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Cream of the Crop Reaps Due Rewards At the 2010 Georgina Campbell Awards


Updated : Oct 20, 2009

Cream of the Crop Reaps Due Rewards
At the 2010 Georgina Campbell Awards

The cream of the hospitality world gathered at Bord Bia in Dublin today, for the announcement of the 2010 Georgina Campbell Awards, associated with the respected Georgina Campbell’s Ireland independent hospitality guides, and Ireland’s most popular independent hospitality and travel website Unlike most other award schemes, the Georgina Campbell Awards are completely independent, and in no way affiliated with trade associations or marketing groups; it is this independence which has earned them special respect in the industry, and public trust. The event was anticipated even more keenly than usual in this annus horribilis for the hospitality sector, as accolades from a respected independent guide are not only a source of encouragement, but very good for business too.
Every year Georgina Campbell and her team of experienced assessors comb the country’s hotels, country houses, guesthouses, restaurants, pubs and cafés, seeking out the best consumer experiences for readers of The Guide – and, increasingly, for followers of the very successful website, The Guide is now published biennially (this is the first year without a printed ‘glovebox bible’ Ireland guide since the company’s inception in 1998); but, said Ms Campbell, “We have maintained our rigorous programme of anonymous assessment visits throughout the season as usual, and the reports are gradually go through directly to the website, As always, we’ve kept a sharp eye out for those exceptional establishments which are right on top of their game and going the extra mile for customers.”
Commenting on the Awards, Georgina Campbell said, “Less is definitely not more in this difficult time for Irish hospitality so – knowing that encouragement is needed now more than ever for those who are focused on maintaining quality no matter how difficult the market – we’ve added three new awards this year: a Green Ireland Hospitality Award, in recognition of outstanding environmental efforts; a Casual Dining Award, rewarding real quality among the kind of attractively priced restaurants people drop into without booking, with good home baking a particular focus; and an Outstanding Contribution Award, in recognition of the special contribution made by exceptional individuals in Irish hospitality.”
In what has been the toughest year ever for the Irish hospitality sector, Ms Campbell warns against unreasonable consumer pressure regarding prices. “Many fine establishments have cut costs to the bone and their businesses are now literally hanging by a thread,” she said; “Prices have often been reduced to an unsustainable level and yet there is constant pressure from the public, to make even further cuts. Lack of government action to reduce costs that are outside the control of businesses (VAT, for example, and local charges such as rates) means that fixed costs remain too high for further negotiation; therefore, if for no other reason than enlightened self-interest - we will no longer be able to enjoy the favourite places where we eat and stay if they can’t remain in business – consumers need to think twice before pressing for even better bargains.”
Top award winners on the day included: The BrookLodge & Wells Spa (Hotel of the Year); Campagne, Kilkenny (Restaurant of the Year); Eamonn O’Reilly, One Pico, Dublin (Chef of the Year); The Ballymore Inn, Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare (Pub of the Year); and Nick’s Warehouse, Belfast (Outstanding Contribution Award).

Commenting on this year’s winners, Georgina said; “Excellence is always the object of our search, of course, but we also look for a particularly keen response to (or, better still, anticipation of) the particular demands of each year. No prizes for guessing what we’ve been looking for this season – a determination to keep standards up, while prices fall. There is cause for concern in that standards in Irish hospitality generally are visibly slipping, but our award winners are made of stern stuff, and absolutely dedicated to providing the very best for their customers.”

Sponsors on the day included: Bord Bia, BIM, Fáilte Ireland,Blue Dragon/Patak’s and Waterways Ireland.

Award Winners Citations:

Nick’s Warehouse, Belfast
A new award, in recognition of the special contribution made by exceptional individuals in Irish hospitality.
It’s hard to believe that Nick and Kathy Price are celebrating 20 years in business this year, it’s all so fresh still – and yet the changes since then have been immense, in Northern Ireland generally, and also in their particular area of Belfast. The restaurant was originally a whiskey warehouse (built for Bushmills Whiskey in 1832), and when they opened here over 150 years later they were very much the culinary pioneers in this now popular area of the city – their staying power and longterm success is not only a great credit to them, but has been an inspiration to countless others. This was Belfast’s first wine bar and, while the layout has changed little and the philosophy not at all, wine is an even more important element of the mix these days than it originally was, as they now have their own wine business. The style is lively and contemporary, with menus depending on the fresh produce available from a network of trusted suppliers and often including unusual local items, and game in season – and consistency is a key feature (head chef Sean Craig has been at Nick’s since 1996). Nick Price does a lot for the food scene in Belfast, including being generous with his time; he supports numerous food initiatives, and is Chairman of the Taste of Ulster group. There’s a sense of fun about this place (“Why not try one of our ‘Seductive Money Saving Offers’ pudding and a glass of dessert wine or cheese with port”) so it’s no wonder that Nick’s has a loyal clientèle who love the good food, attentive, friendly service and the buzz. To celebrate the completion of their second successful decade in business, their first cookbook is due in December – and, like Nick’s sister, Sue Farmer of The Bay Tree in Holywood, Nick and Kathy are publishing it themselves. We look forward to it – and, perhaps, to a follow-up volume in 10 years time!

The BrookLodge & Wells Spa, Macreddin, Co Wicklow
Numerous strands make up this complex operation – but, as you sense from the bright helpful staff and an atmosphere of care about the place, this very special hotel is more than the sum of its parts. Thanks to the vision of three brothers, Evan, Eoin and Bernard Doyle, a new “village” now exists on the site of a deserted one in a Wicklow valley - and they have devised many reasons for people to go there, including a Paul McGinley golf course and an equestrian centre amongst the many outdoor activities, and a Resort Spa. Weddings and events are key to its success, but kept completely separate from the main hotel, where there is a relaxed country house feel and a choice of dining in Ireland’s only certified organic restaurant, The Strawberry Tree, in atmospheric La Taverna Armento (there’s a whole story attached to that restaurant too, and its close links with a village in Italy) or, in theconvincingly old-world Actons pub on their little ‘street’ - anyone who remembers Evan’s original Strawberry Tree bar & restaurant in Killarney will recognise the skill at work here. A former winner of the Guide’s Natural Food Award (in association with Euro-Toques, in 2003), BrookLodge has earned national recognition for its strong position on organic food - and their organic food markets are legendary. Having worked hard to maintain high standards stay in the frame during this difficult year, it’s a great tribute to the Doyle brothers and their team that so many people still think it’s a good idea to head down to Wicklow for a break these days: they are to be heartily congratulated.
Campagne, Kilkenny, Co Kilkenny
The capital’s leading restaurants tend to hog the spotlight at awards and, while the size of the population means more top rank restaurants to choose from, excellence is no respecter of location. Former winners of our highest restaurant accolade have included exceptional out-of-town establishments like The Tannery, Dungarvan (2004), Casino House in West Cork (2005) and MacNean House & Bistro (2007).
When Garrett Byrne, former head chef at Dublin’s celebrated Chapter One, returned home to Kilkenny and opened his own restaurant with his partner and restaurant manager, Brid Hannon, it was obvious that something exciting was about to happen in the Marble City. And indeed it has. The restaurant itself – in a new build, tucked away beside the old arches of the disused Kilkenny/Portlaoise railway line – is testament to their confidence and good taste: no expense has been spared to ensure a quality setting for Garrett’s cooking, but it’s a bling-free zone, with low key yet atmospheric decor (dominated by a series of brilliant paintings depicting rural life, by Kilkenny artist Catherine Barron), and great attention to the comfort of diners. Simply laid white-clothed tables and discreet service set the tone for an experience focused on Garrett’s superb food. No fancy big plates, no extravagant flowers, nothing at all showy - just exceptional attention to detail (gorgeous sourdough bread, for example), well-judged flavour combinations and perfect French-inspired modern cooking. Add anticipatory, charmingly informed service under Brid’s direction, a wine list tailored to match the food, and a quiet air of confidence. Result: result an exceptional dining experience, and worthy recipient of the title Restaurant of the Year.

Eamonn O’Reilly, One Pico, Dublin.
One of the most coveted of all our awards, the title Chef of the Year has previously gone to some very distinguished heroes – and some unsung heroes - of the Irish food scene including Kevin Thornton (Thornton’s Dublin, 1999); Moira Tighe (Cromleach Lodge, Co Sligo, 2000); Michael Deane (Deane’s Belfast; 2001); Maura Foley (Packies’s Kenmare, 2003) and, more recently, Stefan Matz (Ashford Castle (2007); Paul Flynn (The Tannery, Dungarvan, 2008); and Richard Corrigan (Bentley’s Dublin, 2009). This year’s winner has earned a special place among these hallowed names.
If asked to single out just one person in the hospitality world who not only anticipated the downturn (as it was called last year) well ahead of everyone else, but also acted promptly to ensure a future for his business, together with exceptional value and quality for cash-strapped customers, it would be Eamonn O’Reilly. One of Dublin’s finest chefs (we have followed his career with interest since the early days in Camden Street), his style is basically classical French with an occasional nod to Irish traditions. He is known and, rightly, admired for sophisticated, technically demanding dishes that are invariably executed with confidence and flair - he cooks with first class ingredients, turning them into classic dishes with lovely clean flavours, yet with his own unique stamp on each dish. Also the owner of Bleu Café Bistro on Dawson Street, he moves between the two kitchens and it’s greatly to his credit that – as recent experience has confirmed - the cooking never waivers, whether or not he is present. A true professional, we take off our toques to him.

The Ballymore Inn, Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare
Is it a pub? Or is it a restaurant? Much as the term ‘gastropub’ jars the nerves, it must be admitted that it just about sums this place up – you could certainly drop in here for a coffee, or a drink in the Back Bar (their wine list is excellent), but the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Barry and Georgina O’Sullivans country pub, The Ballymore Inn, is food. Or, to be more precise, the particular food they have made their trademark – based on tiptop ingredients (sources are proudly credited on menus) and simply stylish, without any of the cheffy complications that spoil many a good meal these days, the cooking at The Ballymore Inn is outstanding for its freshness, flavour and value for money. Georgina – well known to the public from her former advisory role at Bord Bia – is interested in food trends and this brings a contemporary note and frequent menu changes, but the basics (28 day dry-aged steaks from West Cork, for example) are constant. Appealing menus and imaginative, carefully selected, drinks lists are both designed to be accessible in straitened times, but no short cuts are allowed – this, together with skilful cooking, and great hospitality from Barry and Georgina and their well-trained team, are the reasons for choosing The Ballymore Inn as our Pub of the Year.

‘JUST ASK’ RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR 2010; sponsored by Bord Bia:
Rathmullan House, Rathmullan, Co Donegal
“Just Ask!” is a public awareness campaign that aims to encourage consumers when eating out to look for information on where the food (particularly meat) on their plate comes from, and encourages chefs to provide this information on their menus. The programme supports both large and smaller artisan suppliers, encouraging both Irish diners and visitors from abroad to support restaurants that are in turn supporting their suppliers.
Good local food has always been central to the experience at this gracious nineteenth century house set in lovely gardens on the shores of Lough Swilly, in Co Donegal, run by William and Mark Wheeler, and their wives Yvonne and Mary. William and Mark’s parents Robin and Bob established an early reputation for the quality of their table, and the outstanding breakfast buffet alone was always worth travelling for; Bob still makes the marmalade in winter, and also batches of jam through the summer as fruits come into season. And, thanks to the commitment of an exceptionally dedicated team, the food has never been better than now: head chef Ian Orr is a Derry man who returned from The River Café to work at Rathmullan, and his meticulously-sourced menus are based on the very best of local and artisan foods. Working closely with organic gardener, Dennis Hawke, Ian makes best use of fresh produce from their beautiful and highly productive restored walled garden, in combination with carefully selected ingredients from the immediate area and beyond, much of it wild, free range, artisan and /or organic – and all documented throughout each menu for the information and interest of customers. Of particular note is the Children’s Menu - a proper little person’s version of the adult menu, with lots of choices and no concessions to ‘popular’ fare, this is education on a plate.
The invitation to ‘Just Ask’ is genuine here – they just love talking about good food.
SEAFOOD CIRCLE RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR 2010; sponsored by Bord Iascaigh Mhara:
Aherne’s Seafood Restaurant, Youghal, Co Cork
The BIM Seafood Circle is a programme highlighting the best places to buy fresh fish, and to dine out on seafood. The hospitality element endorses good seafood restaurants offering a high proportion of indigenous Irish seafood with a bias towards seasonal local fish and shellfish. A second element of the programme focuses on retail outlets (see for details).
The FitzGibbon family’s renowned East Cork bar and restaurant with accommodation is a big magnet for seafood lovers and they are previous winners of the Seafood Bar of the Year Award. However, while many casual diners are happy to drop in for a bite of their excellent bar food, the restaurant has come into special focus this year. Following a revamp, the elegant restaurant has emerged with a calm, sophisticated and romantic atmosphere – and David FitzGibbon’s cooking is right on form. Outstandingly good breads set the standard from the outset and are brilliant with local Yawl Bay smoked salmon – and, although there are other choices (roast lamb, fillet steak), it’s for the ultra-fresh seafood that comes straight from the fishing boats in Youghal harbour that Aherne’s is rightly known, and it’s pointless to resist. A wide range is offered, including treats like hot buttered lobster, and their famous Hot Seafood Selection with two sauces; but also, more frequently these days, David is offering whole fish cooked on the bone: classic sole on the bone, of course, but also others - a dramatic whole seabass, perhaps, complete with head and curling tail. Perfectly cooked fish and classic saucing are the hallmarks – but servings are impressively generous too, a point which won’t go unnoticed in these budget-conscious times. Lovely service, a good wine list and and good classic desserts too – and, for overnight guests, an excellent breakfast to round off the stay.

SEAFOOD CIRCLE BAR OF THE YEAR 2010; sponsored by Bord Iascaigh Mhara:
Kealys Seafood Bar, Greencastle, Co Donegal;
Kealys Seafood Bar is right on the harbour at the Donegal fishing port of Greencastle – perfectly positioned for people travelling on the ferry between Greencastle and Magilligan Point in Northern Ireland. It’s a friendly, low-key little place where simplicity has always been valued and, even if it’s just to pop in for a daytime bowl of Tricia Kealy’s Greencastle chowder and some home-baked brown bread or ‘James’s baby brown scones’, fans will never miss the opportunity of a visit to Kealys - if we did an award for seafood chowder, Kealys would take the prize! Like her late husband James, who cooked here for many years, Tricia’s approach to seafood is creative and balanced, seen in dishes, which are modern in tone but also echo traditional Irish themes, and in which delicious local organic vegetables are used with fish to make the most of both precious resources. Breads are a speciality - perfect partners for Irish farmhouse cheeses, as well as the famous chowder. Simple, and delicious.
THE “IRISH EXPERIENCE” B&B 2010 sponsored by Fáilte Ireland
Glasha Farmhouse, Ballymacarbry, Co Waterford
The rush of new hotels offering low cost breaks in recent years had the effect of putting pressure on the traditional B&B – but, as Failte Ireland recognise, a good B&B can offer guests a truly Irish Experience like no other, with great hospitality, good wholesome food and loads of local knowledge.
Paddy and Olive O’Gorman’s spacious farmhouse high up in the hills in West Waterford is just the kind of place that visitors dream of finding when they come to Ireland - and for townies too, it makes the perfect relaxed rural break. There’s loads to do out of doors - walking is a major attraction, for example, as Glasha links the Comeragh and Knockmealdown sections of the Munster Way; and also fishing, as the River Nire runs beside the farmhouse; painting this beautiful area is a popular pastime; and both pony trekking and golf are available locally. Bedrooms are very luxurious for a farm stay and Olive thinks of everything that will help guests feel at home (including plenty of comfortable lounging room for guest, a conservatory and garden). Olive makes delicious home-cooked dinners for guests if required and, by a happy chance, the nearest pub is just 3 minutes’ walk from the house. A good breakfast will see you on your way – with guidance a-plenty on what to do and where to find it. This is a lovely place to stay, and a perfect antidote to the stresses of urban life – the ‘Irish Experience’ B&B personified.

Breakfast is the last meal guests will have before leaving any place where they have stayed the night, and the memory will linger.It’s an area that can be - and often is - a USP: the extra care that certain establishments take with breakfasts is earning them a loyal following. And not just for the breakfast itself, but because the spirit of generosity and true hospitality, that giving so much more than the basic requirement implies, is carried through into all other aspects of these special places. Put simply: breakfast ‘talks’.
Park Hotel Kenmare Co Kerry
Nobody understands the importance of attention to detail better than the Brennan brothers, stars of RTE’s quirky ‘hospitality hospital’ programme, ‘At Your Service’. Legendary in the hospitality world for the exceptionally high standards that they not so much insist on as nurture at Park Hotel Kenmare, the Brennans have faced the same challenging conditions as everyone else this year and they have had to work creatively to attract business. Prices have tumbled – from the consumer angle I have to admit we were more relaxed, and enjoyed our stay (and departure) more than usual this year, as the bill was considerably lower – but standards have not. Economies have had to be made of course, but not in any way that would adversely affect the guest experience. There is perhaps less choice on the dinner menu, but the quality of both food and service is outstanding. John mentioned the cost of soap wastage, saying they’ve reduced the size from 50g to 25g, but that’s unlikely to have sparked complaints. And they certainly haven’t gone the way of so many hotels and cut corners on breakfast, which remains the same, exceptionally satisfying way to start the day as it ever was: superb food, excellent service and well-judged timing so it doesn’t take up the entire morning. Let’s hope the topic comes up at one of their ‘At Your Service’ ‘guinea pig’ hotels – there are plenty out there who would do well to listen.
Category winners:
B&B Breakfast: Beech Hill House, Holywood, Co Down
Victoria Brann’s experience in catering means she could whip up a marvellous meal with one hand tied behind her back- and makes her a very relaxed and engaging breakfast host. She treats guests to a generous selection of fresh fruits and juices, local Clandeboye yogurt and other good things from the buffet and, while you’re wading through this cornucopia of good things and playing with all the intriguing pots ands jars on her lazy susan, rustles up hot dishes of your choice – often including fresh fish.
Country House Breakfast: Gregans Castle, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare
Allow time to enjoy an excellent breakfast when staying at Gregans Castle - a delicious buffet is set up with fresh juices and fruits, organic cereals, freshly baked bread, home-made preserves and local produce including Burren Smokehouse organic smoked salmon, Burren Gold organic cheese and Limerick ham; the menu of hot dishes reads very simply - but the secret is in the quality ingredients, which sing with flavour.
Hotel Breakfast: Park Hotel Kenmare, Co Kerry
In line with the excellence which prevails throughout the hotel, the outstanding breakfasts served at the Park start the day in style – table service is superbly professional (methodical, prompt and pleasant) and everything offered is perfect of its type. Hot dishes include less usual items (lovely kippers, served with tomatoes, mushrooms and parsley, for example, and kidneys served with bacon and pearl onions), and homemade preserves accompany the freshly baked breads and hot toast; but the point is that everything is delicious, perfectly timed, and – with details like crisp linen napkins to enhance the experience – there’s a real sense of occasion for breakfast at The Park.

Good Things Café, Durrus, Co Cork
This award recognises an indivdual or establishment demonstrating a total commitment to using the very best of fresh, seasonal and mainly local foods – and preparing them simply and with style, to showcase their natural goodness and the quality produce of the locality.
Great ingredients-led contemporary cooking is the magnet that draws those in the know to Carmel Somers’ simple little café-restaurant just outside Durrus village. Chef, teacher and food writer (her first book, “Eat Good Things Every Day”, is due shortly), Carmel does more than any other chef in the region to promote local produce and her menus reflect this in a variety of ways. The summer herbs and salads, growing in beds at the entrance, are an indication of things to come, as is the array of cookbooks by the likes of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. The message is unequivocal: prepare yourself for spanking fresh ingredients cooked with authority and passion. The modern, functional, café-restaurant features dishes with a strong local provenance such as West Cork Fish Soup and old-fashioned Porter Cake alongside the Grecian influences of a Mezze Plate and fragrantly spiced Andalusian Monkfish with saffron, honey and vinegar. Seasonality is a byword here: roasted summer vegetables, sea beet, lightly boiled, Kilcrohane new potatoes, the tartness of gooseberries with mackerel and the same fruit in a dessert compôte with elderflowers, yoghurt and honey ice. In the kitchen, partly visible to diners, Carmel and her Spanish assistant, Rebecca, conjure (experiment is constant) and come up with menus that are, at once, startling and reassuring. It’s the kind of place where even the most demanding know they are in safe hands. In the off-season, Good Things Café & Cookery School conducts courses: a series of demonstration and hands-on courses. A wonderful place.

The Sheelin Tea Shop, Bellanaleck, Co Fermanagh
This is a new award, taking in the very best among the kind of informal, accessibly priced restaurants people drop into without booking; it could include café bars etc, and most are all day operations, but the main aim is to seek out good simple cooking based on quality ingredients - and especially the home baking that can be the highlight of a day out.
Northern Ireland is renowned for the quality and range of its home baking, and Julie Snoddy’s picturesque tea shop at the Sheelin Lace Shop and Museum in Bellanaleck fits the bill perfectly. Julie has built up a reputation for superb baking here – her speciality scones are especially popular with morning coffee, and there is always an array of baked goodies on display - honeymoon bites, paradise squares, yum yums, mile-high lemon meringue pie, peach & raspberry frangipane tart, chocolate gateaux; and how nice to see an old-fashioned Victoria sandwich cake, filled with jam and butter cream… And, apart from the magnificent teashop operation, there are daily lunches (daily blackboard menu), weekend brunch (with papers to read), Sunday Lunch - and a Friday Night Dessert Bar, which is extended to include light savoury meals – and BYO wine. It’s just the kind of place that visitors hope to find when out and about - and, with the Lace Museum in the same premises, it makes an interesting destination for an outing – and is very popular with the lucky locals too.

TASTE OF THE WATERWAYS AWARD 2010: sponsored by Waterways Ireland
Café Merlot at Blakes of the Hollow, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh;
The Taste of the Waterways Award was introduced last year and it brings a new element to the selection, highlighting lovely and less-known watery parts of Ireland that are a joy to explore – and many pubs and restaurants of great character.
One of the great classic pubs of Ireland, Blakes has been in the same family since 1887 and is a natural first port of call for many visitors to Enniskillen. The original Victorian front bar still remains untouched after over 120 years, but relatively recent changes elsewhere in this historic establishment have made it a popular food destination, thanks to the talents of two personalities well known in the hospitality of the area, head chef Gerry Russell and front-of-house manager/wine man Johnny Donnelly. Right at the top of the house, there is an elegantly-appointed fine dining restaurant, Number 6, which is open for Wine & Food evenings (always a sell out) and weekends, if there is demand, but it is the atmospheric vaulted Café Merlot downstairs which is so popular, not least at lunchtime and for their pre-theatre menu, which is especially good value. As a team, Gerry Russell and Johnny Donnelly present creative modern cooking, a relaxed dining atmosphere, a great wine list and knowledgeable service; they also operate the newer café/deli/wine shop Russell & Donnelley, just along the street. All round, a great place to know about – congratulations are in order.
Kay McEvilly, Cashel House Hotel, Connemara, Co Galway
A natural talent for hospitality is the ace that Irish people keep up their sleeve – time and again visitor surveys confirm that, along with the landscape, it is mainly the warmth and engagement of the people that will keep them coming back. Many very special people have been recipients of this key award – one extraordinary lady was Vi McDowell, or ‘Auntie Vi’, of Gray’s Guesthouse on Achill Island, who died earlier this year at the age of 99 and I’d like to pay tribute to her; she was a great trooper who took pride in overseeing her business and actively promoted Achill right to the end – when she received the award in 2005 we thought she was 85 but we were actually 10 years out!
This year’s Host is a mere pup by comparison, but she is equally loved and respected, both by guests and within the industry. General and Madame de Gaulle’s visit to Ireland in 1968 is often credited with putting the Gallic seal of approval on Irish hospitality and food, and I sometimes reflect on the fortunate choice made by the great man when planning his Irish holiday – not only did they find the wild beauty of Connemara awaiting them, but also the exceptionally warm and relaxed hospitality of hosts, Kay and the late Dermot McEvilly: Kay is a caring and exceptionally perceptive host, knowing instinctively just when to make a contribution and when to hold back and give guests space. I recall a particular incident in the restaurant one evening that illustrated her talent for setting people at their ease, when a young couple – who, perhaps, had received a break as a gift or won a competition – seemed very ill at ease in the formal setting; going over to them and quietly chatting, Kay soon sussed the situation and seamlessly eased them through into the bar where they could enjoy their meal in relaxed surroundings. Most recently she has thrown herself into the short residential Cashel House Garden Courses, so her hospitality is now extended to many fellow gardening enthusiasts as well as hotel guests – a delightful person, for whom nothing is ever too much trouble.

Fitzwilliam Hotel, Dublin
Other hospitality guides tend to focus exclusively on leisure travel, but many of those using our Guide and website (and joining our quality-led dining and breaks initiative, The G Club) are business visitors – or potential business hosts – and we recognise the importance and special requirements of the business guest. The number of hotels with excellent business and conference facilities has increased dramatically (which bodes well for Ireland longterm), and competition in this sector has become seriously hot; many are very large venues – but smaller establishments can have a special niche appeal which is sometimes more appropriate .
Although perhaps more often seen as a leisure destination (the city’s prime shopping area is, after all, on the doorstep), this stylish contemporary hotel on the west side of St. Stephen’s Green is no stranger to business guests. In fact, should you have a meeting arranged with one of the companies based nearby, you may well find that it is redirected to The Fitzwilliam Hotel, which seems to be regarded as a sort of extension office by some executives. You won’t get a more central or convenient business base than here and not only is the bar one of the city’s handiest meeting places but, with an on-site choice between the smart Citron Brasserie for informal dining, and one of the city’s finest restaurants, Thornton’s, when nothing but the best will do for business guests, the hotel offers all that is required to make the right impression for business entertaining. By contrast with big conference hotels, the scale is pleasingly intimate, with three stylish and state-of-the-art meeting rooms available for up to 80 delegates, an emphasis on service and on-site parking; accommodation is discreetly luxurious and residents will find not just 24 hour room service but also that the gym is open around the clock. Women travelling on business will especially value the in-house hair & beauty salon. And, not only is this chic hotel known for understated luxury and discreet service, but it has a great hidden asset - Ireland’s largest roof garden.

Ballymaloe House, Shanagarry, Co Cork
Irish interest in wine has grown phenomenally in recent years – how many people saw a glass of wine as the natural accompaniment to a meal even a couple of decades ago? Our wine award has reflected that developing interest, highlighting the diversity of the wine experience and celebrating some of the finest lists and most passionate people in the world of wine.
For several years establishments recommended by the Guide have been invited to submit wine lists for competition and there has been a great response, ranging from the very grand to relatively simple lists; many of them are very interesting - including some short very but carefully chosen lists that match menus in smaller restaurants particularly well. At the moment there is one overall award and, when times improv,e we plan to expand the Wine Award to allow for different categories.
Last year’s Wine Award went to a young establishment and its brilliantly wine-focused creator - this year, by contrast, we have a wine cellar and list that has built up gradually over 45 years and developed into a holistic wine experience. It all began with the late Ivan Allen, when he and Mrs Myrtle Allen opened Ballymaloe in 1964 (a year marked on the current wine list by Chateau Canon 1964); since then a number of equally dedicated and knowledgeable people have developed the wine offering and – in tune with the educational philosophy of Ballymaloe as a whole – wine events are now held on an almost weekly basis throughout the year, including visits by many guest experts such as the enormously popular twice-yearly intensive wine weekends with wine writer Mary Dowey – to be held next time in Ballymaloe’s beautiful new music venue, The Grainstore. Current Sommelier, Colm McCan (described off-the-record by a colleague as ‘simply mad about wine’) revels in the job and has overseen development of the ’new’ wine cellar, which is in the ancient rock foundation of the old castle and not only naturally temperature controlled, but atmospheric with it; lined with new wine storage bins made from Ballymaloe beechwood by Sacha Whelan, it is effectively spotlit and well worth a visit. (They also have a bank of practical Eurocave temperature controlled wine cabinets for dining room service.) The list itself remains a work in progress and, with at least ten ‘house recommendations’ plus many other more specialised choices by the glass, an accessible one at that. An experience to be savoured.
ETHNIC RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR 2010: sponsored by Blue Dragon & Patak’s
Kajjal, Malahide, Co Dublin
The range of cuisines authentically represented in Irish restaurants is continually developing and, overall, ethnic restaurants have changed very much for the better in recent years. The greatest strides have been made in the better known cuisines, however – Chinese, to some extent, but especially perhaps, Pakistani and Indian, which now offer not only good food but also – at the top of the market - a fine dining option which is widely recognised.
Kajjal is a sister restaurant of one of our previous award winners, the highly-regarded Kinara Indian/Pakistani restaurant on Clontarf’s seafront, and it offers the same qualities of style, delicious food and friendly, attentive staff – a winning combination, particularly when teamed with an especially atmospheric setting. Billed as ‘Pakistani and Eastern cuisine’, it offers an exciting mix of regional cooking, accompanied by a few Indian staples. Attention to detail is excellent: fresh poppadoms come with delicious home-made dips; Irish produce is used in, for example, meltingly tender lamb dishes; expert spicing and attractive presentation make every dish a success. Even desserts (that so often let ethnic restaurants down) are good, the wine list is interesting and service is invariably attentive and efficient. Savvy northside foodies loved this restaurant from the day it opened – now it’s time to share.

Sha Roe Bistro, Clonegal, Co Carlow
This is a very special award, because it invariably goes to an establishment that is really outstanding in every way – and has that special extra ‘something’ that makes a great atmosphere to showcase the whole operation, so that every visit is sure to be memorable. It’s often partly down to the building itself, or the way it has been converted or decorated, and that’s certainly the case this year, as it is a charming setting – but it would be nothing without the people who have dedicated themselves to creating a really fine restaurant.
Chef Henry Stone, and his partner Stephanie Barrillier’s delightful little restaurant is in a fine 18th century building in Clonegal, a pretty and well-preserved village on the borders of Wexford, Carlow and Wicklow, away from the main road to anywhere. Henry - a talented and dedicated chef running a serious kitchen - has a well-earned reputation for enticing menus, faultless cooking and good value, making Sha-Roe well worth a detour. So, first time visitors coming for good food will be very pleased indeed with what’s on their plates – but there’s much more to the Sha-Roe than what comes out of the kitchen, however good the cooking. The building has been very sympathetically converted, with many delightful details – an odd little insert in an uneven original corridor wall provides a shelf for a nightlight, a tiny old cottagey window in the back of the dining room has been retained, allowing a peep into the kitchen. Arriving on a chilly autumn night, a welcoming log fire burns in the lovely sitting room and, in the dining room itself, a glowing stove in a big open stone fireplace has wood stacked up alongside ready for refills. Nightlights flicker everywhere, and simply laid tables are graced with a stone mustard jar holding a simple bouquet of fresh flowers. Most of all, the welcome is warm and the highly professional service, under Stephanie’s guidance, is genuinely caring – there’s the sense of a happy team at work. This is a place where guests can relax and enjoy outstanding food in the confidence that everything will run smoothly. Charming – and very, very good.

Bush Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim
The question of ecological damage caused by tourism has been taxing many a mind of late, and we are no exceptions. When requesting factual data from recommended establishments over the last few years, we’ve asked about environmental accreditation and any initiatives being undertaken by individual properties. Until recently the response has been minimal, but there’s now been a noticeable change, with many establishments taking active measures to reduce environmental damage, some achieving national recognition with the Green Hospitality Awards scheme, and some receiving official EU recognition of standards being met. By way of further encouragement, we have decided to give an annual GCGuides Green Ireland Hospitality Award, which is open to all categories in The Guide.
It is interesting that one of Ireland’s oldest hotels, The Bush Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon, should be the first hotel in Ireland to receive the EU Eco-label ‘Flower’ award in recognition of its commitment to sustainable tourism and protection of the local environment: The Bush may be best known for its old-fashioned hospitality and exceptionally pleasant and helpful staff, but it’s clear that there’s nothing backward-looking about the management.
The ‘Flower’ comprises 84 very specific and technical criteria in energy, water and waste management - with much emphasis on environmental awareness & innovation. Initiatives undertaken include installing over 1300 Class A Low Energy bulbs which provide 97% of lighting in the hotel, contracting Airtricity as its electricity provider, and emphasising locally sourced products. The hotel also does not accept pallets, shrink wrap, bubble wraps or polystyrene, all deliveries now come in returnable and reusable plastic crates and all excess packaging is removed by suppliers.
The Greenbox eco-tourism area is close by, taking in parts of Donegal, parts of Sligo, West Cavan, Fermanagh and Leitrim, but – along with Enniskillen - Carrick-on-Shannon is excluded from the project due to its size of population; however, interest in eco-tourism in the general area may drive well-earned extra business to the hotel. MD Joseph Dolan commented that, “From a business perspective, our environmental management approach has delivered significant cost reductions which we have been able to pass on to our loyal customers.” It’s good to know that what’s good for the environment is also good for our pockets – well done to all at The Bush.

Quality Hotel, Clonakilty, Co Cork
Any parent worried about the weather when deciding whether to holiday in Ireland, should consider the growing number of hotels that have opted to specialise in family holidays, and particularly our Family Friendly Hotel award winners.
This year, this important award goes to ever-popular West Cork, where many happy families vote with their feet by heading back to the Quality Hotel Clonakilty, every year. And no wonder - this exceptionally family-friendly hotel on the edge of the town is just the kind of place to holiday with kids. There’s masses to do and visit nearby, including the West Cork Model Railway Village which has an old-style train that picks people up at the hotel en route to exploring Clonakilty and nearby Inchydoney (where there’s a blue flag beach). And this summer the hotel’s fantastic on-site facilities got even better with some brilliant new choices added, including a Jungle Gym area (over 2 levels, with a toddler area and one for 4-12yrs) and also a Teen Zone (with Xboxes, Playstations, air hockey etc). In summer and all mid-term breaks a Kids Kamp offers masses of activities for 5-14 year-olds, mainly held outdoors if possible. Fun for kids and relaxing for parents – accommodation is recently refurbished and Clonakilty’s on the doorstep for evenings too. Just what’s wanted for families.

The Old Convent Gourmet Hideaway, Clogheen, Co Tipperary
Dozens of interesting places hidden around Ireland come under the microscope when we’re considering this much sought-after award, and we’re happy to report that this country is very well endowed with well-run characterful places off the beaten track that please the many visitors who are looking for interesting and restful alternatives to the standard hotel offering.
We all have times when what’s really needed is a quiet couple of days pampering in a child-free zone need –for some this may mean a spa break but, for those in the know, a visit to Clogheen is the business. There’s nowhere in Ireland even remotely like Dermot and Christine Gannon’s restaurant with accommodation. It’s in a beautiful, unspoilt - yet relatively little known - area, near the scenic ‘Vee’ in the Knockmealdown Mountains, and it’s very much itself: an unusual, very comfortable, stylishly decorated, country house with gorgeous rooms, and gardens under development as an interesting amenity for guests, and to grow home produce for Dermot’s kitchen. For good food is the key element at the Old Convent: Dermot, who is one of Ireland’s most talented (and modest) chefs, offers unique, perfectly judged 9-course Tasting Menus using the best locally sourced ingredients - organic when possible, although it doesn’t look as if the recently acquired piglets will be heading for the pot! The cooking is stunningly accurate, without a foam, drizzle or a smoke to be seen – and there’s no cheffy arrogance either so, although surplus to requirements, a (tiny) salt and pepper set is offered on tables. Add charming service under Christine’s direction – and exceptionally delicious and original breakfasts – and it all adds up to a dream hideaway.
Gregans Castle, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare
There’s been a tendency for country houses to go all posh and designery in recent years – losing their essential character and becoming, in some cases, too much like hotels.
Not so this quietly luxurious place which, although it is actually categorised as an hotel, retains its essential country house character and a uniquely serene atmosphere. Set in solitary splendour in the lunar landscape of the Burren, and surrounded by trees and gardens, Simon and Freddie Haden’s oasis of warmth, comfort and hospitality can be seen from miles around. Spacious rooms, luxuriously furnished with understated contemporary style by Freddie, have lovely countryside views - and are deliberately left without the worldly interference of television. It may surprise some guests to find that this quiet retreat is a serious fine dining destination - gifted head chef, Mickael Viljanen, revels in the commitment to using local and organic produce which has always been a key feature of Gregans Castle, but he cooks in a modern European style, and offers exciting menus, which include a daily changing nine course Tasting Menu in addition to a tempting à la carte. Dishes which might not succeed in lesser hands are a triumph here: dinner is a special treat at Gregans Castle these days - and people travel from miles around to enjoy it; simpler souls might visit for the short à la carte lunch menu (very nicely served in The Corkscrew Bar) or delicious Afternoon Teas.

Beech Hill House Holywood, Co Down
If you ever need somewhere really relaxing, peaceful and away-from-it all to stay near Belfast, Victoria Brann’s Georgian-style house in the hills above Holywood
is just the place. Although not pretending to be old, the proportions are classic and it’s beautifully furnished with family antiques – and, once inside, it has the genuine feel of a stylish period house. Rooms complete with hospitality trays, fresh flowers, comfortable chairs, wireless broadband and laptop-size safes look out over the rolling North Down countryside and have lots of little extras: beds are made up with fine Irish linen, bathrooms have robes and slippers, also a neck cushion for the bath, there’s even a hot water bottle just in case – and a torch thoughtfully placed beside the bed. And it comes as a nice surprise in such pristine surroundings that Victoria is an animal lover, and small dogs are allowed in by arrangement. She was also a caterer in a previous life and it shows in delicious (and very generous) cooked to order breakfasts, served in a classic dining room – decorated, among other things, with a collection of silver cloches from her catering days. Magnificent.

Killiane Castle Drinagh, Co Wexford
A gently modernised, upgraded version of the Irish B&B/farmhouse experience meets the needs of the current climate very well – and it is good to see this traditional Irish hospitality beginning to gain wider recognition again.
Just a few miles from Wexford town, Kathleen and Jack Mernagh’s magical farm is the perfect place for stressed townies, especially with children in tow – a real castle, a 17th century house to stay in, and lots to do. The 11th century castle is under restoration - you can go in and up and inspect it – there are well signed farm walks (see a modern dairy in action), heritage pigs (saddleback and Gloucester Old Spot) for producing their own bacon, and hens to supply the eggs for the delicious breakfasts that Kathleen serves in the warm, cosy dining-room, where there are baby chairs and space kept for buggies. There’s a driving range, croquet, tennis court, lots of garden furniture (for all times of day and wind direction), very comfortable accommodation and plenty to read in both the sitting room and bedrooms (history of castle, area, books and magazines). No dinners, but breakfast is wonderful and the Mernaghs direct guests to the best local choices for evening meals. A marvellous experience – too good just for a stop en route to the ferry (although that might be a useful introduction), it deserves a proper break.

An Port Mór, Westport, Co Mayo
Given the year that’s in it, it’s especially encouraging to find that there are still talented and committed people prepared to start up new enterprises. One such is Euro-Toques chef Frankie Mallon, who is well known in Westport, where he was head chef at Cronin’s Sheebeen for some years. Now he is master of his own ship, so to speak, and, although only open since May, is delighting customers with his sound, no nonsense cooking, and carving out quite a reputation for his new venture, An Port Mór. [The name has a nice west of Ireland ring to it but it’s actually named after Portmór House in his home town of Blackwatertown, in Co Armagh - not a lot of people know this, but it’s pleasingly familiar place to us, from our Taste of the Waterways Guide (published annually in association with Waterways Ireland).] Anyway, this relaxed and can-do proprietor-chef’s new baby is a hit with guests who love the atmosphere, the local staff who know all about the food producers featured on the menu – and, of course, his excellent food, especially the emphasis on fresh fish. A great addition to the dining options in this lovely town, An Port Mór looks set for success.

VHP says Feck That was a long one!!



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