World ? Europe ? Republic of Ireland

Republic of Ireland: Tips On Dining

Restaurants

Restaurants in Ireland have become surprisingly expensive in recent years, and it's getting harder to find good places that do not charge an average €25 ($29) for a main course. On the plus side, restaurants are varied and interesting here -- settings range from old-world hotel dining rooms, country mansions, and castles to sky-lit terraces, shop-front bistros, riverside cottages, thatched-roof pubs, and converted houses. Lately, appreciation has grown for creative cooking here, with an emphasis on locally grown produce and meat.

Before you book a table, here are a few things you should know:

Reservations -- Except for self-service eateries, informal cafes, and some popular seafood spots, most restaurants encourage reservations, and most expensive restaurants require them. In the most popular eateries, Friday and Saturday nights are often booked up a week or more in advance, so have a few options in mind if you're booking at the last minute and want to try out the hot spots in town.

Tip: If you stop into or phone a restaurant and find that it is booked from 8 or 8:30pm onward, ask if you can dine early (at 6:30 or 7pm), with a promise to leave by 8pm. You will sometimes get a table.

Prices -- Meal prices at restaurants include taxes (13.5% VAT in the Republic of Ireland and a 17.5% VAT in Northern Ireland). Many restaurants include the tip as a service charge added automatically to the bill (it's usually listed at the bottom, just before the bill's total). It ranges from 10% to 15%, usually hovering around 12%. When no service charge is added, tip up to 15% depending on the quality of the service. But do check your bill, as some unscrupulous restaurants do not make it clear that you have actually already tipped, thus encouraging you to accidentally do so twice.

The price categories used in this book are based on the price of a complete dinner (or lunch, if dinner is not served) for one person, including tax and tip, but not wine or alcoholic beverages:

Very Expensive -- €50 ($65) and up

Expensive -- €35 to €50 ($46-$65)

Moderate -- €17 to €34 ($22-$44)

Inexpensive -- Under €17 ($22)

Dining Tips -- Don't be surprised if you are not ushered to your table as soon as you arrive at some upscale restaurants. This is not a delaying tactic -- many of the better dining rooms carry on the old custom of seating you in a lounge while you sip an aperitif and peruse the menu. Your waiter then comes to discuss the choices and to take your order. You are not called to the table until the first course is about to be served. You are not under an obligation to have a cocktail, of course. It's perfectly fine to order a soft drink or sparkling water.

Pubs

The pub continues to be a mainstay of Irish social life. There are pubs in every city, town, and hamlet, on every street, and at every turn. Most people have a "local" -- a favorite pub near home -- where they go for a drink and some conversation with neighbors, family, and friends. Pubs are not bars -- they are more about socializing than drinking, and many people you see in the pub are just having a soft drink (lime and soda water is a particular favorite, or orange juice and lemon soda). So feel free to go to the pub, even if you don't drink alcohol. It's a good way to meet locals.

Pub Hours -- The Republic of Ireland's drinking hours were extended a couple of years ago, a mere 2 centuries after they were introduced. Gone are the days when all pubs closed at 11pm. Now pubs set their own hours. Most close by midnight, but some stay open until 2am, and most stay open throughout the day (laws previously required pubs to close from 2-4pm). After normal pub hours, there are always nightclubs and discos, which stay open to the wee hours.

You'll notice that when the dreaded "closing time" comes, nobody clears out of the pub. That's because the term is a misnomer. The "closing time" is actually the time when the barmen must stop serving alcohol, so expect to hear a shout for "Last orders!" or, occasionally, the marvelous but antiquated "Time, gentlemen, please!" Anyone who wants to order his or her last drink does so at that point, and the bars don't actually shut their doors for another 20 to 30 minutes. When the time comes to really close, the bartenders will shout "Time to leave!" and people make their way to the doors.

In the North, pubs are open year-round from 11:30am to 11pm Monday to Saturday, and 12:30 to 2pm and 7 to 10pm on Sunday.

Dining Bargains

Restaurant prices in Ireland have gone up dramatically -- in many cases by 20% to 25% -- in recent years. Nobody is more aware of this than the Irish themselves, who are furious. Some people blame the price hikes on the changeover from the punt to the euro, some blame general inflation, and still others cite bald-faced greed on the part of restaurateurs. But there are some strategies you can use to keep your meal costs down:

If you want to try a top-rated restaurant but can't afford dinner, have your main meal there in the middle of the day by trying the set-lunch menu. You'll experience the same great cuisine at half the price of a nighttime meal.

As a final suggestion, try an inexpensive lunch in a cafe or pub. Pub food is usually a lot better than its name suggests; the menu usually includes a mix of sandwiches and traditional Irish food, including stews and meat pies. In recent years, many pubs have converted or expanded into restaurants, serving excellent, unpretentious meals at (somewhat) reasonable prices.

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