See—and Taste—Why Foodies Can't Get Enough of Ireland

Aug 5, 2019

Though Ireland's foodie star—and Michelin star count—have been rising for the last several years, one of the best times to experience the culinary scene is now. Or more accurately, this coming fall. Deemed "Taste the Island" months, September through November will bring an epic harvest, endless food festivals and all manner of culinary creativity. For nine of the tastiest ways to see what we mean, read on. 

Galway’s Loam

Galway is Ireland’s Portlandia, epicenter of all that is woke, cool and sincere. And the farm-to-table restaurant Loam is ultimate Galway—the brainchild of Enda McEvoy, a sociology major who taught himself cooking and did a stint in Copenhagen’s fabled Noma before heading home to join the local food scene. Loam’s lyrically terse menu—think “squid, shitake & egg” or “burnt honey, whiskey & raspberries”—earned him a Michelin star when the place was only ten months old. Fast-forward five years to the 2019 Irish Restaurant Awards, and Loam is the newly-christened All-Ireland Best Restaurant.

Photo courtesy of Loam.

Ballymaloe Cookery School, Organic Farm and Gardens

If you’re a fan of the cult-favorite Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil, you may already know Ballymaloe. The legendary farm and cooking school was one of Phil's favorite stops on last year’s Ireland episode, not least because of the resident foodie stars. For starters, there’s Darina Allen, said to be the founder of the modern Irish farmhouse food movement and “the Alice Waters of Ireland” (in fact, the two women are friends).


But whether or not you’ve seen Ballymaloe on the small screen, the best way to experience the place is to book a class. In sessions ranging from half a day to more than a week, you might learn the secrets of autumn foraging, soda bread baking, butter churning—or perfect Sunday roasting.

The bonus? Getting a taste of the Irish food scene’s feminism. Three generations of women have made Ballymaloe a labor of love: the Michelin-starred (and alas, recently deceased) Myrtle Allen, her daughter-in-law Darina, and now Darina’s daughter-in-law, Rachel (a TV celeb chef).

The fall food festivals 

Autumn’s bounty—and the resulting festivals—are nearly endless here, but to narrow the field for you, we’ve rounded up five favorites.

Kick off the season in Northern Ireland's Armagh, home to the Bramley—the massive green cooking apple that lends a trademark tartness to pies, butters and jellies. At the Armagh Food and Cider Festival (Sept. 19-22), you can attend a five-course apple banquet (yes, such a thing exists), learn the infinite possibilities of cider pairings and—with all those creative juices flowing—take an Art in the Orchard painting workshop among the Bramley trees.

Dingle, on the Wild Atlantic Way, is home to some of the country’s best seafood, booze and ice cream, so you can bet the local Food Festival (Oct. 4-6) is a win. For the ultimate overview, check out the Taste Trail—a circuit of 70 vendors around the peninsula whose offerings you sample with a ticket booklet. Make oysters and seafood chowders a priority. Same goes for “Derry’s Dingle Pie” at Liam O’Neill’s Art Studio, and Murphy’s Ice Cream—specifically, a sea-salt ice cream sandwich or the gin or brown bread flavors.

Then, mix it up with some of Ireland’s best makers and musicians at the Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival (Oct. 11-13) in County Cork. The big highlight? Saturday’s Mad Hatter’s Taste of Kinsale, a moveable, multi-venue feast. Costumes are optional, but highly encouraged—as is booking ASAP: The event is already close to sold-out. If you still have room on Sunday, don’t miss the Fruits de Mer Luncheon at the historic Actons Hotel, whose harbor-side location gives you an idea of just how local said fruits (think mussels, oysters and lobsters) are.

One of the hallmarks of Northern Ireland’s emerging food scene: locally- and ethically-sourced ingredients—whether foraged nettles and seaweed, lough-raised mussels and crab, or simply amazing farmhouse cheese. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the slow food movement is big here—so much so that it’s the theme of an entire extravaganza in Derry: The Slow Food Festival (Oct 12-13), when highlights will range from the famous oysters of Lough Foyle to creative approaches to food waste. 

And—in a twist on saving the best for last—the nation’s best food city (so named by the Restaurants Association of Ireland) is home to the final festival we’ll mention: Savour Kilkenny (Oct. 24-28), whose star-studded main stage will host every presenter from celeb-chef Paul Flynn to pageant-queen-turned-body-positive-model and cookbook author, Roz Purcell. While you’re here in the heart of Ireland's Ancient East, score a table at the Michelin-starred favorite Campagne, where you should taste the smoked fish and caviar from Goatsbridge, a sustainable trout farm.

Dublin's Patrick Guilbaud

The only two-star Michelin restaurant on the island, Patrick Guilbaud is housed at Dublin’s stately Merrion Hotel, where chef Patrick Guilbaud arrived from Paris in the early 80s, determined to combine hallowed French techniques with the freshest Irish ingredients. The result? Dishes like Celtic Sea black sole with prawn and saffron butter and tomato viennoise—or candy beetroot with black cherries and whipped goats curd croustillant. But whatever you find in season here—whether à la carte or on the prix fixe tasting menus—you won’t regret the splurge.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Guilbaud.

The food markets

Founded in 1788, Cork’s English Market is where many of the best local restaurants score their staples—and you should, too. Try the roast turkey, local cheeses and eggs rubbed with Irish butter. Also stop by O’Connell’s to meet the fishmonger whose famous wisecrack to the Queen about monkfish being the ugly mother-in-law of the fish world has earned him a Royal fan base.

Though this Georgian covered market looks traditional enough, George’s Street Arcade in Dublin is the kind of place you drop in for everything from falafel to Chinese tchotchkes. Still, two spots are as local as they come: Little Macs fry-up counter, with a beautiful bacon and brown sauce sandwich—and Simon’s, an old-style “caffe” (pronounced “kaff”) home to some of the best cinnamon toast in the world.

St. George’s—Belfast’s covered Victorian weekend market—is home to not only the largest selection of fresh fish stalls in Ireland, but also a decidedly modern addition: Stock Kitchen & Bar, opened this year by two local celebrity chefs with a fondness for market-fresh ingredients and Victorian interior views. Show up early for a Northern Irish breakfast, with its dangerously addictive potato farls.

Belfast’s bounty

Of course, St. George’s is just the beginning of Belfast’s food scene—emphasis on beginning (a market has stood on this site since the early 1600s). Now, the city is home to edgy, emerging chefs and makers—many of whom have made their HQ the Cathedral Quarter. Caroline Wilson, of Northern Ireland’s award-winning Taste and Tour company, says Duke of York is a must-stop for drinks, gossip and music memorabilia. But when you want to sit down for a serious meal, make your way through the quarter’s back alleys to The Muddlers Club. Though the restaurant sits on the spot where a secret society was founded more than 200 years ago, the word has been out on this place since the chef-owner Gareth McCaughey hung his shingle here in 2015, when the first of many awards started pouring in. Try the tasting menu for the likes of scallops with Iberico and parmesan—or halibut with romesco and courgette.

To put McCaughey’s creative genius in context, head to his old stomping grounds on the River Lagan: OX, home to “the best tasting menu anywhere in Ireland,” per the Irish Times—and to one richly deserved Michelin star. Expect anything from foie gras and turnips to apricot with frangipane.

If you’re looking for vintage local flavor, however, head to Jail House—an iconic spot restored after 70 years—where crowd favorites now include Monkey 47 gin and hibiscus, and bowls of mussels and garlic cream.

And for the ultimate Belfast nightcap, hit The Crown Liquor Saloon—locally known as “the Crown”—where, if these walls could talk, you’d be listening for the next 50 years. But you should also pay attention to the intricate stained glass: It was commissioned from France in 1887.

22 years later—not even two miles away—construction began on the HMS Titanic. And our final foodie rec in Belfast takes you back to that era: After visiting the Titanic Belfast (appropriately, the world's largest Titanic tourism attraction is on the site of the old shipyard that gave rise to the ocean liner), head to Rayanne House for the famed Titanic Menu, a recreation of the ship’s first-class menu, with everything from salmon and mousseline to petits fours.

Everett’s of Waterford

Little known fact: Crystal shopping makes you work up quite the appetite. Good thing the Irish Restaurant Awards’ best newcomer of 2019 is literally a minute (four, if you’re walking) from the House of Waterford Crystal. Chef-owner Peter Everett showcases local, sustainable food at its finest. Start with slow-cooked Irish lamb and finish with strawberry sabayon tart and rhubarb. Insider tip: Another Waterford gem is Paul Flynn’s Tannery. Irish meat is unsurpassed, and Flynn really knows how to cook it.

Photo courtesy of Everett's Restaurant.

The traditional pub scene

The first thing you need to know about Irish pubs is that they take what they do very seriously. Most specialize in food, music or craic—Gaellic for fun chit-chat. So for a truly local experience, go to one pub to eat, to another across the street to hear some trad music, and to a third around the corner for some quality banter. Of course, you’ll find no shortage of drink at any of the above—so pace yourself. One sign that you’re starting to fit in? When the bartender simply offers to make you a toastie—a grilled cheese sandwich with mustard (and also with ham and chopped onions if you’re lucky).

For a more directed approach to your island-wide pub crawl, consider these favorites: In Dublin, start at Legal Eagle—a former barrister haunt remade into a gastropub with excellent suet pudding and pickled eggs—then head to Cobblestones, an old pub where everyone in Dublin goes for authentic tunes. Or if it’s storytelling you prefer, head to The Stag’s Head.

In Galway, check out the Quays, whose church pews (yes, you read that right) hail from France—but whose excellent bands are typically local. If you're a diehard music fan, head to the iconic De Barra’s Folk Club in west Cork's Clonakilty—an old haunt of Jimmy Hendrix’s guitarist Noel Gallagher.

But Johnnie Fox’s (est. 1798) is the one-size-fits all pub that serves up everything travelers are looking for. Here in the Wicklow Mountains outside Dublin, there's breathtaking landscape, plus music, dancing, local banter and seriously hearty pub grub. Try the bacon and cabbage (as any Irish person will tell you, it's always bacon—never corned beef). 

Tide-to-table dining

Arguably the hottest dining trend in Ireland: eating your way around the tasty, teeming coastline. And while there are innumerable amazing stops, here are three favorites:

While exploring the gorgeous old stomping grounds of the Lannisters, Starks et al., stop in Portstewart on the Causeway Coastal Route to see the real-life stand-in for the shores of Dorne—and gorge on the straight-from-the-ocean goodness at Harry’s Shack. Don't miss the spiced whitebait in newspaper cones.

On the Wild Atlantic Way, celebrity chef Martin Shanahan’s Fishy Fishy in Kinsale is a must for the fish pie. Then there's the town of Carlingford on County Louth's Colley Peninsula—home to clear, cold waters and exceptional mussels and oysters. Locals know to go to the Carlingford Sailing Club, whose Fishy Dishy restaurant (the pattern is pure coincidence, we swear) serves the freshest catches, superbly prepared.

Ready to go? Find your own discoveries on a trip to Ireland this fall. Get your vacation planning started with these deals.

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