When I first sat down with Eddie Fung in 2010 the owner of Zen restaurant admitted that the world was changing. Quality food at a reasonable price were the buzzwords… Out of ten people asked, only one or two could afford to eat in his well-regarded sushi restaurant Zen for lunch.
It used to be that Italian restaurants only needed to tick a handful of boxes to survive in Belfast. Freezer, tick. Crap, store-bought lasagna, tick. Mediocre pizza, tick.
Every year there’s an outcry from some about the Belfast Continental Market. Like a pantomime villain it raises its head outside City Hall to boos and hisses because it’s full of, well, continental-ness (were such a word to exist).
You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why… Santa Claus is coming to town… and shopping centre… and street corner and, heck, anywhere he can squeeze his sizeable belly into. If like this festive-fatigued parent, the roar of Santa appearing in every nook and cranny fills you with dread, then fear not, I’m here to tell you which ones are on the good list.
Down in the Cathedral Quarter there’s a sense that the area is growing into its potential. There are great bars like the Duke of York and the Harp Bar and there’s also high end dining like the Merchant Hotel but what the area lacked was a more casual, laid-back restaurant.
It may not be original, but brothers Daniel and Martin Courtney’s entry into the Belfast restaurant scene at least brings some theatre to dinnertime. The pair, whose restaurant Stix and Stones officially opened in May 2014, have a heavy focus on the customer cooking their own dinner on a hot stone. It’s gimmicky and had McHugh’s not been doing it for many years in Belfast already, it’d probably have got them a lot more publicity than it did. “It’s not a new idea – Botanic Inns were doing it years ago and I’ve seen it in Portugal and lots of other places,” chef Martin Courtney told me.
Aside from the fact that eating out fulfils the one basic human need that everyone has in common – the need to fuel our bodies - eating out is about enjoying good company and good food. However, I occasionally eat out for another reason and that is to be entertained. If entertainment is what you’re after, here are two quirky restaurants in Belfast that will intrigue and excite you.
With a deluge of bars in Belfast having built up an astounding collection of the spirit, we’re in the midst of great times for whiskey drinkers.
In early 2012 chef Will Brown came back home from several years working in kitchens across London. Having started work at Marco Pierre White’s Mirabelle restaurant aged just 17, the Northern Irish chef also worked in the Glasshouse and the two-Michelin starred The Square.
Every good city deserves a good deli and in Belfast we’re blessed with two. Given that Northern Ireland is having somewhat of a renaissance period with some superb local producers popping up over the past few years, it’s great to see local delis promoting them. Producers like Abernethy Butter whose creamy butter can be found, not just in local arti
Like an old pair of socks that should have been discarded a long time ago, most people stick to their old favourites when it comes to a takeaway. Whether it’s the Friday night chippy, pizza or an oriental takeaway, most people don’t deviate past the same phone number they used the last time they made a ravenous phone call.
I’ve eaten some major oddities in my time. Here are two of the weirdest things you'll find to eat in Belfast...
When I think of the bar at the Merchant Hotel it conjures up two words – pride and glory. The latter, well that’s self explanatory and the former is based on the gratification that a small bar in Belfast could have been voted the World’s Best Hotel Bar*. At the time, the bar was under the stewardship of Sean Muldoon, who, alongside fellow Merchant
Paul Rankin has changed the face of the culinary scene in Belfast. I asked him about his favourite 3 places for eating out in the city.
James Street South was voted best restaurant in Antrim in the Restaurant Association of Ireland awards for a reason - because it’s stonkingly good.
Celebrate good times, come on. Cool and the Gang had the right idea - celebrate and then celebrate 31 more times (well that’s how many utterances of the word is sang in that catchy tune*).
A smile tells much more than any review ever could. Sit in the corner of Ox, a restaurant that opened in early 2013, and you’ll see it happening everywhere and not just because Belfast is the ‘happiest city in the UK’.* It’s hard not to smile when dishes that are astounding in every way keep coming out of the kitchen. Whether it’s the elegant plating up that makes every dish look like it could sit in the Ulster Museum or the lightness of touch from owner and chef Stephen Toman, Ox brings pleasure with each look and bite. It’s high-end food but with a measure of casualness in the dining room that’s testament to the restaurant’s other owner and manager Alain Kerloc’h.
There’s little interest in Northern Ireland when it comes to Michelin. It’s now been three print-runs of the book since there was a restaurant from these shores with a star next to its name. It’s probably a fair reflection of Belfast and the North as a whole when you see nil points on the board. It’s also an indication of dining trends here that the Michelin Bib Gourmand category saw two new entries here. Gaining a Bib means a restaurant serves good cuisine at a reasonable price and that is where Belfast dining is at.
Chicken wings are the ultimate comfort food. They can be simple, zingy, sweet or even make your mouth feel like it has just visited the furthest, hottest depths of hell. A good wing needs only three things – to have come from a quality bird, to have the right texture and to be smothered in a sauce that is delicious but not so in your face that you can’t taste the chicken. Sounds simple, right? But the simple things are often the hardest to get right. And whilst Belfast has an abundance of places that serve frozen wings, mediocre wings and downright awful ones, there are some places doing a great job.
It seems hard to believe that it took the Belfast food industry so long to realise what most regular patrons already knew – the city needs to up its game when it comes to all day dining. In particular, when it comes to breakfast. We’re famed for the Ulster Fry, but there are few places that serve up a decent adaptation and even fewer serving it in decent surroundings.
There’s something magnificent about the humble burger. Maybe it’s the ability for it to be a deeply personal experience or the fact that it’s just a primeval urge for a big lump of meat - who knows? It just works whether you like it kitted out with all the foodie mod cons or just a simple burger with lettuce, tomato and cheese. Who doesn’t love a good burger?
There’s something about the interior of Little Wing Pizzeria that always reminds me of the past. Standing in the Lisburn Road branch, I can’t help but be transported back in time to old school places like Forte’s in Castle Street where my dad used to take me for a burger and milkshake.