Restaurant review: We take a bite out of O'Connor's
O'Connor's Bar. 5-7 Ann Street, Ballycastle, Co Antrim. Tel: 028 2076 2123
There are many reasons for visiting Ballycastle. Two of these involve beer. But more on that later. I have been going to Ballycastle for years and love it. It has charm, a pleasant citizenry and the perfect seafront. It has a crescent beach with views to the dramatic Fair Head and a bustling little harbour from where you can jump onto the Rathlin Island ferry when it's not blowing a gale.
This is a town which has survived a few blows: the loss of the Campbeltown ferry, the threatened closure of the Dalriada community hospital and the banning of horses three years ago from the Lammas Fair, famous the world over for its, er, horses.
But the reason why Ballycastle survives (and appears to be thriving) is because it is the most attractive of coastal towns in the north. The ideal seaside town should have a requisite list of components: beach, activities, seafront, curio shops, hotel, bars and restaurants. Ballycastle ticks all of these, although there is a question mark over the last one.
The town's restaurant reputation has always been considered modest. As a frequent visitor, I have tried many times over the years to find out from locals where they'd go for a decent lunch, or dinner. The response has usually included a glazed look, a bit of shuffling about, shaking of head and sucking in of breath.
Very oddly, apart from Wysners and Thyme & Co, few restaurants seem to be acknowledged by the people who live there. When pushed, Morton's fish and chips is what they will recommend.
But behind this veil of secrecy lies O'Connor's Bar in Ann Street. Following a meeting last week with a farmer and micro-brewer who recommended it, I took a party of five to O'Connor's for lunch.
I wasn't expecting much other than a choice of decent craft beers. In fact, I only went there to taste my farmer friend's two brews: Rathlin Red ale and Fair Head Gold lager.
Within minutes of entering the low-ceilinged bar, festooned with Six Nations rugby bunting and other cheeriness, the very nice server brought us menus, which looked promising. There was an unexpectedly healthy choice of seafood, including squid, crab claws, prawns, mussels and white fish. The monkfish curry was gone by the time we had arrived in the middle of the afternoon. A good sign.
Very quickly, we were sitting behind chilled bottles of that lager and ale. The brewer insists he will not distribute it any further than the immediate area. This pledge means Ballycastle has a unique selling point in addition to all that nice seaside stuff.
If this is the only place you can enjoy these beers - and they really are worth travelling for - then the town's tourism future looks even brighter. And that's not to say that the food in O'Connor's is forgettable. It's remarkably good in all its simplicity.
Take the crab claws. Huge and appealing, cooked carefully so as not to go over into dry and tasteless territory, the pre-cracked monsters are a delight. I'd prefer them cold with mayonnaise, but I say this every time I confront warm crustaceans.
They are, nonetheless, very good. The prawns come swimming in garlic butter, which is fine, but they are of such good quality it seems a shame to drown them like that.
Fish (cod) and chips are given a top mark by the fussy Canadian; the Englishman is having a vegetarian encounter with some potato cheese cakes, which he loves, and the Cork visitor is having no trouble with the squid, other than to say that if that's a starter, she wonders what the main course came on: a pallet?
O'Connor's is a well-run bar, with good-quality pub food. The service is genuinely friendly and engaging. If this is an example of the spirit of Ballycastle and the town's ability to welcome visitors and provide sound quality at very modest prices, then the destination will not just survive as a tourism destination, but thrive.
I'm looking forward to getting back next month.
Crab claws £5.95
Prawns pil pil £6.95
Salt and chill squid £5.95
Beer-battered cod £9.95
Cheese & mixed veg cakes £9.95
Cajun salmon fillet £12.95
Chips (x2) £4.90
Rathlin Red (x2) £7.60
Fair Head Gold (x2) £7.60
Sparkling water £1.60