Food critic and Northern Ireland hospitality sector bemoan closure of top restaurants
Top food critic Jay Rayner has expressed shock at the closure of the Bull & Ram restaurants in Belfast and Ballynahinch.
And the head of a body representing restaurants in Northern Ireland has said he fears more could follow suit after the loss of three top venues in the space of just a week.
Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer, said: "The closure is a great shame, because I loved the Bull & Ram."
He described his dining experience at the Bull & Ram in the Co Down town as an "utter joy" in a review in the newspaper in October 2016.
As well as the closure of the Bull & Ram's two venues, the owners of The Moody Boar restaurant in Armagh have also said it is shutting after a rent hike by its landlord, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.
A spokesman for the Bull & Ram in Belfast said the move may not be set in stone.
"No decision has been made if this is permanent closure," he said.
"We will be in touch with customers about vouchers and bookings."
Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said he had been shocked to hear of the closures of Bull & Ram and The Moody Boar.
But he said it reflected the pressures of increasing overheads, with venues facing increases in business rates, the National Living Wage and the pressure of pension contributions.
For instance, in Victoria Square there are at least three restaurant vacancies following the closure of Prezzo, McDonald's and Spur.
"Restaurants are now squeezed so tightly that the profit margins are simply not there," he said.
Bull & Ram owner and chef Kelan McMichael opened up on Belfast's University Road in October last year, around a year after launching in Ballynahinch to wide acclaim.
Mr Neill said he thought the opening of the second venue had been a sensible rate of expansion.
"You've got to watch your cash flow as you expand, but the Bull & Ram was not like a chain of restaurants," he said.
"While The Moody Boar had also been there a long time.
"They had both been raved about by food critics and are excellent restaurants.
"It's not like they are mediocre places who don't know what they're doing."
He added that while tourist numbers in Northern Ireland are up, visitors were not always evenly spread. He said: "We see and recognise that tourism is growing rapidly but that tends to be in confined spaces like Belfast city centre, Derry and Enniskillen."
Michele Shirlow of Food NI said she was "very disappointed" by the closures.
"Both the Bull & Ram and The Moody Boar had very talented teams in charge and I really wouldn't have expected either of them to have closed," she explained.
"The Bull & Ram in Ballynahinch was fabulous and got great critical acclaim, which is why it's particular disappointing.
"And The Moody Boar was a real food destination.
"I just hope that both teams can use their talent in some other way."