Coppinger Row

Having a laugh in Dublin is easy.  Just pretend you are a travel writer and ask a Dubliner where to find a good meat pie.

On a recent, May 2010, trip to Ireland’s capital city I donned the mask of a freelance journalist, a wannabe gonzo.  Journal in hand I unabashedly introduced myself to people as a travel writer.  The truth is I’ve never published as much as an advertisement in the classifieds.  Were I to, it would be a solicitation in the “Help Wanted” section under a bold heading “31 Year-Old American in Need of an Editor.”  Nevertheless, what fun it was to pretend!  I was a method actor training for a perfect role.

So one night, craving a hearty, tryptophanic meat and ale pie, I walked around Temple Bar to South William Street.  I figured if I avoided Temple Bar and Grafton Street specifically I might find something special.  Pull off some Rick Steves shit if you know what I mean.  I was a bit like a guy who thinks he can bring his metal detector to a well-scavenged beach and find a Rolex.

On South William Street I saw a guy on the steps outside of his apartment smoking a cigarette and I asked him where I might find said pie.  The question was a stumper but he soon came to: “Well they used to serve them at The Prince William but the chef who made them left to open his own place.  His new restaurant is around the corner.  He’s kind of a hotshot chef so he doesn’t make pies anymore.”  It sounded promising.  Ditch the pie.

Coppinger Row is an easily missed, 50-meter long alley off of South William Street.  Save for the green awning of a restaurant, it is a bare, afterthought of a street, existing out of the necessity to connect people to more important thoroughfares.  Tonight, a line of people extends out the door of the restaurant, eponymous with its address: Coppinger Row.

Coppinger Row is jamming and from what I can gather while smooshed in the chattering doorway, there is little hope for parties of two or more to be seated within the next several hours.  But as a party of one I snake to an empty seat at the end of the bar and scoot into an improvised and cramped position next to the serving area.  Like a baby rubbing his eyes after a long nap, I compose myself and awaken to clever chalkboard specials, smartly dressed, smiling patrons, a humming bar with proper cocktail waiters and the palpable energy of an open kitchen thrumming with the stressful demands of grace, clear orders and productivity required of the best of chefs.  The dining room, shimmering under soft lights is surging with conviviality.  This is the place to be.  (I would later find out that Coppinger Row had been reviewed in the newspaper that very same day by a Dublin food critic and to high applause).  I have found a Rolex.

I order the honey roast duck in a green peppercorn sauce and a mint julep.  The crushed ice in the julep is authentic; the only detail lacking, a tin derby cup.  But I’m generous, and it hits the spot.  Seated next to me is a couple about my age enjoying martinis.  I engage them.  The guy next to me is an artist named Dave Uda, whose work hangs on the walls of The South William, the sister establishment to Coppinger Row.  His companion, furiously thumbing her Blackberry, works as a publicist for Sinn Fein.  Opposites attracting, I guess.  As the conversation progresses they reveal they are just friends.  Regrettably, I do not get her number.

As they settle up, I ask them the proverbial “what should I do in Dublin tonight?” question, expecting them to tell me about some shite pub or pisshole club that is typically crowded on this night.  I dread clubs and am dreading that they will point me to one.  In fact, Dave answers, “There’s a comedy show my friend is putting on tonight to raise money for his charity.  We can’t go, but trust us when we say we would definitely be there if we could”.  Like the guy on his doorstep who had pointed me to Coppinger Row, here was another interesting lead.

His suggestion reminded me of when I did improv comedy in college and learned the rule of saying “yes” to the actions and assumptions of your acting partner in a scene.  To build drama one must accept rather than reject the barrage of ideas, suggestions, plot twists, interjections: in short, be accommodating and accept what is offered to you.  The same is true of good travelling.  In this spirit, I got directions to the venue and promised them I would attend the show.

Dublin is relatively small so it only took about twenty minutes on foot to reach the venue, The Sugar Club.  I paid a modest cover (all proceeds going towards a charity called SCOOP) and I entered the theatre.  With its multi-terraced booth seating, dim lighting assisted by small candle lights, and its coating of red velvet wallpaper, The Sugar Club reeks of burlesque.  I notice that the audience for this show is exceptionally young.  I soon meet some guys who offer me to join them for a cigarette outside.  Having adopted the habit of smoking while abroad, I join them.

SCOOP stands for “Save Children Out Of Poverty.”  Some of its projects include sponsoring an orphanage in Cambodia and a proposal to build a school in the same country.  SCOOP also has its tiny fingers in projects in India and Uganda.  Like many start-up non-profits its budget is small but its heart is big.  At the show the founder and managing director of SCOOP, Andy Sweeney, clearly excited for the show, was working the room and looked readily available to be pulled aside.  I put on my mask and engaged.

“I’m a travel writer. . .”

In reality I am on a study abroad trip taking a three-week travel reporting class for elective credit towards a public relations master’s degree.  What Andy Sweeney and his team need is a proper reporter to help publicize the work of their charity.  I get his hopes up pretending to be a legit writer.  I feel bad, deviant; it is like I am impersonating a policeman and have stopped an innocent person.  I tell him I will try to get something published about his charity.

The stage lights brighten and the show begins with a singer-songwriter with a haunting voice who plays a twenty minute set.  His set is solid but at odds with my expectations for a comedy show.  But I do not care.  Even better, a variety show!

I sneak in another cigarette during the set change and meet some more young people on the porch.  I buy a drink for a guy named Enda (a uniquely Irish name that I have never heard before) and take a seat in a velvet booth, next to my new friends.

There were a variety of acts among them a budding stand-up and some sketches from a co-ed comedy troupe named The Diet of Worms.  Then came Hugh Cooney.

Hugh takes the stage, buck naked save for rectangular cut-out cardboard wings attached to his arms.  Otherwise, it is bangers, mash and all.  His character, John the Magpie, is about to take flight through the streets of Dublin.

Here’s what he managed to pull off.  On the large projection screen was footage that looked like what you would capture if you attached a camera to a tall stick and walked around the city and wobbled up and down and side to side.  The intention was to simulate a bird’s view of flying through the streets of Dublin.  Meanwhile Cooney, I mean John the Magpie, lay parallel to the ground on a stool facing the screen, flapping his cardboard wings along with the footage, dodging trees, pedestrians, buildings.  I get weak with laughter.  Though the nudity (always a hit) helped, it is the execution of the concept that gets us.

What I see that night, in Hugh Cooney and the rest of the acts is not genius—at least not yet.  But with the help of SCOOP, which for a modest price provided a fun milieu for performers to refine their craft, he and the other jesters just might figure it out.

I walk back to my hotel convinced that I would expatriate to Dublin in an instant.  Maybe be a columnist.  Or dust off my business degree, don a suit and hustle.  Sharpen my improv chops and join the scene.  Only one big problem: obtaining a precious skilled worker visa through the endorsement of an employer.

Hey Dublin, I am for hire.

#

Coppinger Row website:  http://coppingerrow.com/

For more information on SCOOP and its charity work for children visit its website at www.thescoopfoundation.com

For a candid interview with Hugh Cooney visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWib65qEJBY

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Unearthing the Gastropub

Going on a pub crawl in London?  Why not add a “Gastropub” to your list of stops?  That is if you can find one.

What makes finding a Gastropub a challenge is that there is no consensus on exactly what one is.  Unless you are a serious foodie you are likely to be unfamiliar with the term.  Even UK natives are somewhat stumped as to what exactly differentiates a Gastropub from a “traditional” pub.  The Londoners I stopped—on streets, in restaurants, at supermarkets—offered a variety of descriptions of Gastropubs which, when triangulated with my own musings, provide a pastiche of a definition of these burgeoning establishments.

Let us begin by looking at the word “Gastropub” more closely.  One might translate “gastro” literally as the word “stomach,” forming the word “stomach pub.”  But the British are renowned for their cleverness with wordplay, and a literal translation is plain silly.  More likely its prefix borrows from the parent word “Gastronomy,” what might be generally explained as the enjoyment, exploration and experience of good food.  Following this assumption, “Gastro,” when synergized with the word “pub” implies a pub with a different priority: putting food first.  This is a novel idea, and perhaps a formidable opponent to the poor, tired, and, slowly sublimating stereotype of British dining as forever lacking.  Regardless of etiology, Gastropub as a word and as a business model now sits comfortably in the UK’s culinary consciousness.  Though it is not a revolutionary movement in cuisine, Gastropubs are a sign that “the British are coming.”

So is a Gastropub a pub or a restaurant?  It is neither and both.  It seems to resemble a British twist on a bistro.  What Gastropubs attempt to pull off is a combination of the traditional pub experience with a striving towards a better, if not fine dining experience.  At a traditional pub you are prone to eat a package of grotesquely hydrogenated bacon fries and witness the indifferent pour of a cheap, pedestrian lager.  At a Gastropub the wine list is legitimate, the air and carpets clean, the service good and the chefs, highly competent.  As Tom Norrington-Davies, a writer for The Telegraph writes, “the scuffed wooden floors, open-plan kitchen, simple, robust food and menus on blackboards have become the template for the Gastropub.”  One Gastropub in London, The Harwood Arms in Fulham even boasts a Michelin star.  At a Gastropub you are more likely to chat with insurance executives than dodge “punters” (i.e. drunks), eat a country terrine of duck liver instead of bangers and mash, and you most certainly will not find a fruit machine blinking obnoxiously in a dark corner.  So all of a sudden your pub crawl has taken on a new, more refined hue.  You might want to dress more nicely.

Opened in 1991, The Eagle on London’s Farringdon Road is generally agreed to be the first Gastropub.  This has meant ample time for the trend to spread throughout the UK.  As evidence of the legitimacy of the genre, the food retailer Marks and Spencer introduced its own “Gastropub” line of food in 2004.  Even Gordon Ramsay has gotten into the game, opening Gastropubs in Chiswick, Limehouse, and Warrington Crescent.  Describing one of Ramsay’s pubs, The Narrow, Times writer Giles Coren writes “it is a Gastropub in that it was once a pub, still has a bar as well as a separate dining room, sells very good beer, and has a nice short menu of folksy-sounding dishes at very reasonable prices.”  So, yet another description of a Gastropub.

In London, a favorite of mine is The Pig’s Ear.  It is tucked away on Church Street just off the King’s Road in Chelsea.  The décor is ironic yet it works.  Furry, long-chord lamps hang over the wooden bar, their soft, yellow light leaking light to the walls where a Spanish A Clockwork Orange poster hangs. A newspaper cutout from decades ago warns readers of the dangers of punk rock music.  There is a bar menu and adjacent to the bar is a separate, more refined dining area.  It emits the aroma of Chelsea chic (there’s a nearly invisible bespoke women’s shoe store next door) yet is as comfortable as an antique dinner table.  I liked it so much, I went there two days in a row, not just because I found the waitress attractive but also because I wanted to order the appetizer of veal bone marrow I had seen a guy order the day before.

Just down the street from The Pig’s Ear is an establishment called The Cross Keys.  The night I went there was warm and clear enough that the patio roof of the main dining area was retracted, revealing a wonderful, blue, night sky.  I felt uniquely blessed (retracting a roof on a spring night in London is equivalent to leaving the door of your flat unlocked in a bad neighborhood).  The luck of the weather seemed to call for decadence.  I ordered the 28-day aged Herefordshire ribeye and the cheapest bottle of Bordeaux.

After my meal of Scottish cow and French grapes I asked the waitress if I could speak to the owner.  I think she feared that I had an issue with the meal.  Either that or she saw my journal on the table and thought I was a dissatisfied food critic.  Regardless of any reservation, she said that the owner was seated at a table adjacent to mine.

“That kid over there?” I asked.

The owner, a 26-year old dandy was with two of his friends.  He was sitting, legs crossed sipping Rose wine.  I introduced myself as a student journalist doing a story on Gastropubs.  “Is this a Gastropub?,”  I asked.  He seemed to wince.  He was rather short with me and said “This is a traditional English pub.”

“Oh,” I said “then there must be tons of places just like yours.”

Touche, I thought.  I had called his bluff.

Below is a list of selected Gastropubs in London and their websites.

Selected Gastropubs

The Pig’s Ear – http://www.thepigsear.info/

The Trafalgar – www.thetrafalgarchelsea.co.uk

The Cross Keys – www.thexkeys.co.uk

The Cow Dining Room – www.thecowlondon.co.uk

The Garrison – www.thegarrison.co.uk

Duke of Cambridge – www.dukeorganic.co.uk

The Marquess Tavern – www.marquesstavern.co.uk

Queens Head and Artichoke – www.theartichoke.net

St. John’s Tavern – www.stjohnstavern.com

The Harwood Arms – www.harwoodarms.com

Sources

Coren, Giles.  (2007, April 14).  The narrow.  http://www.timesonline.co.uk

Norrington-Davies, T.  (2005, November 24).  Is the gastropub making a meal of it?  http://www.thelegraph.co.uk.

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