By Margaret M. Johnson
I had a grand old time for myself a few weeks ago when I spent a week in Dublin in hot pursuit of uncovering what’s new in the capital. A week, I discovered, was not nearly enough time to get the low-down on the current boom in the ever-expanding Georgian city where hotels, restaurants and heritage sites seem to emerge on a daily basis, so fast, in fact, that even taxi drivers need to ask directions.
"There’s definitely a crane near it," I told the young cabbie from Malahide, who was finishing up his second day on the job and trying to get me to the Old Jameson Distillery on Bow Street, maneuver through Dame Street traffic, and read a street map simultaneously.
"A crane?" he asked me quizzically, insinuating that the sight of a crane looming over the Dublin skyline could hardly qualify as a direction. "They’ve everywhere," he told me politely. "Saying some place in Dublin is ‘near a crane’ is almost as helpful as telling me ‘it’s near a pub.’ "
He was oh-so-right, and we both laughed as he drove along the Liffey toward my crane-in-question at the site of the new Smithfield Village, one of the largest developments on the north side of the city. The complex, situated on the site of the Old Jameson Distillery, is located in an area steeped in tradition and culture, and once completed it will encompass a new hotel, a cafe/bar devoted to traditional Irish music, a traditional music heritage center, a shopping/dining area, residential apartments, and the 175-foot-high Jameson Chimney, which will offer a panoramic view of the city in a two-tiered glass observation platform.
Already up and running since April 6, the Old Jameson Distillery has been carefully restored to recreate the atmosphere of bygone days when John Jameson operated it as a working distillery. Earlier visitors to Dublin might have enjoyed a visit to what was once called "The Irish Whiskey Corner," an old warehouse at Bow Street and May Lance that served as a museum to the history of Irish whiskey. When Irish distillers decided to expand the facilities, they repurchased a section of the old distillery and converted it to what has become one of the most unique tourist facilities in the country.
The Old Jameson Distillery houses an auditorium, working mash fun, waterwheel, wooden washback, three original copper pot stills, and incorporates modern museum technology with original whiskey-making artifacts in a beautifully designed building. You can follow the fascinating craft of whiskey making in an hour-long tour that covers malting, milling, mashing, fermenting, distillation, vatting, bottling and, best of all, tasting in the Jameston Bar. You can have a snack or coffee in the still room restaurant, and shop for whiskey-related memorabilia in the gift shop.
I did a bit of all three before donning a hard hat and touring the other facilities currently under construction, starting at Chief O’Neill’s Hotel, a 70-room ultramodern hotel named in memory of Francis O’Neill, once the Chicago police chief and one of the greatest individual collectors of Irish traditional music in the 20th century. Using traditional music as the theme of the premises, the 74-room hotel, which expects a four-star rating, will be decorated in a surprisingly sleet, high-tech style that incorporates bold, vivid colors with touches of chrome, etched glass, and state-of-the-art in-room media facilities. The hotel will also house Chief O’Neill’s Cafe, a multilevel bar/restaurant that developers expect to be the Irish traditional music venture in Dublin.
The story of Irish music, dance
A second visitor center — Ceol — is being built at Smithfield Village, this one dedicated to telling the story of Irish music and dance in an interactive and contemporary way. Like the whiskey history lesson you get at the Jameson Distillery, at Ceol the visitor will be guided through the history and development of Irish traditional music with he aid of graphic visuals, touch screens, and music recordings. The highlight of the tour will be a virtual "trip through Ireland" that will illustrate the demographic origins of music and dance shown on a 180-degree panoramic screen in Ceol’s auditorium.
No heritage center is complete without a place to eat and shop, and Smithfield Village is no exception. Kelly & Ping, a contemporary pub/restaurant, will serve up yet another surprise: Thai food. The Dublin Coffee Co. will open for coffees, sandwiches, and hot dishes. The shopping area will offer Irish-made products like crystal, woolens, and pottery as a convenience to visitors and hotel guests who can eliminate the hassle of city center shopping. Expect Smithfield Village to be in full swing in March 1999.
Already humming is the newly renovated Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street, a Dublin establishment that many people thought was just perfect as it was. Famous for its coffee, sticky buns and fry-ups, the once rather darkly lit, cafeteria-style cafe is now absolutely posh,
with the design focus on enhanced use of space, light, contemporary furniture, and waitress service reintroduced after an interruption of 27 years. There’s also a wonderful incorporation of original architectural features like the famous Harry Clark stained glass window with a new glass ceiling, plush sofas, and armchairs.
Other changes in the new Bewley’s include and expanded menu in the Atrium Cafe, the Harry Clarke Room, and the James Joyce Mezzanine Cafe. While the menu still includes "our famous traditional Sticky Bun" (80p) and "Bewley’s Traditional all day Brunch" (basically a fry-up for £5.75), you can also find dishes more in keeping with the new image like terrine of wild game (£3.50), aubergine and goat’s cheese gateau (£8.25), and seafood tagliatelle (£7.50). Another first for the cafe once famous for coffee and tea is wine and cigars. A fine Cuban Romeo & Julietta Churchill will set your back £15.50, and a glass of Gallo sonoma chardonnay 1995 goes for £4.50.
Other restaurants making news (and moves) within the past year are the Michelin two-star Restaurant Patrick Guillbaud, which now occupies one of the townhouses at the sumptuous new Merrion Hotel on Merrion Street, and Conrad Gallagher’s one-star peacock Alley, which has relocated from South William Street to the new Fitzwilliam Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green. Designed by London’s Conran Design Partnership, the Fitzwilliam opened in July, and Gallagher followed soon thereafter, bringing his brash, splashy, stylish cuisine to elegant new digs. He also oversees the hotel brasserie, Christopher’s, which features a wood-burning oven for "designer pizzas."
"Designer," in fact, seems to be the operative word in Dublin these days, with hotels like the Fitzwilliam epitomizing a style that’s creeping into more and more hotel interiors. Calling itself "the ultimate in hotel chic," a "designer hotel," and one that "ignores the traditional hotel trappings of chintz and four-posters in favor of modernist architecture," Conran’s design borders on "Baronial Modern."
I had to define all these terms for myself and spend at least one night luxuriating in the quintessence of "new" Dublin hotels. The Fitzwilliam was the "wow" experience I was looking for, from the lobby of black and white marble and soft leather armchairs to the bedrooms swathed in walnut and cream linen and spiked in steely blue and eggplant on upholstered chairs. The bathrooms combine white and bronze mosaic tiles with walnut, black granite, and polished stainless steel for a very dramatic effect indeed. Big, white fluffy towels abound. My room was in the front of the hotel, which afforded a lovely view of St. Stephen’s Green, but I could have skipped its proximity to Planet Hollywood (adjacent to the hotel), where the noise didn’t actually qualify as a little night music.
I found similar "designer chic" at the Morgan Hotel, snuggled in between the bars, cafes, and galleries of trendy Temple Bar. The hotel claims it "dares to be different," and the black and white, chrome and glass, club chair and chaise lounge decor bears this out. The decorator here opted for a minimalist look in the bedrooms and public rooms, punctuated only by modern art and beechwood furniture. You can also request black satin sheets in the suite if your taste runs in this direction.
If the word "designer" seems to precede most Dublin hotel descriptions these days, the "boutique" runs a close second. The Brooks Hotel on Dury Street describes itself as such, but adds that it is "cautiously avant-garde" with a "a clubby, residential fee." Translation: it’s warm and welcoming in an atmosphere of a private club, with floral prints, Georgian colors, soft-pine paneling, crackling fires, and 19th century paintings. Likewise, the Mercer Hotel, at the Royal College of Surgeons on Mercer Street, exudes warmth and charm in a club-like setting. Both Brooks and the Mercer are a stone’s throw from Grafton Street, and rooms in both are equipped with all the latest in-room services, a restaurant and bar. And the fact that the dynamic young chef Patrick McLarnon has been spirited away from Northern Ireland to take over the kitchen at Brooks is definitely a bonus for the hotel.
On bustling Dame Street, the Trinity Arch Hotel, officially opened in May by Dublin Lord Mayor John Stafford, is housed in a splendid 19th century building nearly opposite the entrance to Trinity College. Here the hotel designer and decorator took advantage of the gracious architecture of the building and kept the furnishings and design more age-appropriate. There’s nothing "cautiously avant-garde" about either the Oliver Goldsmith Bar or the Edmund Burke Restaurant (named, of course, for the famous Trinity graduates), and, frankly, that’s just fine, too.
You’ll find the same stylish simplicity at the 6-month-old Camden Court Hotel, the third largest in Dublin after Jury’s and the Burlington. Situated on what was once one of the city’s liveliest business thoroughfares, the hotel will cater to both the business traveler and the tourist in very pleasant surroundings on Camden Street. You’ll delight, perhaps, in the absence of chrome and glass in favor of the hotel’s "crisp decor" — a palette of rose, gold, greens, and blues. The"crisp" style, however, stops at the door of Piseogs, the stylish bar decorated around the theme of Irish myths. There are seven areas in the enormous pub, each one styled to honor an Irish myth or legend. A leisure and fitness center, complete with 16-meter pool, opened in October. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, including an "early bird" menu for seating between 6-7 p.m.
Like the Trinity Arch and the Merrion Hotels, which utilized existing historic property, the Schoolhouse Hotel in Ballsbridge has gone one step further in incorporating a hotel completely within the footprint of the former St. Stephen’s Parochial School (1861-1969). The H-shaped red brick schoolhouse, with its low roofs, tall chimneys, and round tourelle is reminiscent of an early French vernacular style, and the school’s original architects clearly optimized every square inch of space inside the building. When conversion from landmark school to modern hotel was finally approved, the designers were required to work within the existing structure, a task accomplished in a most unique way, particularly in the restaurant, Stachel’s, and the Inkwell Bar, both of which have become popular Dublin spots in only six months of operation. The schoolhouse theme is carried throughout the building, with heavy doses of memorabilia from St. Stephen’s and custom-made 19th century-styled furniture. Well done indeed.
I expect that when the new Quality Charleville Hotel opens this month in Rathmines, it, too, will quickly become a popular place as much for its multilevel bar (complete with a tram car running through it) and bistro-style Carmine’s Restaurant, as for its efficient home-away-from-home rooms by running designer Ann Strahan. The hotel has been developed to four-star standards with bonus features like a kitchenette with microwave and refrigerator fitted into each room, along with a work area with computer points, fax, and voice mail. Like its sister properties — Stephens Hall Hotel on Lower Lesson Street, Dublin, and Morrison’s island Hotel in Cork — the Quality Charleville’s style will be a nice blend of old-world charm and modern amenities.
But for definitive old-world atmosphere (old as in 12th century old), you’ll have to travel two miles outside the city center to Clontarf Castle, built in 1172 as part of an inner circle line of defense sites protecting Dublin, and recently transformed into a four-star standard hotel with the addition to 110 bedrooms. Retaining the splendor of the original stone castle was the key element in the modernization scheme, so all rooms lead onto the atrium, which cleverly incorporates the new developments into the original structure. Playing up the castle them, there’s both the Tudor style Knight’s Bar and the rustic Drawbridge Tavern, along with Templar’s Bistro under the direction of Chef Adrian Spelman. The pleasant surroundings of the north side coast, especially the proximity of Clontarf Golf Course and the Royal Dublin Links on North Bull Island, are other reasons why a stay at Clontarf Castle might be just what you’re looking for as a change of pace from bustling "designer" Dublin.
All of the new hotels I visited, and ones due to open in 1999, have rooms equipped with standard mod/cons like hairdryer, trouser press, coffee/tea making facilities, and TV/VCR; many have mini-bars and safes, stereos with CD/cassette player, ISDN Lines, modem/fax hook-ups, telephone voice mail, and access to the Internet.
€ Chief O’Neill’s (70 rooms), Smithfield Village, (pre-opening phone 849-4981, fax 848-2450, e-mail [email protected]). Rates £124; attic suites £160.
€ The Fitzwilliam Hotel (128 rooms), St. Stephen’s Green, phone 478-7000, fax 478-7878, e-mail [email protected] Rates £175-£220; suites £300-£450. Breakfast is extra.
€ The Morgan (46 rooms), 10 Fleet St., phone 679-3939, fax 679-3946, e-mail [email protected] Rates £120-£150; suites £180-£350. Breakfast is extra.
€ Brooks Hotel (70 rooms), 59-62 Dury St., phone 670-4000, fax 670-4455, e-mail [email protected] Rates £150-£180; suite £200. Breakfast is extra.
€ Mercer Hotel (21 rooms), Mercer Street Lower, phone 478-2179, fax 478-0328. e-mail [email protected] Rate £125. Complimentary continental breakfast.
€ Trinity Arch Hotel (29 rooms), 46-49 Dame St., phone 679-4455, fax 679-4511. Rates £80-£110, breakfast included.
€ Camden Court (Hotel (246) rooms), Camden Street, phone 475-9666, fax 475-9677. Rates £95- £180, breakfast included.
€ The Schoolhouse Hotel (30 rooms), 2-8 Northumberland Rd., Ballsbridge, phone 667-5014, fax 667-5015, e-mail [email protected] Rates £129, breakfast included.
€ Quality Charleville Hotel (52 suites), Lower Rathmines Road, phone 406-6100, fax 406-6200, e-mail [email protected] Rates £120.
€ Clontarf Castle (110 rooms), Castle Avenue, Clontarf, phone 833-2321, fax 833-2542, e-mail [email protected] Rates £139-£169; suites £250-£290. Breakfast is extra.
Rates are based on double occupancy.
To call Dublin, dial 011-353-1 before the number.