Restaurant review: White's Tavern pub in Belfast
Winecellar Entry, Belfast. Tel: 028 9031 2582
Pub numbers are in decline. Once the backbone of countless communities, pubs provided therapy (it's good to talk), quality beers and a democratic social hub where class distinctions were left at the door. You could do business. I bought a car in a pub one time.
Yet, while the numbers go down, those who survive are, by and large, getting better. There are great survivors such as the chapel-like Crown Saloon Bar and its charming booths (great for pints but for heaven's sake don't eat there), the Duke of York, whose owner Willie Jack has transformed it into a dizzying and inescapable vortex of images, mirrors and signs celebrating Irish distillers and brewers, and White's Tavern, the last bar standing in Winecellar Entry in the heart of Belfast's maze of tiny alleys.
White's used to be the best place in the city for cheese toasties, the advisor advises. She loved the place and many a happy afternoon was spent sipping vodka and white and lining stomachs with the belly bustin' toasties. In more recent years it had become cool in the sense that it was a bit of a dive with lots of damp old men and therefore "authentic" to the new generation of woke young urbanites.
Now White's has undergone some light cosmetic surgery by the master of licenced premises nip and tuck, Mark Beirne. He and his Clover Group partners have been on the acquisition trail of late, turning old dens like the Basement Bar into cute and flirty Margot, the former McCracken's Bar into the Jailhouse and Henry's, a favourite of in-a-hurry tourists after the full Irish experience pint of the black stuff at the bar, and now White's. Next into the operating theatre will be the Fountain Tavern in Fountain Lane (opening this week).
Some feared that White's might be destroyed. Beerbore.com, the blogger, said a couple of weeks ago: "White's' new owners vow to keep the 'charm' of the historic pub, by retaining a toilet roll holder, a door handle and the iconic Biffa bin, but everything else is going into a skip."
His fears were groundless, however, because the ancient pub hasn't just undergone some light touch changes, it has benefited from a heart transplant and now draws musicians and young people back into what was a dying Belfast institution. It is the epitome of quality Irish pub life.
Take the Guinness, for instance. Pulled low down beneath the counter to help shorten the journey from keg to pump, the pint in here is probably the best in the city. Seriously. The subtle burnt barley flavour missing from nearly every other pint I've had of late, the smoothness of the stout and lightness and long-lasting head; it's as if time had stood still at a moment back in the days in cities across Ireland when bar staff started pouring and lining up black pints to be ready for a few minutes after 5pm as drinkers popped in after work on their way home.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
There's a proper fireplace, a low bar and good seating. Upstairs in the Oyster Rooms the space celebrates the bare bricks and high ceilings of old. Up here there's a bar too, and Irish music and dancing and food. And the food is by none other than acclaimed chef Simon Toye, formerly of the parish of Michael Deane.
Carlingford oysters at £2 a pop are exquisitely fresh, firm and briny. They come already dressed in a vinaigrette which may not be the best idea if you're trying to enjoy a pint or a glass of Chablis at the same time so best to ask for the vinaigrette to be added on the side.
You can get them Kilpatrick style: baked and served with bacon and Worcestershire sauce.
A dish of steak tartare is beautifully balanced and subtle. It's a generous big burger-sized dollop accompanied by a piece of bread deep fried in dripping. Very Francirlandais.
A pair of soles for the advisor and me, sirloin for the daughter and pork belly for granny are all greeted with silent admiration. Food this good, in a pub this charming and atmospheric with service as slick and friendly, makes White's an absolute must-do. And with Christmas around the corner, there'll be plenty of nostalgia trips planned. Just don't go looking for toasties. Not yet, anyway.
Chowder x 2 £16
12 oysters £24
Beef tartare £9
Sole x 2 £30
Pork Belly £15
Apple crumble £6
Pint Guinness £4.60
Bottle Chablis £35.50