This Saturday is your last chance to say goodbye to one of Dublin’s longest-running family restaurants. Dublin restaurant critic Aoife Carrigy looks back on what the city is losing.
I remember Dublin in 1994. On hot summer evenings, we drank on the cobblestones outside the still-tiny Temple Bar pub. The newly emerging ‘cultural quarter' pulsed with potential. Aul' fella pubs and community-run cafes jostled for space with hawkers of vinyl, comic books and vintage clothes. Artist and designer studios were morphing into gallery spaces, historic hotels being renovated by home-grown superstars, live venues showcasing new bands like Radiohead.
Carol Walsh had the lease on number 1 Fownes Street and had been using the building in various shift-shaping ways – as a dance and aerobics studio, The Cellary vegetarian cafe, an underground club night and a home. While extensive work was being done on the neighbouring Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, Carol took off travelling. She came home with a trunk-full of traditional artefacts from Indonesia, where she had fallen in love with national dishes like nasi goreng. She decked out her mirror-lined studio with those hand-dyed batik and woven itak hangings, dancer masks and shadow puppets, carved temple doors and low hardwood tables, and opened Chameleon Restaurant as an Irish outpost for Indonesian flavours and rijsttafel set menus.
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Fast forward 25 years to the summer of 2019, and the Chameleon was a veteran restaurant at the top of its game, securing a place as finalist in the 2019 FOOD AND WINE readers’ choice award.
Carol’s husband Kevin O’Toole had joined the business in 2001, retraining as a chef and helping adapt the restaurant to an evolving culinary scene. They used its 20th birthday celebrations to reposition from an exotic knees-up joint for occasional hedonistic celebrations to somewhere you could equally grab Asian-stye tapas before a mid-week movie. They had put quality Irish ingredients centre-stage and embraced a broad range of Asian culinary inspiration.
The graft paid off. Kevin was named Chef of the Year 2018 by the McKenna Guides. John McKenna tells me he admires how Kevin’s cooking became “truer, more focused, more simple and more effective” every year, and how Carol’s “instinctively left-field philosophy” ensured that the Chameleon was “the one place in Temple Bar that remained authentic and resisted the fakeness of the super pubs”.
The restaurant rebranded last spring, leading to Katy McGuinness noting in an Irish Independent review that “[s]o many new restaurants have opened in Dublin in recent months, with many establishments feeling more like cogs in some grand corporate property play than anything to do with food, that it's an absolute pleasure to discover a family-owned restaurant in the city centre that's simply focussed on the enjoyment of its customers.”
Another rave review followed in The Examiner, when Leslie Williams deemed that “Chameleon has survived, I think, because it has innovated”, and thanks to Carol and Kevin’s “combined creativity and charm” and their food’s “supremely tasty and brightly focused flavours”.
So the news that last week was to be their last came as a shock. The reasons for the restaurant’s demise – well covered in The Irish Times and on a radio interview with Marian Finucane – amount to what Kevin calls “a perfect storm” of severe chef shortages, increased costs including insurance and VAT and, crucially, all those new restaurant openings that distract customers from long-standing options. “Whether a new place is good or bad, people will try it out,” he says. “And that hurts, financially.”
Carol and Kevin decided to go out with a bang – in part to say goodbye but also to help pay their suppliers and 15 staff members, each of whom they have found another suitable job for, and to recoup some of their own debt. “We chucked everything at it,” Kevin says, “including our savings.” The kitchen has done its last service, but this coming Saturday (19 October, 1pm–4pm), they are welcoming all to pop in for a glass of wine and a browse of the sale of artworks and artefacts that have graced their Temple Bar restaurant for a quarter of a century, many of which are already on Done Deal.
As Conor Stevens of Totally Dublin told me, “What made Chameleon special was the way it made you feel. It was not so much a place to be seen as a thing to be experienced.” This sale is a chance to bring a little of that experience into your own home.
When I offered Kevin the last word here, his message couldn’t have been clearer.
“I would love it if people could support independent restaurants, particularly this Christmas,” he told me.
“Nobody will appreciate your business more.”
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as a commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.