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Dublin Gets a Makeover

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.


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