THERE is much to be said for Ireland’s recent network of commuter and tourist-friendly motorways — they swish you from doorstep to doorstep in so much less time than when you had to slowly go through every town from here to there and back again.
And yet — while we’re not saying we’re missing the likes of Portarlington or Ballinasloe, to name but two towns we have been bypassing for some years — there is something of a giddiness to the senses when you veer off the motorways and, on a whim, if not a prayer, take a turn at a signpost and drive towards somewhere you’ve never been to before.
One such spot is Kinvara, a seaport village in south County Galway that has been on the to-do list for some years now due to its proximity to the Burren, County Clare.
It’s clear from entering the village, however, that we’re a bit late to jump on any bandwagons — on a bright sunny day in late August, Kinvara is hopping to the beat of busloads of tourists, who initially queue up to pay their respects to Dunguaire Castle.
This structure is positioned to the east of the village, and has little problem casting itself as a bona fide 16th-century tower house (and one that has been seen in Disney movies) that attracts tourists like bees to honey.
When phots have been grabbed — and when the uilleann player at the castle gates has packed up his pipes and gone home — what’s left to do except stroll through the village and look for somewhere to eat?
We had heard about The Pier Head from friends, so we knew exactly where to go; a short walk from the village centre to the quayside (via a Garda Station that could easily win the Cutest Garda Station in Ireland contest) and there it stands — right on the Bay and on the pier, where docked small boats of various types gently bob up and down.
There is still a trace of summer in the air, and so the outside section has bunches of people breathing in the final warmth of the day.
The less formal ground floor at the Pier Head is stuffed to the rafters, so we are shown upstairs to a smaller, more straitlaced but no less atmospheric room, with better views over Galway Bay and Dungaire Castle than downstairs can offer.
We settle in beside an empty fireplace, have a bottle of Chardonnay cracked open for us, and cherry-pick from the menu.
As we read through it, the room starts to fill up, and you get the sense that the Pier Head is as much a time-restricted refuge for tourists and visitors as it is a more languishing retreat for locals — always a good sign.
We share a starter of goat’s cheese, a standard enough option on the A La Carte menu that manages, cleverly, to be most things to most people.
In other words, while the Pier Head may not be a destination restaurant in the strictest sense of the phrase, it nevertheless mixes the tried and tested (Atlantic seafood chowder, home-made fish cakes, pan-fried black sole with parsley butter sauce) with some extremely neat culinary touches (calamari and Spanish chorizo salad, steamed mussels in fennel and Pernod, grilled rack of pork with Jerusalem artichoke crisps).
It adds up to a menu short on genuine surprises but full of decent inclusions.
Carnivores are well catered for, but we think it’ll be a sin if we don’t choose fish — there really are certain things you have to do in given locations, and so we go with the flow. Mussels in fennel and Pernod — yes, Pernod! — are chosen, along with a whole lobster.
Cue the immediate appearance of what seems to be surgical implements, plastic aprons and a shower cap. Let’s put it this way: while the previous sentence is a slight exaggeration, negotiating your way around a whole lobster (that, in fairness to the kitchen, has not been requested to be removed from its shell casing) isn’t the easiest way to eat. We persevere, however, and when we crack the lobster open we discover meat is as succulent as it can get — and there’s plenty of it, too.
We choose not to have dessert, and decide instead to take our time with the wine and occasionally glance towards Galway Bay, which is slowly disappearing as the dimming of the day proceeds.
We conclude that the Pier Head delivers on its promise of really good food at reasonable prices, and that as locations go, it is perfectly situated. Winter is coming? We’ll be here for that, too.
Dinner for two, with wine, came to €84.90, €10 tip.
Winter hours, closed Mon/Tues/Wed. Thurs-Sat: 1pm-4.30pm; 5pm-9.30pm. Sun: 12 noon-9pm.
In a sentence: A compact, friendly quayside restaurant and pub offering great views of Galway Bay as well as fine, freshly produced food. A win-win.
The Pier Head, Kinvara, Co Galway,
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