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Restaurant review: City Picnic is fired up to breathe new life into Belfast's city centre

Restaurant review: City Picnic, 2-6 Castle Street, Belfast, Tel: 028 9024 6194

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City Picnic in Belfast’s Castle Street

City Picnic in Belfast’s Castle Street

Stephen Hamilton

City Picnic in Belfast’s Castle Street

When Primark went up in flames 16 months ago, few realised how the ripple effects of the fire would impact surrounding businesses. In the core of the old city centre where every building is cheek by jowl, the fire appeared thankfully to be confined to the one-time House of Fraser and it looked as if neighbouring businesses had escaped the worst.

But then came the heart-sinking news that the entire area was at risk from the crumbling remains of the building and was to become a no-go zone.

The heart of the city simply died. The cordon extended hundreds of yards and no through traffic or any pedestrian was allowed to navigate this major junction from north to south or east to west. Castle Street, Donegall Place, Royal Avenue and High Street suddenly became a forbidden crossroads.

Within this cordoned zone were a number of shops and restaurants including City Picnic, a popular shoppers' place of refuge where burgers, colourful furniture and cheerful staff made the trip to the city centre something dozens of families looked forward to.

Locked within the no-go zone, City Picnic was inaccessible even to its owners and the sudden closure left them scratching their heads wondering how on earth they could recover from this and more pressingly, how soon.

For owners Arthur and Gavin, the nightmare had just begun and the ensuing 16 months would provide them with a series of frustrating and fruitless attempts to get compensated or to reopen their business. Worse still, most of this time nobody had a clue as to when they might be able to get back in. They had bills to pay and jobs to protect.

Thankfully, for them the nightmare is over. Others like James Neilly and his Pizza Boutique which was just outside the cordon suffered from the massive downturn. Nobody was going into the centre any more.

Pizza Boutique upped stakes and found another site in the suburbs.

But City Picnic is back. With a cool new interior (they had to gut the old place, get the industrial cleaners in and start from the start again) which is all bright with Roy Lichtenstein-like detailed light boxes, quality pale timber finishes and the most stunning high precision pavement floor, the restaurant is doing what it does best: happy family food.

This is dirty food but dialled down just a bit so granny and grandad don't faint. Here you will find burgers, pizzas, salad bowls, wings, wraps and a whole list of sides of chips, sweet potato fries and slaws featuring the new standard wave of favourite flavours and dips like chipotle, peri peri, cajun and habanero sauces.

The burgers were the foundation of City Picnic's earlier reputation. I declared five years ago that they were the best in Belfast. My latest experience this week has not shifted me from this belief.

Although hidden underneath a mound of pulled pork, American cheese and crispy smoked bacon which I should have refused, lies the most perfect burger patty.

Crumbling, half inch thick, medium cooked with some deliciously acrid charring blisters, this is a burger for those who know, those who have journeyed valleys deep and mountains high in search of the burger of their dreams. Well, it is for me.

It's so good that it does not require the adulteration of its many varieties: Mexican (chorizo, chipotle and cheese), Texan (salsa and cheese), the Big Smoke (smoky bacon and cheese) or the Carnivore as described here. Believe me, go for the original which comes with American cheese and onion and ask for them to remove even those.

This burger, which comes from Rodgers' Meats, deserves to be left alone unmolested or disturbed by toppings, garnishes or any other intrusion.

Overload is what these places are about but believe me, lurking within is very high-quality grub. I'm delighted City Picnic is back. If it's back, the city centre is back too.

The bill:

The Carnivore £8

Sweet potato fries £3.50

Baby classic Caesar £4

Half pint Heineken £2.70

Total £18.20

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