Despite another sodden summer weather-wise, it has been another great year for Irish hospitality. While closures are still occurring, the number of new businesses opening continues apace. New openings are mainly of the bistro and café variety, with tea rooms continuing to grow in popularity and the afternoon tea craze reaching its peak.
Abbeygate Street has been transformed in the last couple of years from nothing more than a down at heel shortcut, to a bustling community of small cafes, restaurants, and shops. There are now so many places to choose from that this diversion from the main drag has become a hub of good food in Galway. What was until recently a row of empty shopfronts have been filled with a variety of diverse eateries which join the dots between the existing eclectic retailers, giving the area a new lease of life and identity.
Though we have lost several old favourites, notably The Home Plate and Couch Potatas, this street still boasts everything from a Chilli Shack and authentic Mexican food to rooftop cocktails, American candy, and an Asian market. It has also become a bit of a veggie sanctuary, something which is still lacking in the city. There are good vegetarian options from the Pasta Factory and Tuco's Taqueria. At the very end of the street is TGO Falafel Bar, an informal restaurant and takeaway that focuses on quality and healthy vegan foods, but also has the best chips in town.
And then there is the Lighthouse which does a solid line in wholesome bowls of soup, inventive tarts, hot pots, and sweet treats. This small restaurant is a vegetarian and vegan's paradise. You don't have to be vegetarian to eat here, it has certainly become one of my favourite places for lunch or coffee. The aptly named cafe shines its light out onto Abbeygate Street, guiding hungry souls into its cosy nooks also offering comfort, companionship, good food, and lashings of tea and cake. Situated on Upper Abbeygate Street, the cafe has an unusual shape, with a front facing bay window and an outside seating area which captures the sun when it shows its face. The restaurant is very bright, dotted with small tables and chairs, a snug towards the back which is great for groups. The staff are always very helpful and friendly. There are flowers on the tables, unobtrusive music, and pastel shades throughout.
The Lighthouse has been around for a while, over the last few years it has transformed from a tea room into a vegetarian cafe, and now it also has many vegan options. It has recently been taken over by Kerry Legh, who is running front-of-house, and her talented husband Mark, who is the head chef. They had previously worked together in their catering company, Yum Tree Kitchen, but when the occasion arose to take over the restaurant they rose to the challenge. Mark has a fresh approach to vegetarian cooking, introducing an refreshing combination of flavours, and the food is cooked with his trademark passion and care. The menu is fun, creative, and varied with noticeable influences from Turkish, Lebanease, Indian, and the less meat heavy of the world cuisines. I know plenty of meat eaters who regularly dine here, a testament to the versatility of the chef.
There are famous chickpea burgers, cashew cream topped tarts, soups, salads, chocolate brownies, and lots of drinks to choose from. A good selection, and definitely an improvement on the usual single veggie option in many cafes. The portions are very generous but if you have a tiny bit of room left don’t pass up the chance to have some of the vegan and raw cakes displayed on the ornate press towards the back of the room. There are some vegetarian scones and carrot cakes on offer, but the other desserts, which are made in house and by Bliss Bites, are all vegan. The ingredients used are sourced with sustainability in mind as much as possible, working with local suppliers. Good ingredients are of utmost importance, and in The Lighthouse the food is tasty and satisfying with the plants placed firmly in the spotlight. You will find ingredients from Sloe Hill Farm, Steve Gould, and Fuinseog Farm, while drinks include loose leaf Solaris Tea, coffee, alternative milks such as oat and soya, home-made elderflower, and Keifir.
The notion of a vegan diet is repellent to a lot of Irish people with our ingrained history of farming. Since vegans eschew all animal-derived products, including dairy, eggs, and honey, it can be a difficult principle to adhere to. Even picking a bottle of wine is a potential minefield. Perceived health benefits, along with environmental and animal welfare concerns, are the driving forces behind the increase of 350 per cent in the last 10 years, the numbers proving it to be more than just a passing fad.
Word has travelled fast and the bright, modest, little restaurant is busy all day and especially at lunchtimes, with tables turning over as soon as they are vacated. This is 'good for you' food where there is a respect for ingredients and pride in the product. What this really is, is great food that just happens to be vegan. If you are looking for some fresh, home cooked, original veggie food, then this is where to find it.
The Lighthouse Cafe, 8 Abbeygate Street Upper, Galway. Tel: 087 352 0198.