Joris Minne: Union St Bar & Restaurant
This restored Belfast bar is a clubbers’ haven at night, but serves good, simple food by day.
Misinterpretations of modern terms can be irritating. When people in Northern Ireland talk about a ‘mixed marriage’, for instance, they are referring to a Catholic and a Protestant union. When comedian Dara O’Briain broaches this subject he suggests that a real, proper and meaningful mixed marriage would be that between a Japanese geisha and a KwaZulu champion warrior. Mixed? Now you’re talking.
Similarly, when Belfast developers talk about ‘urban regeneration’ only a handful of them mean the actual reconstruction, restoration or reinstallation of the old city centre fabric, breathing new life into ancient warehouses, factories and other commercial buildings and transforming them into buzzing residential developments with some architectural and historic merit, or putting up handsome new-build offices and public spaces that will inject fresh life into long derelict areas. Sadly, for many developers, urban regeneration means the construction of hundreds of chicken coops in cheaply designed and built new constructions they stick up anywhere they can.
But thankfully there are plenty of people in the restaurant and entertainment business in Belfast who take their descriptor terms seriously and who also view their operations as an essential part of the regeneration process. Molly’s Yard, Andy Rae’s Mourne Seafood Bar and the Gourmet Burger Bank are cases in point. The restoration of an old shoe factory seven years ago in the city centre’s Union Street, its new function as a bar and restaurant and its role as the pulsating heart of the drag cabaret scene in Belfast is also to be commended for its impact on the area.
Not quite in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter, Union Street is on the western-most fringes of the dynamic new city-centre arts zone. Surrounded as it is by media people from the Irish News, Sunday Life, Belfast Telegraph and the like, you’d expect a very rough-and-ready set-up. Yet the Union Street Bar & Restaurant is a sensitive soul, dealing out simple but carefully prepared food.
The high-ceilinged, Victorian factory has an intense character — mood-enhancing open fireplace (with proper flames), green-painted wooden panelling, round, marble-topped tables and leather, cushioned banquette are all arranged church-like to focus all our attention on the bar. This magnificent altar stands before huge windows adorned with a hundred optics and a well-presented barman this lunchtime.
I’d never been in the place until now. It sits proudly on the corner of Union Street and Little Donegall Street and it’s not alone. Beside it is the Shoe Factory club famous for its drag shows. Featured artists, by the way, include Tina Leggs Tantrum, Lady Portia Diamante and Trudy Scrumptious, Bunny and Twanda. Also nearby is the Kremlin and the Rainbow Project, a thumping little hub of activity that really comes into its own at night. By day, Union Street Bar and Bistro has a broad clientele and its presence is as welcome as any quality destination bar in Belfast.
But is the food any good? This particular Monday experience wasn’t bad at all. Monday is probably one of the worst days to go out to lunch as very little is fresh and everybody’s wrecked from the weekend. Two lunches including mineral waters for under £20, however, puts things into perspective. A naughtily entitled ‘Michelle’s dirty pasta’ tugged at my decadent inner self. I’ve had plenty of dirty rice — actually not rice at all but a wild kind of wheat that is abundant in Louisiana and served up with gumbo and jumbalaya — but never dirty pasta. The dish turned out to be a decent enough plate of tagliatelle with salty little lardons, chicken pieces, mushrooms and a creamy, peppery white wine sauce and a few peas for good measure. Was it perhaps the pepper, or the fried onions that lurked within, which gave it a dirty look? Who knows?
Either way, the dirty pasta wasn’t going to win any prizes but I liked the way the barman served it with a bit of respect, a bit of show, making a bit of a deal of it.
The award-winning writer opposite me had boldly asked for seabass and a fine big filet arrived underneath a little bird’s nest of herbs. Beneath the fish lay a generous bed of rice in a tomato, chilli and basil ragout. The writer confirmed it was spicy but not overwhelmingly so and then to illustrate her approval gracefully finished the whole thing in quick time. That’s what having three small children does to you. You learn to gulp swiftly.
Union Street Bar & Restaurant does a lot more than quick bites, of course. A soup of the day, for instance, shows a bit of courage — vegetable broth with pepperoni. There’s the Two Chefs All Day Breakfast Bap: for only £4.50, you get mushroom, bacon, poached egg and cheese wedged snugly into a big bap; and there are fish pies, any amount of surf-and-turf stuff and other easy comfort foods. It’s the kind of sustenance hard-clubbing night owls like to reach for.
This area is a forgotten chamber of the city’s heart. No flats around here, therefore few residents to get upset by the urban sounds of the night. But tucked in around the back of the Central Library in the city’s newspaper district, it is bursting with gentrification potential and to have such a good quality and friendly commercial operation underway here has to be the sign of other things to come.
Even if the food is ordinary, a trip to Union Street will be worth it just for the taste of a city in transition.
Michelle’s Dirty Pasta £7.25
River Rock x 2 £3.60