Dublin Gets a Makeover
Published: April 2009
By Chris Mundy
You may think you do, but Dublin is no longer simply mahogany, brass, and a good pint of stout—it's also martinis, hip fashion,and cutting-edge design. Nowhere is the change more apparent than in the Temple Bar area, where U2's Clarence Hotel is redefining Irish style
When word first spread through Dublin that members of the rock band U2 were planning to buy the Clarence, a dilapidated hotel in the Temple Bar neighborhood, and turn it into an upscale crash pad, visions of outdated excess danced in Dubliners' heads. The decoration would make Vegas look refined; televisions would fly through the windows; and the police would have to clear the street whenever the band shot videos on the roof.
So I decided to check it out before the vice squad shut it down. I hadn't visited Dublin in a few years, but I knew that for some time the ramshackle Temple Bar area, on the banks of the Liffey, had been scheduled for demolition to make way for a mammoth bus depot. There were only a few restaurants and shops back then, and a handful of pubs frequented by hard-core fans of Gaelic football-the national pastime, an amalgam of soccer, rugby, and the Road Warrior movies.
A friend living in Dublin told me that Temple Bar had changed dramatically. Now called "Dublin's left bank," it's the city's hippest neighborhood. Flying over for the weekend has become the in thing for Londoners and Parisians. And the Clarence has added a little Hollywood glamour: since its opening last June, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, and Michael Douglas have all checked in.
This renaissance of Dublin, where dark wood and brass have almost become dirty words, was still hard to fathom. After all, it's not your typical capital city. Dublin is intensely proud but defensive, eager to show you its beauty and charm but, in true Irish tradition, mistrustful of anyone too full of themselves—even U2, its rock-and-roll royal family.
I arrived at the Clarence at 6:30 in the morning, jet-lagged and skeptical, only to be hit by the certainty that the boys in U2 had ransacked a Terence Conran warehouse. The hotel was a symphony of pale brown with modest Art Deco touches. Tables were light pine; the darker leather chairs in the sitting room looked comfortable and unassuming.
Is this the usual lobby furniture?I asked the woman at reception. "As you can see we're extremely informal," she laughed. "Obviously, because of the owners"—no one at the Clarence ever utters the names of band members Bono or the Edge—"people in the entertainment industry want to stay here. We like to make them feel at ease."
She walked me down the hall to show off the Tea Room, an elegant dining room with a 20-foot-high ceiling. Dublin-born chef Michael Martin, who has worked with the Michelin-starred Roux brothers in London, is attracting attention for his determinedly un-Irish dishes such as quail with baby spinach. The Octagon Bar, instead of being the site of raucous jam sessions, looked rather sedate, with a fireplace and plenty of alcoves for tête-à-têtes. Either the rock lifestyle isn't what it used to be, I thought, or U2 has taken the Irish notions of quiet dignity and service-over-style to the extreme.
A few hours later, I awoke from a nap and stepped out onto the streets. Although Temple Bar has been compared to London's Covent Garden, I soon realized that it's more like a micro-French Quarter. The narrow cobblestoned streets teemed with a mix of tourists and Trinity students, impeccably dressed hipsters in Louise Kennedy (Ireland's answer to Anna Sui), and the jeans and T-shirt set. Music floated out of virtually every doorway-country at Bad Bob's, traditional Irish at Fitzsimons, the latest pop songs at the Norseman.
Wherever I turned I saw small, funky shops. Rory's Fishing Tackle, a wonderfully shabby nook that has anchored its corner for 37 years, was stocked with huge tackle boxes and shiny lures but nothing that seemed conceivably useful to those two French tourists poking around. I walked out, content to wander back in time, and ran smack into Condom Power, a decidedly un-Victorian boutique with the largest selection of prophylactics on the Emerald Isle.
In need of caffeine and sustenance, I spied a place called the Temple Bar pub, located before a curved street named Curved Street (the names seemed to typify the no-nonsense Irish nature). I settled in with a coffee. The bartender filled me in on the hot spots, as I watched bohemian types writing in notebooks or sketching on pads. Temple Bar has become the artists' quarter, and nearly 20 galleries are scattered throughout the compact area.
One of the most prominent is the Graphic Studio Gallery, on Cope Street, which frequently shows the work of contemporary artist Felim Egan, as well as that of newcomers such as William Crozier and John Graham. A small shop named the Original Print Gallery sells limited-edition prints, etchings, and lithographs by, among others, local names Felicity Clear and Siobhan Piercy.
A few blocks away is the Irish Film Centre, on Eustace Street. Opened in 1992, it quickly became Temple Bar's anchor. Local luminaries like actor Gabriel Byrne and director Jim Sheridan are regularly spotted making the scene. On Friday nights in summer, the center presents outdoor screenings in Meeting House Square to crowds of 400-plus.
This part of town has appeared on the big screen itself. Movie buffs might recognize Temple Bar's winding lanes and narrow streets from Tom Cruise's epic flop Far and Away. Several scenes from Michael Collins were shot there, and Neil Jordan is currently in town shooting his latest film, The Butcher Boy.
I shuffled down one of those winding paths, past the buskers playing earnest-but-bad renditions of Van Morrison tunes in Meeting House Square, and settled in at Gallagher's Boxty House, the place in Temple Bar for lunch. I was finding it all a little disorienting. Not just ordering lunch—a boxty is a type of pancake stuffed with meat, fish, or vegetables—but this idea of a new Dublin where pub dwellers blithely sip their Guinness as they watch Daniel Day-Lewis or Sinéad O'Connor skulk by. Just catercorner from where I sat, tourists were being suckered into the Thunder Road Café, a Hard Rock-style monstrosity. Down the street I could glimpse the new Internet cafés, Planet Web and Cyberia.
After lunch I checked out Claddagh Records on Cecilia Street. I'd heard it had one of the widest selections in the city, and being of Irish descent, I was curious to see what traditional music they stocked. I wasn't disappointed: besides the Chieftains and other stalwarts, there were more contemporary bands like Anuna and the Afro/Celt Sound System.
Most clothing stores in Temple Bar are of the thrift shop variety and not much bigger than a postage stamp, but there are a few standouts. Trendy shoppers head to Se Si Progressive, which carries the latest stuff from designers Marc O'Neill and Jane Ryan. Purple Haze, straight out of New York's East Village, has great silver earrings. Buy one and the shopkeeper will kindly pierce your nose. DV8 is the best place for chunky black shoes, with enough Doc Martens to outfit the entire Trinity student body.
Rumours, in Crown Alley, trades in secondhand wares, which hang from the ceiling like mobiles. The tiny craft shop Tambuli, just a stone's throw away, is painted hot pink and packed with eclectic items like African masks and handwoven tapestries. If you want more great crafts, head to Waxworks, which stocks ceramic bowls and pitchers. Marianne Faithfull, who owns a cottage on Dublin's outskirts, occasionally stops in for candles.
More traditional merchandise can be found on Grafton Street-the main shopping gauntlet, only a few minutes' walk from Temple Bar. Brown Thomas and Marks & Spencer, the two major department stores, are the best places to track budding Irish fashion designers as well as more established ones such as John Rocha, who's regularly spotted in and around Temple Bar.
But there's only so much shopping and caffeine ingesting you can handle in one day, so eventually I ambled back to the Clarence. Friends were arriving from London and I wanted to prepare myself fully for the Dublin night life. It seemed a good idea to retreat for a few hours to the serenity of my room.
Night was falling on Dublin, and the only certainty the city had to offer was that someone, somewhere, was counting the millions he or she had made by teaching sponge painting. Perhaps Dubliners were afraid that the dark wood interiors of their pubs and restaurants had given the city a reputation for moroseness. As we peeked into the spare but elegant restaurants on Dame Street, we realized that a few coats of latex paint and a twist of the wrist had changed all that.
This attention to decorative painting first gripped the city only a few years ago. The impetus was the opening of Café-en-Seine, Dublin's first combination pub and café, where a guy was as likely to unwind with a latte and a scone as with a pint of lager and chips. Its New Orleans-style wrought-iron balcony and breezy interior were an instant hit with the Gen X crowd; Trinity College students consider it their cafeteria.
Outside the ornate Olympia Theatre (during the day, theatrical performances are staged; at midnight, bands take over), I approached a crusty gentleman chomping on a cigar and browsing through the sports section of the Irish Times. When I asked how he felt about the tony establishments surrounding him, he took a dramatic puff. "Ah, lad, things have changed," he said, shaking his head. "It's getting so I'm a stranger in my own city."
The object of his disgust appeared to be the nearby Les Frères Jacques, a chic French bistro considered to have the best food in Temple Bar. (Liam Neeson is a regular.) The Mermaid Café, on Dame Street, is one of the area's hottest hangouts. A crowd in black turtlenecks listen to light jazz while spooning up their lobster bisques. Alas, no soda bread was to be found. I began to understand what the gentleman was talking about.
Our next stop was Cooke's—sponge-painted a pale gold—where the wild duck in cranberry sauce was served with a vertical panache that would make any Los Angeles native homesick. Forget location, we decided; what really seems to knock 'em dead in Dublin these days is presentation, presentation, presentation.
In fact, Dublin has realized that the way to attract more people from the Continent is to become more Continental. Half-hour waits greeted us at almost every turn. Seating spilled out into the street, and young women sipped wine and laughed with their heads thrown back before proceeding to their tables and the sophisticated meal that lay ahead. My friends were speechless. They had always known Dublin as a rollicking city, but gone were the opportunities for jokes about shepherd's pie and a meat-and-potatoes diet. Dubliners had had enough, and they weren't going to take it anymore.
It was time, we decided, for a pub crawl. Because of the compact size of Temple Bar, crawling is always an option, if need be. But at the moment we were still capable of walking. We began with pints of Guinness at my new favorite watering hole, the Temple Bar (the name got me every time). No one will ever accuse the Temple Bar, with its cement floors and loud music, of pampering its customers, but we were ready to declare it the neighborhood's best spot. Until we heard the noise coming from Oliver St. John Gogarty, the pub across the street.
Its patrons were flooding the sidewalks with both their bodies and their spilled beer. It turned out that the Dublin City soccer team had lost a championship that afternoon, but you never would have guessed it. Players still wearing their grass-stained jerseys linked arms with fans dressed in the team's blue and white, all singing wonderfully off-key. There was talk of next year's prospects, but mostly there was Guinness, hoisted high and often. So, of course, we joined in.
Fueled by such excellent craic (Dubliners' word for "fun"), we continued our trek. We bypassed a pub called Fitzsimons-on Sunday nights the best spot for traditional music, but on weekends more like a bad spring-break flashback-and slid into the Norseman. I'd heard that the Norseman had been recently renovated: brightened up with light pine floors and softened with sconces and tablecloths. To be honest, at that moment we wouldn't have minded a regular old pub, one that wasn't trying so hard. We were starting to crave the old Dublin: dark interiors, stained glass, and loud brogues.
The night was clear, so we took to the streets by foot, tipping our imaginary hats as we passed the venerable Shelbourne Hotel. Finally we found ourselves on Baggot Street, where we headed into Toner's, a grand old Victorian haunt said to be the only pub ever visited by Yeats. He was taken there by the writer Oliver St. John Gogarty, who bought his friend a glass of sherry. Yeats quickly downed the cordial and announced, "I've seen a pub. Now would you kindly take me home." We stayed longer.
It is true that many of the ghosts have been chased out of the Grafton Street pubs, scared away by tourists tracking the legend of Leopold Bloom at Davy Byrne's or in search of the real thing, poet Brendan Behan, at McDaid's. But on Baggot Street, in places like Toner's, O'Donoghue's, and Doheny & Nesbitt, the spirits have taken up permanent residence, forever given a seat at the tables of greatest distinction. Dublin was built upon the simultaneous gifts of music and gab, one bartender explained, and the history of the city has been etched on the walls of these pubs. Problem is, they all close so damn early.
Piling into a taxi, we said the secret words that any visitor to Dublin should know if he plans to be out after 11 p.m.: Leeson Street. To look at the sleepy block of whitewashed brownstones, you'd never suspect that their lower levels hold dance clubs packed with revelers not quite ready to call it a night.
We lied our way into a place called Leggs—I mumbled something about being a lost American needing to meet up with my Irish hosts—and snatched a table, content to take in the scene and sip warm wine. The clubs serve only ridiculously overpriced wine and only by the bottle. The crowd was almost exclusively Irish, and I recognized many faces from the Temple Bar pubs. We watched one couple slow-dance, oblivious to the blaring dance music. It was wonderful: like the loudest, best Irish wedding reception you've ever been lucky enough to crash.
Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, there was a taxi coming down the road, and this taxi driver spied three rather tipsy tourists. We hopped in. "Don't even tell us where we're going," we said. "Just take us to the best club in the city." We smiled at our sense of adventure, only to find ourselves, minutes later, back at the Clarence hotel in Temple Bar—full circle to where our odyssey had begun. The driver pointed a few feet from the hotel entrance, where a simple etched plaque read, the kitchen. It's the cave-like nightclub owned by, surprise, surprise, the boys of U2.
A barrage of different accents rose above the pounding music, and the smoky chambers were lit with eerie purple neon. Two German guys informed us that this was the best location for a Naomi or Christy sighting. While the supermodel stalkers resumed their silent vigil at the bar, we tucked ourselves into a corner of the room and laughed at our good fortune: even if we were reduced to crawling, it wouldn't be far. As is often the case, the night had shown us the way home, a lucky break considering our current navigational skills.
A little after 2 a.m. I wandered out of the club onto the cobblestone street of Wellington Quay and gazed out over the river Liffey. Dublin had certainly changed. The old was still present, but it had scooted over just enough to make room for the new, and so far the two were cohabiting quite nicely. The point, I understood, was that now in Dublin, everything is right at your fingertips. The lads in U2 must have known what they were doing after all.