At 8 A.M. on June 16, 1904, literature's most famous Dubliner undertook a 783-page journey around the city. We are talking, of course, about Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's groundbreaking 1922 novel Ulysses, and about that late spring morning now known as Bloomsday. If you're not Irish, it may seem surprising that a work of fiction could inspire Dublin's second-biggest day of celebration after St. Patrick's. But there's no underestimating the role of literature—of, essentially, tradition—in the Irish capital. And never has it been more conspicuous than this year, Bloomsday's centenary.
In fact, the city is undergoing something of an evolutionary edit, as the conflicting forces of modernization and conservation find their balance. "The regeneration of Dublin," writes Clive Hart in James Joyce's Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses, being published in June, "has made it ever harder to see the city as Joyce and his characters saw it." But Robert Nicholson, curator of the James Joyce Museum, is less pessimistic: "He'd like the way it's been Europeanized. When Joyce lived here, he criticized the city's parochialism. Dublin was a shadow, an outpost of the British Empire. Now it's got the European presidency. Joyce respected progress, if progress is what it is."
If progress is what it is. This is the topic that's taken up by every Dublin cabbie and in every neighborhood pub (that and the ban on smoking, soon to go into effect). Just a few years ago, the pressures on Dublin to homogenize, to toe the European line, were formidable. But now the picture looks different. Take the Temple Bar neighborhood. Once hotter than Manhattan's NoLIta, it's now about as hip as the Upper West Side. No doubt the economy and the exchange rate are to blame. But, in our opinion, this recent cooling-off period had its benefits for Dublin, where what remains after the boom years is a solid-as-ever core of very good, very Irish establishments, as well as a respect for the city's arts and culture. Go to London for hot new lounge bars, to Paris for the hippest designer hotels. Only in Ireland are the two oldest theatres, The Abbey and The Gate, packed every night with locals from all walks of life.
With the hype gone from the restaurant scene, the city's traditional standbys have reemerged as the best in town. Conrad Gallagher—who in 2000 had six trendy restaurants and in 2002 was indicted for theft—is nowhere in sight, nor are the rest of his ilk. The place for genuine Irish food remains Peter Caviston's eponymous 24-seat, lunch-only seafood bistro in the suburb of Sandycove. It is fabulously unpretentious, with tables butted up against each other and packed with gossiping grandmothers, pop stars, and actors in jeans and suits. Our favorite dishes include langoustine grilled with lemon, local oysters, and seared king scallops. "Whatever comes in that day, we sell that day," says Caviston. "It's a traditional value, but the only one I can believe in." Last December, Peter's brother, Stephen, opened Caviston Restaurant Monkstown. The look is more contemporary, the room seats 70, and it serves dinner. Still, the Irish like an original, which also explains the popularity of King Sitric, in Howth, another fishing village 20 minutes by cab from the center of Dublin (and where Leopold Bloom courted his wife-to-be, Molly.) The atmosphere is less dynamic than Cavistons, but the cooking is just as superb, as proven by lobster with flesh as soft as butter (from your table, you can watch lobsters being harvested by the restaurant's fisherman, John Sheridan, in Balscadden Bay). Not that there aren't new restaurants worth investigating: On the harbor's West Pier stands a trendy new contender, Aqua, with a mostly seafood menu. And there's Mint, in the center of Dublin, which we especially like for the vegetarian tarts and the $25 two-course lunch menu. Peploe's, too, is garnering praise ("a bit like an Irish version of [London's] Ivy," says one local critic).
For Dublin's hotels, the slackened pace of new openings has meant a return to old favorites, as well. There has, of course, been one significant arrival: a new Four Seasons in the well-heeled and untouristy suburban neighborhood of Ballsbridge. The quiet will be a blessing for some, but for anyone wishing to stay in the heart of old Dublin, it's the wrong part of town. The Merrion, another classic, remains the place to stay, particularly in the newly redone Apsley Suite. The hotel occupies four Georgian townhouses in a lively central neighborhood—just the spot where you might still bump into the likes of Leopold Bloom.
Cavistons Lunch, $75. At 59 Glasthule Road, Sandycove; 353-1-280-9245.
Caviston Restaurant Monkstown Dinner, $120. At 17a Monkstown Crescent; 353-1-284-6012.
King Sitric Restaurant Dinner, $110. At East Pier, Howth; 353-1-832-5235.
Aqua Dinner, $100. At 1 West Pier, Howth; 353-1-832-0690.
Mint Restaurant Dinner, $75. At 47 Ranelagh Village; 353-1-497-8655.
Peploe's Dinner, $100. At 16 St. Stephen's Green; 353-1-676-3144.
The Merrion Rates, $400-$3,000. At 21-24 Upper Merrion St.; 353-1-603-0600; www.merrionhotel.com.
The Dublin Writers Museum offers a good overview of the city's literary past (18 Parnell Square; 353-1-872-2077). The James Joyce Center (35 N. Great George's St.; 353-1-878-8547) has many of the author's manuscripts. The James Joyce Museum in Sandycove (353-1-280-9265) is arguably the best of all Dublin's odes to the writer.
For Irish books, including first editions, go to Cathach Books (10 Duke St.; 353-1-671-8676). Newer volumes, such as James Joyce's Dublin, are at Greene's Bookshop (16 Clare St.; 353-1-676-2554).
Don't miss painter Francis Bacon's studio in the Hugh Lane (Parnell Square North; 353-1-874-1903; www.hughlane.ie). This vibrant, cluttered gem offers a fascinating look into the mind of a postmodern master.
Summer at The Abbey Theatre (Lower Abbey St.; 353-1-878-7222; www.abbeytheatre.ie) will bring J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. And at The Gate Theatre (One Cavendish Row; 353-1-874-4045; www.gate-theatre.ie), Irishman George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion opens July 6.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.
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