Until just a few years ago, dining out in Belfast meant either sitting down to an Ulster Fry, consisting of bacon, sausage, fried egg and lots of fried soda and potato bread, or having a sirloin steak, well-done, served with a mountain of chips. If the plate was not filled to overflowing in either case, the restaurant was declared to be cheating the customer. Quantity was everything. Little wonder that Northern Ireland came second only to Scotland in the world league for heart disease (luckily, however, we have the Royal Victoria Hospital who are world-renowned for their expertise in matters relating to the heart!). Visitors are to note that they would be well advised to try a full Ulster Fry, especially the morning after the night before. Its not hard to track an Ulster fry down ' it will be served to you in every hotel and guesthouse in the city. However, if you look at the same menus, something in the Northern Ireland culinary landscape has changed. Light has dawned. Some bed and breakfast establishments in South Belfast are now offering venison sausages, organic yoghurt and fruit smoothies for breakfast, for example, along with the Ulster fry for those die-hard cholesterol fans among us, and the expanding menu is a testament to the changing palates of Belfast inhabitants. If you come to Belfast you can now find practically every kind of restaurant you could wish for, many of which have won prestigious awards. This guide is divided into restaurant category and offers a taste of whats on offer within the city.
Much of the credit for Belfasts culinary change of heart must go to Paul and Jeanne Rankin of Roscoff and, latterly, television fame. Rankin launched his first Roscoff restaurant in 1989 which has now spawned two cafes offering bistro dining, Roscoff Bakery and Roscoff Express. Recently Rankin has completely revamped his restaurant, re-opening as Cayenne. Having discovered the joys of garlic and olive oil over the dubious delights of 'a big fry' and chips with everything, the Belfast palate has not looked back. World Cuisine has finally reached us.
Another fine contemporary restaurant in the city is Deanes Restaurant and Brasserie, where Michelin star chef Michael Deane (trained by Rankin) wows the local epicures and visiting celebrities alike. If you're feeling very extravagant theres always the restaurant upstairs, but if finances don't stretch that far, the downstairs brasserie still offers world-class cuisine at a (slightly) more affordable price. Located on Howard Street that runs along the back of the City Hall, Deanes is the best restaurant within the city centre area.
Two other thriving restaurants offering contemporary food ' imaginative dishes often featuring a fusion of eastern and western styles - are the Metro on Botanic Avenue and Opus One. The former is famous for serving Tapas on Sundays: dish after dish of elegant little Spanish savouries, and you can wash it all down with some fine wines from their extensive wine list. Tapas is a long drawn-out social occasion and the Tapas menu lasts all afternoon. Worth staying in for. Opus One, located beside Queens Film Theatre in the university district is a beautifully decorated, elegant eatery, all yellow and chrome, a good choice for a romantic dinner for two.
Belfasts best seafood restaurant is Tedfords, close to the Custom House and the Waterfront Hall in the revamped docks area of the city, a great venue for a pre-performance meal. Theres a huge range of fish on the menu, all wonderfully fresh and beautifully prepared in delicious sauces, French-style. The restaurant, in areas, is made to resemble a ship and you can enjoy this taste of the high seas in the very heart of Belfasts once-famous maritime area.
Belfasts ethnic community, small as it is, have made a vast contribution to the range of food on offer within the city. A Mongolian Barbecue takes you back to the days and dishes of Genghis Khan and is a fun and inexpensive night out. You choose what you want and then watch it fired before your very eyes by an obliging chef ' theres no limit to how much you can eat here, so starve yourself for at least a day before you come.
The citys Chinese population constitute Belfasts largest single immigrant grouping and there are many Chinese restaurants and takeaways. The Sun Kee is lauded as being particularly authentic and is popular with Chinese families. The décor isn't up to much ' utilitarian is the word ' but the food is excellent. This restaurant, located in Donegall Pass opposite another good Chinese restaurant, the Manor House, is small and tables are hard to come by so make sure you book well in advance. The most recent addition to Belfasts long list of Chinese restaurants is the Red Panda, on Great Victoria Street. Its doing a thriving trade. Expansive and airy, with excellent service and an eclectic menu, this restaurant is a great choice for larger groups. Check out their Sunday banquet and weekday business lunch deals.
Indian cuisine is also well-represented in the city. The Moghul on Botanic Avenue is recommended for their good buffet and very friendly service, whilst the Little India on the Dublin Road remains Belfasts only entirely vegetarian Indian restaurant, offering a delicious evening menu in simple surroundings, and also the best lunch deal in Belfast in the form of their Thali lunch: two curries, pilau rice and salad for just £2.50, served between 12.00 and 2.30pm. If you're out in the suburbs the Kinara in Whiteabbey Village off the Shore Road has a broad menu with particularly good lamb dishes. Either takeaway or sit in their large dining area overlooking Belfast Lough.
You can also expect plenty of Italian restaurants, such as Speranzas and Graffiti Italiano, where pasta, salad and pizza are served Mediterranean-style. Pizza is popular and the two best pizza houses, serving primarily Pizza, are Pizza Express and the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, both within five minutes walk of each other and round the corner from the U.G.C. cinema complex, making pizza after a film the perfect choice.
But in case you get carried away with all of the fine fare on offer, don't forget that Belfast is also a great drinking town. Many bars do serve food, if you wish to combine your drinking and dining pleasure. McHughs offers a variety of exciting cooking, including great noodle dishes, as well as being the oldest bar in Belfast, dating from 1711. Located just behind the Albert Clock this pub is a good choice for an up-market pub lunch as you can also order some nice wines to complement your meal. Nicks Warehouse, near the Cathedral, has one of the best wine lists in the city and merges exquisite vintages with great food. A meal upstairs in the evening can be quite expensive but lunch at Nicks is always great value for money. In the ornate Victorian décor of the Crown, which was so beloved by the poet laureate, John Betjeman, you can enjoy a plate of oysters or authentic Irish Stew with your pint. This bar is owned by the National Trust and is one of Belfasts most famous institutions. If you want some privacy, bring your drink into one of the many snugs that line the ground floor.
If you've come to these shores to listen to some of Irelands famous traditional music, you'll have to step inside a bar to hear it played. Kellys Cellars, up a little alleyway by the side of the Primark building, is famous for its traditional music sessions and excellent pints of Guinness. The Duke of York also has live music most nights of the week, though there may be a cover charge on weekends. But early on in the week you can easily find yourself in these beautiful old-time bar, with just a few others, entertained for free with some foot-stomping jigs and reels.
Other bars, such as Morrisons or Katy Dalys, offer you live music of a more contemporary nature to encourage the consumption of liquor. Both these establishments run very popular club nights. At The Fly, or Laverys, one of the citys oldest and most famous drinking institutions, you can simply sit back and enjoy the craic. The weekend trade is always busy in Belfast bars but if visiting Belfast mid-week, you'll find bars will often have promotions or quizzes to keep the customers coming in the doors.
Entertainment in Belfast
The theatre, music and good conversation: entertainment in Belfast revolves around these three muses, fuelled, of course, by a 'wee drop' of Bushmills and a pint or two of Guinness.
The Grand Opera House, opened in 1894, remains the pinnacle of Belfast theatre. It attracts reputable companies from England touring with ex-West-end productions, musicals, ballet companies from around the world and our own opera companies. A pantomime every Christmas starring local personalities, along with at least one national soap star, is a highlight of the season. The building is beautiful in itself and backstage tours can be arranged. The Opera House, however, is now outshone by the magnificent Waterfront Hall, on the banks of the Lagan and a short walk from the city centre. Like the Opera House, the Waterfronts splendid auditorium and the smaller BT Studio host a variety of performances, from classical concerts and Shakespearean drama to childrens concerts and stand-up comedy. The Lyric Theatre on Ridgeway Street hosts our local professional theatre group. Classical, Irish and contemporary drama fills an exciting season. This was the company where Liam Neeson began his career in the late 70s. The Group Theatre is a showcase for local amateur talent while the Old Museum offers more experimental fare and is a showcase for local writing talent.
The Ulster Orchestra performs every Friday night between September and June in either the Ulster Hall or the Waterfront Hall. Location will depend on the popularity of the programme or the soloist. Belfasts own favourite sons, James Galway and Van-the-Man Morrisson, will always fill the Waterfront. Popular music, rock and folk are always available in the pubs of Belfast. Particular venues to note are the Empire, the Rotterdam, and the Limelight, where it is possible to catch acts such as Nils Lofgren, Bert Jansch or other new groups just before they hit the big-time. Oasis were on stage at the Limelight on the night of their first UK number one and it is this venue in particular that continues to attract some of the best up and coming names on the British music scene. Clubs such as Thompsons Garage and the Brunswick cater for everything from 70s disco to house and hip-hop. Theres also much madness to be experienced at the Front Page, Tokyos and Ski Bunny at Auntie Annies. In spite of Ian Paisleys 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaign, there is also a growing gay scene in Belfast centred on such clubs as the Kremlin.
The pubs of the "Golden Mile" stretching from the Crown with its Victorian splendour to the Fly offer all the 'craic' any visitor to Ireland could wish. Always crowded at the weekend, always welcoming to the visitor to the city, this is a pub-crawl to beat them all. The only problem is you might not remember everything that happened the next morning, but then again that might be no bad thing.
The West Belfast Festival in August each year celebrates Irish and nationalist culture in the city. The Belfast Festival at Queens, which takes place in November each year, is a truly international festival of the arts attracting performers from around the globe and ranks second only to Edinburgh as the largest festival in the United Kingdom.