Now dining out is in

Michael Finlan browses through the region’s restaurants and hostelries, and finds much to recommend and revere

THERE was a time in the provincial towns of this State when serious eating out meant a trip to a city if you wanted to indulge your gourmet instincts on a more tempting choice of native or international cuisine. Happily, those days are long gone and increasingly sophisticated cuisine of impressive variety is now available in almost every part of the State.

In this regard, Ennis was one of the leaders in pushing out the frontiers of good eating and catering in ever more imaginative ways to the growing discernment of Irish diners. But Ennis, with a current population exceeding 15,000, has shed whatever sleepytown image it may once have had and now is a bustling progressive place with a young, prosperous and vibrant population who won’t settle for second best when it comes to eating out.

The arrival of the outside world at nearby Shannon Airport after it opened in 1947 may have influenced eating trends and fashions in Ennis, too. After all, Shannon left an unforgettable afterglow on palates everywhere with the invention of Gaelic coffee.

Similarly, the influx of tourists resulted in a gratifying rise in the standards of hotels and other accommodation in and around Ennis. Down the road from the town is Dromoland Castle, one of the shining gems of Irish hospitality and maybe even more familiar to the Americans of the well-heeled type than to the natives.

In Ennis, the hostelry with the longest tradition, The Old Ground, stands with manorial dignity beneath its mantle of ivy. It still maintains a good reputation and is much favoured by Americans who come on riding holidays, following the hunt across the rolling fields and hills around Ennis. The food in the main restaurant, the O’Brien Room, is of a very high order and in the bistro-like Poets’ Corner, the pub lunch is popular and the service is rapid.

But The Old Ground is only one of a number of local hotels that can be highly recommended and all of them have made Ennis a place to stop and stay rather than drive-through. On the road to Limerick is the West County Hotel, a modern complex with 153 bedrooms which recently had a health and leisure centre attached to it with no fewr than three indoor pools. The West County Hotel has won awrds for its cuisine and its newest adornment is called Boru’s Porterhouse, an antique-flavoured pub encased in seasoned wood and specialising in lunches.

On the other side of town on the Galway Road the Auburn Lodge Hotel has been welcoming guests for many years and has won a deserved reputation for the quality of its food and service. There are three fine restaurants in the Auburn Lodge and Taylor Quigley’s pub specialises in a carvery lunch.

Ennis’s newest hotel, the Temple Gate, is located in the middle of town and its restaurant, Le Bistro, is one of the best eating places around and has won a rosette award from the automobile Association.

Another central hotel longer established, is the Queens at Abbey and Francis Streets, a popular meeting place over the years with a friendly atmosphere and good food. Situated right beside the original Franciscan Abbey, the Cloister restaurant on the banks of the Fergus has cultivated an approptiate mediaeval theme in its decor. The garden patio actually extends into the precincts of the Abbey and is a particularly salubrious place to dine on fine nights. The food is wonderful and ther’s a wide spectrum of choice from fresh wild salmon caught outside to duck and Clare salmon.

Down in O’ Connell Street near the Liberators statue, Brogan’s Pub serves superb food all day long with varying menus for lunch and dinner. The atmosphere is friendly and warm, made all the more so by an open fire and an affable staff who pay close attention to the needs of the patrons. For those who favour oriental fare, ther’s a number Chinese restaurants - following atrend all over the state - on of which, the Prince Dragon on Lower Market Street, is open for dinner each evening, the menu hewing strictly to the Cantonese stle of cooking.

Brannagans on Mill Road has a flavourful old-time atmosphere and has a good variety of excellant cuisine. Garvello’s at Clareabbey on the Limerick Road is another superior dining place with an elegant way of doing things. For prompt and good service at reasonable rates, the O’Connell Restaurant at O’Connell Square is a real winner with an extensive menu.

Excellant value for moderate cost is proviced An Goile More in Salthouse Lane where the home - cooked attracts a faithful clientele and where there’s an easy, relaxed atmosphere. There are other places in and around the town that have helped to place Ennis in the forefront good catering hospitality.