Strolling through the outdoor “Irish Market” in Cork on a Saturday morning is gloriously calming, especially on a sunny day, stopping by Caroline Robson, who sells organically-grown vegetables and Klaus Balz, who has been selling his wild flowers there for nearly 30 years. You could pick up a coffee or hot chocolate, some fresh fish from a stall and sourdough from Ryes & Shine Microbakery. They are all traders on Cornmarket Street, better known as the Coal Quay market (pronounced “coal kay” if you want to be proper Cork about it).
Originally an indoor market, it opened as St Peter’s Market in 1840 in what is now Bodega bar and restaurant. It quickly became known as the “Irish Market” to differentiate it from the indoor English Market nearby, which had opened in 1788. A print of a black and white photograph of the original Irish Market is on the wall of Castle Jeweller’s on Castle Street, showing a bustling market where “shawlies”, the female traders who wore black shawls, were selling everything from “cabbages and prams, chickens and hams”; immortalised in the rousing chorus of “Up the Coal Quay”.
Local chef David Devereaux tells me that Cornmarket Street had been somewhat neglected but is very much on the up. There are plans to install a large fountain and benches on the broad pathway from where there is a particularly fine view of the Shandon bells. He is from the north side of the river, a “nori”, but he has a particular affinity with the area as his grandmother was a shawlie. He and his wife, Ballymaloe-trained Anne Zagar, opened 51 Cornmarket in 2020 and are part of the community regenerating the area. It’s a smart 24-seater restaurant, with a menu driven by market produce; as popular for dinner as it is for Saturday brunch. If your table is not ready in the evening, Dennehy’s, where Mary pulls the best pint of Beamish in the Rebel County, acts as the perfect holding spot. Zagar says it’s the best pub in the city.
There are some vacant premises in this quarter, adding a slightly dilapidated but characterful beauty with their Victorian frontages and painted signage, but new businesses are moving in. Brian McCarthy started Cork Rooftop Farm on the flat roof of a larch-clad building during our enforced period of rest three and a half years ago and sells micro greens that they grow there and vegetables from their market garden. There is also an impressive organic whole food section with everything in dispensers to minimise packaging.
McCarthy has recently opened a stall in the English Market, but before you head down the Grand Parade (Sráid an Chapaill Bhuí or Street of the Yellow Horse, named after the statue of George II which was felled and hacked to pieces by Cork nationalists in 1862), pop across the pedestrian bridge, pick up an organic coffee in the powder blue Myo Café on Pope’s Quay and sit at an outdoor table along one of the most peaceful stretches of the River Lee. Or visit Iyers Café for Gautham Iyer’s South Indian street food.
The English Market is famous for Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2011 (among other accolades), but I like to think it has more cultural relevance as the workplace of Máiréad MacSweeney, Conor’s martyr of a mammy who works in Pat O’Connell’s fishmongers in the hit television series, The Young Offenders. Sergeant Healy racing through the market on his Garda bike in hot pursuit of Conor is a highlight.
Offal was historically eaten by the hard-working folk of Cork, by-products of the salt beef and pork trade and if you want to be traditional about things, you can buy tripe and drisheen from A. O’Reilly’s stall. If you prefer to have it served to you, you are likely to find tripe and onions with drisheen on the menu of Rebecca and Kay Harte’s Farmgate Café on the balcony overlooking the market.
More recently opened businesses are instilling a new energy. As well as Urban Farm, My Goodness, just inside the Prince’s Street entrance, is as wonderful as it sounds. Run by Donal and Virginia O’Gara, the vegan and vegetarian takeaway food includes tostadas, kimchi, kombucha and their award-winning Goldfinger kefir. They also are the people behind Cork Urban Soil Project, with plans to turn Cork’s food waste into high-quality compost in a closed-loop waste management system. It’s well worth booking a Fab Food Trails walking tour.
The O’Garas have their production kitchen close to the Marina Market, an indoor market for hot food stalls which opened in a former warehouse in 2020. Operating daily, vendors include Victor Franca’s Argentinian grill, Nua Asador; Sultan’s kofta and shawarma; Guji Coffee Bar’s sexy chocolate, Poulet-Vous’s Nashville meets Korean fried chicken; Prátaí's very fine chips; and the Saucy Cow’s vegan burgers.
Close by is an even newer food market, the decidedly cool Black Market (open Wednesday to Sunday) with a smart set-up of shipping containers, a full-on view of Soma’s coffee roastery and benches to dine on. Vendors include The Pie Guys (possibly the best pies in the country, try the Beef and Beamish pie), Burnt Pizza, Tirab Smash Burgers and Dips Asian Cuisine.
Rebel City Distillery, home to Maharani gin, is around the corner in the former Ford factory, where you can book a tour and finish with a tutored tasting. Absinth and vodka have been added to the repertoire, so there’s plenty to keep you in high spirits.
Take a trip to Good Day Deli in Nano Nagle Place for a complete escape from the bustle of the city and for the very good food served in this daytime café. Heading back, Miyazaki is a wonderful casual Japanese restaurant and takeaway on Evergreen Street and as you head to George’s Quay, you’ll pass the lovely Palestinian Izz Café on the corner.
Across South Gate Bridge, Oliver Plunkett Street has a cluster of restaurants owned by the Market Lane group – Goldie, Cork’s only Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, where Aishling Moore has a phenomenal way with fish; Elbow Lane, Market Lane and the Ottolenghi-inspired Orso Kitchen & Bar further down on Pembroke Street. Skip back across the river for Beverley Mathews legendary L’Atitude 51, the best wine bar in Cork with an impressive by-the-glass list. For a special occasion dinner, head to Dennis Cotter’s Paradiso, the country’s top vegetarian restaurant. Nearby is Ichigo Ichie, a Michelin-starred restaurant that is changing to a more casual format in January and re-opening as Ichigo Ichie Bistro & Natural Wine.
In recent years, the culinary axis has moved somewhat to MacCurtain Street in the Victorian Quarter. It’s just a stroll down the steep hill from the very smart Montenotte hotel where I have based myself, my first time staying in Cork’s poshest neighbourhood. A visit to the bistro terrace at the Montenotte is an absolute must for the best views in Cork, looking across the River Lee to the Marina Market and the view of the city lights at night is equally spectacular.
Along the MacCurtain Street stretch you’ll find the popular Glass Curtain restaurant in the old Thompson’s Bakery building; there is a thriving wine bar scene with Nell’s and MacCurtain Wine Cellar, and for very smart cocktails, head to Cask and the Latin American-inspired Palador on Bridge Street. Da Mirco, also on Bridge Street, is a must-book restaurant with its casual vibe and great Italian food and wine. Pints in Sin É or Dan Lowery’s Tavern or a whiskey in The Shelbourne Bar will round off any evening nicely.
Make the fishing village of Kinsale your second (or third) night in Cork. Known for its food, there’s been a new wave of energy with young people moving back into the town, opening new businesses. The coffee scene has exploded, with the Post House coffee shop, where you can pick up a pie from The Pie Guys; The Collector, which has unusual coffee drinks from around the world and a pretty gift shop; and Hannah Barnett-Byrne’s Wild + Tame, with the truck operating on Kinsale bridge at weekends and the Market Street shop open daily. They are all using artisan coffee roasters, with an emphasis on quality and sourcing.
There’s also a new artisan bakery, Seeds on Market Quay, run by Kinsale local Ingrid Kelly and her brother-in-law Benjamin Le Bon, who hails from Brittany. Their long ferment sourdough is a huge hit, as are their cinnamon rolls and pastries. Grab a coffee and sit on the bench outside with something delicious to eat.
Sarah and Carol O’Herlihy’s cosy OHK Café is the place for brunch. They have their own bakery, with croissants, cookies and weekend cruffins displayed on the counter, and dishes like Turkish eggs, eggs in greens, and Ballyhoura mushrooms on toast. Fishy Fishy is a stalwart for lunch, or you could take the Scilly Walk to the Bulman and have a pint and a bowl of mussels overlooking the harbour.
For dinner, Barbara Nealon’s Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Saint Francis Provisions, is one of the loveliest places to dine. With a cool vibe and natural wine list, chef Rebecca Recarey’s cooking is produce-led but there is always a whole fish to share as well as their much loved focaccia and smoked potatoes.
Close by our hotel, the Old Bank Townhouse, and also part of the Blue Haven group, is Rare restaurant, which takes me quite by surprise. It’s a little showy, with the kitchen illuminated behind glass, almost as if it is a stage, clearly there is ambition for recognition from a certain guide. Classically-trained chef Meeran Manzoor brings influences from Chanai in Southern India to his cooking on a clever tasting menu that pushes the boundaries while maintaining the classic framework. He is intuitive and talented; a chef worth watching.
For a more formal experience, head to Bastion, where Paul McDonald’s food at his one-Michelin star restaurant is detailed and delicious.
Corinna Hardgrave was a guest of Fáilte Ireland. See DiscoverIreland.ie