Restaurant review: The Barking Dog
33-35 Malone Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9066 1885
Restaurant lifespans are measured in months, not years. Along with haulage, fashion and scented candle making, restaurants have the shortest life expectation of any start-up businesses. But those who do survive can look back to see how and why they got through the difficult first year and point to quality of service, food and atmosphere (as well as clever management of tight margins, rates, supplier payments, staff retention and an endless list of other risks and governance issues).
The Barking Dog restaurant on Belfast's Malone Road must be getting all of these right because it marks its 10th birthday today. This makes it not only an exceptional survivor but now a fixture, as firm, sure-footed and central to our understanding of this Malone Road enclave of south Belfast as the Bot and the Eg.
As far as I can remember there has been a restaurant on this site. Maloney's changed to Gourmet Burger Bank to Rain City before finally becoming what it is today.
Much loved by visiting parents who want to feed up their student children, locals and foodies in general, the Barking Dog has been consistent.
Chef Michael O'Connor and business partner Michael Fletcher have an instinctive feel for what works and how to package it.
Which means that even on a miserable Tuesday evening there's a buzz in the hipster, creaky floorboarded, bare-bricked, auntie Annie's mixed-up crockery services and all.
It's cosy and atmospheric in the way people in chunky woollens, beanies and Priuses feel they'd like their houses to be. And there is a parlour feel about the dining room. There are framed pictures of dogs on the walls as well as lovely Welsh dressers and Edwardian unmatched dining room furniture.
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It hasn't changed in 10 years. And on the menu is the staple shin burger - also celebrating its first decade.
The Barking Dog shin burger is a thing of beauty and wonder. Made from slow cooked, pressed shin of beef it's more gourmet hot sandwich than burger.
But if anyone ever asks you what is the meaning of a "dirty burger", take them by the hand and lead them through the streets of Belfast straight to here. Because this is the mum and dad of them all. Every restaurant should have a signature dish, and this is it.
Lush, rich, generous and utterly impossible to eat without complete loss of dignity, it's perhaps not the ideal order to place on a first date. It taps right into your inner Neanderthal and you'll be thrilled at the primeval quality of it.
But there are finer dishes here too as well as vegetarian and vegan menus. A set of three little tapas plates includes pairs of handy-sized mouthfuls: the Portavogie prawns come with chilli and tomato salsa on a baby gem leaf and are sinfully addictive; Kilkeel crab with chive crème fraiche on toasted sourdough is too good to share and the crispy halloumi with pepperichino mayo is deep and rich.
A pan roasted halibut with sautéed potatoes, pepperonata and tenderstem broccoli seems expensive at £23 but the generosity and quality are outstanding. The slab of halibut is crispy and golden and glisteningly slippery within.
The vegetarian teen has a bowl of pasta featuring goat's cheese, air-dried tomato, roast red peppers and a pesto.
The goat's cheese gives some clout and substance to the tang of the tomato and the sweet floral tones of the pesto. It's a well-balanced dish which would also satisfy any non-veggie.
The Barking Dog is an institution. When your business achieves institution status, it removes the requirement to change the décor and to rebrand. Look at Shu, Deane's at Queens and even Pizzaexpress. Nothing has changed in any of these bar their menus. Likewise at the Barking Dog: they ain't fixin' what ain't broke.
And here's hoping it stays the same for the next 10 years. Happy birthday, Michaels.
Tapas x 3 £11
Veg pasta £17
Chocolate brownie £6.75
Crème brulee £6.50
Glass viognier x 2£15
Diet coke £2