Restaurant Review: McHugh's, Belfast
Ancient McHugh's has plenty of charm and attraction, but have they managed to master the balance between bar and restaurant?
McHugh's is the oldest pub in the world. The creaking Belfast bar dates back to the mists of pre-Celtic civilisation in Ireland.
You can trace its origins all the way back to the dawn of human life on the island. When the Larnians came over here from Scotland 5,000 years before Christ, McHugh's had been in business for a few decades serving fresh blood in scooped out skulls to neanderthals. Or something.
At least that's the impression you might have of McHugh's if you were to take the tourist brochures a bit too close to heart. I was in Las Vegas earlier this summer and, under instruction from the fun-loving but cultured adviser, visited the Neon Boneyard, a site where scrapped old casino and hotel signs go to die. The man in charge conducts a fascinating tour of the huge signs, some of which he is restoring. He talks convincingly about the cultural value of these ancient artefacts, some of which are "More than 30 years old!". For him (and the enthralled visitors) archaeological time is purely relative. And so it is for Belfast.
Belfast shares much of its identity with 'ancient' east coast US towns such as Annapolis, Philadelphia and Newport, which all started out around the 17th century. You can see similarities in the architecture and street proportions. Londonderry has more in common with these American cities than Belfast, as it was the first planned urban development in the world, something the US colonials were keen to replicate over there. But when you look at McHugh's front elevation, you can't help but be reminded of the style of the earliest moments of the new urban world on the other side of the sea, a kind of adapted Georgian style.
In relatively young Belfast terms, therefore, McHugh's is truly ancient. Part of its charm is the bare brick and timber interiors which have been stripped back to reveal their origins.
Twelve years ago we booked the private room at the top of the building for our youngest's Christening party and it still retains a hugely atmospheric magic. In fact, the pub's entire three floors and the basement are uniquely attractive in this respect.
The private room's big selling point these days is its unparalleled and uninterrupted view across Custom House Square to the stage of Belsonic and most other concerts hosted here.
A second attraction is the bar on the ground floor, which is a hypnotic overload of weathered, splintered timbers and rickety nooks and crannies into which you can disappear, woodworm-like, for the night.
The third attraction is the food. The McHugh's menu used to be dominated by stir-fries, which I loathed because of their fresh, crunchy and health-giving properties and their complete lack of any flavour other than bitter and sweet.
But there's not a stir-fry to be seen anywhere near the place now and the choices, if conventional, are appetising. A set menu for £13.95, which includes chowder, chicken wings and roast beef with all the fixin's, makes complete sense in a place like McHugh's which has prepared you for a rustic food experience since the moment you came in through the door.
The restaurant on the first floor is attended by servers who are on the ball. There's an air of friendly efficiency and hospitality about the two young women running the front of house this Sunday evening. We watch them deal with a group of disorientated Americans who have figured out the drinks-at-the-bar thing before taking them upstairs to the table – an odd ceremony for the uninitiated, but one which they have mastered.
Starters of duck spring rolls, smoked salmon, home made hummus, wings and duck terrine – the chowder's off today – are better than average. The wings are crispy with a hint of chilli heat, the salmon is fine but the bed of celeriac remoulade beneath is very well made with a finely-balanced mayonnaise, and the hummus is robust and plentiful. Apart from the accompanying carrot and celery sticks, which are tired and curling, all is well.
A smoked haddock dish with steamed, creamed leeks comes with a poached egg. Smoked fish and egg work so well together, particularly when the fish is so well cooked, chunky, glistening and moist, breaking under the knife with ease. A herb roast Rockvale chicken breast comes with tarragon mayo and hand-cut chips and meets approval from the teenager while the adviser's burger passes muster.
McHugh's is a well run bar and restaurant. Mixing the functions of a respected bar full of men who enjoy a pint and the more delicate clientele which climbs the stairs to the first floor is not an easy thing to get right. But McHugh's does it well.
Pork belly £11.95
Burger x 2 £16
Chips x 2 £5
Glass wine x 4 £17.50
Pepsi x 2 £3
Ballygowan x 2 £3