A long time ago when people toured Northern Ireland by parachute Skandia was the only restaurant in Belfast and all the cars had ratty little trailers for small livestock some of us got cozy in one or two Belfast pubs still in operation to down Strangford oysters with pints of stout in warm and subdued lounge bars.
pipe with a thirst for bigger volumes during this period of the late 1970s and 1980s would head to the original Kitchen Bar in Victoria Square (before it was a shopping centre), where Mrs Catney and her family lived above the pub and cooked and cooked all the food served downstairs.
It was a center of excellence where pints and scran were central to its reputation. I took Matthew Fort, the former judge of the Great British Menu, there in the early 1990s. We’re still talking about the soda and the potato bread, the hams, the Ulster fries, the Pat’s Pizza and savory Irish stews.
We loved the Kitchen Bar for the food and the fact that you could bump into literally anyone.
And then it was knocked down to make way for the new shopping centre, leaving just one other pub in Belfast’s fast-changing city center to proudly fly the pints and scran flag, The Morning Star.
The Morning Star had an even greater ambition. Owner Seamus McAlister and his partner, Corinne, have produced excellent plates of fine steaks, soups and stews in large part due to Seamus’ obsessive passion for quality beef.
Her attention to fine local ingredients – something expressed long before it became cool, widespread and mainstream among today’s chefs – coupled with Corinne’s equally exacting standards of service meant that The Morning Star had one of the best menus and the most skilful teams in town. Fourteen years ago when I last reviewed the place I said that the bar staff were actually special ground forces, an active duty unit that prided themselves on their looks, quick response and of his unfailing professionalism.
A recent Sunday visit proved the description still holds. Seamus and Corinne have since passed away, leaving the operation in the hands of his son James McAlister, famous for his Jolly Pie Man food truck. You always saw him at the big concerts. As charming and hospitable as his parents, James baked pies in the pub’s ovens at night after closing time.
The food in the upstairs pub dining room is as robust as it’s always been – and I detect even more attention to provenance, too. Portavogie Shrimp with Spicy Boxty Tomato Sauce is a wonderful concoction. You could tell me they’re an authentic 16th century Irish dish and I’d believe you, apart from the tomatoes, of course.
The boxty is less of a pancake here and more of a potato dumpling. It soaks up the sauce beautifully, while the generous load of prawn tails adds texture and salty ocean flavor.
And wonder of wonders, there are oysters on the menu – although if you’re absolutely determined to have them, be sure to call ahead to check they’re on the menu, as they aren’t always available.
The fact that you can still eat oysters and stout in a bar in downtown Belfast from the Victorian era is a blessing and deserves listed protection.
The meat in The Morning Star is the big draw and prices are significantly lower here. A tomahawk steak or 1.25 kilo prime rib at £57.50, easily enough for three people, is almost half the price you’ll find in some of the city’s finest restaurants.
There are seasonal dishes and the kind of grub you’ve come to a pub for, including fish and chips with peas made with local saithe and Belfast Lager batter; bangers and mash made with house pork and Bramley sausages and tobacco onions; and pie of the day, of course.
Focus on food and value for money and you will be very happy.
The law project
Shrimp box €9.50
Fish and chips €13.95
Bottle of Hallion Red Ale €4.50
Glass of Chardonnay €5.15