dry, chunky and deeply satisfying when dipped in the pepper sauce.
Some 20 minutes later, clean plates were immediately clocked by the waitress and the dessert menu handed over. Things had gone so well it would be a shame if the desserts didn't stand up. But stand up they did. A raspberry and strawberry crème brulee arrived and was declared to be perfect. The fruity mess at the bottom of the ramekin covered in a very light crème with the thinnest crust on top provided my mum with one of those sensual TV food advertising moments and I think she was momentarily quite overcome by it.
My tarte tatin with custard and ice cream, the chef's special, consisted of an apple baked inside a pastry crust, a bit like a beef wellington but split in two and served upside down like two little golden turtles. This was a cool piece of creativity accompanied by a thin glass full of custard and an excellent vanilla ice cream. The apple within was tangy and sweet and if the crust hadn't been a bit undercooked, this dessert would have been memorable.
The day I visited the restaurant there happened to be an exhibition of photographs just across the lobby and within eyeshot of the table. If you have no love of the arts but feel obliged to look at least mildly cultured, you can always go spend a couple of hours in the Stage Bar and Bistro and let the arts rub off on you through your stomach. You'll be surprised how good it can be.ARTY: The bistro has a galley feel|
Prawn and crab salad £4.95
Garlic mushrooms £3.75
Sumo garlic chips £2.50
Crème brulee X 2 £7.00
Tarte tatin £3.50
Coffee X 3 £2.40
Ballygowan X 2 £2.60
Magners pint £2.90
STAGE BAR AND BISTRO
Armagh Market Place Theatre, Market Square
Tel: 028 3752 1828