Belfast Telegraph

Pub of the Year Awards 2015: Our Claire is the rail deal

Railway Arms are punters onto a winner and reigning champ has a special regular to thank for it.

By Ivan Little

She’s the best bar none and Clare Johnston has been singing the praises of Barry White on his return to her pub in Coleraine this weekend.

No, not that Barry White. The American soul star died a long time ago.

This Barry White is very much alive and well and helped Clare put her Railway Arms bar on the fast-track to success when she was crowned Northern Ireland’s Bar Person of the Year at last year’s pub awards in association with Sunday Life.

For it was Coleraine man Barry, who now lives in England, who entered her for the award which she won last year after her friend nominated her in a letter to Sunday Life.

As we launch a new search for 2015’s Hospitality Ulster Bar Person of the Year Clare told me: “It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to the bar. It put us on the map and brought in new customers. It’s also been a major boost for all our staff and it’s keeping us all on our toes because prestigious awards give everyone something for aim for.

“And it’s been important for me to keep on stressing that the award which came my way wasn’t just for me. It was recognition for all the work that everyone does in the bar which is still buzzing months after the award was presented.”

Barry White was back on a visit to Coleraine this weekend from his home in England.

And he managed to bring a touch of humour to the pub and its newly re-decorated beer garden which now has a series of colourful murals of famous lagers and stouts on the walls.

Clare said: “Barry insisted that he wanted to have a pint of Guinness in our new-look beer garden and smoking area because he was jealous of people who were using it. But Barry doesn’t smoke. So he bought himself a packet of sweetie cigarettes. He sent me a picture of them and he vowed to open them in the no-smoking area. How a pint of Guinness went down with candy sticks, I am not sure.

“But I am really indebted to him for entering my name last time around.”

Barry, who is a prolific blogger, celebrated Clare’s success online.

He posted a picture of Clare with her award whom he described as Northern Ireland’s greatest living bar person and said, “Good things happen to good bar people”.

He added: “Those of us who know the Queen of the Railway Arms understand how deserving she is.”

After receiving her award at a glittering black-tie affair at La Mon Hotel and Country Club in Novemer, Clare was on the phone within seconds to her parents Hugh and May Johnston to share her good news about the coveted accolade.

They have owned the bar, which many people in Coleraine know as Johnstons, for four decades but Clare, a former nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital, has been running it for nearly 14 years, even though she planned to stay in the driving seat of the Railway for only twelve months.

But she couldn’t get off the train.

She said: “I really love the bar and the people who come in here. We have a fantastic clientele.”

Happily, Clare’s award wasn’t the only one to come her way in the last year.

The BOOM Foundation, which she supports with a passion, became the charity of the year for Sainsbury in Coleraine. “That was a wonderful boost for all concerned,” added Clare.

The charity was set up in memory of Clare’s friend Philip Wilson who died from cancer only weeks before he was due to be married to his fiancée Leona Rankin.

Turning to her pub business, Clare, who is also an official in the local Cancer Focus group and has run six marathons for charity, said she believed the pub trade in Northern Ireland was becoming more and more difficult.

She said: “There’s definitely not the same money about. People think more now about what they’re spending and where they’re spending it.

“For bars like ours, it means offering more to attract customers. It’s not just about our regulars coming in for a pint. It’s crucial to have the pub looking clean and tidy and having a good, friendly and attentive staff.

“Things like the choice of music are extremely important too. Sometimes I have one man and his guitar. On other nights I will have a band because everyone loves a wee boogie.

“I have one customer of a certain age who doesn’t think he’s had a good night out if a woman doesn’t get him up for a dance!”

Clare is excited by the new format of the Hospitality Ulster pub awards which have been expanded to include 14 gongs including three for the best bars in urban, city and rural environments.

“We made the shortlist for the Pub of the Year last year which was great. And I would encourage every bar owner or manager to get involved.

“And besides the satisfaction of winning an award last time out, we also had great craic on the big night at La Mon.”

Nominate your best bar person

Hospitality Ulster has teamed up with Sunday Life for the Best Bar Person of the Year Award in this year’s Pub of the Year Awards.

We want you to nominate that special pint puller or cocktail shaker who is always willing to go that extra mile for the recognition they deserve.

Send your nominations for this year’s Bar Person category to and tell us a little bit about why you think they deserve to win.

The finalists will be featured in Sunday Life each week in the run up to the awards ceremony in November.

Closing date for entries for Hospitality Ulster’s Pub of the Year Awards 2015 is Tuesday, September 15.

The winners of the 14 awards will be revealed at a prestigious Gala Dinner on Wednesday, November 11 at the La Mon Hotel and Country Club, near Belfast.

- Pub of the Year: Rural, Urban & City

- Commitment to Local Food (in partnership with Food NI/Taste of Ulster): Pub, Hotel & Restaurant

- Best Hotel Bar: 1*, 2* & 3* and 4* & 5* 

- Commitment to the Community: Pub, Hotel & Restaurant

- Best Bar Person (in partnership with Sunday Life)

- Hospitality Ulster’s Rising Star (in partnership with Ulster University)

- Industry Legend (in partnership with Hospitality Review)

- Entries, except Bar Person which is sent direct to us, can be submitted at

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