Dublin proves it doesn’t have to be hip to be cool

A detail from the Gallery at the Westbury Hotel.
A detail from the Gallery at the Westbury Hotel. The Westbury

It was the perfect way to start off my trip to what has become a favorite destination. My hotel, the Westbury, had arranged through Fab Food Trails, a walking tour of the the inner city’s top food and fashion venues.

I met my guide, Eveleen Coyle, in the hotel lobby, and she explained that we would be “gently walking” for the next 2 1/2 hours, stopping at various places along the way to taste the flavors of Ireland and talk with local artists and designers in what has become known as Dublin’s Creative Quarter.

The roaring Celtic Tiger economy of the late 1990s might have changed into a purring pussy cat, but Dublin’s creative energy is alive and well. This is a city that continues to lustily celebrate the talents of its artists, musicians, writers, designers and culinary stars.

Our first stop was Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, a closet-sized space where Dubliners flock to buy their cheeses. I love Irish farmhouse cheeses and finally settled on two to sample: Shepherd’s Store, a hard sheep’s milk cheese, and Durrus, a wash-rind cow’s milk cheese from Cork in the south of Ireland.

Next up was a visit to Anthony Peto, a hat shop specializing in classic headgear for men and women. I was introduced to the charming Petra, whom I’m convinced could sell a hat to the Headless Horseman. I walked out with a jaunty moss-green number that within five minutes garnered me four compliments from complete strangers.

Over the course of our stroll, Evelyn and I sniffed custom-blended perfume at Parfumarija; tried on butter-soft leather handwear at Paula Rowan Gloves, and stroked delicate cashmeres at MoMuse, before she declared that it was time to “pop in” to the Pepper Pot for another tasting.

The Pepper Pot is on the second level of the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, a clever repurposing of a former aristocrat’s townhouse. What comes out of the tiny kitchen at the Pepper Pot is extraordinary — not the least of which are their mouth-watering scones.

Temple Bar Market Dublin
Sampling oysters at the market in Dublin’s Temple Bar area. Tourism Ireland,

By the time we arrived at the final stop, Stable, specializing in fine Irish linen, Eveleen and I were fast friends, and it was hard to believe that 2 1/2 hours had gone by so quickly.

What wasn’t had to believe was the sheer number of top-quality shops, galleries and specialty food establishments. Dublin has always been an incubator for artsy types, from Brendan Behan to Bono. Indeed, it was Bono who — with the opening of a boutique hotel there — gave the Temple Bar area its reputation for coolness. Today, it is the site of the Dublin Institute of Photography, the Irish Film Institute, and DESIGNyard.

But if you are looking for a good hotel base for some creative retail therapy and dining, it’s hard to beat the Westbury. A flagship hotel of the Irish-based Doyle Collection, it combines fashionable flair with the fine art of hospitality.

I checked in with a nasty sinus infection, and I found my room ready — almost never the case after a transatlantic flight. In addition, Shauna, a hostess in the lobby Gallery, noting my obvious affliction, offered me her own special remedy: tea infused with lemon, honey and ginger. Maybe it was my imagination, but it did seem to work, at least enough to keep me going.

Dining at the Westbury is a treat as well, once my sinuses opened up enough to taste what I was eating. In a naughty nod to one of Ireland’s most creative types, the Westbury named its fine-dining restaurant Wilde.

I could imagine the flamboyant playwright Oscar Wildle lurking behind the potted palms of the glamorous brasserie-style restaurant, observing the smart crowd assembled there, and uttering one of the cheeky lines he was known for, such as “My own business always bores me to death. I prefer that of other people.”

If Wilde were alive today, he would be licking his lips over the Irish specialties on the menu. I certainly was.

Starting with a tempura of soft shell crab, black bean sauce and fermented slaw, I continued with the catch of the day and several side dishes that had me scraping the bottom of the dish: charred sweet corn chili with feta, and cauliflower and pomegranate.

Tale of two teas

The Westbury also does an extravagant themed afternoon tea in the Gallery. While I was there, the theme was “The Art of Millinary,” in conjunction with the Council of Irish Fashion Designers.

The Gallery
The Gallery at the Westbury Hotel is a popular spot for afternoon tea. The Westbury

Tiny chapeau-shaped pastries had me momentarily reluctant to spoil the effect, but thankfully, I was able to overcome my qualms. The hat-themed tea ends in November, but Westbury staff assured me that they offer themed teas throughout the year.

One tea that doesn’t change is the Merrion Hotel’s famous (and oh so creative) Art Tea. Book a table by the roaring fire in the drawing room and indulge in miniature sweets based on paintings from the hotel’s vast collection of 19th- and 20th-century works by Irish, French, Italian and Dutch artists.

Art Tea - Futile Defense - John Boyd
The pastry chef at the Merrion Hotel uses art from the hotel’s collection for inspiration. Trinity Digital Ltd.

The hotel’s pastry chef selects random paintings and re-creates them in miniature. On this visit, I “ate” the works of three Irish artists: John Boyd’s “Futile Defense” (a raspberry and passion fruit tart); Mainie Jellet’s “Madonna and Child” (passion fruit and orange cheesecake), and Pauline Bewick’s “Path Moorea” (in the form of a chocolate Trinity).

As with the Westbury’s tiny hats, it’s impossible to imagine a chef — no matter how creative — reproducing these works of art in miniature. You will just have to see (and taste) to believe.

A creative stage

Ireland is a land birthed and bred in drama, so naturally it has a longstanding tradition of theater. From William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to Sean O’Casey, Enda Walsh and Seamus Heaney, where would the country be without its roster of dramatists?

As testimony to the Irish love of drama, Dublin’s venerable Abbey Theatre became the world’s first state-subsidized theater when it opened in 1904, and over the years acclaimed actors includingLiam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Sinead Cusack and Stephen Rea have appeared onstage.

Still, even the Abbey might need to reinvent itself, and that is exactly what it is doing. For the first time in its 113-year history, this most Irish of theaters has a non-Irish director. Make that two directors: Graham McLaren, a Scotsman, and Neil Murray, a Welshman.

Abbey Theatre
The Abbey Theatre was the first state-subsidized theater in the English-speaking world. Ros Kavanagh

Despite some initial misgivings on the part of the Irish, they have come to accept the co-directors and welcome their fresh approach. Even though I was anxious to see the fruits of their labor, when I found out it was “Ulysses,” my enthusiasm waned.

Over the years, I’ve had my share of battles with James Joyce, most often resulting in me — bloody and bowed after a pummeling by his stream-of-consciousness prose — forced to retire to my corner until I was fit enough to take him on again.

However, I must confess that McLaren’s and Murray’s nearly three-hour production was fresh and funny, and it left me thinking anew just how strongly the creative juices flow in this city.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at