Stick to the liquor: We review the food at the Crown
The Crown is a real Belfast institution and a smashing pub. Just don't order the Irish stew
Belfast has not yet established itself as a serious tourist destination. It's getting there slowly, but it hasn't anchored itself as a Barcelona, Amsterdam or Dublin.
This is partly because the international perception of Northern Ireland remains blurred - friendly but racist, environmentally sound but recycling-averse, cultured yet narrow minded.
Our political leaders aren't helping by capturing headlines across the world for all the wrong reasons (we should sue them for misrepresenting us).
Which means tourism chiefs still face a major challenge and that the ground-up efforts of the now-threatened cultural communities who have created wonders ranging from the Out to Lunch Festival to the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens are more critical than ever to help build our reputation once and for all as a destination worth visiting and investing in.
Of the major assets which Belfast can boast - a stable of fabulous restaurants whose variety and choice of price points is staggering, an enviable arts infrastructure including The Mac, Ulster Hall, Ulster Museum and the Lyric (not forgetting the Crescent, the Central Library, the City Hall and many more) and a good retail offer - nothing is so repeatedly singled out more as the key attraction than our citizenry which enjoys a laugh and knows how to be hospitable to complete strangers.
Few destinations can say they rely almost entirely on the friendliness of their people, something which I always thought made us sound a bit moronic and cretinous.
So God help the visiting wanderer who stumbles into the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast, guide book in one hand and enough money in the other for a pint.
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As long as that's all he's got, he's safe enough, because the Crown is a fabulous pub and the National Trust has done a brilliant job in maintaining and preserving it as a commercially successful cultural asset.
But if that visitor is thinking the Crown looks like a good spot to eat, then the trouble starts. That's because the Crown is the worst place in Belfast in which to eat. I have been a number of times since reviewing it three years ago and noticed changes in the menu but little by way of quality.
There is Irish Stew on the menu once more and staff assure me that it's made in-house. They also admit that most of the rest of the stuff is trucked-in, pre-packed meals which go in the microwave.
I ordered the Irish Stew at the bar for lunch (there is a restaurant upstairs with waiter service) and, as I waited, I listened to the American ordering food for a large party. Almost half of the order was off today.
The bar staff this lunchtime is friendly enough, but the Crown was never about charm. It was always a bit rough and not for the faint-hearted and some of its attraction was this distilled essence of Belfast: tough, unimpressed, razor-witted and ultimately kind.
The stew arrives cold and the server quickly responds to a request to have it heated up. It comes back hotter, but there are no flavours.
There is no seasoning, the carrots, potatoes and something else which might be turnip are all the same - you can't tell them apart. Also, the meat is beef. Proper Irish stew is made with lamb.
After the last review, the chief of Nicholson's Pubs, a branch of the Birmingham-based catering giant Mitchells & Butler, contacted the Editor to say things would change. The menu has changed, but the quality remains woeful.
This is not just a shame, but a serious hindrance. The National Trust has done its best to give us one of the world's most historic pubs. But the importance of the asset is seriously undermined by the embarrassingly awful food.
This is a place visitors constantly ask to see and visit. First-timers to Belfast are taken to the Crown. Frankly, I think Nicholson's are taking the mick because they know no matter what effluent they put on the plate, people will still come.
My advice (and I mean this with the conviction of a preacher on Judgement Day) is go for a drink before or after your meal, but whatever you do, don't eat in the Crown Bar.