THE FIRST time I visited Hunter’s Hotel, I felt like a traveller from another century. Ireland’s oldest coaching inn dates from the 1600s, and wears its years like a handsome old dowager.
The yard is cobbled. The interiors are dark and fusty, hemmed in by thick stone walls and spotted with antiques. But it’s not all ancient history. Inside a leather-bound guestbook dating from 1895, I discovered a note written by Steven Spielberg.
His isn’t the only stardust sprinkled about the chintz. Daniel Day Lewis lives locally, and Hunter’s is a favourite haunt — it was here that he met Spielberg before filming Lincoln, forged his partnership with the Wicklow Hospice Foundation and, in 2007, met a reporter from the New York Times. “When he was younger, the proprietor scolded Daniel and a drunk friend, who threw up in the fireplace, putting out the flames,” Lynn Hirschberg wrote.
“’Several generations of guests in proper attire have been coming here,’” Day Lewis recalled the proprietor telling him. “’I hope you’re not going to lower the tone.’” Happily, I can report that he did not. Revisiting Hunter’s with family over the recent Bank Holiday weekend, we found the same storied interiors, the same oak staircase, horsey prints, and the same glowing fireplace that have been here for centuries.
The hotel is unashamedly old-school. This is the kind of place where ‘luncheon’ is preferred to ‘lunch’, where tables are laid with starchy linen and timeworn silverware, where words like ‘Melba’ and ‘escallop’ sit like old aunts on the menu. Staff wear white blouses and modest black skirts reaching below the knee. Sash windows frame pretty garden views.
“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good inn,” reads a quote by Dr Johnson on a menu offering three courses for €33.50pp. Not bad given the volume of pearls on its diners’ necks.
Of our starters, the oak-smoked trout impresses with its velvety flesh and mild covering of horseradish, and short work is made of several plates of figs with Parma ham and balsamic dressing. A chicken liver p‚té is soft of texture if a tad bland, however, and a slice of water melon with lemon sorbet is poorly presented in a blotch of berries.
The mains are traditional fare, done well. A fillet of hake is expertly grilled, its juicy flesh mopping up lashings of shrimp and caper velouté. A baked escallop of salmon is perfectly soft and tender, draped in a thick curtain of dill and chervil cream. The kids devour it.
Meat dishes include a roast leg of Wicklow lamb, served with herb stuffing and a thick rosemary jus. It’s a little too well done for my taste, but retains its tenderness — the sign of a sure hand in the kitchen. Slices of roast pork belly are similarly indulgent, crowned with crispy skin, doused in gravy, adorned with buttery mash and sweet apple sauce.
I’ve eaten twice at Hunter’s, and older diners have been in the majority both times. It’s a founder member of Ireland’s Blue Book, but don’t expect the sophisticated sumptuousness of a Ballymaloe or Marlfield House, say. Its faded grandeur extends to the odd fraying fabric and tiring wallpaper, although the atmosphere is dyed-in-the-wool. The hotel once occupied a plum position on the former Dublin/Wexford road, I learn. Travellers rested and changed horses here, and parking up in the yard, we’re able to spot the old troughs, mounting blocks and stables that would have greeted them.
After tea and coffee, I take the kids for a walk around the gardens. We pass swelling pumpkins, purple cabbages and apple trees. There are rows of herbs and vegetables, an abundance of plants, trees and shrubs. We can literally count the footsteps to our forks.
Dessert wasn’t particularly memorable. A crème caramel, a chocolate and cinnamon torte, a fresh lime pie and a spiced apple and raisin crumble all looked perfectly pretty, but offered all the energy and dynamism of an antique dessert trolley.
Spielberg wrote his thoughts with a pen. Others have gone a step further, a staff member tells us, pointing out decades and even centuries-old messages scratched into windowpanes throughout the house. Many were etched with diamond rings.
Lunch for six adults and two children came to 221, tip extra.