Yes it's a long drive. Yes you could go somewhere closer and not spend half a day in the car. Yes it's ANOTHER hour and half from Cork City. But it's all good, because West Cork is Ireland's answer to Mecca for us urban food lovers, worthy of a yearly (bi-yearly if we had our way) pilgrimage to feast, frolic and fantasize about winning the lotto and mooring your new yacht in Crookhaven Bay, only popping off for a pint and a crab sandwich in O'Sullivan's.
Part of us wants to keep this magical place to ourselves, and not make it even more impossible to find decent accommodation every summer, but the other part of us knows we have a civic duty to spread the good food gospel, so read on for all the wonderful places to eat in this beautiful part of the country... (Please note that this is not a comprehensive guide to West Cork restaurants - there are hundreds. This is just where we would send you if you asked nicely)
The small coastal village of Ballydehob somehow feels like the culinary centre of the West Cork universe, and that's in no small part to the fact that it's home to one of Cork's three Michelin-starred restaurants - Restaurant Chestnut, run by chef Rob Krawczyk and partner Elaine Fleming. Between a lack of bookings and covid lockdowns we've sadly never made it through the doors, but it's on the all-Ireland bucket list. The seasonal tasting menu (currently €100 pp) is "designed around nature", and there's an optional wine pairing. We've yet to hear of anyone who left disappointed. Bookings are released every two months and you can try your luck getting one here.
On the more casual side of things, Budd's on Main Street offers, breakfast, lunch and takeaway, and is a cut above your average café (in usual times they also offer dinner but they've chosen to keep indoor dining shut for the time being). The sandwiches and salads change daily, the cakes are top tier, and if they have the crispy potato skins with balsamic and caper berry mayo on when you visit, be warned that one portion will never be enough.
Also on the not-to-be-missed list is toastie truck Ron D's, and even if toasties don't get you excited, these ones will. Their three cheese toastie (all from Cork) comes stuffed with with sour cream and charred scallions, and a side of bread and butter pickles, that you will definitely want a jar of to take home, and their potato doughnuts are the perfect follow up. You can currently find them outside the Ballydehob Community Centre on Wednesdays from 12:30 - 15:00, and they're doing sporadic taco nights. Follow them on Instagram for up to date info.
For something casual, Yay Burger have just opened on Stabal Hill serving burgers, salads and sides, and Kitchen Stories is a brand new food and wine shop on Main Street, which looks like the perfect pitstop for picnic or holiday home provisions, as well as beautiful kitchenware and tablescaping.
No trip to Ballydehob is complete without a few pints in Levis' Public House, and it's always worth checking in advance whether there's a pop up happening - over the past few years they've hosted Belfast's Bia Rebel, Caitlin Ruth, and even Restaurant Chestnut during a lockdown. This summer, during periods when they didn't have their own food on, they were allowing customers to bring food in from other restaurants/takeaways, which is very sound. The large outdoor area at the back is the ideal place for summer pints.
Another of the ultra special food experiences you can have in this part of the world is Ahmet Dede's Michelin-starred restaurant Dede in the The Customs House in Baltimore. The chef's tasting menu is hyper local, with almost everything coming from the surrounding areas, and since ex-Guilbaud's head sommelier Joey Scanlon joined the team earlier this year, the wine list and pairings have gone to a different level. The staff and vibe are wonderfully relaxed, and like Chestnut this is one to plan a trip around. Look for a reservation here.
A few doors down, The Algiers Inn has been there for a staggering 130 years, but only really hit the culinary map after American couple Ann and Bill Hillyard took it over last year. Their Californian inspired menu features housemade tortilla chips and guacamole, Baja fish tacos and chicken taquitos, as well as specially created cocktails, and get there early unless you like to queue, as there's no bookings.
Also in Baltimore, Rolf's Country House and Casey's are two hotels with noteable restaurants, serving mainly local produce in a more traditional style. Rolf's also has a beautiful garden if you're not comfortable dining indoors yet.
No trip to West Cork is complete without begging, stealing and borrowing to get a table, any table, at Pilgrim's in Roscarberry. This is one of the best restaurants in the country as far as we're concerned, and whatever dish they turn their hand to seems infinitely better than anything you've had before. They're blessed with a beautiful outdoor area out the back, and while the menu has gone slightly more casual in the current restrictions, it's no less impressive. Prepared to be wowed by everything set in front of you. Look for a table here.
Up the road outside the Celtic Ross Hotel, the CRAFT food truck (Celtic Ross Artisanal Food Truck - clever) serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner from Friday - Tuesday. It's an eclectic menu ranged from stuffed croissants to Roscarberry black pudding croquettes to Huevos Rancheros, West Cork style.
If you're visiting the lovely Warren Beach five minutes outside town, Drip at The Warren is where to head for all your caffeinated needs, including the obligatory iced caramel lattés. You'll also find pastries, cakes and other sweet treats.
Further up the coast on Longstrand, The Fish Basket is an essential stop for beachside fish and chips, but not just any fish and chips. Battered hake, lemon sole and monkfish have all been known to make an appearance, as well as fish tacos, prawn scampi and homemade chips. The sharing box is supposed to feed two but is gigantic.
Skibbereen isn't drowning in exciting places to eat, but it's a great place to base yourself for exploring the area, especially if you don't want to be driving for dinner every day. For breakfast, lunch or special deli bits, head for Kalbos Café. The cakes are quite frankly ridiculous, and you'll find it hard not to walk out with a large bag of Lorge chocolates, yellow tomato passata, and homemade jams.
An Chistin Beag is currently open for breakfast and lunch with a simple menu of things like eggs benedict and BLTs, and The Church is where you'll find your Caesar salads, burgers and scampi and chips. They have some lovely tables out front and sometimes live music.
If you're in town on a Saturday don't even think about missing Skibereen's Farmer's Market, which makes a mockery of most others in the country. You'll find everything from local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, meats, bread, cakes and cordials, to street food ranging from dumplings to German sausages, as well as the obligatory bric-à-brac. The market's on from 09:30 - 14:00.
Sheep's Head Penninsula
Our favourite place to eat around these parts is Arundel's by the Pier in Ahakista, who serve simple but very well done dishes like mussels with nduja, seafood chowder and open crab sandwiches - don't miss the brown bread which comes from the owners' granny's brown bread recipe. The picnic benches overlooking the water outside are the ones to nab and staff are lovely.
If you're looking for a nice coffee stop while out exploring, head for the Heron Gallery Café and Gardens, for good coffee, cakes and a beautiful garden to enjoy them in.
If you're going to do one of the many walks around Sheep's Head (recommended), stop at Bernie's Cupan Tae on your return for a salmon sandwich, some apple tart and a cuppa to rejuvenate yourself.
Our favourite thing we ate in Schull were the falafel wraps from Effie's Kitchen in Schull's Sunday Market (expect to come across Ian Bailey at every turn). Floury soft wraps, crunchy hot falafel, fresh salad and zingy sauces makes for a very satisfying lunch.
Another place you might want to consider for a sit down meal is L'Escale on the pier, serving locally caught fish, lobster, mussels, oysters, and randomly, pancakes.
Just south of the town in Colla you'll find summer coffee and wine pop up Now and Zen overlooking the water, with evening cheese and charcuterie boards if you're peckish.
If you're looking for seafood in Bantry head for The Fish Kitchen, for Sherkin Bay oysters, Bantry Bay lobster with garlic butter, or a West Cork seafood salad plate. At the moment there's limited outdoor seating (walk-up only) and they haven't reopened for indoor seating yet, but they're doing takeaway from the hatch from Tuesday - Saturday.
For coffee, mushroom and barley sausage rolls, focaccia with fennel and grapes, salads, sandwiches, and more cakes than you can imagine, head to lovely café and bakery The Stuffed Olive. There's a few benches and picnic tables outside perfect for soaking up some (fingers crossed) summer sun.
Another spot for on the go provisions, lunch or food shopping is café/deli/food shop Organico. The café specialises in vegan and vegetarian food (but does have meat too), local produce and predominantly organic ingredients, with the bread, cakes and desserts all made in house. Their wine is organic too, and coffee's from Red Strand in Clonakilty.
Others Spots Worth A Stop
Caitlin Ruth's food truck has an avid following, but prepare to wait until the last minute to know where it's going to pop up. It was for this reason we never made it there for her biscuits and gravy or French toast pudding with pecan praline, but universally reports of very happy tummies abound. Most recently she was in Aghafore, before that it was Levis' in Ballydehob and Timoleague Abbey, and you can follow her on Instagram for updates here.
You'll probably pass through Leap on the way to Skibbereen, Ballydehob or Baltimore. If you find yourself there and in need of food (or live music), stop at Connolly's for wood-fired pizza, tamarind chicken wings and sweet and sour aubergine. Most of their gigs in August (seated and ticketed) are currently sold out, but the food alone looks and sounds like it's worth a visit.
For a supermarket to make you weep with joy (and sadness that they're all not like that), make a special visit to Scally's Supervalu in Clonakilty. It's a culinary treasure trove with practically everything worth eating in the region. They're big on sustainability, with loose eggs, fruit, vegetables and spices a priority (their 'souk' would put some spice shops to shame), a mammoth cheese counter and aisle after aisle of foods from local producers. It's the ultimate place for your holiday home shop, or to fill the boot before coming home.