15 of the best food and drink experiences in Northern Ireland

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COAST

Hats off to Harry’s in Portstewart

With views of the Causeway Coast, the weathered, wood-panelled Harry’s Shack, overlooking Portstewart Strand beach, in Co Derry, serves seafood caught by local fishing boats, locally brewed beer (hello Lacada) and some lip-smacking cocktails. In summer, walk-ins are welcomed, DJs spin real records, the barbecue is sometimes fired up and there’s always a good gaggle of customers hanging around on the huge terrace just above the sand. It’s not new, new, perhaps, but Harry’s has become part of the local landscape during lockdown.

Seafood scran in Portstewart

Native Seafood and Scran

Out of work and spurred on by local fisherman Peter Boston, who supplied them with a catch of lobster, Stevie and Rebekah McCarry put a message out on social media in lockdown that they were starting out as fishmongers, and within the hour they had sold the entire catch. They were the talk of the town. From there it’s been a whirlwind. Soon they were selling lobster rolls, monkfish ceviche and other dishes as Native Seafood & Scran. Rebekah says: “We changed the menu up every day, depending on what the boats brought in, which made for a stressful, sometimes hilarious scramble as we shot off around the area to get the ingredients needed for each dish every morning.” There are now plans to open a proper sit-down restaurant in the old yacht club in September. Until then, you can buy seafood from the pod in front, where there are often queues round the corner.

Beer for all in Portrush

Opened in 2015, the beer from the community-owned Lacada Brewery in the seaside resort of Portrush, County Antrim, is not your standard fare. There are both the raspberry and the mango “smoothie” IPAs, for starters, plus a new line in sour beers, which can be found in many local pubs and shops. The brewery decided to press on with plans to upgrade and improve through lockdown, producing 26 new beers in a year. Stormont red tape doesn’t make it easy for microbreweries in the north, so there is no tap room at present, but as soon as it is feasible they will be running brewery tours again.

Chocs away in Castlerock

Geri Martins chocolate business, the Chocolate Manor, Castlerock
Photograph: Giles Mulligan Photography

In January 2020 Geri Martin moved her bespoke chocolate business, the Chocolate Manor, to the coastal village of Castlerock, Co Derry, with a view to running chocolate experiences. “We were weeks away from our official opening when we closed due to Covid,” Geri says. “My team and I went home to home-school, and I didn’t know if we’d ever reopen.” But reopen they did, turning the premises into a chocolate shop and artisan food emporium supporting other businesses that are part of the Taste Causeway collective. Chocolate experiences – from alcohol and food pairings (whiskey and chocolate anyone?) to making your own box of chocolates – are also now up and running for private groups, and prices start at £25pp.

Flying off the shellfish in Dundrum

Though there is also a restaurant in Belfast, it’s the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum, Newcastle, where you can try fresh shellfish in a pebble throw from the Co Down coast, that really suits the fresh-from-the-sea dishes. This year, as well as the restaurant, the company has also launched a hot food bar called Squid Shack a short walk away, where you can try classic fish and chips and favourites like salt’n’chilli boxes with a choice of squid or prawns. Perfect for customers who want to grab something and cross the road for dinner with views of Dundrum Bay.

Paddle and baking in Strangford Lough

If you like to work a little for your supper then these foodie adventures with Mobile Team Adventure, in which you do some coastal canoeing before landing ashore, learn how to make soda bread and then fill up on lashings of tea and homemade cake sound pretty perfect. Guests head out from Ballymorran Bay by canoe to Strangford Lough, a marine nature reserve where harbour seals, herons, occasional otters and even the odd surprise whale can be spotted, before popping to an island or two. Tracey is a local tour guide who runs cookery classes from her very own Farmhouse Kitchen. Three-hour canoe/cookery courses cost £65pp.

CITY

Hatch a plan in Belfast

The Toast Office Ireland

What began as a pop-up in February 2021 in the Cathedral Quarter’s Hill Street Hatch – a space that gives up-and-coming culinary talent the chance to test ideas without exorbitant costs – the Toast Office is here to stay. It was either that or Belfast would have had an angry mob of cheese toastie fans on its hands. These fully-loaded grilled cheese sandwiches use locally sourced, high-quality ingredients and have proved incredibly popular – the slow-cooked ham hock with Coolattin Irish cheddar certainly lives up to its “fancy ham and cheese” name. Now based in a permanent kiosk by the nearby Dark Horse pub, you can sit down and enjoy a pint with your sandwich or eat it as you tour some of Belfast’s famous sights.

Food for your soul in south Belfast

Fruit Shop

Set up in the summer of 2020 as an artist-run cafe and social space in a suburban neighbourhood of south Belfast, Fruit Shop is forging deep-rooted relationships with local producers and growers, while creating a place where the whole community can feel at ease. The cafe sells good coffee and has a mood-lifting brunch menu with excellent vegan options. The doughnuts have some of the most outlandish pastry and filling combos ever, and events such as last autumn’s Feast of Saxifrage, an art and food-sharing project as part of the Outburst Queer Arts festival, bring the residents of Galwally together through the age-old tradition of breaking bread.

Cocktails and small plates in Derry

In late 2019, David Lafferty finally realised a long-held dream to buy his own restaurant – the Castle Street Social – and then, well, we all know what happened. David just about made it through the first lockdown, but he then shrewdly prepared for the next one by launching a baked goods service through the restaurant, offering homemade bread and cakes to take away. Now people are allowed inside again, the restaurant, which sometimes collaborates with other food and drink producers, is building up a good reputation for its small plates, which use local produce, and fabulous cocktails – the strawberry and raspberry G and Tea, for instance, is inspired.

In-off-the-streets food in Derry

Pyke ‘N’ Pommes Derry, Ireland
Photograph: PR

Derry’s food revolution may be slower than that of other cities, but street food here is finally catching [itself] on. Pyke ‘N’ Pommes is a case in point. Over the past eight or so years it’s gradually grown in status from selling food from an adapted van in an old car park to running out of a converted shipping container by the River Foyle with a doubledecker bus and DJ, to a proper, grown-up restaurant on the Strand Road in 2020. Don’t worry, the more rustic POD isn’t going anywhere, but now customers can also enjoy a restaurant environment as they tuck into wagyu beef burgers cooked from scratch (with meat from local breeder Joe McGinnis) without worrying about the weather.

COUNTRY

Cooking as therapy in Co Derry

Sloe gin Bakehouse Co Derry
Cookery lessons by Bronagh Duffin recreate ‘the warmth and love of her granny’s kitchen’

For several years former nurse Bronagh Duffin has been helping people “heal” through her cookery lessons in the countryside by recreating the warmth and love of her granny’s kitchen, with a griddle over an open fire, good food and plenty of craic. “It takes me back to those feelings of being safe by my granny’s side as she cooked,” she says, “and I want to transport my guests to a place that conjures up similar feelings for them.” Though lockdown forced many of the lessons on to the dreaded Zoom, now her Bakehouse classes such as “digging for gin”, in which guests forage for berries, and “family day out”, in which you’re encouraged to cook your meal of choice together, are to take place in person again, which sounds like good therapy to us.

Coffee and s’mores in the Mountains of Mourne

In the foothills of the Mountains of Mourne, hillwalkers have found this vintage horsebox a welcome sight over the past few months. The Hen and Cock Coffee Dock (named after nearby hills), run by couple Ally and Jamie, only set up shop in January this year but is doing a roaring trade selling coffee, cakes and milkshakes as more and more locals take to the hills. It’s a place particularly popular with families as Hen Mountain is a beginner’s mountain – “Take the path into the bog, it’s a dander walk, which is calm and peaceful” Ally says. And don’t forget to stop off on your way back – on Thursday evenings they do s’mores, which should be enough of a bribe for the kids.

More than an apple a day in Co Armagh

An apple crop in County Armagh.
An apple crop in County Armagh. Photograph: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy

County Armagh is renowned for its Bramley apples and at Wee Buns Cookery School, just outside Moy in Dungannon (near the border with Tyrone), founder Mary Anne Mackle is hoping to connect visitors and the local community with the traditional recipes she grew up with after they’ve taken a tour of the orchard. As well as tasting some of the produce from the orchard – apple cider vinegar, chutney and apple jelly – you will also learn how to make a little-known (outside Armagh, anyway) recipe of potato apple bread (like apple tart but with potato bread in place of pastry). In harvest time guests can also come and help with apple picking. Half-day orchard and apple-baking tours are £70pp.

High steaks at Hillyard in Co Down

At the newly restored boutique guest house of Hillyard House, on the edge of the Castlewellan Forest Park, you can enjoy craft beers in the bar, or sit down for a locally sourced lunch or dinner in The Yard restaurant. Dundrum mussels and Portavogie prawns appeal on the menu, but it’s the meat really that takes centre stage here – ethically raised beef (farm to fork) hung for optimum time on the restaurant’s Himalayan salt seat ager before being cooked on the broiler makes for a really good steak.

Whiskey (and gin) galore in Co Down

Before craft beer and cider tours, Ireland is known for its whiskey, and if you’d like an alternative to touristy Bushmills then try the craft Hinch Distillery in the beautiful setting of Killaney Estate in Co Down. The county was once home to seven whiskey distilleries and this one hopes to be part of a revival of whiskey-making in Ireland, using traditional techniques but modern ambition. Water for the grain-to-glass whiskey comes from the Mourne mountains – the triple distillation process is adhered to, and you can taste the results on a tour. As expected, the distillery also makes gin, and on its gin tour you get to make your own, which you can take home with you. Whiskey tours from £18, gin experience £45.