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James Street Restaurant + Brick Belfast

Magic Not Realism

Francis Scott Fitzgerald knew you can’t repeat the past but it’s nice to reminisce. Belfast has a long restaurant tradition. Here are a few that have disappeared… Christies (now occupied by Coco brasserie). The Garden Restaurant (Eighties bling). Larry’s Piano Bar (obligatory table top dancing). Mint (getting haute). Nick’s Warehouse (served the famous Nineties £10 express business lunch). Planks (very wooden interior). Roscoff (Northern Ireland’s first Michelin star restaurant). Saints and Scholars (two storeys near Queen’s University). Speranza (the first Italian in the Province). Truffles (upstairs elegance opposite the City Hall). Happily, there’s been a continuing upward trajectory ever since.

Brick is what Belfast does best when it comes to architecture. And terracotta detailing. And a bit of stone. One of the best brick buildings is St Malachy’s Catholic Church on Alfred Street. Designed in 1841 by master of the eclectic Thomas Jackson, this Tudor Revival work underwent a £3.5 million restoration in 2008. It boasts the ultimate wedding cake plasterwork ceiling. You half expect a gargantuan lump of icing to drop on you mid mass. “Oh holy servant of God, you chose to live life as a poor man to show God’s love shining through the poor. You gave away everything to gain the treasure that only comes from God.” That’s the dedication to St Benedict Joseph Labre in the hallway of St Malachy’s.

A few blocks away, occupying the ground floor of a red brick four storey gabled Victorian corner building which couldn’t be more Belfast if it tried is the restaurant James Street. There’s no need to go à la carte when the concise set lunch menu has such riches. A starter of crispy squid and jalapeno mayo artily sits on a bed of squid ink. Roast parmesan gnocchi main is jazzed up with crisp globe artichoke, butternut squash and date. Toffee tart takes the rough with the smooth: granola and barley ice cream. There’s only one place in BT2 to sip cocktails though and that’s in the nearby Observatory on the 22nd floor of Grand Central Hotel, owned by second generation hoteliers the Hastings family. Linenopolis cocktail, named after one of the city’s historic industries, is a dizzying concoction of mango vodka, apricot brandy, prosecco, passionfruit, lemon, cream, whites and Seltzer.

James Street’s General Manager Paul Vaughan says, “Northern Irish hospitality is unique. It has such diversity. Belfast has three Michelin starred restaurants. The food offering is very diverse for such a small city. Here at James Street we pride ourselves on sourcing the best quality local produce.” He’s originally from Downings in County Donegal. “The Olde Glen Bar just outside the town is the best place to eat in Downings.”

Owners Niall and Joanne McKenna have tempted Ryan Stringer, the Executive Chef of Ely Wine Bars in Dublin, back to Belfast to take over the James Street kitchen. Dublin’s loss; Belfast’s gain. “I’m absolutely delighted to be back in Belfast to take on this new role at such an iconic restaurant,” comments the Dungannon born culinary star. “I’ve personally admired James Street for nearly two decades now. It has an outstanding reputation for incredible food… I’m keen to keep doing what James Street does well while introducing some of my own style and experience.” That experience includes stints at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Kristian Baumann’s 108 Restaurant. Oxford and Copenhagen’s losses; again Belfast’s gain. A Street named desire. Sometimes, you can repeat the past.

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Architects Architecture Hotels Restaurants Town Houses

Bognor Regis West Sussex +

Raving Like Angels

It’s where all the big city hitters are heading for in the heatwave. Heady days. Hot nights. Although determined not to let the slang for bathroom put us off (in the same way we’re sure Grimsby has its charms), we’re bringing the London glamour with us just in case Bognor Regis lives down to its name. We’re not up for making a sequel to Steptoe and Son holidaying on the south coast. We have no concerns. This place oozes it from Hotham Park with its late 18th century stuccoed mansion backing onto a lake in the east of the town to the early 19th century Royal Norfolk Hotel and The Steyne with its bowed terraces overlooking an anticipatory strip of lawn in the west. Next to The Steyne and a smooth pebble’s throw from the Victorian esplanade is The Dolphin Café where the crème of Bognorian society breakfast. Falling outside the usual brackets of English seaside architecture are White Tower and Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church.

Built in 1898, White Tower was designed by John Cyril Hawes as a seaside family retreat. The architect and his two brothers each had their own floor above ground level. He explained, “Instead of a long spread out cottage I would stand it up on end – as a tower.” A vertical terrace capturing sea views. Its casement windows of leaded lights are typically Arts and Crafts. Our Lady of Sorrows dates from the previous decade. Designed by Joseph Stanislaus Hansom in an Early English idiom cloaked in yellowy brick, 1950s additions by Wilfrid Clarence Mangan bring a light modern air to the interior. Bognor Regis is officially Britain’s sunniest town. That’s one reputation it lives up to today.

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Shandon Hotel + Marble Hill Beach Dunfanaghy Donegal

A Country Kilometre

There’s a wee drop of aul’ rain in Lifford and it’s bucketin’ in Letterkenny so it is, but by the time we get to Marble Hill the sun is splittin’ the trees. It’s gone from Baltic to boilin’ so it has. All in good time for a dead on wee bite of lunch in Shandon’s overlookin’ the empty beach with not a wee’ne in sight. It’s dead posh. Not like the Carrig Rua Hotel in Dunfanaghy which is dunderin’ inn. Anyone up for a wee trip in Bert’s boat later on Killahoey Beach?

Running out of Ulsterisms it’s time to enjoy a celebratory pescatarian feast in Shandon Hotel which has had the greatest revivification since avocados were mere vegetables or fruit or whatever they used to be. There are views and there are views and there’s the framed golden strand of Marble Hill with the white tipped frothy spray of waves almost lapping up to our table. Across the water on the far side of Sheephaven Bay lies Downings.

Next stop the jolly town of Dunfanaghy. It’s all abuzz around the august Market House. “This Building was erected by Alex Rob Stewart of Ards House AD 1845,” marks a plaque between its first floor windows. On the ground things are more relaxed. There’s a coffee bar, antiques store and yoga venue. And a farmers’ market in the Diamond in front of the Market House.

Opposite the Diamond is McAuliffe’s Craft Shop. It has evolved over four generations of the same family since opening in 1920 as Sweeney’s Drapery. Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal by Harry Percival Swan, 1965, is one of several local interest books for sale. It opens with, “Donegal calls you. Situated in the North Western corner of Ireland it is one of the most fascinating playgrounds in these islands. It is part of the nine Counties of Ulster, and is the largest County in the Province (1,865 square miles). Donegal belongs to Eire, but is separated from it by County Fermanagh. Donegal’s key note is variety.”

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The Dorchester Hotel + Rooftop Restaurant Park Lane London

High Living

We’re the first guests of the new season so the Veuve Clicquot is on ice. Just in time for sunshiny days, The Dorchester Rooftop has reopened for those who like to see the bigger picture, or at least take in a sweeping panorama of the better half of the Capital. We’re going up in the world: a lift to the ninth floor of the hotel opens into a former penthouse which is now a suite of lounges with pleated satin hung walls, deep pile carpet and velvet sofas. The Rooftop Restaurant sweeps around the lounges.

Lunch isn’t cheap, but what price decadence? Executive Chef Jean-Philippe Blondet and Head Chef Bastien Bertaina pass with flying colours: crushed olive amuse bouche; multicoloured seabass ceviche, citrus and cucumber; golden and silvered seabream, fennel and pastis; red berry vacherin. A jazz singer and keyboard player serenades us with “Georgia”, “Love is a Losing Game” and “Isn’t She Lovely”. Just as the waitress gleefully smashes the perfect meringue disc atop our pudding, the singer bursts into a timely rendition of “Oh Lovely Day”. Alfresco lunch reminds us of Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris except this time we’ve been elevated from courtyard to parapet.

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The Megaro Hotel + Magenta Restaurant + Hokus Pokus Alchemy Lab King’s Cross London

Working Magic

Unusually for London, King’s Cross and St Pancras are two major railway stations located next to each other. King’s Cross provides public transport from the English capital to the rest of the country right up to Scotland; the Eurostar links St Pancras to mainland Europe. A transport hub in its fullest sense. Little wonder such a dynamic location has attracted a miniature galaxy of five star hotels. But one stands out: it’s wild, whimsical and whacky. And that’s just the mural cloaking the building’s exterior like a psychedelic Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours.

The Megaro Hotel appeals to the luxury traveller with a sense of fun and an appreciation for the novel. An inscription across mezzanine windows overlooking the entrance foyer reads: “Our hotel was inspired by Victorian quack doctor James Morison who in 1828 opened the British College of Health just a few doors down from here…” The interior is based on, “An alchemy lab, esoteric literature, and an anchoring in King’s Cross heritage.”

“Retro-futuristic steampunk” is the official hotel style. A reimagining of olden days but with advanced technology. Public spaces are filled with cabinets of curiosities and illuminated by neon signs. Chain curtains in one of the Design Room bedrooms continues the engineering theme while stage lights, minibars disguised as speakers and stage platforms acting as headboards pay homage to the nightlife tradition of King’s Cross. Charcoal grey tiled wet-rooms are a pure indulgent touch. Charcoal grey is the new black.

Charcoal is having a fashion moment in culinary circles as well as with interior types and The Megaro Hotel’s recently opened restaurant Magenta is on trend. Charcoal steamed sourdough bread is the first item out of the kitchen for dinner. Magenta has a northern Italy inspired menu curated by Executive Head Chef Manuele Bazzoni. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday with an à la carte menu of two courses for £32, three for £42, or four for £52. But ‘when in Rome’, it would be rude not to opt for the four course evening menu with matching wines for £85. Walk-ins are welcomed at breakfast for an unlimited portioned breakfast costing £25.

There are four evening menu choices for Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, and five for Dolci (four desserts and a cheese board). Beetroot amuse bouches come on charcoal grey plates. Wild sea bass tartare and Sicilian orange gel provide splashes of colour and lightness against black sesame ice cream. Smoked buffalo ricotta and egg yolk ravioli with English asparagus and black truffle contrast texture and flavour, emphasizing the kitchen’s prowess. Good looks and great taste continue with Cornish monkfish cooked over charcoal, barbequed leaks, rock oyster tempura and Amalfi lemon gel. Maldon sea salt and caramel ganache with Vecchia Romagna jelly and Piedmont hazelnut form an edible sculpture. Dinner is all about fresh British produce revved up a notch or two by Italian additions and style: London meets Milan.

The phrase ‘poison of choice’ is played out in The Megaro Hotel’s basement bar. Hokus Pokus Alchemy Lab takes the James Morison theme to its extreme. Staff work their magic conjuring up torched and fizzing cocktails. It’s like being in a time machine reversing to the future. ‘Tempered Prescriptions’ are on standby for those guests who want to enjoy the alchemy without the alcohol. Bar Manager Greg Chudzio explains, “Today, at Hokus Pokus we like our botanicals to be distilled and served with a large lump of ice or at room temperature. While we make no claims of health benefits, we are confident that our potions and elixirs might do wonders to your mood!”

Service in The Megaro Hotel is international, very attentive and well informed. The evening waiter from Seville, Spain, confirms, “We only serve Italian wines. Our restaurant interior was designed by British artist and designer Henry Chebaane. Actually he was responsible for the entire hotel interiors! A magenta coloured butterfly is the restaurant motif.” The Londoner mixologist advises, “I can offer you five different types of ‘potions’. Our flamed potions are heated with fire to bring out the finest aromas! We’ve 41 cocktail recipes and 18 brands of gin.” The breakfast waitress from Marash, Turkey, relates, “This building used to be a Barclays Bank. The yellow brick former bank vault is now a wine cellar. We’ve two first floor private dining rooms: The Mauve Private Carriage takes its cue from a view of St Pancras Station; The Victory Room is named after the state rooms of HMS Victory with a table made from the timber of that historic ship.”

The inscription in the entrance foyer ends with, “What is time? Time is free but it’s precious. You can’t own it but you can spend it. You can’t keep it but you can use it. Time is priceless don’t waste it. It’s time for the weird and the wonderful. It’s time for a drink with friends.” The weird and wonderful Hokus Pokus is the place in King’s Cross for a drink, Magenta for a timely meal, and the timeless Megaro for a luxurious night’s sleep.

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Architecture Art Design Hotels People Restaurants Town Houses

Lavender’s Blue + Skibbereen West Cork

The Capital of the Carberies 

It’s 30 years since our last jaunt but The West Cork Hotel has barely changed – it’s under new ownership (the latest generation of the Murphy family having retired) but there’s still the same relaxed country vibe. Seafood chowder and beer battered fish and chips are served with the obligatory West Coast Coolers in the bar overlooking the old railway bridge crossing the River Ilen. It is what it was.

In his comprehensive 2020 book The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County, Frank Keohane describes Skibbereen as, “A substantial market town, the southernmost in Ireland.” And The West Cork Hotel as, “A four storey, four bay Italianate block built alongside the bridge in 1902. Stuccoed, with string courses and a hipped roof. First floor windows with architraves and flat cornices. Upper floor windows with chamfered jambs. At street level the façade is articulated by pilasters and paired round arched windows.” At four storeys in height, the hotel is a skyscraper in West Cork terms, visible from the fields around. A cast iron balcony stretching across the first floor of the façade lends it a Deep South – America not Ireland – quality.

Why say three syllables when one will do. Skib has gone a tad hipsterish – more of that in a moment – but Dick Draper, the local optometrist who died a couple of years ago aged 104 would still recognise most of it. His friend and fellow Gospel Hall attendee Lillian Clerke is still around. Her very sweet shop (she sold the best clove rock in town) on Bridge Street may have closed but her surname is clear for all to see on the fascia. Our driver from Dolphin Taxis remembers Dick well. Chauffeuring us through the countryside as the hazy pink haloed golden circle of the sun sets, he recalls as a child having an accident and when he woke up in hospital, Dick was praying over him. “A very holy man. Did you know the Brethren have their own separate cemetery in Skib?”

On things hip, there’s a foodie farmers’ market on Saturday mornings in the town centre car park next to Abbeystrewey Church of Ireland. The Methodist Church is now a restaurant; architecturally it’s all show: a tall gabled red brick façade conceals a cement faced low pitched block behind. Trance music vibrates from The Mardyke Maggie antiques warehouse, a treasure trove of bygones ready to be revived. Then there’s the Antiquity Bookshop and Vegan Deli where you can have cruelty free edible treats while browsing for bestsellers. “Skib is the hub for small villages around like Baltimore,” confirms our driver.

Mona Best owns Bridge House, a long low two storey gaily painted bed and breakfast in the heart of Skib. She muses, “My perfect day is a day when I make other people happy; it’s in the giving that we receive. So when people come to stay with me I welcome them to a world full of magic as I like them to enjoy and experience something truly unique and memorable. My home is an installation representing my creative artistic temperament and eclectic bohemian taste for quirky Victorian objets d’art and antique furniture. This is my stage where I take people on a journey and transport them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I’m a fun loving person: I love to entertain and bring happiness into people’s lives. It is not how much we give but how much love we put into giving. Every day is beautiful and it is our responsibility to ourselves to pursue and experience all that is magical and wonderful in our lives.”

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The Evelyns + Wotton House Hotel Wotton Surrey

Very Grand Tour

It’s an absolute hamlet of a house: sprawling’s the word. Every century since the 17th, the Evelyn family enlarged and embellished Wotton House. Following a late 20th century stint as a school for firefighters, it has been a country house hotel of considerable renown and taste. John Evelyn, landscape architect and diarist, created the first Italian Renaissance garden in Britain. It still remains, along with a – what’s the collective noun? – let’s say a feast of streams and bridges and temples and grottoes and griffons. A river runs through it (the Tillingbourne). Although the Evelyns’ kangaroo paddock has gone. Incredibly this is all just an hour’s limo ride from London.