In Galway, autumn arrives suddenly. Just like that, the narrow streets have a different feel. The summer crowd vanishes. The students return. In Rúibín, on a showery Wednesday, the staff catch their breath after the lunchtime rush. Like many restaurants in the city, Rúibín, a popular addition to the sparkling local food scene, has enjoyed a terrifically busy summer. But the coming season is not an easy read.
“More than anything, I feel in the dark,” says Richard Kennan, who set up Rúibín with his wife Alice Jay, who works as head-chef.
“I don’t think the problems are unique because we are all in for a tough winter. We are all going to feel the increase in power and gas. You just don’t know where the support is going to come from or how high this will climb. I’m still not entirely sure why the electric is rising so much.
“I can understand gas but for a country with a lot of green energy it doesn’t make sense some of the time. Maybe we are a little bit more unusual in that we are a luxury so it is something that can disappear.”
The recent decision made by the owners of Loam, which was awarded a Michelin star just a year after opening its doors near Eyre Square in 2014, to close the premises for the winter, clarifies the stark choices facing all restaurants.
A week ago, JP McMahon, who has been a force of nature and innovation in Irish restaurant ambitions, made the tough decision to close his cafe and wine bar Tartare, which was located on Dominick Street. He has maintained the brand name but even if the cafe does ever open again, it will not be at the same address.
‘I think rural Ireland will see decimation in the numbers of restaurants’
Restaurants can be ephemeral. The operators rarely own the premises in which they are located. As venues, they come alive through a combination of culinary innovation, atmosphere and brutally hard work. When McMahon decided to close Tartare, a successful cafe which made the transition to wine bar after dark, he engaged in a battle between head and heart. McMahon also operates as patron-chef for Cava Bodega and the Michelin star Aniar.
“I decided I would try and be realistic and unemotional about the place, for once,” McMahon says.
“But it is very hard to be unemotional. I like what I was doing in moving Irish food forward in a casual way. Very similar to what many places are doing around the country – trying to apply what we learn at Michelin star level but to bring it to more people. Because that is how you survive. You need to do numbers. But definitely, I think rural Ireland will see decimation in the numbers of restaurants.
“Tourism is all that is keeping Galway going at the moment but I don’t know for how long they will keep coming. There are probably 10 reasons why we closed Tartare. But every place will have to make a decision themselves, whether that is to close for the winter season as Loam did or what we did and just close Tartare.”
McMahon felt, during the pandemic, that a significant number of restaurants would not survive the Covid lockdowns. The food scene rebounded but the economic storms ushered in by the war in Ukraine pose a new set of challenges. He wonders whether this time the Government will step in with subsidies.
“Or are they going to let market forces play out and say if we lost 10 to 15 per cent of the restaurants in the country what will happen? And I am sure they’ll look at the bigger picture and decide that the country will survive.”
When Enda McEvoy, the head chef and co-owner of Loam announced the decision to close the restaurant for the winter, with staff moving to sister restaurant Éan, located on Druids Lane, he acknowledged in his statement the “effects of staff shortages and spiralling costs as is widespread across the industry”.
It is easy to empathise with the rationale. The labour-intensive nature of Loam’s carefully curated menu places it at the higher end of price scales. The perfect economic storm means an inevitable decline in consumer spending over the winter. The sharpest bite of domestic bills are yet to come but the scary stories are out there. McMahon cites a Wexford restaurant with a €12,000 bill for two months. But it is not just domestic bills. Produce is becoming more expensive, which will inevitably lead to a change in the composition of menus. For those running Rúibín, the scarcity of fish choice – and consistency – is a constant topic. The rising costs of red meat means that the fillet steak, always one of the pricier staples, no longer features on many menus.
“We are still at €32 and we are not comfortable with where we need to go. We are trying to find a balance. We will give it another month or two and then maybe look at another cut of meat. Which may not be the worst thing in the world,” Kennan says.
Kennan finds himself constantly fretting about climate change and how to make their business model work without contributing to the damage. He observes dining out as a luxury, it is also an escapism. Galway’s restaurant scene has become a shop window feature of its reputation as a tourist destination.
“Yeah… eating out is about experience and escapism and switching off for a few hours and forgetting about the other bits and pieces in life.” Kennan is confident that Rúibín will come through the travails of this winter, but he admits to worrying about the longer-term picture in terms of produce availability.
Chefs like McMahon, McEvoy and Jess Murphy helped to transform the profile of the city’s restaurants. It took an untold accumulation of late nights and hard graft to generate that glamour and prestige. But the ecosystem is, because of the nature of the business, fragile. “It is,” says McMahon.
“And it does worry me. I am not saying that myself, Jess and Enda invented food in Galway. I am not saying that. But we are important.
“Just like Kinsale was a bastion of food when Gerry Galvin [who opened Vintage in Kinsale and, later, Drimcong House in Moycullen] was there… it only takes a few chefs to leave a city or to close and all of a sudden, the spotlight is gone from that city.
“It doesn’t mean that there still isn’t good food in that city. And I am not saying at all that there wasn’t good food in Galway before we came along. But it was a particular time and space: we were all in our late 20s and we all opened up.
“Then my brother [Gerry McMahon] was front of house in Cava and he opened in Il Vicolo. People work with you and then go an open on their own. And if you lose those star players then it is worrying.”
Right now, it is a matter of holding tight. On Galway Bay FM during the week, host Keith Finnegan conducted a warm interview with Eoin McCambridge, whose family took the decision to sell the family deli and fine food shop and cafe after 75 years of operating as a Shop Street institution. It is one of the landmarks of the city centre and a vital flagship for family-run businesses. It will continue to operate as normal under Musgraves, its new owners. But McCambridge, in his reflections admitted that in the decision to sell, the family had to remember that it was ultimately “a business, not a vocation”.
This is the impossible balancing act for the patron-chefs who have helped light up the city as a food destination.
“For me, trying to maintain a Michelin star is not only a responsibility for the staff but also towards the city,” says McMahon.
“I’m wondering: if I close this place, will fewer tourists come to Galway. And people say you are daft, they will come anyway. But I will be worried if in 10 years there is not another Aniar, another Kai, another Loam popping up in Galway. And certainly this energy crisis will push all our backs to the wall.
“If Covid didn’t make us question if we shouldn’t be doing something other than standing in front of a stove all day, this will.”