Eating Out: Surf's up at Strandhill's Shell café

Shells is a seriously lovely café, which blends a kind of surfer cool with seaside fun and friendliness.
Dominic Kearney

THE weather was glorious, nicer than it’s ever been since dinosaurs roamed the green valleys of Ireland. OK, I know some still do. Nicer than for some time, then. Nice enough for four of us to head for the coast for a few days.

Donegal being full, we pushed south to Sligo. My brother and I have this completely unoriginal routine, by the way. Whenever I say Sligo, he says, No, you stay here. I’ll go. OK, so it’s more Mike and Bernie than Eric and Ernie, but it makes the long Winter evenings at Casa Kearney fly by.

My goodness, but I sometimes think Ireland just might be the most beautiful country in the world! We drove past fields of a green known only here and, without knowing quite where we were going, ended up in Strandhill, facing a placid Atlantic beneath a faultless sky, bookended by the giant altars of Benbulben and Knocknarea, their green cloths pleated around them.

Helpfully, the hotel receptionist suggested a few things to do. One was a visit to Queen Maebh’s Cairn, instantly rejected because it involved moving. Another was Voya, an interestingly pronounced seaweed baths centre. This was getting there: no moving involved – a plus – but no eating. Mind you, a big advantage of Voya was its location, right next door to the third recommendation – Shells Seaside Bakery and Café.

So that was the day sorted. I indulged in a seaweed bath at Voya – if the west coast is suffering a bladderwrack shortage, you can blame me – and then joined up with my fellow travellers one door along at Shells.

This is a seriously lovely café, which blends a kind of surfer cool with seaside fun and friendliness. It’s light, bright, airy, fresh, and smiley, just like a day at the beach should be. You can’t book a table. Shells opens from nine in the morning to seven at night, the whole week long, strictly on a first come, first served basis. And it’s popular, because it’s so good, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait.

We got lucky. The beautiful weather meant the outdoor tables were much in demand, and gave the impression it was just as packed inside, but there were a few spaces available. From where we were seated, we could see light aircraft from Sligo Airport searching the sky for cloud, and the still sea beyond the promenade wall.

I regretted ordering a diet Coke the moment I took a sip of the café’s own drinks. The watermelon and mint juice was sweet, sharp, and refreshing, while the spinach, banana, and yoghurt smoothie tasted so much better than it sounded – fresh, clean, rich, and full of goodness.

There were the usual seaside suspects on the menu – the plates of fish and chips criss-crossing the room cast a strong spell over us, but we all resisted and tried something a little different. Not that different in one case – a BLT is hardly pushing the culinary envelope, but you don’t have to be too unusual when you’re this good.

It was packed with thick bacon, enough mayonnaise to flavour without overpowering, and lovely, fresh tomato. And all held together by the café’s own white, multi-seed bread, lightly toasted, soft, and crusty.

The beans on toast was made with cannellini beans, a tangy tomato sauce, and mild chorizo chunks, and topped with creamy goats cheese. You’d think mushrooms on toast might be too wintry a dish, but this was both light and deep, earthy and easy. Best of all, though, was the wild salmon and crab sandwich, which came with a crunchy coleslaw.

The salmon was delicate and subtle, but held its own against the sweet and salty crab, all served on a beautiful black treacle bread.

We shared two cakes for pudding – exquisite citrus treats – a sharp lemon sponge with a crisp pastry base, and an incredibly moist orange cake that just melted in the mouth. A perfect finish to a lovely summer lunch.


(Prices for four)


Beans on toast – €7.50

Bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwich – €7

Black treacle bread sandwich, wild salmon, white crabmeat, Marie Rose sauce, coleslaw – €11.95

Mushrooms on toast with water cress and soft cheese – €7.95


Tunisian orange cake – €2

Lemon square – €1.95


Diet Coke – €2

Sparkling water – €2.50

Spinach, nut, banana, yoghurt smoothie – €4

Watermelon and mint juice – €4

Total: €50.85 (£39.95)


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