Where and what to eat and drink in Belfast

by Chloë King 27 October 2021

Chloe King heads to the Northern Irish capital to experience a city at its culinary peak. From Michelin-starred tasting menus and international flavours to buzzing food markets and a great cup of coffee, here are the places to visit when you’re in Belfast.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books. A member of the Guild of Food Writers and a Royal College of Art graduate, Chloe is happiest working on projects that combine her love of food and cooking with her interest in art and culture, people and places. Based in East Sussex, Chloe's freelance portfolio spans graphic art, journalism, events management and lecturing.

As I approach Belfast by car, one of the first things I see is a giant wire sun beaming a message of hope across the Broadway Roundabout. To the east side, the twin cranes of Queen’s Island tell a story of industry, ingenuity and grit. These bold icons reflect the city’s food scene too: as an enigmatic melting pot of huge promise.

Now old-school boozers like Duke of York and Bittles – with its beautiful, flat-iron shaped building – share space with hip cocktail bars like Love & Death. A huge array of beers and spirits are on offer, many made on the island of Ireland, and there’s no shortage of venues for coffee or brunch. General Merchants, The Pocket and Morning Martha, to name but three.

A growing number of top restaurants are appearing. Ox, Deanes EIPIC and The Muddlers Club all hold Michelin Stars. And while Belfast never lacked creativity, the stars act as a beacon to those who might once have stuck up their nose. Chefs like Ryan Jenkins of Roam Pop-up and foraging expert Claire McQuillan at Feasting on Weeds are part of a ripple effect: a scene unique to this compact, characterful city.

The Ormeau Road, once home to a vast commercial bakery, is an up-and-coming area loved for its independent shops and green spaces. Stray out of the centre on foot and you’ll discover treats like IndieFüde Ormeau or Bread & Banjo Bakery. Restaurants like Bo Tree (Thai), La Taqueria (Mexican) and Jumon (plant-based Asian fusion) add international flavours, as do the traders of St George’s Market and Common Market.

Traditional Irish dishes can be enjoyed too, with places such as Holohan’s Pantry and Molly’s Yard offering quality seafood and classic steaks. At the end of the day, all the places mentioned here are proudly Belfast, with not just their location in common but their appreciation for the region’s world-class ingredients.

Here are some of the highlights from a city brimming with incredible food and drink.

Stove Belfast

Opening mid-pandemic meant head chef Simon Toye and Simon McCance faced huge challenges. Their tenacity is paying off however, with Simon shortlisted for Ulster’s Best Chef in the Food & Wine Awards 2021. ‘It’s fantastic that we’re spoken in the same breath as the likes of Stevie at Ox and Alex at EIPIC,’ says Simon. ‘They’re the trailblazers so we’re delighted we’re even on the same page. It’s brilliant for us.’ The compact, forty-seat bistro occupies a modest spot above an Action Cancer store on Ormeau Road and exceeds expectations for exceptional, accessible food. A small galley kitchen produces a ‘five, five and five’ menu reflecting what’s local and in season – venison, pigeon, Dover sole. ‘We’re getting really-well known for seafood,’ says Simon. ‘That’s what I like to cook the best.’

Established Coffee

Bridgeen Barbour and Mark Ashbridge opened Established in 2013 with a kitchen bought for just £80 in a charity shop. Sheer hard work, a passion for welcoming service and a nose for what’s up-and-coming has helped grow a diverse and loyal following. Their 1,200sqft shop offers an airy and welcoming space serving breakfast, lunch and treats with specials such as American-style pie and coffee on Sundays. Working with suppliers Origin Coffee in Cornwall, they took a leap in bringing their own roaster over at the start of the pandemic and now sell a range of roasts to enjoy at home. As Bridgeen says, ‘We just want to have great service, a bit of craic, provide a really lovely space and make people’s lives a little bit better than they were when they came in.’

Freight

When Christy McQuillan returned to Belfast from working in fine dining across Europe he decided to bring a bit of Berlin with him. With brother Gerard he created the Gypsy Kitchen, a pop-up combining tasting menus and DJs, then in 2017 they launched Freight. The original seventy-five-seater restaurant built from shipping containers – chosen for portability, value and reusability – is surprisingly warm and spacious. The concept was an instant hit and now two venues, in East Belfast and Lisburn Road, are ever-busy with brunch all week and dinner from Thursday to Saturday. Their often-changing menus travel from bahn mi to ox cheek benny and prioritise local ingredients and veg from their allotment. The ethos has sustainability at its core – run on renewable energy, good music and own-brand craft beer.

Edo

Head chef Jonny Elliot worked with Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes and Albert Roux before returning to Belfast about six years ago to open Edo in 2017. His pan-European tapas restaurant promotes a free and flexible way to eat and has a bustling, friendly atmosphere that offers something a bit different. ‘I don’t like it to be pretentious,’ says Jonny. ‘You can’t really enjoy food if you’re uptight.’ Using quality local ingredients is a given and the kitchen has a special Bertha oven that helps them create sweet, smoky flavours using local applewood and peat. ‘A lot of variety has come about in the last six or seven years which is brilliant,’ says Jonny. ‘We’ve travelled and brought our own take on things back to Belfast, so it’s going really well.’

Fruit Shop

Artists Phillip McCrilly, Mitch Conlon and Jennifer Mehigan opened café and cultural hub Fruit Shop in the summer of 2020. The trio design and programme creative, communal experiences that focus on local food history and community growing, among other things. ‘From our early beginnings, it was important to create an inclusive space,’ explains Phillip. ‘Our customer base is quite reflective of that, and includes both local residents of all ages and backgrounds, as well as visitors from further afield.’ Fruit Shop offers a menu of sweet treats and lunches to eat in or take away that shows a genuine excitement in food and flavour. The vegan okonomiyaki and mushroom croque madame are faves, as are their weekend doughnuts filled with ‘everything from sea buckthorn curd to black sesame caramel crème pât’.

The Muddlers Club

Since opening on a Belfast backstreet in 2015, head chef Gareth McCaughey and the team at The Muddlers Club let the restaurant build by word of mouth. ‘It stood us in good stead,’ explains Gareth. ‘We don't try to be anything we aren't. We want people to feel comfortable from the moment they come in and feel the warmth of our typical hospitable Belfast welcome.’ For a Michelin-starred restaurant, The Muddlers Club has a uniquely down-to-earth feel paired with a genial rock’n’roll atmosphere. Seasonal tasting menus are known to deliver punchy flavours, elegantly presented. ‘People in Belfast remain quietly confident and relatively humble about the ability we possess and the talent that we have in all industries,’ Gareth says. ‘We certainly haven't broken the mould with our ethos in remaining quietly confident.’

Ox

Head Chef Stephen Toman and business partner Alain Kerloc'h met working in L’Arpege in Paris and brought their vision of modern French gastronomy to Belfast. Ox has held a Michelin Star since 2016 and a fleet of accolades including Best Restaurant in Ireland (Food & Wine Awards 2018-2019) and 50 Best 2019. “We came back at the right time,” explains Toman. “The city has been through a lot. Everyone now just wants to make this city good, everyone wants it to be something special. You look at Edinburgh, you look at London, Dublin. Belfast is up there now.” Ox is well-loved for Kerloc'h’s carefully curated drinks offering shared with the next-door Ox Cave. The main tasting menu is built on an ever-changing list of 30 seasonal ingredients and dishes arrive in random order making each visit unique. A current favourite is a Jerusalem artichoke dish with chicken skin, crispy shallot and cep. “It’s just fantastic,” says Toman. “It’s autumn in a bowl”.

Deanes EIPIC

Holding the title for the longest held Michelin star on the island of Ireland, Micheal Deane is undoubtedly the grandfather of the modern Belfast food scene. It would be an understatement to call his restaurants an institution – now comprising six venues across Belfast – but Deanes EIPIC is most in the limelight today. EIPIC has held a Michelin star since 2016 for its intimate yet relaxed atmosphere and flavours that build in an ‘assured modern style’. Head chef and Great British Menu finalist Alex Greene is known to champion Northern Irish produce and people, with his bestselling dish being an edible version of Oliver Jeffers book, The Incredible Book Eating Boy. ‘Belfast has it all,’ he says. ‘The food scene at the moment is really buzzing and a very exciting place to be.’