With 15 years of eating and sleeping the length and breadth of the country in a tireless quest for the best of the best, John and Sally McKenna have it down to a fine art. This year’s editions of The Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants and The Bridgestone 100 Best Places to Stay are as wonderfully opinionated and idiosyncratic as ever. And also, very importantly, they are independent. The McKennas and their travelling editors pay for their own meals and accommodation, refusing – as they note at the start of each book – any offers of discounts or gifts.
In the introduction of the Best Restaurants there’s a clear declaration of intent when the McKennas talk about “facsimile food, served in grand rooms where menus read well, and then eat badly because they are trapped in pretentiousness, or some crazy idea called “fine dining”, a concept, which as far as we can see, is just petit-bourgeois.” There’s a similar air about the introduction to Best Places To Stay, with an attack on “4-star joints that sit high on the top of a hill, without a tree in sight…lavishly tarmacadamed up to the door with a brightly lit fountain that doesn’t work, inappropriate decking beside the heli-pad, and PVC windows”.
The most expensive places – for eating or staying – aren’t necessarily the most praised. I would have to agree with the McKennas when they say that “you discover value when you discover the work of talented people who are passionate about what they do and who do it in an original way.” Sometimes it’s better to have one amazing, if expensive, meal in a month than eat your lunch out five days a week in one of Dublin’s rubbish cafés. There are bank-breakers in both these books – a penthouse at the Clarence is €2,500, the hotel described here merely as a “work in progress”, and a night out at L’Ecrivain is never going to come cheaply. But there are other price options too. Grove House in Schull is €80 per room in low season, and Donegal’s wonderfully relaxing Coxtown Manor does very reasonably priced gourmet breaks while many of the venues mentioned also have early bird menus.
The wonderful thing about the Guides is their celebration of the kind of host and hospitality that Ireland should be famed for – but often isn’t. there are great quotes from Patricia Farrrell at Iverna Cottage in Spiddal who doesn’t write a breakfast menu but invites people to “have what ever they want, and they usually have everything!” from a spread of fruit, cereals, fish and breads; Grove House’s Katarina Runske – “I want everyone to feel comfortable, at ease and welcome”; and about Pam Mulhaire’s elegant Knockeven in Cobh where she makes people feel “not merely welcome, but extra-welcome, double welcome, triple welcome.”While the prose sometimes goes a little over the top (although I did love the mention of “rollicking Roly’s”) it’s not many people that will be sitting down reading these books from cover to cover. If you’re planning a special night out or weekend away, you could do a lot worse than resort to consulting the McKennas. Just the thing to perk you up after Christmas!The Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants 2006 & The Bridgestone 100 Best Places to Stay 2006 by John and Sally McKenna are published by Estragon Press.