In March of this year, after being told so much about how hopping Belfast's food scene was, we jumped in the car, high-tailed it up the M1 and rubbed our bellies in anticipation of three days of very good eating. That very day the ROI went into lockdown, with the North following a week later, so while we managed to stick to the food plan we weren't able to publish it, as everywhere was shutting their doors. We've been sitting on it for five long months, but can finally share our guide on where to eat in Belfast, in partnership with Discover Northern Ireland.
*As this is a fast moving and sometimes daily changing situation we'd always advise double checking with any restaurants you want to visit that they will be open at the time you're there.
The Pocket, just off Belfast's Victoria Square, has it all going on. Iced coffee, freshly baked cinnamon scrolls (do not miss), and savoury and sweet brunch dishes that will have you gladly jumping out of your hotel bed in the morning.
We really loved the Piña Colada french toast, a properly unique twist on a classic brunch dish, with coconut and vanilla toast, sweet lime mascarpone, glazed pineapple, shortbread crumb, toasted hazelnuts and basil syrup - have you booked that train ticket yet? The blackberry granola comes packed with juicy blackberries, homemade honey and spiced granola and natural yoghurt, and the chorizo brunch comes with Bara Bakehouse sourdough, a poached egg, sundried tomato sauce, crispy kale, halloumi, homemade pickles, chilli oil and dukkah - and if that sounds like too much going on, it's not. Welcome to flavour-town. The Pocket opens Monday - Saturday from 08:30 - 15:00, and Sunday from 10:00 - 15:00.
Established Coffee's pie and drip menu has become a thing of legend around these parts, mainly due to their untouchable Instagram game. We're glad to confirm that the weekly changing pies taste as delicious as they look, and the coffee, from a variety of roasters like Origin, Heart and Calendar Coffee, is first rate. There's also a full brunch menu if you're feeling less sweet and more savoury. Currently they're only back open from 09:00 - 14:00 Monday - Saturday but watch this space.
If you've got wheels (or are happy to jump in a taxi) head for Noble in Holywood, 15 minutes outside the city. You can also get the train from Belfast Victoria Station to Holywood (a 5 minute walk to the restaurant), and there's the option of a lovely walk along the North Down Coastal Path from Holywood to Bangor afterwards, to walk off all the food before getting the train back to the city. Noble's intimate upstairs dining room was shot into the spotlight in 2017 after a gushing review from Jay Rayner in The Observer, and it's been a mainstay of the Northern dining scene ever since. Owner Saul O'Connell is usually found in the dining room looking after guests and being generally charming to everyone who walks in, and it manages to feel cosy yet occasion-worthy.
Coming from the capital, the lunch menu feels like sensational value, with four courses for £25. We loved the fresh, crispy scampi with aioli, the braised beef with mustard remoulade, the gnocchi with ricotta, braised leeks and hazelnut gremolata, and the frangipane tart with plum ripple ice-cream. And the beef-dripping chips. Always the beef-dripping chips. You could also do a lot worse than ending your meal with one of their affogatos. Noble is open for dinner from Thursday - Saturday, and for lunch Friday and Sunday. Book here.
Another brilliant lunch option is the Michelin-starred Muddlers Club on Warehouse Lane in the city centre (we do love a good Michelin-starred lunch). Since reopening in the first week of August they're offering tasting menus only at lunch (Thu - Sat) and dinner (Wed - Sat), costing £60 for food and £50 for the wine pairing. They also do a children's option of grilled fish or steak with potatoes/chips and vegetables for the bargain price of £5, so you can bring your mini-gourmet with you - more of this please restaurants.
Expect seasonal, locally-sourced food, with a vegetarian menu that looks just as good as the meat and fish based one. We loved a dish of mackerel, buttermilk, dill and potato, another of lamb, squash, cabbage and dukkah, and a dessert of rhubarb, blood orange and white chocolate, but it was all tastefully executed and came across as effortlessly elegant - even if a lot of effort actually went into it. Book a table here.
For a glass of wine (and a very serious cheese plate) head straight for Ox Cave, at the side of Michelin-starred Ox. All wines (yes all) are available by the glass, carafe or bottle, the room feels more like you're on the banks of the Seine than the Lagan, and the staff are nothing short of delightful. Put yourself in their hands when it comes to what to drink and gaze out at the candlelit room, basking in smugness that you found the best wine bar in the city.
(c) Ox Cave
Bia Rebel, Belfast's most talked about ramen bar on the Ormeau Road, has been eulogized by everyone from Jay Rayner in The Observer ("an £8 bowl deserving of poetry") to Catherine Cleary in the Irish Times ("a perfect bowl of food"), and we'll have to join the reverential ranks by saying they're both correct.
The ramen here is almost unimaginably good, with the hours and hours of work that go into it self-evident from the flavour, and while the 'Belfast Original' (pork shoulder chashu, leeks, tamago egg, fermented bamboo shoots and nori seaweed) is one you won't want to miss, the 'Truffle Parmesan' (pork shoulder chashu, sesame kikurage, mushrooms, leeks and truffle butter) should also be on your hit list. Sides like 'crack chicken' and bao buns are well worth your time and calories, and slurping is encouraged.
The bad news is that if you were planning a trip in August, Bia Rebel is closed for ramen until September - you can find them at the back of Levi's pub in Ballydehob, Cork for the month of August - but if you're heading north from Autumn onwards you'll be very happy you stopped here.
Somewhere that's very much open and very much in demand around these parts is Bo Tree Kitchen, close to Queen's University. There's a fascinating background to this place which you can read in this FT article, but in a nutshell Helen O'Malley (front of house) and her ex-husband Surthat (in the kitchen) have run a Thai restaurant together in some form for 25 years (while married and divorced - impressive), starting in Oxford and ending up in Belfast - lucky Belfast.
They fly in herbs and spices from Thailand on a weekly basis and it shows - there's zero imposter syndrome going on here. The menu is extensive, with lesser known dishes like Krua King (spicy, dry, curried minced pork with turmeric, peppercorns, kachai and chillis) and Pad Ped Taleh (stir-fried mixed seafood with Thai herbs, lime leaves, lemon grass and oyster sauce), but features plenty of dishes you'll recognise, like Pad Thai, Chicken Satay and Massaman Curry - they're just a lot better than other versions you've tasted. As if it couldn't get better, it's BYOB with a corkage charge of a ridiculously cheap £2.00 per bottle of wine and 90p per bottle of can of beer/pre-mixed cocktail. Booking is essential as this is a very popular spot with locals. Book by calling them on +44 2890507544 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last but most definitely not least, Michelin-starred Ox is the place to chalk in the diary if you're in need of a treat - and who isn't over the last few months. We didn't get there this time but visited late last year and couldn't have loved it more. Owner and chef Stevie Toman loves to make vegetables take centre-stage, and co-owner Alain Kerloc'h has been a sommelier and restaurant manager in some of the world's best restaurants, including L’Arpège and Mirazur, and it shows in the level of service you can expect when dining here. Ox opens for lunch and dinner from Thursday - Saturday, with dinner only on Wednesday. They're at reduced capacity right now so be sure to book here in plenty of time.
Where To Stay
We stayed at the Radisson Blu at The Gasworks, which was perfectly situated in the middle of everywhere we wanted to eat, and a 10 minute walk to both the city centre and places like Bia Rebel and Bo Tree Kitchen, on or just off the Ormeau Road. They're closed until the start of September due to the pandemic, but pre-paid midweek rates from then start at £71.60 a night for a standard room, going up to £154.28 a night for a junior suite with a balcony. Check dates and rates here.
If you want to go sooner, other accommodation options that come highly recommended are the Grand Central Hotel, Ten Square Hotel and the Malone Lodge Hotel.
(c) Grand Central Hotel
This article is in partnership with Discover Northern Ireland, but everywhere in this article was chosen by us after extensive research and the bending of many ears. Check out Discover NI's brilliant website dedicated to exploring the North here, with recommendations of places to stay, things to do and where to eat.
Also look out for the 'We’re Good To Go' mark. When you see a business is ‘Good To Go’ you can be reassured that they’re fully compliant with all Covid-19 government and public safety measures. That includes social distancing, following recommended cleaning processes and agreeing to undergo spot checks. You'll find the logo displayed on their premises, as part their communications, and next to their listing on the Discover Northern Ireland website.