Our life on a plate: The rise of the great Belfast restaurant
As NI’s capital prepares for a four-day celebration of great food, Weekend magazine restaurant critic Joris Minne charts how it has reinvented itself as a culinary hot-spot
When is a city not a city? The current definition of a city, according to foodies, should be based on whether or not you can go out for a quality brunch on a Sunday morning (there are lots of places where you’ll get a decent fry but I’m talking about dimsum, eggs Benedict, steak and cheese melts and the like).
You can always find a good restaurant open on a Sunday morning in Division One capital cities like Edinburgh, London and Dublin. Belfast’s hard working top chefs, however, are still in church or in the scratcher on Sunday mornings.
But never mind this gaping hole in Belfast’s otherwise comprehensive tourism offer because the city is hosting a four-day food festival this week featuring big time celebrity cooks and commentators like James Martin from Saturday Kitchen, King of the Jungle Gino D’Acampo and Sheila Dillon from Radio 4’s Food Programme.
Frankly, no other similarly sized city in the UK or Ireland boasts quite the same sparkling range of restaurants, home bakeries, cafes, bistros, gastro-pubs and lunch counters, so it’s right and proper that Belfast should be the hub of all culinary matters for these four days .
Most of Belfast's eating places are good quality providing not just simple sustenance, but joy, moments of culinary perfection, a bit of craic and value for money. The capital currently has more than 430 restaurants and take-aways.
With the quality has come variety. You will find anything from Japanese Sushi to Irish Stew in Belfast these days, but it was not always thus.
There was a long period of darkness before Belfast’s Food Big Bang which happened at lunch time on December 6 1989.
On that day a young optimist who was handy with a pan called Nick Price lifted the shutters to a brand new restaurant at 35 Hill Street in an old brick warehouse surrounded by endless acres of urban decay and dereliction.
Nick’s Warehouse would quickly acquire a reputation for excellence. Three months ago it celebrated its 20th birthday and today it is four times bigger than it was when it first opened. People in Belfast love their food and Price was the first one to tap into the adventurous spirit he reckoned existed beneath the veneer of conservative tastes, the conventional meat and two veg approach of Ulster diners.
But he could never have foreseen the tidal wave of interest in food which would grow in the next two decades. His timing was perfect and the wider growth of interest in eating and food in general served him and the second disciple Paul Rankin who opened the legendary Roscoff a few weeks later, very well indeed.
Before Price and Rankin, some valiant attempts had been made by one or two Italians to introduce the city to an alternative dining experience which didn’t rely on a choice of three potatoes or steak. In the eighties there was Ciro and his Gt Victoria Street restaurant. The Ferrari parked outside the restaurant was a sure sign that Ciro was in and this was a guarantee not only of decent grub but of volatility, lots of shouting and some broken crockery. Old regulars still talk of Ciro, some fondly.
Frenchman Jean Pierre Delbarre was a villainous cartoon character whose range of interests was broad and included antiques, old fireplaces and accountancy. He also loved food and opened the Belle Epoque and Froggities which were hugely popular (the Belle Epoque had the best allumette chips outside Marseille).
But any food historian will identify Rankin and Price as Rongo’s representatives on Earth (Rongo was the ancient Maori God of Cultivated Food). They were the genesis of good restaurant eating in not just Belfast but in Northern Ireland. They would go on to spawn a generation of good chefs who would come of age some 10 or so years later.
The broad acceptance by the Northern Ireland public that eating out should be fun and exciting and that the ingredients and produce should be top quality and that the food should be well prepared and served is thanks to a combination of consistent TV programmes and newspaper columns focusing on all the aspects of food and good experiences in a range of restaurants.
The respect for food and the business and politics of food have grown tremendously in a country which only 160 years ago was emerging from the devastation of the Great Famine. The ambivalence shown towards food by subsequent generations in Ireland is a fascinating display of distrust or disinterest, as if the production and preparation of food are features of life to be avoided. For too long food was a subject which meant misery.
Put it this way, would you seek out an Ethiopian restaurant knowing the horrors the country has gone through because of drought and starvation? (I was invited to an Ethiopian restaurant the same year as Live Aid when I was living in Washington DC and just couldn’t reconcile the two conflicting images of starvation and eating an Ethiopian wat stew on injera bread).
Yet here we are, the Irish famine long forgotten, a sophisticated and developed country once more with a love for food and a desire to make up for our lack of any substantial culinary heritage.
Thanks to the arrival of new foreign chefs and the emergence of our own new post-Rankin/Price generation of kitchen geniuses we not only know the meaning of French terms like julienne, pave and darne but we are also getting a good bit more adventurous, knowledgeable and experimental with our cooking at home. Look at the proliferation of foreign produce shops and supermarket shelves packed with eastern European, Asian and Latin American goodies.
And with knowledge comes conflict. John Copeland, owner of Long’s Fish and Chips would love to use local produce but imports English Maris Piper potatoes because the Irish ones are too moist for the chips. For him the food on the plate takes priority over provenance. He has a point. Why eat second rate food just because it’s environmentally more acceptable? There are no right answers, of course, but it’s a fair indication of how far we have come in the eating industry that we would be exercised by such a topic.
Yet there are still too many diners who accept low standards and pay good money for rubbish food. I ate poorly and expensively in Belfast, Omagh, Toomebridge and Newcastle in recent weeks. I have also eaten excellent food very cheaply in Newry, Armagh and Carryduff. How can this be? If you were buying clothes in George at ASDA or Victoria Square, you’d be right to expect the kind of quality which is measured by value for money. Yet the concept is hard to apply in the restaurant sector because too many chancers are allowed to get away with it. They are allowed to because too many of us still don’t like to or don’t want to make a fuss.
Food is too important not to make a fuss. It covers the whole of the human experience — it keeps you alive, it provides the focus for successful and important social occasions, it helps your children grow big and strong and it employs more than 18,500 people in Northern Ireland alone.
In general, Belfast and Northern Ireland are blessed with an abundance of good restaurants and food suppliers. All we need now is one or two of them to open for business on a Sunday morning so we can call ourselves a proper city.
CELEBRATING THE BEST OF LOCAL TREATS
The Great Belfast Food Week is a four-day festival running from Wednesday until Saturday that celebrates the best of Northern Ireland’s food and produce. Highlights include:
- Belfast Kitchen, Ulster Museum, Wednesday, 9.30am-noon, with top chefs James Martin, Nick Price, Paul Rankin and Jason More
- Gino cooks the Great Belfast Menu, Connswater Shopping Centre, Thursday, 12.30pm- 1.30pm, Victoria Square from 7pm. I’m A Celebrity ... winner Gino d’Acampo tests out some less wriggly ingredients
- Sheila Dillon with Nick Price — a presentation on The Slow Food Movement, Baby Grand, Grand Opera House, Friday, 2.30pm - 5pm. Tickets: £10 book online or tel: 028 9024 6609
- Belfast Bred — a tour of the city’s cuisine from past to present, Belfast restaurants, Saturday, 10am - noon. Tickets: £15 available from the Belfast Welcome Centre
- St George’s Chocolate Festival with Sheila Dillon, St George’s Market, Saturday, noon-3pm.
For more information tel: 9024 6609 or visit