Nowhere is immune from Covid but sometimes you can be sitting in a cafe or restaurant and believe that all is well. For a few moments you will stop noticing the Perspex screens dividing the tables or keeping you from getting too close to the counter. The only reminder that all is not as it should be will be the masked servers approaching your table and to whom you must pay particularly close attention as it is far harder to make out what they're saying these days.
Holywood is that place. There is always a sense of calm and normality in Holywood (Best Medium Sized Town 2006-2017). People go about their business, Holywood wives, retired bookies and bank managers drive their convertible Mercs slowly down the High Street to be seen, and cafes serve breakfasts, brunches and lunches keeping the place quietly buzzing.
One place which captures the Holywood mood perfectly is Home Bird. A small frontage on the High Street conceals a spacious but cosy interior, plenty of space for safe social distancing. I've seen queues out the door in previous visits to Holywood but this is a Monday lunch time and it is quieter. Mind you, it's far from empty. Of the many good cafes in Holywood, this one stands out not least because chef Joery Castell is in the kitchen. Dutchman Joery has form in the area having set up the former and fabulous Boat House in Bangor with brother Jasper some years back.
Now he's in Holywood and the Home Bird blackboard menu quickly reveals the hand of the master. Go past the croissants, scones, traybakes and buns and you will find all manner of excitement. Potato rosti is offered with confit of duck, cucumber, hoisin, pak choi, ginger, scallions and coriander. This clever little development on the theme of duck pancakes works well and makes for a light yet substantial lunch. There is plenty on the plate to take your mind off a brain-crushingly dull Monday and finally uncovering the rosti at the bottom brings a sense of completion and achievement, somehow. For £7 it represents great value.
But there's more. Eggs Royale, poached and served on a toasted bagel with smoked salmon, hollandaise and chives; a lamb burger with feta, pea and mint pesto, garlic yoghurt, tomatoes and babygem; or Turkish eggs with garlic yoghurt, tasted sourdough, chilli oil and parsley (add chorizo for £1.50).
There is a soup of tomato and roast red pepper into which is thrown a handful of quinoa for added clout. It is heart warming and reassuringly wholesome. Accompanied by a thick wedge of toasted sourdough, it would easily fulfil the role of a stand-alone lunch.
Surprisingly, the experience is slightly less impressive when it comes to the desserts. These should be a cafe's forte. They're on display and you cannot miss them when you come in the front door. An imposingly regal chocolate ganache cake commands the view around which lesser offerings are mounted on lower little shelves. A polenta cake with caramelised pistachios looks the part. But neither the cake nor the polenta have much flavour. A little dry, not so tasteless as to be unidentifiable but not assertive enough either, the polenta is particularly disappointing. Gone is the expected rich, moistly dense and yellow wedge and in its place something too crumbly and inconsistent.
But the coffee and tea are quality. Proper leaf tea comes in a teapot and the Americano is just the right side of bitter.
Service in Home Bird is gold standard. There is a surefootedness about the staff. They are friendly, they understand it's lunch time and people need to get back to what they were doing before they came in. And it feels very, very normal.
Turkish eggs £6
San Pellegrino £2.50