Towards the tail end of 2019, I went on an extended two-day food tour of city and county with a posse of Ireland’s finest from the Irish Food Writers’ Guild and there were strong signs that Limerick was finally ‘coming good’, culinary dots last being properly connected and previously disparate elements gradually coming together in a unified vision of the Treaty County as an Irish food destination of note.
To be honest, the wonder is why it took so long for the epicurean re-emergence of ‘Pigtown’ - thus named for a time when its reputation as a producer of finest Limerick hams was global and thoroughly deserved.
With regeneration funding to include monies to support the Limerick’s Living Georgian City, a fitting stage is gradually being constructed for what I believe, at long last, could prove to be one of the most exciting food offerings in the country over coming decades.
A burgeoning hospitality scene rarely if ever begins without laying the groundwork and just as Cork’s renowned English Market introduced so many Corkonians to new tastes and flavours along with primary produce far superior to any available on the supermarket shelves, Limerick’s magnificent Milk Market has been similarly proselytising on behalf of fine food to Shannonsiders since the historical market site reopened once more as a market space in 2010, instantly debuting as the most beautiful farmer’s market in the country.
The pandemic restrictions have forced certain changes as the market reverted to selling only produce with several of the hot food stalls moving outside the market walls but that has only added to buzz in the surrounding area.
The Milk Market outdoor cafe though extremely weather dependent also opens on Friday and Sunday allowing greater access to one of the city’s true gastronomic treasures and the Council should surely be aiming to make it a seven day affair.
As the area surrounding absorbs the epicurean vibes, nearby High Street is fast becoming an epicentre for ethnic offerings from Limerick’s new communities, including Dasco DeLi (Filipino) setting up shop alongside local favourite, Volcano Wings, while Y Noodle is being replaced by a curious combo, Burger & Bao.
There are also fabulous things happening with flour in the town. Sunflower Bakery and Our Daily Bread have seriously upped the local bread game while Finn Robson’s Angel Dust Patisserie is turning out some quite exquisite high-end patisserie and Viennoiserie from its Thomas Street Outlet.
Another more recent arrival is the Wickham Way street food and craft market where Caomhán de Brí’s Salt Food Project is turning out delicious and innovative street food using plenty of finest local produce and it is to be hoped he remains an integral part of a promising new development.
The fine-dining scene in Limerick has been very much county-led down through the years, much of it emerging from the picturesque tourist town of Adare.
JP McManus' deep pockets have utterly reinvigorated the luxury Adare Manor hotel but it took the enormous talent of chef Mike Tweedie to earn the hotel’s Oak Room restaurant its first Michelin star and Tweedie’s cooking continues to evolve and improve, the more immersed he becomes in the local network of producers.
Adare is also home to chef Wade Murphy’s excellent Adare 1826 restaurant which he runs with wife Elaine and on foot of the pandemic is changing direction to offer a more casual dining that is already promising great things.
Dan Mullane’s venerable Mustard Seed first began life in Adare before re-locating to Ballingarry, where Dan’s former protégé John Edward Joyce is the new owner in one of the most special little country homes in the country, offering superb hospitality and lovely food in a uniquely comforting setting.
There have been stalwarts in the city over the years including The French Table and Freddy’s Bistro which has now morphed into Freddy’s Restaurant, but the some of the first stirrings of real change in the city have taken place over the last decade and La Cucina, an Italian deli/pizza parlour in an urban shopping unit in Castletroy entranced locals as it sprinkled culinary stardust on its suburban setting and a rather swish and sleek city centre location that followed on Henry Street, La Cucina Centro, has maintained similar standards, in particular, a very nice line in pizzas.
The arrival of minimalist-styled Canteen delivering simple, tasty fast food with clean flavours and much funky elan certainly energised the local dining scene when it first popped up on Mallow St in 2021 and has since gone on to bigger and better things in its Catherine Street premises.
The new tenant is cut from a similar cloth where Dalton Green’s Rift Coffee offers superb coffees, tasty treats and some very interesting wines while DOH Pizzas on O’Connell St have greatly added to the local interpretation of a global favourite in a venue as tasty as their Neapolitan-style pizzas.
David Corbett operated the very popular Green Onion Cafe in Limerick in the 90s and so when he returned after years away from the city and the local hospitality game, there was only one name ever worthy of consideration for his second act.
Our little writers’ tour passed a memorable evening there dining on some very lovely and superbly sourced tapas and drinking some excellent wines in a most becoming space.
It is a joy to see genuinely local brews returning to Shannonside with both Treaty City Brewing and Crew Brewing Co offering excellent on-site sampling opportunities and supplying good beers to other supportive outlets in the town and real progress would see them available in pubs citywide.
There’s no doubt the pub model is undergoing great change in Ireland and if you’re not offering a bit of grub along with the few pints then you’re going to find it increasingly hard to survive in the new climate.
It is no coincidence that two of this writer’s favourite places to do same are sited along the city’s aquatic jewel, The River Shannon, with both Locke’s Bar and JJ Bowles making a splendid fist of exploiting their riverside locations, offering terrific ambiance, tasty grub and a mighty fine pint of plain.
When it comes to putting on the glad rags and getting all gussied up for a proper night out of fine wining and dining two locations stand out above all others in the city.
The beautifully located and lovingly restored No 1 Pery Square hotel in the city’s Georgian quarter has long been one of this writer’s most favourite little hotels in the world and with the arrival of chef Keith Pigott to its kitchens, is finally delivering on the table dishes to match the standards set by the rest of the gorgeous little hotel.
Much of the progressive change over the last two decades in Limerick can be directly linked to the impact and influence of the University of Limerick and The Eastroom at Plassey House, was established by the university and is sited on its campus.
With such a captive audience on its doorstep, the Eastroom has not been subject to the same pressures as other hospitality venues in seeking diners from further afield, which explains why it is still largely unsung in its own hometown, its national reputation, even more low key.
That is surely set to change because word will surely get out about this very exquisite food, rendered with precision on the plate by head chef Derek Fitzpatrick.
Sourcing impeccably from local producers and further afield, Fitzpatrick is offering fine food at seriously competitive prices (including a gourmet Sunday three-course lunch for just €39).
I think it’s time to go back to university and it is very definitely time to go back to Limerick.