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Restaurant review: Fountain Lane is a revitalised pub offering warm comfort and excellent food

Fountain Lane, 22 Fountain Lane, Belfast, Tel: 028 9032 4769

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Belfast’s Fountain Lane

Belfast’s Fountain Lane

Belfast’s Fountain Lane

We live in interesting times. Economic and political turbulence have become the norm; financial instability brought on by Brexit fears and concerns are among the many new hazards the business community here has had to live with; and uncertainty about the future of our planet is depressingly felt by just about everyone.

But one area of Northern Irish human activity which is going through a paradoxically golden era is the restaurant sector. Or, to be more accurate, those of us who like to eat out.

Anyone in the north wanting a bite to eat is living the dream. In the words of Harold Macmillan, we've never had it so good. Fast food has never been this high-quality, or so affordable: Boojum, nutritious, tasty and cheap; fish and chips, sustainable, local and, while less cheap, very tasty and community-conscious; bao bun bars, independent taqueria counters and Thai curries compete with quality Indian and Chinese to bring you memorable eating pleasures for under a fiver. And the same can now be said of the pub sector.

Some Belfast investors have resurrected a raft of older bars and made them as attractive as they would have been when they first opened 100 or 200 years ago.

The Jailhouse, Henry's, White's Tavern and now the Fountain Lane (formerly the Fountain Tavern) are all textbook case-histories of how to revive dying pubs.

And while they all feature great bars, good staff and various degrees of Irish hospitality (ranging from the excited back-slappery of the Jailhouse to the gentler winking nod in White's), they all feature the kind of food you'd hope they would.

So, there are oysters in the Oyster Rooms above White's, where chef Simon Toye has injected a very classy level of excellence while maintaining that informal mood; there are very decent stews in the Jailhouse and Henry's and now Fountain Lane has a new menu, where old Belfast favourites are honoured.

Here you will find beef and Guinness pie, Strangford mussels and sirloin steak (chargrilled with flat cap mushroom, oven baked tomato, beer-battered onion rings and chunky chips). And, because it's 2020, there is also a bean, quinoa, tofu and vegetable burger, chicken and chorizo pasta and warm goats cheese salad, among the many other offers.

Purists turn their noses and dismiss all this as very vulgar, uncouth and inauthentic. But pub food was never going to be anything other than cheap and cheerful. Otherwise, you'd be off to the restaurant, wouldn't you?

I've completely come round to the fact that these revived pubs may be injected with a lot of new features, but they've been done like this in order to keep alive a flame that requires a different fuel.

The mood and character of these pubs have been enhanced and reinvigorated through these regenerative investments. As Marina O'Laughlin of the Sunday Times puts it, it's the very "pubness" of these places which has been sanctified and protected.

Fountain Lane's ground-floor bar, a beautiful, elegant island, is much more pubby than the others mentioned here and none of that is lost in the dining room upstairs, where another bar dominates the room.

But there is a warm comfort I remember from the '70s in lunchtime Belfast bars which has been reignited, just like the fireplaces that warm them.

The beef and Guinness pie is a robust and wholesome thing; really, a stew in a terracotta pot with a flaky puff pastry lid. Accompanying it is a generous dollop of champ and a large ramekin of greens.

For £10.95, it's hard to beat the quality-to-value ratio. Strangford mussels are fat and juicy served mariniere with a wedge of toasted sourdough bread.

But it's the quality of the service which is most remarkable. Young, well-trained staff, under expert supervision of managers who fundamentally understand hospitality, will make the place so comfortable for you, you won't want to leave.

The older I got, the less interested I was becoming in pubs. But now, with the advent of these rejuvenated old bars, where the music is good, the craic is mighty and the youth are out enjoying themselves, I'm going to have to curb my enthusiasm and try to keep away from them.

The bill:

Mussels starter................................£7.95

Steak and Guinness pie................£10.95

Pint Guinness...................................£4.50

Espresso...........................................£2.10

Total: ..............................................£25.50

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