Thursday, 30 August 2012

IRELAND: IF YOU VISIT ONLY ONE PUB IN DUBLIN ... NEARY'S



WINDOW SEAT: The view from Neary's upstairs lounge
and, below, the bar's famous cast metal arm lanterns

Two zombies walked into a bar in Dublin (sounds like a joke, but it isn’t). The male zombie, a well-spoken and polite young man, ordered a Guinness for himself and a gin and tonic for his girlfriend.
“Sorry, I’m not serving you,” said the barman after poking his eyes back into their sockets.
“What do you mean, you’re not serving us?” demanded the male zombie.
“Regulars only,” said the barman.
“But that’s ridiculous!”
“Sorry. House rules.”
I’ve been a Neary’s regular (some would say resident) for six years, and as far as I knew there were only four house rules — no music, no television, no gaming machines and no singing. But no zombies? That was news to me.
After they left, muttering angrily — they were more livid than living dead — I told the barman they’d been taking part in a big charity fundraising event.
“What! Why didn’t you tell me?” he said. “I thought they were a couple of messers.”
I hadn’t told him because I’d been too busy chuckling behind my Irish Times. However, following that little misunderstanding, zombies will be happy to know they’re more than welcome to eat and drink in Neary’s whenever they want. As long as they don’t go biting big chunks out of the hand that feeds them.

DAILY DELIGHT: Chicken salad sandwich is the top seller
To bite a big chunk out of one of Neary’s famed freshly-made sandwiches you’ll need a detachable lower jaw like a python, because they’re among the highest man-made structures in Dublin and, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, there’s a lot more inside them than the outside would suggest.
My favourite, and the top seller, is the roast breast of chicken salad on white which, I must confess — with apologies to magician Mary in the kitchen who makes them — I’ve often passed off as my own creation when eating one in the office. It’s wrong, but you should see the admiring glances from my colleagues when I remove the foil. They’re thinking, now there’s a guy who knows how to make a sandwich.
Also on the menu that’s available Monday to Saturday from 10.30am until 2.45pm are fresh salmon which is poached every morning, rare roast beef which comes out of the oven as pink as a bride’s cheeks, smoked salmon, ham and Cheddar cheese, all from Irish suppliers and served on white or brown bread.
Which reminds me of the American customer from a visiting cruise ship who ordered a fresh salmon salad sandwich, but without the bread.
“Certainly, sir,” said the barman. “And would that be without the white bread or without the brown bread?”
SALM AGAIN, PLEASE: Try the fresh salmon salad
 A recent and controversial addition to the menu which drew gasps from customers of 20, 30 and even 40 years’ standing and just stopped short of outraged letters to the editor is the toasted special containing cheese, ham, tomatoes and onions. The significance of this seemingly innocuous snack will be lost on the general public, but for nearly 50 years onions were not allowed on the premises, except in the shopping bags of customers. Try as I might, and just stopping short of having a whip-round to hire a private detective, I’ve been unable to get to the bottom of the half-century-long ban and its equally unexplained lifting earlier this year.
That earth-shattering innovation, though, was nothing compared with the day when, horror of horrors, a flat screen TV appeared on the back wall of the downstairs main bar. It was there for no more than two hours, the duration of a Heineken Cup rugby match and the pundits’ post mortem because the TV upstairs was on the blink, but word leaked out and it was the talk of the town.
Next day, as soon as the bar opened, the first person in the door was a radio reporter hot on the trail of a scoop. And who could blame him? This was big news. Neary’s, lauded in guidebooks and on websites worldwide for being the real McCoy of Dublin pubs and which for generations has maintained the old-school qualities and standards eschewed by so many of the city’s brasher bars had, it appeared, sold its soul to Sony. But it was a false alarm, the newshound left with his tail between his legs and neither he nor the TV have been seen since.

TOUCH OF GLASS: Scenes from downstairs snug
 
You never know who you’ll bump into in Neary’s, which is in Chatham Street, just off the top end of Grafton Street (Dunne’s Stores and Monsoon corner). It’s the hang-out of visiting film stars, because while they might get a second glance or an acknowledging nod they’re never pestered by over-zealous fans seeking autographs or photos. Such indecorous behaviour would result in an invitation to drink up and take your custom elsewhere.
Mind you, it recently took a monumental effort on my part to avoid making an idiot of myself and sending a couple of drinks over to actor Lisa Edelstein and her new fella, artist Robert Russell, who dropped by for a Sunday afternoon snifter. I’ve had a thing for Ms. Edelstein since first seeing her in my all-time favourite TV show, The West Wing, in which she played Sam Seaborn’s (Rob Lowe) high-class hooker friend Laurie ‘Brittany’ Rollins, though she’s better known for her more recent role as Dr. Lisa Cuddy in House.
Other big-name customers when they’re in town are home-grown talent Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Jonathan Rhys Myers. David Soul and Jerry Hall were in just a few weeks ago; Glenn Close fell in love with Neary’s while filming Albert Nobbs in Dublin and made it her local; and Hollywood funny guys Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly had the bar in stitches last year when they staged an impromptu comedy routine.

STOUT FELLOW: Neary's regular Liam Manners
The back door of Neary’s opens on to Tangier Lane, a narrow alleyway where the stage door of the Gaiety theatre is also located, so the bar has a long association with those who tread the boards.
During a 1987 production of HMS Pinafore, Dublin actor Alan Devlin — a long-time Neary’s customer — was playing First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Sir Joseph’s big number comes near the end of act one, and as the orchestra launched into the first few bars all eyes were on Devlin, who was supposed to sing: “I am the monarch of the sea/The ruler of the Queen’s Navee.” Instead, he said “F*** this for a game of soldiers. I’m going to the pub,” and stormed off stage. Two minutes later, the back door of Neary’s flew open and Devlin, resplendent in his admiral’s uniform, drew his sword and called for a pint.
That was bad enough, but his radio mic was still on, and the stunned audience in the Gaiety were treated to a curse-filled critique of the operetta he’d just deserted while the frantic stage manager tried to grapple the uniform from him. He later told an interviewer: “The fact of the matter is I was drunk, realised the task ahead of me was too much and I couldn’t hack it, and I just panicked.”
Devlin’s trademark drunken behaviour eventually got him barred from Neary’s, but that didn’t stop him trying his luck.
He walked in one day and demanded: “Gimme a pint of Guinness.”
“There’s the door,” said the barman. “You’re barred.”
He left, but 10 minutes later a man walked in with a brown paper bag over his head, with two eye holes torn in it.
“Gimme a Guinness,” he said.
“Get out, Devlin,” said the barman. “I told you, you’re barred.”
“Ah, Jaysus,” came the reply. “How did you know it was me?”
In later years the actor conquered his chronic alcoholism (“Alcohol was a poison to me,” he admitted), but he never fully recovered from heart surgery and died in May 2011, aged 63.

LOUNGE WIZARD: The upstairs lounge and barman Liam
 
Going back a few decades, Neary’s was a haunt for many of Dublin’s literary giants, including Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, a pair as scarily cranky as they were supremely talented.
Kavanagh, who drank there in the mid-1950s, was sitting at the bar one day revising his latest poems when a trainee barman spilled a pint of Guinness all over them. A collective gasp was followed by a deathly silence as the staff and customers awaited the expected eruption. But Kavanagh was in a rare mellow mood and fixed his eye on the ashen-faced apprentice.
“Son, you may not make much of a barman,” he said, “but you’re a f***ing brilliant judge of poetry.”
John Ryan, the publisher of Envoy magazine for which Kavanagh wrote a monthly diary, was another regular. In his book, Remembering How We Stood, he tells the story of an afternoon spent drinking in Neary’s with the partially-sighted English poet John Heath-Stubbs. After several pints the pair adjourned to a bookies in nearby South Anne Street where Heath-Stubbs, hearing the noisy chatter of the punters and smelling the boozy atmosphere, thought he was in another pub, leaned on a counter and called for a couple of drinks.
Veteran actor Eamon Morrissey, who plays lovable old rogue Cass Cassidy in RTE’s Dublin soap Fair City, is a passionate admirer of Flann O’Brien and has been performing his one-man show, The Brother, based on the author’s novels and newspaper columns, for nearly 40 years.
Morrissey recalls being in Neary’s in the early 1960s and spotting O’Brien drinking on his own. Star-struck by seeing his hero, he went over and congratulated him on his novel, At Swim Two Birds. Big mistake.
“I told him how much I’d enjoyed it and he almost ate the face off me,” said Morrissey. “He said it was ridiculous of me to be praising such a silly book.”
Thankfully, the encounter didn’t sour him, and The Brother sells out every time it’s performed.

A-DOOR-ABLE: The view from the smaller downstairs bar
Most of the international visitors, especially Americans, who drop by Neary’s are following in the footsteps of friends or relatives who’ve been there on previous trips to Ireland. Word-of-mouth recommendations are what bring them through the door, where it’s never been necessary to post a bouncer. For me, a bar that employs doormen is a bar that needs them, not so much to keep undesirables out as to deal with potential trouble inside. Voices are often raised in Neary’s, especially when it’s busy, but never a fist.
The Dublin Neary’s is not related to the Irish bar of the same name owned by County Sligo man Jimmy Neary in Manhattan’s East 57th Street, which he opened on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1967. However, customers from both establishments make a point of visiting the other on their travels — a case of arms across the water. That’s appropriate, because the most recognisable features of Neary’s in Chatham Street are the two beautifully-crafted cast metal arms that support lanterns bearing the pub’s name beside the main door.
Inside, the red carpet, red velvet curtains, red stools and green upholstered banquettes, marble-topped mahogany bar and gas lanterns on polished brass columns lend a comforting feel of yesteryear to the main bar, whose mirror-panelled walls reflect the comings and goings. There’s a smaller bar to the left of the entrance with a three-person snug, and upstairs is the cocktail lounge, with some great paintings on the walls depicting scenes from the bar and the street.
While the splendid interior is an attraction in itself, it’s the staff who make Neary’s the treasure it is, so take a bow James, Dave, Martin, Paddy, Pat, Garret, Liam and Dorota who epitomise all that’s good and admired about a genuine, historic Dublin pub.
If you want the sound of bodhrans being belted and tin whistles being tooted, there are plenty of places in the city that provide traditional music, but in Neary’s it’s all about traditional values and the sound of convivial conversation. Mind you, the sooner the one-tune, guitar-murdering busker who deafens shoppers in nearby Grafton Street gets electrocuted by his own amplifier, the better. Then he, and everyone else within half-a-mile, can rest in peace.
PS: I've just discovered there was one exception to the 50-year onion ban. The late, great Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners who was a Neary's regular used to bring his own onion whenever he fancied a sandwich. He'd take it out of his pocket, hand it to the barman and it would be sent up to the kitchen in the dumb waiter. He was the only customer ever afforded the privilege.

*Donal Lynch’s 2011 article about Jimmy Neary in the Irish Sunday Independent is well worth reading (type both men’s names into your search engine and you’ll find it).

PAT'LL DO NICELY: Barman Pat in the main downstairs bar

Monday, 20 August 2012

LONDON'S SECRET VILLAGE IS SEVEN HEAVEN

PICTURE POSTGUARD: No city on Earth matches London
for parades when the Guards put their best boot forward

Most people think the Whispering Gallery that runs around the inside of the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral is so called because of its peculiar acoustics. Granted, if you whisper against the wall at any point, someone with their ear pressed to another some distance away will hear you. But I have my own theory — after climbing the 259 steps I was so out of breath that a whisper is probably all that anyone can manage.
If you want to take photos from the gallery, which for some spoilsport reason isn’t allowed, get somebody to cause a distraction by testing the echo. The outraged attendant will be so busy chastising the culprit that he won’t notice you snapping away to your heart’s content.
You can get even closer to God by climbing the 271 additional steps — that’s 530 in all — to the Golden Gallery above the dome from where the views of some of London’s most famous landmarks will take what’s left of your breath away.

IT'S QUIET A VIEW: Looking down from the
Whispering Gallery in Saint Paul's Cathedral
Saint Paul’s is one of London’s top draws, and that often means standing in a long queue to get in, so go online, buy a London Sightseeing Pass and walk right up to the priority turnstile — you’ll be ushered straight through.
A London Pass brings considerable savings, and you get jump-the-queue admittance to more than 50 of the most popular attractions. These include Saint Paul’s, the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge experience, Shakespeare’s Globe, HMS Belfast, the Imperial War Museum, the Tate Modern and London Zoo. For sports fans there are free tours of Stamford Bridge, Wembley, Wimbledon, Twickenham and Lords. There are also discounts at shops, restaurants and bars, so the pass quickly pays for itself.
Not included, but worth every penny of the £23 fare (children £11), is the hop-on, hop-off open-top bus tour operated by Original Sightseeing Tours (several companies run buses, but this is by far the best. See www.theoriginaltour.com). If you’re lucky enough to board Scottish guide Rowan’s bus, you’re in for a treat. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this all-singing, all-knowledgeable young lady can recite all 226 lines of Tam o’ Shanter — in Klingon — while dancing a Highland Fling. I hung on her every word as she kept us informed and entertained for two hours.
MY FARE LADY: Singing bus tour guide Rowan
entertains passengers. Below, Nelson's Column

For a live commentary tour with an English-speaking guide as opposed to the recorded multi-lingual version via earphones, opt for the Yellow Route. It takes in Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Downing Street, Horse Guards Parade, Saint Paul’s and Tower Bridge plus many other sights that are familiar to countless millions from photos and television and cinema images.
Seeing them up close is a thrill, but you needn’t settle for a fleeting glimpse. Stay on board the bus if it suits your timetable, or hop off and on and go exploring to make the most of a visit to London, which isn’t complete without taking in a show.
Fans of musicals are spoilt for choice, with Les Miserables, Grease, Thriller, Chicago, Blood Brothers, Jersey Boys, We Will Rock You, Let It Be, Singin’ In The Rain, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, Shrek and Mamma Mia!, to name but a few, at theatres in and around the West End (www.londontheatreboxoffice.net).
For those who prefer drama and comedy there’s The 39 Steps, Yes, Prime Minister, Abigail’s Party and the world’s longest-running play, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. If you’re heading to London soon, don’t miss Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic masterpiece The Cripple of Inishmaan which is at the Noel Coward Theatre until August 31. Oscar winner McDonagh (for his 2005 short film Six Shooter) is the guy who wrote and directed the 2008 cult comedy movie In Bruges. He’s my favourite contemporary playwright.

CATCH THIS: Murder mystery The Mousetrap
is the world's longest-running stage play
Sadly, the tiny theatre space above the Cock Tavern in Kilburn (125 Kilburn High Road; the nearest Tube station is Kilburn Park) has had to close after a recent inspection found its steep and narrow Victorian staircases failed to meet safety standards. However, artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and his team are seeking a new home to continue their award-winning work.
Despite the curtain having fallen on the venue, there’s plenty of impromptu entertainment in the downstairs bar, which was full of Irish building workers and celebrity lookalikes the evening I dropped by.
It was surreal: Eartha Kitt was playing pool with Francis Rossi of Status Quo while Richard Gere, Danny DeVito, Father Ted milkman Pat Mustard and Placido Domingo stood around swilling pints of Guinness. Sir Ian McKellen sat muttering under his breath as he tore up beaten betting slips and tossed them over his shoulder, and Martina Navratilova was warned she’d be barred if she didn’t stop shouting and swearing. I thought I’d walked on to the set of TV comedy series Stella Street.
I’d never heard of Mercer Street or any of the other six thoroughfares that radiate from the Seven Dials plaza in Covent Garden, but discovery is the great delight of travel. In choosing to follow a recommendation and stay at the 137-room Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel, I’m delighted to say I discovered what will in future be my London home from home. If it’s full, I’ll happily sleep in the broom cupboard.

SUITE DREAMS: My luxury room at the Radisson
Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel, Seven Dials
As it was, I slept in a bed so big that it wouldn’t fit in my spare room, in a suite the size of a sprawling apartment with a large lounge area, separate dressing room, a marble bathroom full of complimentary luxury toiletries and the latest interactive Apple technology that lets you connect your iPod, iPad and iPhone to the big-screen TV. And, as in all Radisson hotels worldwide, there’s free wifi throughout.
The hotel entrance looks on to the plaza at the cheese-wedge point where Mercer Street and Monmouth Street meet opposite the Crown pub. The nearest Tube stations are Covent Garden (four minutes’ walk), Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road (both five minutes).
Inside, the weird and wacky pieces of art in the public areas and in the Dial Bar (try the cocktails) and Restaurant reflect the far-from-stuffy taste of the hotel’s owners. When it comes to art I know what I like, especially when it needs no explaining, and I liked what I saw because it made me smile.
I haven’t seen the checklist that manager Dawn Thomas uses when interviewing job applicants, but I’ll bet a ready smile and a sense of humour score bonus points. Her mostly-young staff are super-presentable, super-helpful, highly-efficient and clearly happy to be working there. When the staff are content, so too are the guests.
As Matilda the Musical is playing to packed houses at the Cambridge Theatre just across the plaza, the hotel has put together a special pre-show package for parents and children. Stupendous Afternoon Tea, from 2 to 5pm in the Dial Bar, lives up to its name. Among the irresistible goodies presented on tiered plates are Ludicrously Lovely Lemon Loaf Cake, Tremendously Terrific Trifle and Fantastic Fondue. The price is £29.50 for adults and £13.75 for kids, who get a free copy of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

TEA-RRIFIC: A young theatregoer tucks into her
pre-show Stupendous Afternoon Tea in Dial Bar
Monmouth Street is home to some great bars, cafes, restaurants, designer shoe and clothes shops (Irish fashion queen Orla Kiely is here) and chic boutiques. You’ll also find London’s longest-established French restaurant, Mon Plaisir, which has been in its present location since the 1940s and is a gem.
It gets very busy towards 9pm when service tends to slow a bit, but when you’re sitting in pleasant surroundings in good company and with the prospect of some fabulous food on the way (the onion soup is magnifique) the delay is negligible. Mon Plaisir is surprisingly good value too, with two courses from the set dinner menu for £22.95 and three for £24.95 every evening.
On the other side of the street, Hotel Chocolat’s basement Roast and Conch cafe offers a chocolate-themed menu, while upstairs it’s fun watching sweet-toothed shoppers fighting the urge to buy one of everything in sight. I bought a box of assorted centres for a pal of mine who’s the high priestess of a chocolate-worshipping cult who’ve been known to dabble in Black Magic, and she pronounced them the best she’d ever tasted. I can only take her word for it, because no one was offered the chance of giving a second opinion.

OUI TRIM: French restaurant Mon
Plaisir. Below, Murdock Barbers

A few doors along from Hotel Chocolat is Murdock Barbers and Gentlemen’s Store (www.murdocklondon.com) where, thanks to having been given a gift voucher, I was treated to a haircut (because they don’t do transplants).
Every couple of months I pay €10 in Dublin for a trim that takes no more than five minutes, but I was in Murdock’s chair for an hour, during which time, mercifully, I wasn’t once asked if I’d been or was going on any holidays this year.
When the barber eventually waved the rear-view mirror behind my neck, I made appreciative noises, stood up — and remembered to my embarrassment that I hadn’t gone to the cash machine and couldn’t give him a tip.
“That’s no problem, sir,” he said, but I felt obliged to buy something.
“Eh … I’ll take a wee bottle of that cologne there,” I said, and handed over my credit card.
“Certainly, sir. That will be £70, please.”
I nearly fainted.
If you fancy being pampered, Murdock’s Luxury Full Service deal of shampoo and haircut, wet shave, head massage and shoe shine costs £90.

CAERPHILLY DOES IT: Cutting a chunk of
cheese for a customer in Neal's Yard Dairy
Neal’s Yard, which is accessible from both Monmouth Street and Shorts Gardens, is home to several terrace cafes and salad bars offering a huge selection of vegetarian dishes, but the busiest locale is Neal’s Yard Remedies. For a flagship store it’s small, but every available space is packed with the UK’s biggest range of natural health and beauty products that are handmade from home-grown and sustainable organic ingredients in the company’s eco factory in Dorset (it’s remarkable what you learn when you nip into the nearest shop to escape a sudden downpour).
One Seven Dials shop I needed no excuse to nip into was Neal’s Yard Dairy at 17 Shorts Gardens (www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk) where they sell more than 50 hard, soft, blue and washed rind cheeses made from cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk. I’d jump at the chance to work there, because each day before they open for business the staff have to taste all the cheeses, the lucky devils, so they can discuss them with customers.
The dairy isn’t hard to find — just follow your nose. Once inside, inhale deeply and savour the marvellous mouthwatering aromas, which made me feel quite dizzy. Not as dizzy as I felt looking down from the Whispering Gallery in Saint Paul’s. And certainly not as dizzy as I felt when I paid £70 for a free haircut. It wasn’t cologne I needed after a shock like that, it was smelling salts.
Most visitors to London throw themselves into the hustle and bustle of big city life, arriving with exhaustively-researched lists of the most popular sights to see and things to do. But I’ll bet if you asked tourists in Trafalgar Square — which is only 10 minutes’ walk from Mercer Street — about Seven Dials, the vast majority would respond with blank looks, which is a shame.
Maybe these few observations will help spread the word about central London’s secret village, its feel-good atmosphere, great restaurants and superb shops. If so, I’ll be Dialighted.

˜For more information, see www.sevendials.co.uk (there’s a location map charting every shop, boutique and restaurant), www.visitlondon.com and www.visitbritain.com

TOWERIST ATTRACTION: A cruise boat on the
Thames passes the historic Tower of London
GETTING THERE
Aer Lingus flies to London Heathrow and Gatwick from Dublin, Cork and Belfast; to Gatwick from Knock; Heathrow from Shannon; and Luton from Waterford (www.aerlingus.com). Ryanair flies to Gatwick, Stansted and Luton from Dublin; to Gatwick and Stansted from Cork; Stansted and Luton from Kerry and Knock; and Stansted from Derry (www.ryanair.com). CityJet flies from Dublin to London City (www.cityjet.com). British Airways flies to Heathrow, Gatwick, London City and Stansted from Belfast (www.britishairways.com). Easyjet flies from Belfast to Gatwick, Stansted and Luton (www.easyjet.com).

STAY
The 4-star Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel, 20 Mercer Street (020 7836 4300, www.radissonblu-edwardian.com).
EAT
LUNCH: Roast and Conch, Hotel Chocolat, 4 Monmouth Street (020 7209 0659, www.hotelchocolat.co.uk). DINNER: French restaurant Mon Plaisir, 19-21 Monmouth Street (020 7836 7243, www.monplaisir.co.uk); Dial Bar and Restaurant, Edwardian Mercer Street (020 7845 8607).
SAVE
A money-saving one-day London Pass costs £46 for adults and £29 for a child aged five to 15. A two-day pass is £61 (£46), three days £74 (£51) and six days £99 (£69). Add a Travelcard to your London Pass and enjoy unlimited travel on all Underground, bus, tram, Docklands Light Rail, overground trains and national rail services within zones 1 to 6. See www.londonpass.com or buy from the Ticket Booth, 11a Charing Cross Road, opposite the Garrick Theatre (two minutes’ walk from Leicester Square Tube station).