Top of the food chain: Search on for Northern Ireland's best eateries
From quaint country pubs to Michelin-starred restaurants, search on for NI's hotspots
The search for Northern Ireland's top hospitality hotspots is well under way - from Michelin-starred restaurants to quaint country pubs.
And with more tourists than ever flocking to our shores, a panel of expert judges will be sampling everything from gastropubs to city centre nightclubs and hotels in a bid to find the best food and warmest welcome here.
Competition is intense in the Hospitality Ulster Top 100 Hospitality Businesses which shines a spotlight on the industry.
With nominations now closed the winners will be revealed at prestigious ceremony in Titanic Belfast in February with celebrity guests, including rugby star Brian O'Driscoll.
Co Antrim pub Mattie's Meeting House where home-cooked food, a roaring fire and traditional music are always on the menu, is one of those hoping to make the prestigious list.
Owned and run by Martha Davis, who acquired the historic premises seven years ago with her husband Alan Bryce, Mattie's is very much a rural pub.
Martha says: "I've been working here since I was 21. When the previous owner left and the opportunity arose, I took it. So I almost fell into pub ownership."
Mattie's is one of the area's oldest pubs dating back to the 1800s and the interior reflects its heritage with tables made from upcycled Singer sewing machines.
Martha says: "This is a traditional country pub. There are still marks on the bar where they once cut tobacco. It's unique because of its location and I don't know anywhere else quite like it."
Expect more than a dollop of craic at Mattie's, where visitors are invited to bring their musical instruments, gather round the log fire and join in with the locals. It's pet-friendly too, so there no need to leave your pooch at home.
While Martha is no stranger to pulling pints behind the bar she is, on occasion, hands on in the kitchen too: "If the chef is off or if I'm needed I work in the kitchen too. I really enjoy it."
The food at Mattie's is traditional and home-cooked: "Everything on the menu is made from scratch, nothing is frozen. We make our own lasagne and our steak and Guinness pie is a real favourite."
With traditional music nights a speciality, Martha says visitors have become part of the crowd at Mattie's. "We are busy throughout the year and when tourists pop in they often say it was the best night of their holiday because of the music. They also have the craic with the locals who make them feel so welcome."
Meanwhile, positive TripAdvisor reviews have brought people to the bustling pub from near and far. "We've always had people coming from Ballygally and nearby areas, but now more people are coming up from Belfast and further afield as well as the international tourists," adds Martha.
Another Top 100 hopeful is family-run pub The Old Thatch Inn in Castledawson, which is owned by Ryan McGrath but run by his cousin Anna-Marie McFerran (33).
Ryan, who is also head chef, bought the 19th century premises three years ago and has created a menu which mixes traditional dishes made using local produce with old favourites. Meanwhile, local craft beers, ciders, gins and whiskeys add a sophisticated feel to a well-stocked bar.
Anna-Marie says the pub's location just five minutes away from Seamus Heaney's home place in Bellaghy, has enabled them to forge a special relationship with the centre, stocking home-made Heaney beer, in homage to the late, great poet.
"Seamus Heaney's granddaughter opened the brewery in Bellaghy which was the original home farm," says Anna-Marie.
And with plans to relocate the brewery to Belfast in some months, the popularity of the tipple continues to grow.
Anna-Marie says rustic food with a modern twist is on offer here with garlic ciabatta with chicken and pepper sauce an Old Thatch Inn lunch menu favourite.
"We don't serve fancy food," she says. "It's all traditional, home-cooked, freshly made and really tasty. Beef, chicken and fish are the staples."
Ryan's dad Tommy works here too and his 40 years' experience in maintenance is evident in the immaculate building.
As well as popping in for a pint and some of the tastiest pub grub, The Old Thatch Inn regularly hosts events in its function room. Anna-Marie, who has 14 years' experience in the hospitality trade, says: "We can accommodate 85 people for an event and have held everything from weddings and birthday parties to uncle Tommy's angling club dinner here."
With its old Irish interior feel The Old Thatch Inn also has live entertainment from traditional music to bands.
Meanwhile, the owner of Lurgan village pub the Corner House Bar, Trevor McCann says: "The pub really is the heart of the village."
Trevor and his wife Roisin bought the premises five years ago, refurbishing the bar and lounge as well as creating a function room and they have more development plans ahead.
The McCann family are well-known pub-owners in the area, so Trevor has a long experience of working in the Cellar Bar.
"I moved from the family pub in the town centre when we bought Corner House Bar," he says. "While it's the same business, a village pub is the hub of the community so it's quite different.
"We serve food from noon until 9pm and it's all really good, locally-sourced produce," he adds.
Trevor explains partnerships with local butchers and other food suppliers mean customers can expect tasty, fresh food here.
"A village pub is part of the social life of the people and I'm so proud of what we offer here," he says. "Good food is so important here and the pub is used by people in all aspects and occasions in their lives - from meeting friends for coffee and lunch, dinner dates up to small weddings."
Trevor stresses the importance of having a local network of suppliers which provides important jobs for the local community. "It's a really nice feeling to know our business is creating employment. Local people care about their community."
The 2019 Hospitality Ulster awards entries have been judged by a panel of industry experts, including Sunday Life Pub Life columnist Edwin McFee, Belfast Telegraph food critic Joris Minne, celebrity chef Paula McIntyre, food writer Allison Morris and Ulster Business editor John Mulgrew.
Joris said: "The quality of nominations for The Top 100 Hospitality Businesses 2019 was exceptionally high across the board. We deliberated long and hard over this year's winners and were forced to make some extremely tough decisions.
"It is testament to Northern Ireland's hospitality industry as a whole that these awards were some of the most difficult I have ever judged."
The awards will recognise businesses which, through their premises, staff and product offering, encompass the very essences of Northern Ireland's unique hospitality industry in five categories: rural pub, urban pub, city pub, licensed restaurant and hotel.
To find last year's winners of the Top 100 Hospitality Businesses, visit www.hospitalityulster.org/top-100-map
This year's winners will be announced at a gala night on February 27 at Titanic Belfast. For tickets and further info contact Anne at Event-Ful on 9043 4320 or firstname.lastname@example.org.