There was a period when I spent many hours in Bewley’s. It was our home from home, our refuge between lectures, the air thick with the aromas of damp vintage tweed and Rathmines bedsit mingled with cigarette smoke. Ah, those were the days.
I hated the milky coffee so always drank tea, and became adept at trimming the cakes and buns that were placed in the centre of each table as a matter of course. We never paid for any of them, even though they were significantly smaller at the end of our visits than at the start. (I wonder was it policy to turn a blind eye? Surely Tattens could not have been unaware of what we were up to?)
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I’m back for lunch on the ground floor for the first time since the café reopened in 2017 after a major €12m refurbishment under the guidance of architect Shane de Blacam. The place certainly looks well – the patina of nicotine cleaned off the Harry Clarke windows, the floor a smart terrazzo, the mahogany gleaming, the banquettes cosy, the original marble tables and bentwood chairs just right – but my first impression is that the menu reads all wrong.
By virtue of its long history and prime position on the busiest shopping street in the country, Bewley’s is a national institution, somewhere for which many locals hold a soft spot, as well as an establishment that’s on every tourist’s list of places to visit.
As such, it’s perfectly placed to be a showcase for excellent Irish food. I’d go further… it’s obliged to be just that. And on the basis of my recent visit, it’s failing miserably.
No one expects or wants Bewley’s to do anything other than keep dishing up the signature buns and cakes that many remember so fondly, and serve simple, tasty food with an Irish sensibility. Which brings me back to the lunch menu. It’s – literally – all over the place, featuring everything from crayfish linguine to chicken cassoulet to mozzarella and plum tomato bruschetta to new season (in July?) asparagus salad.
There’s a whole section of the menu devoted to ‘demi tartines’ (what’s wrong with ‘open sandwich’, I wonder?). This is one: ‘Spiced Irish Chicken Tartine: shredded chicken seasoned with chilli and spiced mayonnaise, served on turmeric-infused cornflour sourdough bread. Here’s another: Coronation Chickpea Tartine: chickpeas mixed with vegan mayonnaise, soya yoghurt, mango chutney and curry spices, topped with grated carrot and red cabbage on walnut and raisin sourdough bread. The tartines are in a display case by the counter and look as dispirited and confused as they sound.
I order a quiche Lorraine, which is not good. The pastry is stolid, the quiche so deep that all the bacon has sunk to the bottom, topped with a too-thick layer of pale egg custard. It’s made with Gruyère, which is a perfectly fine cheese – but why on earth not with an Irish cheese? It comes with a little container of adequate potato salad and a salad of past-their-prime, brown-spotted lettuce leaves, rocket, a single semi-sun-dried tomato and a few random chickpeas.
I give up on lunch when I spot a wriggling insect in the lettuce.
I can’t think of another capital city in the world where the most iconic (not a word I use lightly) café on the best-known street would squander an opportunity to make a proud statement about the food of the nation. And at a time when the quality of Irish food is on the rise, when it is ever more rare to get a bad meal in an Irish restaurant, to get a plate of food as poor as this is quite shocking.
My macchiato is good and the Mary cake (almond sponge, apricot centre, chocolate mousse) that I take away – the recipe came to Bewley’s via a refugee from Hungary employed after WWII – is as rich and delicious as I remember it. There is no charge for either the quiche or the cake, thanks to my little friend, but if there had been, my bill would have amounted to a hefty €25.80, including a carafe of sparkling water.
ON A BUDGET
A breakfast of organic porridge with Medjool dates, banana and honey will set you back €5.80. Add a cup of filter coffee for €3.70.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Lunch of soup, char-grilled vegetable salad with smoked chicken breast and blueberry cheesecake will cost €31.90pp before drinks.
THE HIGH POINT
THE LOW POINT
A missed opportunity to showcase great Irish ingredients.
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