Walking into the much-anticipated Spitalfields on The Coombe, just off the bottom of Meath Street, the first thing that struck us was a feeling of coming home. It helps that the exterior of the pub has been given the cheeriest of paint jobs and dressed up with the prettiest of hanging baskets. So far, so welcoming, and made all the more so by the semicircle of luxurious green velvet curtains that will help keep this downstairs half of the operation cosy throughout the winter ahead.
The sign outside declares that this ‘Pub & Restaurant’ was ‘ESTD. 1920’, which is half true, in that the pub itself (formerly Shanahans) is an old-timer but the restaurant element is very much a new addition to this part of town. Also, blow-ins are the management team – husband-and-wife co-owners, Stephen McAllister and Andrea Hussey of The Pig's Ear and Mr Fox restaurants, and front-of-house manager Declan Maxwell, formerly of Luna and Chapter One – but they bring a treasure-trove of experience between them. Declan has also brought a battalion of waiters from his post in Luna, fully trained-up to his exacting standards.
The pub itself brings its own cast of characters to play their part in this building’s latest chapter, as Declan tells us during the grand tour that we get at the end of our midweek lunch. You could set your watch by some of the regulars apparently, who still pop in for those two afternoon pints or that Friday night get-together with the girls, just like they’ve been doing for years.
In many ways, very little has changed here, beyond giving a polish to the original details: dark-wood bar and wall panelling, blonde floorboards and russet floor tiling, flouncy lighting fixtures and tobacco-yellow ceiling. Downstairs is still mostly barstools (now re-upholstered in moss green leather) while the old function room upstairs still operates as the main sit-down dining area.
Yet a few key details tell you that this is something altogether new: the gleaming cabinet picked up in Oxfam Home on Francis Street that now acts as the reception desk by the front door, the old record player behind the bar and stack of vinyl (including some from locals who have brought theirs in to play) and the open kitchen that your eye is drawn to at the back of the pub, where Stephen and his team of chefs are working away around a vast central workspace. It looks more like a dream domestic kitchen than any restaurant set-up I’ve seen and animates the downstairs space with a sense of theatre that is relaxed and unshowy.
Clever takes on old-school dishes are being turned out at that countertop, as confirmed by the snacks that we ordered to settle us in for our three-course lunch. Devilled egg with caviar (€6) set the bar well, its yolk stuffing nicely piquant and creamy caviar eggs bringing a touch of luxury. (That caviar re-appears as a brilliantly indulgent starter of grilled flatbread, Perle Imperial Caviar and sour cream, €18 – just the thing to order with the Krug “Grande Cuvee” Brut at €275, presumably.) Pert little Flaggy Shore oysters came topped with an apple and sorrel granita that melted in the mouth together with the oyster’s juices.
For starters, my pal ordered what has fast become a signature dish here: a milk-based, butter-brushed Parker House roll stuffed with fall-apart beef cheek and served with a bowl of magnificent bone marrow jus (€14). Spitalfields don’t open Sundays but instead, they conjure up this spirit of the Sunday roast every day of the week. It’s pretty huge for a starter, so definitely one worth sharing. My own starter was just the sort of autumnal hug in a bowl that I was craving: juicy shiitake mushrooms with that gorgeous bounce of properly fresh fungi, served in a light and clean but richly flavoured shiitake broth (think consommé but plant-based) together with a gently cooked egg yolk and sweet little kernels of corn (€10). I would have liked the yolk to be slightly runnier and ooze into the broth a little but loved the combination of flavours.
I indulged my cravings for autumnal vegetables with my main course too, a simple but no less satisfying plate of roast Crown Prince pumpkin wedges, their sweetness counterpointed by a cool and creamy burrata, crisp and savoury sage leaves and a generous scattering of nutty, spicy dukkah (€18). My pal went full-on meat mode with the special of the day: a juicy smoked pork chop from McLoughlin’s craft butchers with apple sauce, a whole baked apple and the most delicious potatoes cooked Hasselback-style for crispy texture (€24). This is ‘mammy dinner’ food par excellence, with no unnecessary 'cheffy' flourishes to distract from great ingredients handled with love and respect.
We pushed the boat out with a pair of desserts: a perfectly wobbly orange creme caramel (€7), the zestiness of which pulled it back from the brink of cloying, and a chocolate eclair (€8) that came with a little boat of chocolate sauce for slathering over. I found the ice-cream filling oddly icy rather than creamy, and the pastry itself overly crunchy, and wished we had ordered the hazelnut and chocolate millefeuille for two instead (€14). Very decent coffee comes in a French press with a cheerful stripy mug and jug set.
We weren’t in boozy form, happy with a glass each from the two-page wine list that includes several on tap from Winelab, lots of choice under €40 and a few serious indulgences like the Chateau Lynch Bages Pauillac for €350, presumably targeted at deep-pocketed tourists who might wander down from the nearby Teeling Distillery or antique hunters from nearby Frances Street. The beer selection is Diageo-dominated but includes Whiplash and Beavertown to keep craft beer lovers happy; the cocktail list is reassuringly old school, including a house special of Black Velvet; and the extensive whiskey list includes a suitably generous selection of Teeling whiskey, as you’d expect.
The arrival of this luxurious restaurant-within-pub is a departure for the surrounding Liberties neighbourhood, the speedy gentrification of which has been alarming many as community-based markets and studios are replaced by slick new hotels (the Hyatt has opened across the road) and over-priced student accommodation. Spitalfields is as gentrified as it gets – somewhere to go for a supper of cote de boeuf, Roscoff onions and pickled walnuts, or Iberico pork Secreto schnitzel with smoked eel and gremolata – but the team here seem to be making genuine efforts to extend their warm, professional welcome to those for whom this pub has long been a home-from-home, not to mention hiring some local staff too.
Old pubs closing their doors, tight-knit inner-city neighbourhoods being transformed by blow-ins: these are some of the realities of modern Ireland. So it’s good to see the gracious reconfiguration of Spitalfields being delivered with a wilful sense of inclusivity and respect for what came before. It makes for a fine addition to this evolving neighbourhood, and a most delicious destination for a spot of indulgence.
The Bottom Line: We spent €123 before service for three-course lunch for two, plus snacks, San Pellegrino and a glass of wine each – though at €19.50/€22.50 for two/three courses, the single-choice set lunch / early evening menu offers great value (think sole goujons to start, McCarthy’s black pudding with egg and mash, and a floating island with Mr Jeffares blackcurrant compote).
Spitalfields, 25 The Coombe, Dublin 8.
Tel: 01 454 6921 | spitalfields.ie
Author: Aoife Carrigy
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.