Restaurant review: The Parlour Cafe, Cork

The Parlour Cafe, 51 Cornmarket Street, Cork, (021) 4279287. 

As a scowling youth with a greatly inflated sense of personal sophistication, yet still too young for public houses, I passed an inordinate amount of time in ‘upmarket’ cafés. 

Back then, only those with notions ate dinner in the evening, so a robust carvery option was always to hand, along with soup, ‘sangidges’ and a pile of pastries. Though the primary libation was tea, I instead nursed single coffees (instant, added froth for authentic Left Bank look) for apparently months on end, spurning food altogether.

Much has changed in the modern café: midday dinner is rare and pappy white sliced pan and powdered soup mixes are now consigned to the museum of memory. I’ve learned to relish the healing power of a good soup and sandwich yet I still struggle to get overly worked up about the prospect of daytime café dining. 

Then I hear tell of the newly-opened Parlour Café, not only selling reputedly excellent sandwiches but also featuring beef from the proprietor’s family farm, in Ovens, Co Cork. Futhermore, on certain evenings they remain open, serving tapas and wine.

Former comrade-in-arms MB and I arrive one late December evening, the rain on a rare break and a brisk chill actually welcome. The illuminated Parlour Café is in full pre-Christmas spirit, twinkling a warm welcome. 

Décor is homely yet spare, bare timber with an off-white wash, original artworks on the walls and, while seating is a little cramped in this narrow room, it fosters a conspiratorial cosiness.

The menu is short and keenly priced, (six tapas, €24) so we order the lot along with a Sangiovese from a fairly-priced though uninspired wine list. 

The dishes are resolutely mainstream, long familiar to most Irish diners for over a decade and highlights include some very good bread, served with peppery olive oil and garlic prawns commendably featuring three succulent Irish prawns but, other than a shot of sublime gazpacho lurking underneath artichoke, cod & ham, there are no culinary fireworks. 

Sea Bass with garlic mousseline could have been so much better with fresh Irish fish but most troubling is the scarcity of the much-heralded beef, Two solitary meatballs are dense, rugged spheres, yielding middling flavour and a mini-burger seemingly a flatter version of same.

We greatly enjoy our evening in a delightful, atmospheric venue, even ordering a second bottle of wine, but chalk that down to gluttony rather than a gourmand’s impulse and we agree neither food nor wine linger long in the memory. 

And that would have been that only I subsequently find the missing beef online in the daytime menu. So, several days later, I return at lunchtime with a pair of the progeny.

The farm beef-seared salad is off, says the waitress — but the place is empty, I howl —however, she continues, the burger is on special today. Progeny snap to attention and order two, while I opt for another beef option, spiced beef sandwich, and a vegetable soup.

The burgers arrive with homemade fries and salad. Quite simply, they are superb, no relation at all to the foundlings of the other night. Sandwiched by an excellent bap, good cheddar melting over deeply flavoursome, wonderfully textured beef with a lovely pink centre.

My soup is earthy, sweet and wholesome and the beautifully-marbled beef is obviously good meat, sandwiched by excellent ciabatta bread. The spicing, however, is very disconcerting with star anise bullying all other flavours into submission but a consultation with a nearby English Market butcher would swiftly remedy this misstep, meat of such quality deserving better. 

We finish with hot chocolates and decent chocolate caramel pastries, the place is finally filling up and I’ve very much made my peace with the kitchen.

There’s an eminently capable chef in there, well capable of ennervating that evening menu, favouring good Irish produce (that fine beef, in particular!) over average imports. While service is extremely pleasant, it is sometimes pleasantly shambolic, but nothing a little training wouldn’t sort out and a perkier wine list is easily achieved. 

It is early days for The Parlour Café, already with much to recommend and just these few minor tweaks should see it well on the way to fulfilling its potential as a homely and original little treasure in the heart of the city.

The Tab

Evening €83.70 (including wine, excluding tip)

Day €45.30 (excluding tip)

Opening Hours

Mon-Wed 10-6 for brunch and lunch

Thurs & Fri 10-10, Sat 9.30-10, Sun 10-9 for brunch, lunch and evening tapas

The Verdict

Food: 5/10 (night) 7.5/10 (day)

Service: 6/10

Value: 8/10

Atmosphere: 9/10


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