A long weekend in Dublin with John Rocha

The Hong Kong-born designer reveals his home-city hangouts, from edgy art spaces to scenic coastal paths.

John Rocha outside the Grand Canal Theatre.
John Rocha outside the Grand Canal Theatre. | Image: Mark C O’Flaherty

“Dublin is so many different cities in one. Within half an hour of the clubs and pubs of Temple Bar you can experience wild seascapes. It is a unique melting pot of culture, with an especially strong flair for music. And the people are so friendly. Everybody seems to know everybody, or wants to. Also, you don’t have to plan weeks ahead to see friends – people are more spontaneous here than they are in other cities.

I’ve noticed that a lot of young entrepreneurs have opened new businesses in the past year. Despite what’s happened with the economy, there seems to be a new optimism. There’s a café called Cinnamon near my house, where I go for a full Irish breakfast at the weekends with my wife, Odette, which is typical of the new style of business – very simple, but excellent. It has amazing black pudding. Another great place for breakfast on a Saturday morning is the Tower Sound Bites Café at the Wicklow Street branch of Tower Records, one of the few decent, independent record stores left in Dublin. It’s a little café, full of young people, and they have a great selection of reggae music in the shop.

The front hall of The Merrion hotel.
The front hall of The Merrion hotel.

There are a handful of good shops for designer clothing in Dublin, but for the most inspiring fashion shopping, visit Jenny Vanders, a vintage clothes shop that has a lot of very fine early Victorian pieces. The skill that has gone into the hand-worked garments and the crochet is really extraordinary. There’s another place, that’s only open on Saturday, called A Store is Born – I’d describe the stock as second-hand rather than vintage, but you can sometimes pick up a Japanese kimono in a wonderful print, or a striking tie in a vibrant colour that you probably wouldn’t wear but rather be inspired by.

You can find specialised vintage books at Cathach Rare Books, where the emphasis is on classic Irish literature – very beautiful, and very expensive. For new books, go to The Winding Stair, a lovely little shop with a popular restaurant upstairs. The other shops I’d recommend are mostly antiques stores. Delphi Antiques is a wonderful place to go for Edwardian jewellery and ceramic dolls. O’Sullivan Antiques – which also has a branch in New York – is great for Irish antiques from the Georgian era. I’ve bought a lot from them.

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There’s a strong Georgian Society in Dublin, and you can really feel the history around these restored buildings. The proportions of the Georgian buildings are so totally perfect; the space, the high ceilings and the hand-corniced work is very special. I moved to this area for those elements, and you often see tourists taking pictures of the buildings around Merrion Square as they’re so picturesque.

The first place that I recommend visitors stay while they are in Dublin is Number 31 – a bed and breakfast in a listed Georgian building that the owners have gently modernised on the inside. There’s a sunken lounge and an upstairs breakfast room in a separate building, which was originally the home of modernist architect Sam Stephenson. The hospitality is very warm, and typically Irish.

Cathach Rare Books.
Cathach Rare Books.

It’s worth taking a drive to Dalkey, which is the most artistic residential area of the city; this is where the U2 boys and film director Neil Jordan have homes. The coastal scenery is magical. There are lovely walks along the beach and around the cliffs, and you can take a boat around Dalkey Island, or – if you’re brave – go for a swim. You can also go for some seafood at Cavistons, a tiny restaurant that serves the tastiest Dublin Bay prawns, which are so fresh they’re still jumping when they get them. They also sell fish in the deli next door.

If you don’t eat at Dalkey, and you’re shopping in town, you might go to The Cliff Town House for lunch. It’s an Irish brasserie in a beautiful building with views out on to St Stephen’s Green. Go in, have fish and chips with some champagne, and then carry on shopping, or go to see some of the central Dublin galleries – for such a small city, there’s an impressive collection of them. Ireland has a great artistic heritage, and there are some fantastic up-and-coming young painters. To see new work, go to the Royal Hibernian Academy – the curator is a dynamic woman who is very supportive of young Irish artists. Many of the established contemporary artists are represented by the Kerlin Gallery, which is in a beautiful space designed by John Pawson. Its roster includes Sean Scully, Richard Gorman and Guggi, who is a friend of mine – it’s really the best in Irish art.

The Formal Gardens at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
The Formal Gardens at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

For insight into the works of Scully, and also Francis Bacon, a visit to the Dublin City Gallery is essential. After Bacon’s death, his studio was exhaustively mapped and documented by photographs; the contents were then tagged and moved to the gallery so that the whole studio could be recreated with the original items, exactly as it was in London. I’m fascinated by the space; I can’t understand how Bacon created images with such precision within the chaos of his studio. The Sean Scully Room, which is around the corner, is devoted to some of his large pieces, and you can sit there for a long time in meditation with them. They reveal themselves over time.

There is one of his paintings on the wall of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud at The Merrion hotel. The Merrion is for people who like big, comfortable, five-star hotels, and it’s a great place to have afternoon tea – a quintessential Dublin thing – in the lounge by the fire. But it’s also got one of the best collections of art in Ireland, while Guilbaud is the only two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the country. My favourite dish is the oyster platter, because it comes with a slight Oriental twist, with ginger and soy sauce, but the king-crab cannelloni with ginger and wasabi is also excellent, as is the duck for two people. It comes in two courses – first the breast, and then the leg, which is served cubed.

The Morrison Hotel.
The Morrison Hotel.

It’s also worth booking a table at Chapter One, which has one Michelin star. It’s a little more old-fashioned than Guilbaud, and less formal. I always go there if I’m going to see something at the Gate Theatre, which is right next door. You can get your tickets, have dinner, and then go straight to the stalls.

The docklands area of Dublin is definitely worth exploring; it has really come into its own. It’s where U2 have their studio – the building is covered in graffiti – but when they first moved to the area there was nothing apart from warehouses and water. There have been so many modern developments in the city, but this is one of the rare instances where the planners got everything right. There is the Daniel Libeskind-designed Grand Canal Theatre, and lots of bars and restaurants. It’s a great place to go for tapas before going to see some music at the theatre, which has a wonderful sound system and still manages to feel intimate. It’s the perfect place to see someone such as James Taylor play.

Vartry Reservoir, Wicklow.
Vartry Reservoir, Wicklow. | Image: © Riccardo Spila/SIME/4Corners Images

For rock music, there’s a wonderful pub called The Workman’s Club, which used to be, as the name suggests, a working-men’s club. Now it’s a bar and a music venue with incredible energy, right beside The Clarence hotel, which the Edge and Bono from U2 own. That’s the place to stay for those who want something quite urban, and a bit wild. Otherwise there’s The Morrison Hotel, which I designed myself in 1999. From day one, that hotel was funky and attracted young people; it’s still very rock and roll. Lots of bands on tour stay there – it has the right kind of attitude.

One of the best things to do on a Sunday is to visit the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Sunday lunch isn’t really such a big thing here in Dublin, but the café at the gallery is open in the afternoon; it’s a great place to go after seeing some of the exhibitions in the new galleries and before going for a walk in the Formal Gardens, which are stunning, and the only ones of their kind in the city.

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And, of course, if you want to get to the countryside, it’s all on the doorstep. Ireland is really quite small; Galway and Donegal and some of the most beautiful rural areas in the world are only a short drive away.”

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