Restaurant review: We try out 26 West Bar & Grill
Kennedy Centre, 564-568 Falls Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9060 2426
Belfast is good at restaurants. This doesn't mean that all restaurants in the city are good; it means that there are lots of good restaurants at all price points. So, if you're after Michelin-star levels of service and food, you'll have a choice of two - although I contend that there are at least five restaurants in the north who consistently match Michelin standards, even if they are not acknowledged by the rubber firm.
If you're after an Ulster Fry, or full Irish, you'll know who does a very good one. The same applies to burgers, street food, fish and chips, burritos, Chinese, Indian, bistros and brasseries, bars and grills. And Belfast has plenty of good ones. But what the city excels at is the independent café. We used to be world-class leaders in home bakeries, but these seem to have all but disappeared in the last 10 years.
Take 26 West in the Kennedy Centre. Among the Burger King, Subway and Costa franchises, as you'd expect to see in a big successful shopping centre, here is a home-grown bar and grill with a menu the size of a Christmas Blue Peter album.
It cannot be easy competing with global brands whose marketing strategies and budgets are astronomical, guaranteeing that every living soul on the planet knows the price of a whopper.
For 26 West, the challenge is to be as commercially attractive, bright and colourful - in a way that has taken years and decades of refining by the large chains - to win over the hearts and minds of the gullible TV-viewing generation and provide them with something even better. And the place wins hands down every time.
This is down to a phenomenon which I've seen in action only once before, at No Alibis bookstore on Botanic Avenue.
I once asked No Alibis owner Stephen Torrens how he competes with Amazon and the other online retail behemoths. He said he does something they cannot do, which is to bring people into the store by offering them a sense of community.
Gigs, readings, tastings and events in No Alibis regularly sell out and people can't get enough of being art of the community feel. This is also the secret of 26 West's success.
Look at the Christmas charity breakfast they are running tomorrow morning: sold out.
I have noticed in recent months how active they are in letting people know what's on the menu through Twitter or Facebook.
It keeps people informed as to anything of interest happening at their restaurant and you can't help but get sucked into that sense of belonging. It's the stuff of proper village communities as we like to remember them. Yet here we are in the middle of a shopping centre.
And, as a complete stranger, I went there this week shortly before lunch service and, even alone, I felt like I was walking into somewhere familiar.
The experience starts at the start, where a server is on hand with a warm smile and welcome and an immediate offer of something to drink. So many places fail at this first and crucial moment to make the visitor welcome and to get them something quickly.
The menu runs to a dozen pages and arrives with the pot of tea. We have a laugh a few minutes later when Carol Louise asks me if I'm ready to order. I tell her I've only got as far as page 11.
There's everything you want from a short-order café like this at breakfast time: full Irish, French toast, omelettes, pancakes and various breads; lunchtime chicken wings, ribs, onion rings, nachos, wedges, steaks, fajitas, paninis, chilli con carne and then two-course dinners for £10.95 from 4pm onwards. There's also a vegetarian choice of four dishes.
I had the 26 West Best Brekkie for £5.95. Lovers of chippy sausages, good back bacon, potato farls and soda bread will approve (although the appearance of baked beans, but no black pudding, left me puzzled).
The food is wholesome and good value for money, but 26 West should be congratulated for running such a community-focused business, boosting this part of west Belfast's sense of identity and providing the kind of place you can bring visitors to show them what Irish hospitality is about.
Pot of tea £1.70
Best Brekkie £5.95