Using an online food search website (www.opentable.ie) it was immediately apparent how limited the options were. What was this though? Bar 1661 on Green Street in the north inner city just off Capel Street, had space. I was aware of this place – it opened with a flood of publicity last year, and fast became one of the city’s trendiest night spots. Specialising in poitin – a spirit that is distilled in a pot – was banned in Ireland in 1661 – hence the name of the bar. The drink was legalised in the late 1990s – under strict guidelines, and has since become achingly hip. The lifestyle blogs and influencers are all over it like a persistent rash – hateful website Lovin’ Dublin has written an article glowing in its praise of the venue.
The bar that existed in this location previously was called the Capel Bar – a venue that I had passed several times, never having ventured inside. It looked like there would be a stench of urine and despair from the place – shabby in a manner that was not handsomely paid for. The new incarnation – Bar 1661 – was a whole other matter. On passing it on my travels it looked plushly salubrious – making it stand out in the fairly gritty location. The clientele looked Instagram ready with a rich orange glow. Not really my type of place, in other words. I have aged out of trendiness (without sadly having aged into wealth).
Times have changed though. Needs must. There was a vacant spot outside at 18.45 – I made the reservation.
When we arrived we were shown to our bar stools by the deep window-sill. This was an inventive use of space I thought to myself. Clearly the windows weren’t designed for outdoor eating, but was a perfectly adequate and reasonably comfortable space to eat.
The waitress brought the food and drinks menu. I asked her what she had on tap from a beer barrel – I am not a fan of spirits so had no wish to sample the cocktails. I ordered a Rebel Red from Cork – which was tasty. The pint of Harp ordered by my friend was less pleasant – understandable I guess. People don’t come here for pints – they come for fancy cocktails. The bottled beer that replaced the Harp was lovely though. For food I ordered a fish finger sandwich with a scrambled egg and tartare sauce on a brioche bread. It was delicious. My friend ordered bacon and cabbage croquettes with Dijon mustard, along with baby new potatoes. The spuds were splendid. Bacon and cabbage croquettes aren’t a patch on their source dish however.
As our food arrived a pair of Gardai strolled by. They looked concerned. Upon their departure the owner of the bar (identified as such by my friend who’d been at the bar previously) appeared outside. He looked rather anxious. We had no idea why. Our question was soon answered when a Garda van appeared. Inside were a boy and girl in blue. As they were across the road we couldn’t hear the conversation clearly. My understanding from the heated argument was that Bar 1661 had no permission for outdoor dining, and that their creative idea to utilise the windowsill was illegal. Section 9 of some bye-law was mentioned. Legal advice from a solicitor was also referred to. The discussion was lengthy and ongoing. I took the side of the bar owner. While it may be true that they were stretching the law slightly by serving food outside, they were strictly adhering to time limits permitted for the reservation; staff were wearing masks; a one-way system was in operation. The neighbourhood was not an area of heavy footfall so there was no obstruction to passers-by. People in the hospitality sector have been walloped repeatedly with the Covid restrictions. Government support to the livelihoods of people in the industry are paltry. Worst of all it seems that this industry is being punished as a distraction from the fact that the Covid numbers have surged since the re-opening of schools, but that must not be mentioned. The huge increase in Covid figures in Donegal seems to have originated in house parties – which will likely increase if there is nowhere else to go.
Bar 1661 might not be my ideal choice of venue for an elegant soiree but I had a pleasant evening there, and I hope they are able to continue in business until times return to normal again.