When you are not from where you live, people often ask how often you get home. Perhaps they are making conversation (likely) or maybe they are checking the calibre of my moral compass. Regardless, I tell them that I try to get home often, I aim for four times a year but I would like to go more.
I didn’t grow up in Cork, I grew up in Waterford next door, but it is where my mother is from, where I went to university, and where I lived for 7 years on and off. I know it very well and I have a huge affection for this bright patch of Ireland, that feeling of home and of belonging are keen here.
Many people I meet who have been to Ireland have only been to Dublin. This makes sense. It is the capital, and it is the biggest city. But Cork is so different and has its own charm, it also demands a visit.
Photos taken near Cork City in Ballymaloe, the Farmgate Café in Midleton, Kinsale and the Jameson Distillery in Midleton.
Cork is quirky for a small city, it has a big heart. By non-Irish standards it qualifies more as a large town than a city, but in Ireland, it is the second largest. The main street winds through, the river follows suit and splits in two surrounding the main island of Cork (for Cork is made of islands).
For many, the centre of the city is the English Market, a wonderful old covered food market, and despite the name, an Irish one. The name English Market links back to times when the landed gentry used to shop there. Now we all do.
Winding out from the English Market, and Cork likes to wind, are small narrow streets with pubs and shops. There are wonderful restaurants, great bars, traditional Irish music sessions and a vibrant contemporary music and arts scene.
The Real Capital
The people of Cork regard Cork as the REAL capital. They also regard it as The Rebel County. There is a website devoted to the Peoples Republic of Cork. The people of Cork LOVE Cork and they don’t even know why you would visit Dublin before you visit them.
The vernacular! We were all furious when Keith Floyd had to be subtitled when he visited Cork, but now that I live abroad and know that even my mild flat Waterford accent needs to be slowed down and drawn out before most can understand me, I get it. And so you need a little warning about that. Cork has many accents, all intense, Corkonians seems to sing as they speak. Many sentences are finished with BOY or GIRL (with a high inflection, depending of course on your gender). Howsitgoing, BOY? Alright there, GIRL? Whatisthestory, GIRL Etc. Everything in Cork is CRUUUUSHALL (crucial), even when not really so. If you have a hangover you might be sick as a small hospital. If you annoy someone they might threaten to crucify you, but they won’t, they just like having the intention. Corkonians love drama, and I love them for that.
There are few chains in Cork, or in Ireland generally, and this is one of the best things about visiting. We do have elements of the British high street now, with Boots etc and Wetherspoon’s have started to open, however, in Ireland, the pubs are not brewery run but independent, and are often named for the people that own them. The exception to this in Cork is a group of pubs owned by Benny McCabe, but they are all unique and have their own flavour.
Forewarned is forearmed. Take a pew, and let me guide you through the city.
The River Lee – on the river, as the name suggests, and it is right next to University College Cork and a 5 minute walk from downtown Cork. The hotel is contemporary and bright, the rooms are spacious and the beds are large and very comfortable. The bar and restaurant are both on the river and the bar, particularly, has a terrace that is very cosy. Even if you are not staying you should pop into the Weir Rooms for a drink on the river.
Food is locally sourced and well executed. Try the Toomsbridge Irish burrata, mozzarella filled with fresh cream and tied like a purse ready for you to devour it. The charcuterie (sourced from Gubbeen) is excellent too. Breakfast is a buffet with many options from fresh pastries to lots of fruit and yogurt, local salmon and cheeses and the traditional Irish fry up too. You are probably familiar with black pudding but be sure to try some white pudding too (a pepper sausage made with pork shoulder, fat and oatmeal). I love that they have poached eggs on the buffet too, and they were all cooked quite soft on my visit.
We have to start at The English Market, a covered food market which has been trading since 1788. Formerly dominated by butchers, in recent years artisanal traders have joined, and the best of Irish produce can be found here. Wonderful cheeses (all that rain and great pasture yields terrific milk and cheeses), meats, seafood, patisserie, veg, wine and chocolate can all be found here, most of it local.
In terms of meats, Cork’s famous tripe and drisheen is on offer here, both in the market for sale and for eating in The Farmgate Café. Drisheen is a spongy lambs blood sausage, and it is definitely a very specific strong flavour. It is served with boiled tripe, a cow has 4 stomachs and accordingly there are 4 types of tripe: blanket, honeycomb, leaf, and reed, with honeycomb and leaf favoured (and leaf is hard to find).
Cured pork products are a cork thing too, or corned, so you can find corned crubeens (cru is the Irish word for foot, crubeen being little foot) and ribs etc. A must is Cork’s spiced beef, a spiced corned beef that is a local delicacy for Christmas, and harks back to the time when Cork was the leading butter trading centre in the world (really!) and people would trade spices for butter. There is a large seafood section with anything you might want including local oysters which you can eat upstairs in the Farmgate Café later on. Frank Hederman smokes wonderful organic Irish salmon, haddock, mackerel, tomatoes, butter, garlic and all of this, plus their lovely homemade fish cakes are for sale here.
The Farmgate Café in the English Market but it is a destination in its own right. Serving the best of Irish food and produce (most of which is sourced from the market), reserve a table on the restaurant side or freestyle it in the café, the same food is available on each side. Fresh oysters are a great start, I love the Irish stew and toasted sandwiches, however, you literally can’t go wrong here. And there is the aforementioned tripe and drisheen, please let me know if you do that, please!
Café Paradiso is a destination in itself for vegetarians, but it is a restaurant that everyone enjoys, even the most hardened carnivores. Chef-patron Denis Cotter does wonderful things here, you may know him from one of his 4 cookbooks, he is an excellent food writer too. Prices are on the high end, but so is the food. Be sure to book if you want to eat here. I have been eating here for years, and it was where I would celebrate occasions when I lived in Cork.
Greene’s – Bryan McCarthy is cooking some of the most exciting food in Cork, and yes, using the best of local produce. Off MacCurtain St and with its very own natural waterfall outside, there is a terrific value early bird menu for just under €30 and there is a la carte too. I insist that you have the local rare breed pork belly & black budding dumplings with apple, cider, crackling popcorn and celeriac slaw if it is on the menu. Bryan uses terrific black pudding from McCarthy’s in Kanturk, which just happens to be my favourite. Yes, there are a lot of M(a)cCarthy’s in Cork!
Fenn’s Quay – I have fond memories of Fenn’s Quay from my time living in Cork. Tucked on the ground floor of an old tenement building in Cork, Fenn’s Quay is a local Irish bistro (at least that is what I would call it anyway). Kate Lawlor, head chef, has put together a lovely contemporary Irish menu. Space is limited, so again, best to book.
Idaho Café – Richard & Mairéad met while they were both working at Ballymaloe House in East Cork (about a half hour drive from Cork city), eventually leaving to set up the charming Idaho Café in the city. This gorgeous small space is always buzzing, but you won’t have to wait long for a seat. The service is lovely here. When I would go on my own, they would always make sure I had magazines from their stockpile to keep me busy while I supped my coffee. Go for breakfast and have the house waffles with bacon or the sausage sandwich (all hail the sausage sandwich!). Or go any time of day, go for lunch (try the fish pie), just go.
Miyazaki – A new arrival on the Cork scene, Miyazaki is a small Japanese restaurant and takeaway owned and run by Takashi Miyazaki from Fukouka. Takashi told me that like Cork, Fukuoka residents consider their city the best in Japan. Serving terrific authentic food, Miyazaki serves gorgeous creative sushi, donburi (rice bowls), noodle dishes (including ramen) and daily specials from a tight wide ranging menu. The day I visited there was a miso butter tonkotsu ramen on the specials board. I had a wonderful donburi and age dashi tofu. I loved it so much I bought sushi to take away.
The Rocket Man – Just outside the English Market, the Rocket Man serves excellent salads, fresh pressed juices and wholefoods. They serve good coffee too, and offer a selection of non-dairy milks (oat and almond when I visited).
Iago’s – a food shop, not a café, but it is gorgeous, and if you are staying in Cork self catering you need to shop here. Italian and Irish produce, cheese, fresh pasta, pizza dough, fresh chorizo and anything else you might require for a great dinner.
Nash 19 – café and art gallery, Nash 19 veers more to being a restaurant. Excellent Irish food is served in lovely surroundings, the back of the restaurant is an art gallery. It is packed with locals, and is just down the road from the English Market.
Filter – a little out of the way on the banks of one branch of the river, Filter serves the best coffee in Cork. A variety of beans are available, some locally roasted (by Badger & Dodo). Espresso based coffees are available as well as filter coffees from the coffee bar, hence the name. There is café type food here but I only ever go for the coffee (if you try it, let me know).
The Triskel – part café, part pub, cinema & gallery, the Triskel is a gorgeous spot. Tucked down a side street off the Grand Parade and near Washington St, be sure to pop in and enjoy. They have a lovely terrace in the summer.
The Hi-B – tucked away on the first floor on Oliver Plunkett St, the Hi-B is like a lively sitting room more than a bar. Always busy, the Hi-B is a Cork icon that tourists are starting to discover but the locals have long known (for over 100 years now). The owner was notoriously cantankerous in my day, he once threw me out for having the same coat as his barmaid, and he didn’t want to upset her. Also, scribbled on the mirror behind the bar was the message “the Guinness man doesn’t call, nor is he invited”. Guinness is a Dublin stout you see, in Cork there is Murphy’s and Beamish, both made locally. I love popping in here for a hot port by the fire. A hot port is a must in the Irish winter – port with brown sugar, hot water and lemon or orange studded with cloves. Like a gentle toddy.
The Long Valley – another Cork standard, I love the Long Valley for a cosy chat during the day, or for a sandwich, probably a toastie, and maybe some soup. We are obsessed with toasted sandwiches and soup in Ireland, and I challenge you to walk into any eating establishment on my fair isle and fine someone who isn’t cradling a bowl of soup. There is always at least one. The sandwiches here are old school made with thick sliced bread, home cooked ham, spiced or corned beef, chicken and proper cheese. The toasted special is the thing in any Irish bar, a perfect blend of ham, cheese, onion and tomato.
Sin É – I mention Sin É as it has a wonderful traditional Irish music session on Friday, Sunday and Tuesday (other nights too on occasion). It is also a great little pub with lots of local craft beer options as well as the standards.
The Mutton Lane Inn – the same owner as Sin É and a similar vibe, this pub just outside the English Market in a small alley is one of my favourites. Cosy & fun. There are wonderful murals outside by local artist, Anthony Ruby.
Arthur Mayne’s – again, from the same owner, Benny McCabe, this pub isset in an old pharmacy, still retaining a lot of the contents. Arthur Mayne’s is a lovely pub that also does decent food. There are many wines by the glass served from enomatics for the wine fans too. Arthur Mayne’s backs on to Crane Lane, a late night pub and music venue. There are often great gigs here and it is a fun place to end up at the end of the night too.
Tom Barry’s – just up the road from Miyazaki is a lovely local Cork pub with a large beer garden. The last time I was there they were making pizzas in a wood fired oven (I had already eaten so didn’t try them). It is a gorgeous spot for an evening drink.
Meade’s Wine Bar – so cosy, so lovely, Mead’s is like being in someones lovely living room, and they sell wine. Very centrally located on Oliver Plunkett St. It opens from 5pm.
The Franciscan Well Brewery & Brewpub – the first in Cork and very well established, you can find the Franciscan Well beers all over Cork, but it is worth heading across the river to visit their lovely pub and trying them there.
The Rising Sons Brewery – Cork’s newest microbrewery is based in a large bar in the Coal Quay in Cork. Owned by Benny McCabe, mentioned above, so you can get all of these beers in his other bars.
Also on Ireland from Eat Like a Girl:
Dispatches from the West Waterford Festival of Food, Ireland
Dispatches from the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Lit Fest, Ireland
MacGrath’s Butchers in Lismore & Some Thoughts on Butchery
A Weekend in Dublin at The Westbury Hotel
An Afternoon at Ballymaloe, Cork
With thanks to The River Lee who hosted my recent stay. Fab Food Trails do a terrific food tour in Cork encompassing the English Market and surrounds and I highly recommend it. All editorial is my own, and this piece is based on a lifetime of visits.