We enjoyed dozens of great meals in our travels through 2014 (and, alas, had a few disappointments too). This month’s 10 of the Best is just a tiny taste of the best that Ireland currently offers discerning diners. But it’s an interesting collection, reflecting a wide range of experiences that were all about much more than good food - which, however delicious, is nothing without caring service and a genuine desire to please the guest.

The Ballymore InnThe Ballymore Inn Ballymore Eustace Co Kildare

We’ve been visiting the O’Sullivan family’s stylish pub-restaurant since they opened over sixteen years ago and have never had an indifferent experience, never mind a bad one. Consistent excellence is the name of the game here - outstanding service creates a relaxed ambience, only the very best home grown and mainly local ingredients are permitted in the kitchen, and they are invariably cooked with imagination and care. It has proved a winning formula and a meal here is always a treat to look forward to; very unusually, Barry and Georgina O’Sullivan were not present on our last visit and it’s a credit to their excellent staff and in-house training that the excellent dinner we enjoyed that evening was one of the year’s most memorable experiences.


The Meat LockerThe Meat Locker Howard Street Belfast

Chef Michael Deane - deservedly hailed as Northern Ireland’s premier restaurateur for decades - is a master of reinvention, and The Meat Locker is just one of three exceptional new restaurants now located at his ‘mothership’ venue at Howard Street - the other two are Eipic, for end of week fine dining, and the very popular informal seafood restaurant, Love Fish. There’s something especially appealing about The Meat Locker, which is a celebration of the very best from the land. Crisp white linen creates a sense of occasion and, with its warm colours and informal touches, it has a lovely comfortable, slightly clubby ambience. Pride of place is given to a glass-walled meat locker (where joints of Peter Hannan's famous 35 day Himalayan salt aged beef hang, as in a traditional butchers shop) and an Asador grill, right along the end wall - where you can also watch gifted executive chef Simon Toye and his team turning out magnificent classical food, including some excellent fish as well as superb meat dishes. Every mouthful is full of flavour, and great value too: you can eat lunch from as little as £6.50 in this pleasing place.


Pizza at The TwelveThe Twelve Barna Co Galway

Renowned for great food and exceptional wines, Fergus O’Halloran’s unusual contemporary hotel has achieved national recognition thanks to hands-on management and marketing by an inspired proprietor. You’ll find everything here, from Upstairs @ West’s fine wining and dining experience, to quality casual food, notably pizza, in the busy Pins Gastro Bar - always with a focus on the best local and artisan foods and craft beers. An unexpected highlight this year was a business event - one of the hospitality training workshops that we do with Conor Kenny & Associates - which was lifted way above its potentially mundane style by a deliciously rustic lunch of hearty soup with crusty breads straight from their own bakery, accompanied by flavour-filled artisan platters and a ‘Driver’s Glass’ of wine, a clever idea that allows drivers to enjoy a small glass of wine safe in the knowledge that it’s within the legal limit. Then the pièce de resistance, a gorgeous chocolate and strawberry pizza that was as pretty as it was scrumptious, and great coffee to finish. Other venues take note - doing business can also be a treat.


Old Convent Gourmet HideawayOld Convent Gourmet Hideaway Clogheen Co Tipperary

Billed as the perfect destination for couples seeking a short ‘get away from it all’ experience, Dermot and Christine Gannon’s stylish restaurant with accommodation is near The Vee scenic gap, in one of Ireland’s most beautiful and unspoilt areas. Sumptuously appointed rooms and relaxation areas have wonderful views of the gardens and countryside, but the real draw here is Dermot’s nightly-changing tasting menus offering stunning cooking of their own and local produce. Perfectly cooked and seasoned, with no need ever to use the tiny cruet sets considerately provided, Dermot’s beautiful and immaculately timed food is served with engaging professionalism by Christine and her team, creating a magic culinary tableau each evening.


Grove HouseGrove House Schull Co Cork

At their beautifully restored period house overlooking Schull Harbour, Katarina Runske and her son Nico offer relaxed surroundings and great food just a few minutes walk from the main street. The restaurant has a well-earned following for ingredients-led food with a distinctive Swedish flavour, and Nico’s cooking highlights the beauty and flavour of the local produce that he - just like his mother and grandmother before him - loves to seek out. Their lovely dining room is set up stylishly with simple contemporary linen and cutlery and the setting, together with freshest and best of foods and their hospitality, makes for a wonderful experience every time.


The Old Schoolhouse InnThe Old Schoolhouse Inn Comber Co Down

Since chef Will Brown returned to Northern Ireland and this long established family business near Strangford Lough, he has applied his talent and a combination of classic and modern kitchen skills to transform The Old Schoolhouse, creating a unique combination of old school charm and vibrant contemporary cooking. You immediately warm to ‘lines’ “I Will Brown must not overcook the beef” repeated umpteen times on a big blackboard - and Will is as good as his word, as the cooking is spot on. Everything is delicious and, given the quality, skills and attention to detail, it offers real value. All this, plus genuine hospitality from well-trained staff in both restaurant and accommodation, make it a memorable experience. One of the North’s hidden gems, it’s well worth seeking out.


Gregans Castle HotelGregans Castle Hotel Ballyvaughan The Burren Co Clare

While Simon and Freddie Haden’s quietly luxurious and restorative country house hotel is one of Ireland’s top food destinations, it is a place to be enjoyed in the round for its simple West of Ireland joys like warming turf fires and unparalleled views across the Burren landscapes, Freddie’s beautiful landscape-inspired interiors, and the unique experience that the area has to offer. Even so, the food alone is certainly worth the journey as chef David Hurley takes enormous pride in showcasing the wonderful produce of the locality. While refined by any standards, he describes his cooking simple as ‘modern European but distinctively Irish and unpretentious’. Provenance and flavour certainly linger far longer in the mind than the technical skills, impressive as they are - and all the stops are pulled out at breakfast too.


The Lime Tree RestaurantLime Tree Restaurant Limavady Co Londonderry

Loyal customers come from far and wide for the pleasure of dining at Stanley and Maria Matthews’ long-established restaurant on the handsome, wide main street of this attractive town and we are always disappointed if, for some reason, a meal here is not possible when visiting the area. It’s not just that Stanley is a fine chef and Maria is a welcoming and solicitous hostess, although Stanley’s ingredients are carefully sourced and his menus are generous and creative, with a classical base that he works on to give popular dishes a new twist. But Stanley and Maria are a special couple, with exceptional commitment to their business and the culinary curiosity to keep it fresh. Good cooking and good value go hand in hand with warm hospitality here, and you are always sure of some surprises - including, perhaps, Lough Neagh eel, which is a particular treat for visitors from the Republic, where eel fishing is currently banned.


CampagneCampagne Kilkenny Co Kilkenny

Run by the celebrated chef Garrett Byrne and his wife, restaurant manager Brid Hannon, this French-inspired restaurant’s pastoral theme reflects the owners’ passionately held food philosophy of involving local food producers in the cooking. The highest of standards apply, yet this is not show-off food but carefully-chosen ingredients cooked to perfection, beautifully presented and backed up by immaculate service. While the buzz of a busy dinner service allows any kitchen to flex its culinary muscles, even a low key midweek lunch here has a real sense of occasion. You may need to pinch yourself, to be sure that you are really awake and experiencing the sheer quality and quietly executed excellence that sets this team apart - and at a very fair price.


Dromoland CastleDromoland Castle Newmarket-on-Fergus Co Clare

The ancestral home of the O’Briens, barons of Inchiquin and direct descendants of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, Dromoland is one of the few Irish estates tracing its history back to Gaelic royal families. Today it is one of Ireland’s grandest hotels - yet it is far from being inaccessible, but rather, in the warm and watchful care of General Manager Mark Nolan and his team, it is one of the best-loved. While a stay here, or dinner in the beautiful Earl of Thomond Restaurant, may not be within everyone’s reach, Afternoon Tea at the Castle is accessible to all and proved to be one of the most enjoyable surprises of our travels in 2014. Nothing is too much trouble for the staff, who go to great lengths to set up a table for every group in the place of their choice - window tables overlooking the grounds are lovely in summer, fireside ones cosier in winter. The formal tea service with crisp white linen, gleaming silver and an exhaustive range of savoury and sweet treats is enormously restorative - and will send you off happily determined to return as soon as possible. A wonderfully relaxing experience and a great introduction to one of Ireland’s finest castle hotels.

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