No Chips in the Bar

October 6, 2010

Last weekend I got away with my sisters to beautiful Donegal. We stayed in a small seaside village, in a guesthouse that I first visited as a six year old. In the last few years it has had a makeover and is now styled as a ‘luxury beachhouse’. The décor is tasteful, understated and chic; white walls and bed linen, white painted floorboards, navy blinds and pale blue cushions. It is situated next to one of the most spectacular beaches in Donegal. The entire front of the ground floor is glass, to take in the stunning view of the beach and the small island just offshore.

Preparing to tackle the Donegal waves

 Arlene, a pastry chef, runs the guesthouse and does all the cooking. Her mission in life is to make every guest feel as welcome as possible. Croissants were put in the oven as we set off for a quick walk on the beach before breakfast, we were welcome to traipse through the house in damp, sandy wetsuits, tea and coffee was made on demand.

Best of all was the restaurant. We had a memorable dinner there on the second night and all the food was beautifully prepared and presented. The place was packed – it’s open to non-residents – so much so they even had two sittings. All this in a remote village that all-but shuts down at the end of August (I won’t even mention the ‘R’ word here). Two nights B&B with one dinner cost a princely €120 per person.

After a late breakfast of eggs Benedict on the second morning we reluctantly departed, but not before two of us had booked to return with our families.

On our way home we stopped off for food at the Slieve Russell. This hulking monster of a hotel is plonked incongruously outside the village of Ballyconnell in Cavan. With its ‘big-is-beautiful’ ethos it looks like it was designed by a committee of Tiger-era developers. It probably was, it’s owned by Sean Quinn after all. Inside, you could be in any bland hotel anywhere in the country with the usual vomit-inducing patterned carpets, marble pillars and overstuffed striped velvet sofas.

It was about five o’clock. We had not eaten since our late breakfast and were after a quick dinner in the bar, of the fish and chips or bowl of pasta variety. Alas, this proved impossible. The bar menu was limited to sandwiches and soup. If we wanted anything more substantial we were told our only option was to take a seat in the formal restaurant. A quick glance at the menu soon ruled this out. All main courses were around the €20 mark and if we wanted chips with our beer-battered fish that would be an extra €3.50 thanks.

Undaunted, we decided to order sandwiches in the bar with a couple of side orders of chips. Sometimes you just really, really want to have chips, and this was one of those occasions. Imagine our disappointment when we were emphatically informed by the bar staff that they operate a firm ‘No Chips in the Bar’ policy at the Slieve Russell. This rule proved non-negotiable. Chips in the bar was an absolute no-no, a no-can-do, a more-than-my-job’s-worth request. We ordered the sandwiches and quietly fumed at the thought of other people’s chips being prepared in the same kitchen as our sandwiches.

What a contrast with Carnaween House, our wonderful Donegal bolt-hole. We weren’t expecting the same nothing-is-too-much-trouble, personal service from the Slieve Russell, but a bit more flexibility wouldn’t have killed them.

Ireland is overrun with big, characterless hotels with golf courses and spas attached. If we want to attract tourists back here we need more stylish, genuinely welcoming, value for money destinations with great food, run with care and a spark of imagination.