Eoin Higgins takes a look at the future of Irish restaurants, in a post-pandemic world, and asks will the golden age we've experienced over the past decade ever be seen again?
We were once known for having no cuisine at all. Boiled potatoes. Soda bread. Colcannon, if you were being generous. In the past ten years, however, Irish food has come a long way, although its improvement had been simmering along nicely for far longer than that.
We’ve experienced a golden age of the Irish restaurant over the past decade. With almost every new opening in more recent years, there seemed to be a further raising of the collective culinary bar.
Punters rushed, competitively, to eat at the hottest new spots. Up-to-the-minute food blogs and social media accounts were followed slavishly, as were zealous critics in print.
Last year, a wine bar with its own Instagram teaser video opened up in a car park, we acquired two new two-star Michelin restaurants, and Jamie Oliver, somewhat cheekily (if not arrogantly, as some remarked) was touted as being involved in the opening of a new restaurant in Dublin 2 that would "celebrate Irish food" ...
That was then
Since the implementation of the lockdown, we have seen a 100 per cent reduction in the numbers of people eating out.
Stalwarts and have-a-go food writers have retreated back to their domestic kitchens, with only the memories of past repasts to sustain them.
Wait staff have retired to pace impatiently through the rooms of their own homes, desperately trying to recall orders.
Some restaurants have tried valiantly to adapt. Well-known names such as Liath, Cliff Townhouse, The Woollen Mills, Allta, Slice, Sprezzatura, Nightmarket, Coppinger Row, Featherblade, Hang Dai, Mister S, among many others, are now offering either a delivery or pick-up service.
There have been varying degrees of success. Some of those early adapters seem to be doing quite well, however, a restaurant not working at full capacity is not necessarily sustainable in the long term.
Elaine Murphy is a director at Dublin's Winding Stair Group, a small restaurant holding that specialises in restaurants that serve select Irish produce, first and foremost.
“We have already started offering take-out in three of our places: The Washerwoman, The Woollen Mills and The Yarn," reveals Murphy, “and are busy planning and number crunching for the full opening ... however, the burn rate for restaurants staying closed is huge.
“Fixed costs remain very high and, even without this crisis, the sector was facing huge challenges this year with the [increased] VAT rate being a major factor. Despite what people may think, the margins for restaurants are extremely tight and January/February are already challenging months, so to lurch straight into this has been disastrous.”
Restaurateurs are looking for urgent government help if they are to survive. There have been calls for a zero per cent VAT rate and a rebate for last year, as well as individual calls for loan and rent breaks throughout the sector. The Restaurant Association of Ireland has issued dire forecasts for a part of the economy that accounts for a lot more than the bums it puts on seats.
The knock-on affect to suppliers, wholesalers, wine merchants, farmers – not to mention the damage done to the prestige a globally-recognised restaurant scene has brought to our tourism offering, can’t be understated.
Even when restaurants do open back up, social distancing restrictions mean that it still won’t be business as usual. Honor Byrne, commercial director with the Cliff group, comprising the Cliff House Hotel, Cliff at Lyons where the two-star Aimsir restaurant is located, and Cliff Townhouse, a seafood restaurant in Dublin is slightly more optimistic, however.
“Social distancing will be difficult but across our three properties, we are lucky to have plenty of space. The high Georgian ceilings and giant doors in Cliff Townhouse, the rural setting of Cliff at Lyons and AIMSIR, and the open, oceanside terraces of Cliff House Hotel make it easier for us to offer distancing.
“Along with a widespread change of procedures and implementing new technology, we believe we can return to welcoming our guests as soon as the government deems it safe to do so.”
Meanwhile, our favourite places to eat will still face huge challenges if capacities are reduced by half, or more as has been suggested, while their operating costs remain unchanged. Refitting a space to accommodate semi-quarantined customers costs money, and for some, running what was already a business with very tight margins at less than full occupancy may prove impossible.
We are entering a new evolutionary stage of dining out. The larger restaurant groups with more than five, or six outlets may survive but there will likely be many independent and smaller group casualties. That’s bad news for those of us who have fallen in love with the facets of the restaurant scene that were so skillfully driven – and passionately brought to life – by independent, and small-scale, operators.
It will be a great shame if the mavericks and experimenters, the ones who do it simply for the love of doing it, fall by the wayside while sprawling corporate groups, some of whom had been gobbling up suitable premises and a monopolistic piece of the pie, particularly in Dublin, become ever more deeply entrenched.
There is no progress, or fun, in homogeneity.
There is hope, however, and it lies with a collective supporting of the independents who innovated, experimented, and literally dreamed up the thriving scene in the first place. The creative men and women who took a chance to open somewhere that wasn’t just a money-making machine, those who were driven by passion and a firm belief that Ireland could indeed be a world-class food destination, they all need our continued support if they are to make it.
And many need that support right now and will again as they slowly open back up, which means, as punters, it’s in our own best interest to keep supporting those independent restaurants who are already making a stab at operating in this brave new world.
Already, there are surprisingly many to choose from, and what better way to help than by indulging in one of life’s greatest pleasures? So place your order and raise a glass to the great Irish restaurant, so we can continue doing just that.
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