The poet T.S.Eliot wrote “I can smell fear in a handful of dust”. I know what he meant. Spending three years of my life scratching a living as a restaurateur has given me a nose like a mass spectrometer when it comes to anxiety. It doesn’t take perusal of a balance sheet to tell me when the proprietor and staff of a restaurant are running scared. I can smell fear in a plateful of Puy lentils or in the time it takes to say “Good evening, sir and madam”.
There is a lot of hot air inflating the hospitality balloon at the minute. People who should know better are talking up the number of new restaurant openings as a sign that the dining economy is healthy as taking exercise. What these same people are forgetting is that approximately the same number of restaurants have closed as have opened. It is also apparent that these same new developments are, by and large, springing up only in certain geographical locations and particular dining formats. There’s no doubt that, at the minute, central Dublin is flying. Whereas down the country and in the suburbs the spending of those who like to dine out has been drastically curtailed and restaurants have suffered accordingly. I’d cite Cork city, for so long a source of pride among gastronomes, it now struggles to sustain a nap hand of restaurants worthy of patronisation.
When it comes to a successful format, all the evidence is that novelty and sociability win hands down over the the food offering. This has been brought about by the shift in spending power. Dining out is now a social event, to be accompanied by cocktails, strident music and unremitting jollity. Well set up forty-somethings and expense account funded business dining is no longer where it’s at. It’s the twenty and thirty-somethings, unencumbered by mortgages and school feels and many of them living at home who have the discretionary income and who have lustily embraced the zeitgeist. The likes of Bear, 777 and Damson Diner have caught the vibe perfectly. As has Fade Street Social, though it will take both imagination and energy to keep a venue of that size at the hub of the Dubliner’s craving for novelty.
But what of the other side of the coin? Those restaurants, often family run and intimate, that have not embraced the trendy and ephemeral? Well, they are finding things hard. Twice in the last month Sibella and I dined out in establishments of this ilk where the sense of gloom is palpable the minute you enter the premises. This usually transmutes into an excessive sociability on the part of front of house staff as the evening proceeds. Waiters come to your table frequently to enquire whether you are having a good time. And to learn things about you. It’s as if knowing the names of your children will secure regular patronage.
Both these restaurants were located in basements and it’s a dining out cliché that’s become a truism that we (the dining public) do not like basements. This is, frankly, stupid and we really ought to become a bit more grown up. In London, in Paris, in Stockholm, in L.A. many significant restaurants are located in basements, many are flying.
At The Blackboard Bistro, opposite the National Galley extension in Clare Street and a few minutes walk from Pearse station, the food was as good as any restaurant I’ve eaten at in the last six months. Simple, classical French cooking from a capable and caring chef-patron, Pierre Heyraud. At €32 for three courses the set menu, offering restricted but interesting choices, represented extremely good value for money. My duck oozed flavour and Sibs’ hake glistened, the spiced up roast red pepper and coconut milk coulis, an intriguing accompaniment. The pommes sarladaise, which I took as alternative to the baby new potatoes were excellent and I reprised them at home the very next night. My panna cotta was suitably quivery. The compact wine list (entirely French and why not?) has been put together by someone who understands and cares about wine. The wines on the list come from three or four specialists whom, as a wine critic, I’d regard as experts in their field. Here again, value is exemplary, many of the bottles are listed at slightly less than twice retail – amazing value when you consider 2.5 or 3 times is the norm. Proper, fine wineglasses are provided. The service, from a young guy trained under the sharp eyes of Aidan and Joan McManus at Howth’s King Sitric was, while manifesting aspects of the nervousness mentioned earlier, knowledgeable and efficient. To anyone serious about their food and wine I’d recommend the place unreservedly. No, on second thoughts I wouldn’t – I’d can the cheesy muzak for something more nostalgic or more thought-provoking.
Sibella’s reservations largely concerned décor. Plum, apparently, is passé; what’s more it’s sombre, whereas paler hued walls would help alleviate that “I’ve just crossed the river Styx” mood brought on by subterranean dining. The ‘Christmas party in a bordello’ light shades will have to go (even I could see that). What would really make the place, she opined, would be crisp tablecloths. I gave her my lecture on the economics of linen laundering but she stuck to her guns. Her parting shot was “It wouldn’t take much investment to make the ambience warmer and more intimate. But it does need an outsider’s view.”
It doesn’t end there. I wondered, albeit fleetingly, if greater use could be made of the long bar counter, maybe there’s potential for the sale of a Sex in the Basement or a South Side Swingaling with a taster plate? Restaurants, however worthy, however sound, still need to promote and occasionally reinvent themselves. Here, in case anyone should get the impression that I’m recommending Blackboard Bistro turns itself into a jolly Parisian pastiche like Chez Max, I’m not. Restaurants are always better when they have their own personality rather than borrow someone else’s. It is, however, worth them keeping a sharp eye on what’s out there in case there’s a trick they’ve missed.
Maybe, hopefully soon, small, intimate, family-owned and run places will come into their own again.Trends are trends and are not cast in concrete. The current lemming-like rush toward the trendy and ephemeral could become as outré as the carvery.
The Blackboard Bistro, 4 Clare Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 676 6839