We were enjoying afternoon tea at The Westbury Dublin, a grand hotel fresh off a multi-million-euro renovation. There was no despair here; the place was buzzing. The open and spacious Gallery, where our tea was being served, was nearly full: elderly ladies nibbled tea sandwiches, young couples sipped champagne, professional worker bees consulted their computers while downing heady pints. There were families with babies and shoppers with bags. Across the corridor, The Sidecar, the hotel’s new Art Deco-style bar, is a modern take on a vintage cocktail bar (think: 1950s NYC cocktail hangout), and was standing room only. We took a quick glance outside, and despite the rain — surprise, it was raining in Dublin! — the streets were bustling with people scurrying in and out of shops and restaurants.
Apparently, things have gotten a lot better for Dubliners, who suffered massively during the 2008 financial crisis. Post-recession Dublin is now booming. “Today, Dublin is on the upswing, and our young people, who left in masses during the recession, have picked up skills and ideas elsewhere and come home,” Campbell said. “Our world of black and gray is now filled with color.”
Maybe it’s the influx of young energy (the city has been dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe). Maybe it’s the friendly locals (named one of the top 10 friendliest cities in the world). Maybe it’s the fast-emerging culinary scene (young chefs spotlighting creativity and showcasing Irish ingredients). Maybe it’s all that and more (history, art, culture, green spaces, beer) luring visitors to Ireland’s capital city. Once thought of as boring, traditional, dark and gray, newly energized Dublin is on the upswing. International tourism leaped 15 percent last year, and visitor numbers this year are already outpacing 2017.
We grabbed our brollies and stepped out the doors of The Westbury to explore Dublin’s new “Creative Quarter.” The hotel is just off the pedestrian-only Grafton Street, lined with expensive, high-end designer stores, most of which you can find in any big city. Instead we roamed the nearby side streets, discovering one-of-a-kind boutiques, like the ShoeLAB at Buffalo, with niche shoe brands; Maven, a friendly elegant boutique with unique styles by emerging Irish designers, and Designest, with a smart and clever collection of gifts and housewares. The Design House on Dawson Street, home to more than 50 Irish fashion designers, along with 60 craft designers and 16 artists, was a beehive of activity and creativity, with men’s and women’s clothing, accessories and household items at a range of price points.
On our way back to the hotel we popped into Powerscourt Centre, a grand Georgian-style mansion housing more than 40 shops and restaurants, including Covet (you don’t buy anything here, you borrow it) and Article, with a nice selection of unique homewares (pick up a beautiful Irish woolen throw or ostrich feather duster.)
We usually avoid eating in hotel dining rooms (assumption: boring, mediocre, overpriced). But Wilde, The Westbury’s handsome fine dining venue, was getting top reviews, so we made reservations for that evening. Our assumptions were shattered; the meal was memorable, the service whip-smart. We dined on salty Carlingford Lough rock oysters with a cucumber and caviar, flaky tempura softshell crab, grilled Irish lamb cutlets and linguini with Castletownbere scallops and Palourde clams, before our last tipple of the night, a mellow, musky, rich 12-year-old Irish whiskey.
The next morning, we hopped on a Fab Food Trails tour to get a local’s perspective of what’s happening with the city’s food scene.
“We don’t have a great reputation for food,” said Eveleen Coyle, founder of Fab Food Trails, as we walked through leafy St Stephen’s Green Park. “But it’s changing enormously. Our young people are beginning to take pride in what we have here — the very clean soil, the unmatched dairy. They’re bringing new energy and ideas, and they’re running with them.”
It was mid-morning and our first stop was the snug Love Supreme coffee shop in the vibrant Portobello neighborhood, where we sampled a fabulous lamb sausage roll, an egg-and-maple bacon breakfast pie, a chocolate-caramel croissant and its signature single-origin “bean to bag” hot chocolate.
Next, we strolled past quaint upside-down houses, through The Last Book Shop (great bookstore — we’d return) to busy Camden Street. The wide avenue is one of the most historic streets in Dublin, stretching from the Grand Canal into the city center. During the War of Independence, the British troops and Auxiliaries marched down this street from the Portobello barracks to the Dublin Castle. Today, it’s lined with street vendors selling vegetables and flowers, and a mix of shops, restaurants, and pubs, old and new. We browsed Listons Food Store, a jam-packed, finely-sourced gourmet grocer, wine shop and deli. Here, we ate the best potato rosti ever.
Back outside, we passed Frank’s Pork Butchers. “Every brother knows what a hairy rasher is,” said Coyle. “This is a great source for it.” (We sampled it later: thick slices of cured but not smoked bacon, locally sourced, and decadently delicious.) And, we went by the Dublin Pizza Company, just opening its doors for the day. “You won’t get a better pizza anywhere,” Coyle told us. We’d have to take her word for it.
Camden Street has attracted a host of new craft breweries and bars, including Against the Grain, the original Galway Bay Brewery bar in Dublin, and Camden Exchange, with crafty cocktails, brews from around the world and above average pub food. But, we headed into the Swan Bar, one of 12 Victorian bars left in the city. “Want to try a 12-year-old Irish Whiskey?” owner Ronan Lynch asked. In 1937, Lynch’s grandfather bought the historic pub, housed in a 1661 building. His dad, who played rugby for Ireland (there’s lots of rugby memorabilia in the pub and you can bet there’s a game playing on one of the TVs) took over next. The whiskey was smooth and warming, as was the atmosphere: Scottish granite bar top, wooden casks, worn tables and stools, and hand-laid tile floor.
We ended at Sheridans Cheesemongers, a tiny cheese shop, dedicated to sleuthing out and showcasing Irish farmhouse cheeses. “The quality of milk we have in Ireland is fantastic,” Coyle said. “Our milk is richer, our butter is thicker, and our cheeses are amazing.” We tasted a Milleens soft cheese, made from the milk of Friesian cows grazing on the rugged Beara peninsula in South West Ireland; a soft, mild, complex Castrel blue, and a Coolea mature cow’s milk cheese, a caramelly, Gouda-style cheese made in the summertime when the milk is best.
Have you really been to Dublin if you haven’t visited the raucous, tourist-clogged Temple Bar area? Oh yeah. Our last night, we dined at the hard-to-get-into, one Michelin star Chapter One restaurant, dedicated to working with “specialist growers and artisan producers.” The four-course dinner highlights included a Jerusalem artichoke salad with Coolea cheese, a terrine of chicken and veal, wild turbot with Castletownbere shrimp, and Irish milk and honey.
Yes, things have gotten a lot better for Dubliners, and its visitors.
If you go . . .
The Westbury (353-1-679-1122, www.doylecollection.com/hotels/the-westbury-hotel; rates start at around $325), one of Dublin’s top hotels just off the pedestrian-only Grafton Street, has a great location, within easy walking distance to shops, restaurants and attractions. The hotel’s $2.6 million art collection spotlights Irish artists, and recently-renovated rooms are elegant, with custom-designed furniture and modern technology. Fab Food Trails (353-1-497-1245, www.fabfoodtrails.ie, $75) offers 2½-3-hour small group and private culinary walking tours in Dublin.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.