Chic becomes Dublin

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The born-again,  post-austerity Dublin – small but perfectly formed – is a cornucopia of elegant places to be, from stylish  hotels to quality restaurants and lovely, lovely things to buy – plus lots to gaze at for inspirational ideas to bring home.

Once upon a time some forms of art did not accord with Irish sensibilities and writers in particular chose self-exile to a foreign haunt. But that’s ancient history and these writers are now graced with festivals, postage stamps  and places like the Dublin Writers Museum. Nowadays art is the new chic in Dublin like never before.

When a restaurant opened in the basement of the Dublin Writers Museum it was appropriate to take the name Chapter One and equally fitting is that anyone setting out to experience chic Dublin should arrive here for their first meal. Ebullient when busy, fuelled by loyal customers who like to return in the knowledge that superb food will be served, a meal here should suitably conclude with the theatrically- served flambéed Irish coffee (the building that houses Chapter One and the Writers Museum was originally the home of John Jameson, the doyen of Irish whiskey). Ross Lewis is the genius in Chapter One’s kitchen and, with his flair and passion for the visually appealing,  serves as testimony to the rapport between food and art. He has also created a project that biannually commissions an artist to create a piece using any media for display on the wall of his  restaurant; it also graces the restaurant’s menu and limited edition prints are available to art-hungry customers.

For years Chapter One was a well-kept secret amongst discerning Dubliners and for them its award of a Michelin star came as no great surprise. The same may be said of L’Ecrivain where its classy tone is dramatically announced in a large work of tapestry art on the main wall of its restaurant. It luminously depicts sheep in a field and  the material used seems to be fabric but on a closer look is revealed to be carpet — the  creation of  a Dublin artist, Graham Knuttel. L’Ecrivain’s chef grew up in the same Dublin neighbourhood as Knuttel and they knew one another before the artist shot to fame when superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger  started collecting his work. The food at L’Ecrivain –  try the John Dory with fennel, orange, spiced barley and mussels — is as eye-catching as the tapestry and the wines are artfully chosen. Chablis is available by the glass and there is a decadent Vinho Licoroso to accompany the slow-cooked chocolate tart with saffron mousse.

Appreciating art with good food has the drawback of only lasting as long as the meal. I want art on tap, day and night, before and after breakfast, lunch and dinner – and the only solution to such an insatiable craving is an art gallery inside a hotel. Dublin delivers this, with understated chic, in the Merrion Hotel. In every corridor and public space of the hotel – consisting of four impeccably restored townhouses in the heart of Georgian Dublin –  a painting of distinction hangs on a wall. Such a private collection of 19th- and 20th-century art  is usually just that – private and, at best, occasionally open to the public –  but here works by Irish artists such as Jack B Yeats, Paul Henry and Louis le Brocquy are on display 24/7. Another pleasant surprise at the Merrion is its restaurant, the Cellar, where  worries over combining pink grapefruit with scallops and a side order of truffle-and-Parmesan flavoured chips were gratifyingly allayed. Breakfast here  is to be lingered over while contemplating the delights of the day ahead – which might include some time spent in the hotel’s elegant Tethra Spa, enjoying a relaxing swim, steam room or one of the many beauty treatments available.

There is one other iconic Dublin hotel that can compete with the Merrion for luxury and that is The Shelbourne. Just about every celebrity visiting Dublin has stayed here – Peter O’Toole was a regular and once famously bathed in champagne – and many have paused to admire the Louis le Brocquy tapestry which hangs in the hotel’s lobby. As the place to stay in Dublin. the concierge is used to dealing with star-quality guests and if female luminaries ask about contemporary Irish fashion designers they may well be directed around the corner to Louise Kennedy’s beautiful 18th century Georgian home and studio at 56 Merrion Square. The house is filled with lovely things from bespoke outfits and wedding gowns to accessories for both sexes, plus a stunning collection of crystal chandeliers.

Dublin  has distilled the best work of the country’s  artisans in a few well chosen spots and for painless ease of purchasing — or just browsing with a coffee stop — Browne Thomas [] has, along with many famous European brand names, several talented young Irish designers, and personal shoppers to guide you through the labyrinth of outlets.

For equally exclusive shopping  walk along to  South William St where Powerscourt Townhouse Centre has attracted a host of tiny designer shops both inside its walls and in the surrounding buildings. The Georgian building was once the party home of Lord Powerscourt, built to entertain other gentry while parliament was sitting. Built around an interior courtyard, the conversion to shopping centre has respected its former grandeur and it is a pleasure to sit in one of the many cafés and take in the surroundings. The top floor is home to  Marion Cuddy Irish Designers Emporium full of designs by Irish  artisans. Look for the work of Caroline Mitchell and Gertrude Sampson who do wonderful things with knitwear, Suzie Mahony who makes killer hats and Tyrell and Brennan who design bespoke evening wear and much more.

The second floor of Powerscourt Townhouse Centre is home to Kish jewellery, Monte Cristo Antiques and The Silver Shop, all good for a browse. For lunch, it’s a short walk to the elegant Cliff Townhouse  where fine food can be enjoyed and admiration showered on an improbably smart lampshade made of Velcro.

Outside, two places to pop into are De La Punc at number 49 and Project51, both filled with clothes, jewellery and accessories by young local designers. For the best of more traditional Irish design, nothing beats the Kilkenny shop at 15 Nassau St: Waterford Crystal, Belleek ceramics and Newbridge silverware are all here as well as modern jewellery designers like Martina Hamilton – who takes traditional Irish crosses and brings them into the modern era – and Jill Graham from Tyrone whose designs are at once sturdy and delicate.

If Dublin’s modern designers are going from strength to strength, the city is also home to some great shabby-chic shopping opportunities. Jenny Vander at 50 Drury St is filled with lovely, one-off, near perfect, vintage clothing, jewellery and accessories. While you are here check out Que Va upstairs, the outlet for the gorgeous work of Caiomhe Keane whose lovely, romantic evening wear and elegant tailored suits will certainly be gracing vintage shops in 50 years time.

What truly makes Dublin chic is the ease of escaping the city to a stylish seaside village. Half an hour on a train  and you magically step out to coastal Howth, a genteel fishing village perched below the Hill of Howth with one of the most beautiful scenic walks in Ireland. Check out some of the tiny shops in the village; there will be things to buy here available nowhere else. The place to stay in Howth is the King Sitric  a small, exclusive guest house and restaurant where the best thing besides the lovely fresh seafood at dinner is the early-morning rustle of waves breaking a few feet from your bedroom window and seagulls wheeling and cawing. Awakening to these sounds – having left a window half open at night – I thought at first I was shipwrecked and floating on a raft. It should have been disconcerting but I felt gently relaxed and quite content.

by Sean Sheehan