Joris Minne: The John Hewitt
Why it’s all a bit hit-and-miss at The John Hewitt ... apart from the brilliant chowder
There’s an altruist in us all. A streak of kindness, a spark of generosity, a touch of the good Samaritan coats all our souls.
Some of us are more blessed than others. My altruism lies deeply hidden and rarely sees light of day, but I acknowledge that it exists in abundance in others.
Even in the ruthlessly competitive world of food and restaurants, there are one or two generous spirits. Jamie Oliver is probably the highest profile chef-with-a-heart-of-gold. His London restaurant, 15, to which he recruits young people from some of the roughest and most underprivileged housing estates in Britain, is a good example. Here, a high-quality restaurant that has been consistently good with only a few reported dips in the last three years, is successfully run, operated and managed by teenagers with minimum supervision.
This is a great project that has shown the way forward to many young ones and scored some major social entrepreneur brownie points and miles of PR coverage for Jamie.
But while many Brits go all gooey and dewey-eyed at the generosity of the great young man, the idea is not his. The idea’s origins can be traced back to 1999 right here in Belfast. The John Hewitt Bar & Restaurant in Belfast’s Donegall Street may not be run by teenagers but it has been singularly successful as an unemployment resource centre, creating jobs and training people to work in the hospitality sector.
Owned by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, The John Hewitt was born from necessity and innovation. Managed by the formidable Gerry White, the traditional-looking bar was created as a means of generating the resource centre’s own funds rather than relying on grants and hand-outs. And because John Hewitt — the late poet, socialist and Freeman of the city — had officially opened the original resource centre 16 years earlier, the ultimate tribute was paid back to him 11 years ago by putting his name over the door.
Its noble origins have remained intact ever since and The John Hewitt has been a big hit with locals and visitors alike. It has even wormed its way into the shrivelled hearts of the media community, many of whom know the bar in a particularly intimate way. In fact, many left-leaning journalists refuse to drink anywhere else as it’s the only place in which they can make a direct and meaningful contribution to the social and economic fabric of the inner city and get full at the same time.
Ever since I’ve known it, The John Hewitt’s reputation for food has been up and down. While the bar has always been impeccably managed with some excellent and exotic beers on draught well before anyone else copped on to the trend, the quality of the lunches has not been consistent. I’ve enjoyed top-class fish dishes in The John Hewitt only to return a couple of weeks later and suffer something not altogether as good. There can also be a slightly hard edge to the serv
ice, but you can put that down to the kick-ass urban confidence of the servers. They are all actually good craic after a couple of encounters.
And that’s the secret of The John Hewitt. Unless you’ve been there a couple of times, enough to make your face known, there is a distinct hint that The John Hewitt, its live music every night, its good beer and its unique chowder — more of that in a minute — is somehow a club whose membership is open only to those who work there and a die-hard core of regulars. Everyone else is a guest who should count himself lucky to be there at all. But that’s ok, because if I were working there, I’d want that sense of dignity and exclusivity, too.
Now, the chowder. Available on Fridays at lunchtime, Gerry White makes a point of telling people to turn up good and early because it’s that popular you risk arriving when the pot’s just been emptied. The fact is that the chowder is the best in Belfast by 40 miles. A big, deep and flat soup bowl filled with Hewitt chowder, the dish is as close to perfection as you could hope to get. There are few examples of perfection: Paul Rankin’s duck confit and Asian noodles; Joery Castel’s lobster in Bangor’s Boat House; and the Ulster Fry in Cafe Conor are among them. For the definitive chowder, look no further. A balance of potatoes, cream, smoked haddock and various chunks of fish, this is a dish to keep you going on a Friday afternoon.
On top of this, the chowder, which comes with a chunk of bread, is otherwise gluten-free. Other dishes in the pub are good but not as brilliant. The lasagne was a decent enough pub offering while the cod and chips and sausages and mash were comforting but forgettable.
This is slightly disappointing considering the awards the place has secured over the years. We may be going through a current dip in the cycle of good-to-indifferent food for which The John Hewitt has a reputation.
Competing with the best pubs in the city, it is clear The John Hewitt does not rely on merciful customers and bleeding heart liberals who are willing to put up with any old rubbish because it’s a hugely politically correct kind of place. It has to succeed as a going concern and The John Hewitt does this with its bar. All it needs now is to focus on the other dishes on the menu as much as it does on the chowder and it will really deserve to be known as the best gastro-pub in Belfast. Chowder x 3 (£3.95 each) £11.85
Sausages and mash £7.25
Cod and chips £8.95
Pinot blanc £17.95