North Main Street may be ailing, but Tony’s Bistro is still cooking up a storm, writes Irene Long.
Lying at the centre of Cork City’s historic spine is North Main Street. A village within a city. In number 76, third generation owner of Leaders Menswear, Patrick Leader, will tell you that the street was once the main street of Cork City prior to St Patrick’s Street.
In number 81, Michael Creedon of Bradleys Supermarket will gladly regale the history of his family business which was established 167 years previously.
Historically, a bustling street, the development of a brick wall of shopping centres in suburban areas along with a downturn and changes in consumer spending has changed the trading landscape of North Main Street. Whilst still retaining the feel of a village, the street is speckled with dereliction and in need of investment.
Yet, the energy which resonates on North Main Street is impossible to resist. The delicate hum of spices as you walk past the Asian food store; the technicolour mural of images of literary artists; the melodic rise and fall of Cork men conversing outside the pub as they vape; ladies scuttling from Mass at St Francis’ Church on Liberty Street to do their messages.
In No 69, you’ll find Cork city’s soul kitchen, Tony’s Bistro. Great Irish food, affordable prices but, most importantly, you’ll experience a warmth and generosity towards others that is second to none.
Now in its 21st year, the business was originally founded by Kathleen and John O’ Connor, in partnership with John’s brother, Tony, the chef. Hence the name — Tony’s Bistro. Jonathan O’Connor, John’s son, took over as manager and runs the day to day operations along with his sister, Caitriona. Two more sisters, Lorraine and Michelle, work part time at the restaurant so it is a true family affair. The business boasts a low staff turnover, with some staff working there for up to ten years.
Along with staff loyalty, Tony’s Bistro’s repeat customers make up 60 to 70% of their trade. Go and speak to some of them. To Paddy Foley, who travels each day by bus from Macroom to enjoy the home-cooked style food and splendid company. Patrons are less customers, more community. Visiting Tony’s is part of their family tradition. They sit down and they don’t need to order because the staff know exactly what they want. These personal touches are deeply appreciated.
Tony’s epitomises the meaning of cèad mìle fàilte. Jonathan will tell you that their clientele ranges from students to builders, tourists to the ladies leaving morning Mass. Whilst his back is turned, customers will tell you that they have never seen anyone refused entry.
That each Saturday morning, there is a particular couple who appear to be down on their luck and they are given cups of coffee and made to feel welcome. That the service has reached outside their business boundary when Jonathan brought breakfast to a regular, Jim Murphy, in the Mercy hospital which is just around the corner from North Main Street.
The bistro acted as the stage setting for comedy troupe Lords of Strut this June, before the character duo ‘Seantastic and Famous Sean’ flew to London to perform in the live semi-finals of ‘Britain’s got talent’.
“I had a call from the producers of BGT asking if they could send over a film crew as the guys had got through to the live shows and they wanted to do a background piece of them in character working their ‘day jobs’ at Tony’s Bistro.”
Customers were treated to an impromptu performance of both characters working as waiters in their Uncle Tony’s restaurant.
Tony’s Bistro is famous for its breakfasts. In Jonathan’s own words, “Everyone loves a fry. No matter who you are, where you’re from, everybody loves a fry.”
Hearty and humorously named, the ingredients and titles will tickle your taste buds and your ribs. Choose from Fat Tony (The Simpsons), “Paulie Walnuts (The Sopranos), Vinnie Antonelli (My Blue Haven), to name but a few. The Don of the breakfast menu is aptly named “The Godfather”.
Priced at €29.95, 310 people have tackled this behemoth but only ten have succeeded to polish off six slices of bacon, eight sausages, two fried eggs, two scrambled eggs, 6oz sirloin steak, four hash browns, black and white pudding, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, fried onion rings, grilled tomatoes, double portion of chips, six slices of toast and three slices of soda bread.
If you complete the plate, Tony’s Bistro will donate €500 to your charity of choice or €100 if you participate in the challenge but fail to complete.
In its 21 years, the owners of Tony’s Bistro have seen North Main Street change dramatically. The recession decimated many sole traders resulting in closure with nothing put in their place. The closure of the Dunnes Stores outlet in North Main Street Shopping Centre has adversely affected surrounding businesses due to less customer traffic along the street. This spacious unit is yet to be redeveloped.
Yet, the traders of North Main Street remain resilient. They have already weathered the recessional storm. Jonathan O’ Connor of Tony’s Bistro is confident that their business will keep moving forward by keeping prices down, keeping the quality high and letting the product speak for itself. He notices an upturn in spending with customers bringing shopping bags into the restaurant at the beginning of the week as opposed to just weekends.
Michael Creedon has adapted his business model to make Bradley’s a destination retail outlet where the public can source artisan food products and specialist beverages. Patrick Leader acts as the honorary treasurer of the North Main Street Traders Association which works to promote the Street and its businesses.
Though times have changed, the spirit of North Main Street is kept alive by its traders. Next time you are in Cork city, take a ramble down this unique street. Without the support of people’s feet and pennies, jewels like North Main Street may disappear for good.
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