Chop and change

Change comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and flavours. There will always be those who bemoan the constant state of change. Those who, for all the new shops and restaurants we have, still feel we have lost something special by parting company with the old ones.

Do you remember The Quays in the old days when you would sit with your pint of snakebite on a rough sheet of scaffolding balanced on a few clanky beer barrels — and not in a cool, ironic, way? Winters were cold and summers were warm and there was a blind accordion player outside the Treasure Chest. You could get a killer steak sandwich in Strawberry Fields on Cross Street. Televisions were fierce expensive so it was best to rent them from upstairs in O'Connors. Spanish Arch was a car park and there was nothing much on Middle Street except the Augi. Back when BT was Moons and Nora Barnacle's house was just another house. Before Westside was called Westside and there was nothing Latin about the Latin Quarter. Salthill was the undisputed centre of all nightlife in the west of Ireland. Now all is changed. Changed utterly.

But change is the only constant. Those pubs still thriving are the ones who have adapted, that have learned that people are as concerned with good food as with pints and have responded by producing increasingly good, sometimes excellent, food. Even better are those establishments who have given more consideration to their beverages, offering a selection of the wide and ever-expanding range of Irish craft beers, a genuinely good wine list, and a selection of whiskey, gin, and other spirits from the burgeoning independent Irish boutique distilleries. Everything must change, without it there is no adventure in life. Change is just another word for opportunity. The Irish 'gastropub' is one of the success stories of our time.

The King's Head is one of those stories. Paul and Mary Grealish are no strangers to change. In those days they lived above the old King's Head, in a little flat overlooking High Street. They can probably tell you some stories from way back when — when Tommy Tiernan and The Flying Pigs ran amok on the unpedestrianised streets of Galway for a half an hour before their lunchtime comedy gig, dragging unsuspecting tourists into the pub, leaving them in equal parts amused and bemused. When the food offering was little more than a mineral or a bowl of soup with a ham sandwich, maybe toasted if you were feeling flush, albeit Colleran's ham, Griffin's bread, and the soup bought in each morning from The Old Malt next door.

Then Paul, his family, and their team transformed the Bentley Nightclub into Cuba* and the sands shifted. The combination of Cuba* with some other players, CP's, GPO, and Karma, shifted the focus and signalled the beginning of the move of Galway’s nightlife to the city centre. Similarly successful was their involvement in turning The Lisheen into The Living Room circa 2002. The Grealishes were ahead of their time and have played a large part in the landscape of Galway’s nightlife. It was they that over the last 25 years turned the King's Head into the success story it is today, and then 11 years ago acquired The Malt House restaurant next door.

Now it is time for change once more. This week saw the opening of The Chop House. The name a tongue-in-cheek reference to the history of the King's Head as much as it is a promise of the menu to expect. The style is rustic — a bar with high stools and a welcoming communal table as you walk in, which seems destined to become the new meeting place for Galway. Two reclaimed wood-clad dining rooms lie off on either side with a clear view through to The King's Head. Best of all the former courtyard makes a charming beer garden strung with twinkling coloured lights. They appear to have turned the music up and the lights down.

Giving themselves only a week to carry out the transformation, The Chop House opened last Friday. While I firmly believe one should studiously avoid a restaurant in its opening weeks and months, the team here is largely the same as before, so I was happy to visit here on their opening night. The menu is short and to the point with many gastropub classics from Caesar salad to lobster and chips. The ongoing commitment to sourcing the best local produce is still very evident. Friendly Farmer chicken features as does Colleran’s corned beef, McGeough's smoked Connemara lamb, Killeen goat's and Cashel blue cheeses, Linalla ice cream, and of course Griffin’s bread.

Drink pairings have been carefully considered, there are menu items that cry out for a chilled glass from the wine list, like brill on the bone with summer vegetables. Others, like brisket and smoked bacon toastie, beg for a pint of craft beer beside it — there is a good supply of both to keep everybody happy. Despite the name, fish is given equal billing to the more meaty options.

The cooking is rock steady, to be expected with Brendan Keane, the head chef of the Malt House for 15 years, back at the helm. This is a well-versed crew and while as the very first customers, there were delays with the service of some dishes, they were small problems and the staff handled everything with grace. We sat looking out the big windows onto the happy diners and imbibers in front, with a table piled high with chilli chicken wings, Castlemine piggy burger with triple cooked chips, and an excellent pork T-bone with roast garlic mash, and decide that change is a very good thing.

Yes, we have lost many good things over the last couple of decades in Galway. You will never get a basket of chips again in Taylor’s beer garden, and the practice of the sale of loose fags has died out. Retailers on Shop Street have changed so much — most of them, sadly, will not let a pack of semi-feral dogs sleep on their Aran knits. But on the other hand, I doubt many of the tourists that flock to us each year would enjoy a stroll down Kirwan’s Lane in its previous life with its peculiar stench of fish. Swimming in Ballyloughane Strand used to be literally a case of going through the motions. You can even understand why Paddy’s bar on Prospect Hill use to be called the Gallows... they hung people right outside the front door. You have to be glad they put an end to that. So it’s goodbye to The Malt House and hello to The Chop House — time once again to embrace the change.

The Chop House, Old Malt Mall, Galway, phone 091 567866.

PS I’m reliably informed that The Chop House will be delighted to honour all valid Malt House vouchers.


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