We mourn the loss of once-great Bewley's cafe but it failed because it simply wasn't good enough

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So. Bewley’s, Grafton Street’s ‘legendary, lofty, clattery café’, one-time haunt of Maud Gonne, James Joyce, Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, is gone – again – and this time it appears to be for good.

andlord Johnny Ronan is painted as the villain of the piece, castigated for refusing to reduce the eye-watering €1.5m annual rent and give Bewley’s a break. And while one would need to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with those who have lost their jobs, Ronan is not the only landlord in the capital declining to negotiate these days.

One restaurant owner with several sites across Dublin told me within the last fortnight that he is dealing with very different scenarios in respect of each of his premises, with some landlords willing to discuss rent reductions, while others play hardball.

While an inability to negotiate on the rent may have been the final nail in Bewley’s coffin, it’s been clear for some time that the café has been struggling.

It may well have succumbed even without the added pressure of Covid-19, despite 600,000 customers passing through its doors each year, according to its website.

Founded in 1840, Bewley’s began as a coffee and tea company, built on the entrepreneurial success of Samuel Bewley and his son Charles, from a prominent Quaker family. They broke the East India Company’s monopoly by importing 2,099 chests of tea directly from China to Dublin.

The Grafton Street Café was opened by Ernest Bewley in 1927 and, according to Hugh Oram, author of the definitive history of Bewley’s, the cost of developing the Grafton Street premises, complete with the famous stained-glass windows commissioned from Harry Clarke, was such that the firm nearly went bankrupt.

Not until the end of the 1930s did Bewley’s start to overcome the debt mountain created by its Grafton Street café.

One of Ernest’s sons, Victor, took over the running of the business in 1932 after the sudden death of his father and later handed the firm over to his employees, complete with a profit-sharing scheme.

The business declined, though, and in 1986 was taken over by Paddy Campbell’s Campbell Catering, which ran it until 2004, when it closed.

The following year, Jay Bourke – then riding high in the Dublin restaurant scene – came on board in a joint venture and Bewley’s Grafton Street became Mackerel, which lasted until the crash, before reverting to being Bewley’s.

The café limped along until 2016, when it closed for refurbishment. The €12m refurbishment work took much longer than planned – the building is a protected structure both inside and out – and the café eventually reopened in late 2017. Now it is no more.

So what went wrong? Theories abound, but it’s clear from the outpouring on social media that those who are sad about the loss of Bewley’s are nostalgic for its distant past, rather than its most recent incarnation.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a student in Trinity, I spent a lot of time in Bewley’s. We lingered there for hours. Those who could stomach it opted for milky coffee (I thought it disgusting), the rest of us for strong tea.

We trimmed the cakes that sat uncovered on a plate in the middle of the table in the smoky room so that we could taste without paying. Kathleen ‘Tattens’ Toomey and the other black-uniformed waitresses turned a blind eye.

Because of the way they were constructed, the almond buns lent themselves to trimming more than the cherry version.

Every city has its iconic cafés – think of Café Montmartre in Prague, Colbert in Rome and Café Central in Vienna – and Dublin’s was once Bewley’s.

However, there are those who feel it was desecrated under Campbell Catering’s ownership, in terms of the physical building and in the application of an industrial catering model.

In recent years, people complained about the prices, but prices in prime locations are high because rents are high, and they don’t stop us wanting to go there and even perhaps to pay more to sit on the terrace, as you will in many of the most famous cafés around the world.

We are happy to pay for the pleasure of lingering over our macchiato for the sheer pleasure of being somewhere gorgeous. Bewley’s could have been that place, but it was not.

Last summer, I visited Bewley’s in my capacity as the Irish Independent’s restaurant critic for the first time since the refurbishment, having been on only a handful of occasions since my student days. I had held off because I didn’t want to ruin all the great memories I had of Bewley’s back in the ’80s.

What I found was a place that should have been a showcase for simple Irish food and good baking – the cherry and almond buns most of all – but instead offered a hot mess of a menu trying to be all things to all men.

This is what I wrote at the time:

“By virtue of its long history and prime position… Bewley’s is a national institution, somewhere for which many locals hold a soft spot, as well as an establishment that’s on every tourist’s list of places to visit.

“As such, it’s perfectly placed to be a showcase for excellent Irish food. I’d go further… it’s obliged to be just that. And on the basis of my recent visit, it’s failing miserably.

“No one expects or wants Bewley’s to do anything other than keep dishing up the signature buns and cakes that many remember so fondly, and serve simple, tasty food with an Irish sensibility.”

The lunch menu that day featured everything from crayfish linguine to chicken cassoulet to mozzarella and plum tomato bruschetta to new season (in July?) asparagus salad to a tartine of shredded chicken seasoned with chilli and spiced mayonnaise, served on turmeric-infused cornflour sourdough bread and another of ‘coronation’ chickpeas mixed with vegan mayonnaise, soya yoghurt, mango chutney and curry spices, topped with grated carrot and red cabbage on walnut and raisin sourdough bread.

Yes, really.

The pre-prepared tartines were presented in a display case by the counter and looked as sad and confused as they sound, while the café was littered with terrible pieces of sculpture that I learned later were the work of Paddy Campbell himself.

In my review, I wrote that I could not think of another capital city in the world where the most-famous café on the best-known street would squander an opportunity to make a proud statement about the food of the nation.

My lunch that day came to an abrupt end when I discovered an insect in my salad.

So, yes, we mourn the loss of a once-great institution and, yes, the loss of the lunchtime café theatre is a blow. But let’s be honest, the reason that Bewley’s has failed is because it simply wasn’t good enough.

When the Covid-19 crisis has passed, it will be interesting to see what happens to the building next.

A few years back, Zara and H&M were both known to be keen to take it on, but a more interesting rumour doing the rounds recently was that The Wolseley is on the hunt for premises in Dublin.

Whether that ambition remains in the current circumstances is anyone’s guess, but those familiar with the classy operation that Chris Corbin and Jeremy King run in London will find that a tasty prospect.

Source: Irish