Down Royal Racecourse has attracted rogues, aristocrats and everyone in between for centuries. These punters have spilled out of Belfast ten or 11 times a year to enjoy the horseracing and breathe in the fresh air of the bleak, level lands of the Maze.
A few drinks of an afternoon by the track can be continued at Gowdy's, the neighbouring pub, after the racing has finished – and if you're half cut, you might have something to eat here, too.
You'd need to be half cut because the food is not great. Nor is the service up to much; very friendly and cheerful and well versed in apologising, but as slow as a bishop's funeral.
Gowdy's, a country pub with a very large car park, is the only place for miles, so the lack of competition might be having some impact on standards. While there is a degree of genuine attention for clients among the floor staff – they seem stretched, but try hard to smile and be pleasant – there is an equal and opposite inattention to actual hospitality.
For instance, there is a huge fireplace in the bar/restaurant. It dominates the place, and on a cold Sunday evening one of the most attractive features in the place remains dark, cold and dead. The fire is unlit. There is nothing easier or more basic than a roaring fire to create atmosphere, a sense of welcome and, most significantly, for making it obviously clear that the owners are proud of the place and pleased to see you: "look, we've lit the fire and all." An unlit fire is a testament to indifference.
Then there's the time it takes for anything to happen. Orders are slow to be written down, drinks take a lifetime and when the food eventually arrives it comes in staggered shifts, which means you'll have finished your burger long before the chips get there.
These service gaps allow you more time to observe families enjoying online games on their tablets at the dinner table without the silencer benefits of headphones. And when the children get bored they get down from the table and run around shouting. I've never seen much Grand Theft Auto 4 in other family restaurants, but maybe this has become a common occurrence in recent times. That's not Gowdy's fault, of course, but still, it means a less than comfortable Sunday dinner.
There are two menus on Sunday: a traditional choice of roasts including lamb, beef, turkey and ham and even cod (there's gammon but no roast pork) served with broccoli, mash and roasties. The a la carte is studded with no-risk starters and mains, the likes of which are designed to appeal to a crowd which doesn't like surprises: roast winter soup of the day, deep-fried breaded brie, sesame-coated chicken strips and spicy BBQ wings are among the more youthful temptations. As mains you might consider a southern-fried chicken, mature Cheddar and garlic wrap or a grilled steak and onion sandwich with Cheddar and tobacco onions on a baguette. There is also, gammon, egg and chips, chicken jalfrezi, Irish stew, stir fry or bolognese – in fact, just about every continent in the world is covered.
The food itself is edible but the four of us reported equal measures of tastelessness. The prawn cocktail was unremarkable but for the generosity of its size; the sesame-seeded, breadcrumbed chicken goujons are proper breast meat but taste of packaging; and the steak burger is as hard as a curling stone. The pepper sauce covering it has more salt than Bonneville Flats and the roast lamb is free of either garlic or rosemary, or anything else that might enliven it.
It's not bad food; it's food that's been half destroyed in the kitchen. I say that but then someone sends back a £19.85 10oz rib-eye saying he can't eat it as half of it is fat.
But the servers are quick to make amends. They react positively to any complaint, and there have been a few in a short evening. Desserts are offered free as compensation for late arrivals of chips; your man's rib-eye is refunded, no problem and very sorry about that, sir.
Gowdy's staff are friendly but they are working against the odds. An unlit fire and bland food that comes out at random times mean they have to work ten times harder to win hearts and minds and keep the diners happy. It would be so much easier if someone just lit the fire and stopped overcooking everything.
Prawn cocktail x 2 £13.50
Chicken wings £4.95
Burger x 2 £19
Roast lamb £11.95
Chilli cubes x 2 £9.50
Bottle wine £24.99
Sparkling water £2.50
Diet Pepsi £1.90