It’s an odd experience to revisit what was once a very foreboding if not forbidding building. Back in the day, Scholars Townhouse — constructed in 1867 by renowned Irish architects George Ashlin and Edward Welby Pugin — was the primary residence of Drogheda’s Christian Brothers, who taught at the adjoining primary and secondary schools.
I recall quite literally shaking in our shoes as I awaited, every Friday afternoon, double maths with the Brother known as The Gugg.
Bald as a coot, thin as a whippet, with as cruel a streak in a man as any I’ve ever encountered, The Gugg (so called because his head looked like an egg) would walk into the classroom accompanied by the smell of whiskey and his leather strap dangling from his habit belt. You can imagine the rest, particularly if a young teenage lad didn’t know his algorithms from his equations.
It’s all changed now, of course; ten years ago, the MacGowan family renovated the late Victorian building, and within that period it has deservedly nabbed several plaudits. So what was once quite likely a residence that housed some (but definitely not all) lonely and unfulfilled men is now one of the most highly regarded small hotels in the country.
Not only that, but its restaurant and bar is equally praised, with good reason, and each has won awards courtesy of the Restaurant Association of Ireland.
Actually, for once, let’s start in the bar — or, as the proprietors somewhat pretentiously term it, the Gastro Lounge. Injudicious wording aside, this is one of the best bars in the country. Beautiful wood panelling, soft lighting, comfy chairs, a well-stocked bar (although, rather shockingly, when I asked for a seasonal Irish Mist, I was informed they didn’t have any), unobtrusive background music, complimentary newspapers and Wi-Fi, friendly and knowledgeable staff.
It really doesn’t get any better than this for those who like to read, chat or touch-type on a laptop while they wait.
The restaurant is up to the task of having a similar aesthetic. While we can only guess at the kind of conversation this dining room once hosted (we’re guessing Father Ted as if written by Enda Walsh), for the past ten years this wonderful room has set out its own singular agenda. It’s an unashamed old-fashioned experience, the kind of place people of a certain generation visited only on Sundays for those extra special occasions.
The wood-panelled walls feature all manner of antique mirrors, old paintings and colourful coats-of-arms, while the ceiling displays hand-painted frescoes depicting tableaus from the Battle of the Boyne. It’s a warm room, too, with the lashing rain on the windowpane accentuating the cosiness.
The scene is set, then, and because we’ve been here several times before over the years, we know what to expect. Quality arrives time after time, yet there are nice five-star touches that you receive but don’t pay for. These include an amuse-bouche of duck broth, which has, as they say, eating and drinking to it. And then there’s the between-courses palate cleanser of quite likely the best sorbet we have tasted: buttermilk and black olive caramel arrives in a small glass, looking for all the world like a tiny Guinness in reverse order.
If the sorbet provides a really imaginative zing to the meal, then it sits — stylistically and every other way — very comfortably beside the starters. We choose delicious, well-presented ones: prawn and crab bhaji (positioned in a row, adjoined by plum sauce, Indian pesto and slivers of pineapple) and pear and blue cheese tartlet (which is fused together so perfectly it could be mistaken for a dessert option).
Mains of pork belly (with a soft accumulation of cabbage and a chunk of warm apple) and sea bass (complemented with mounds of mash potato mixed with black olives) are equally tender, tasty and brimming with flavours.
Major kudos to executive chef, Michael Hunter, and his team for delivering not only the goods on a regular basis but also pulling out of the pot a few inventive surprises along the way. As we prepare to leave, the room continues to hum; you can tell that many have been here before, as there’s that special level of geniality and comfort on display.
Times pass, and memories are shunted back to where, perhaps, they safely belong, which is good news. The really good news? You don’t have to wait until Sunday any more to experience a great meal in truly handsome, rich surroundings.
Dinner for two, with wine, came to €83.30, tip extra.