Restaurant review: Jack Straws on the Upper Newtownards Road
FIRST thing's first. Jack Straws on the Upper Newtownards Road, just past Stormont’s Parliament Buildings, is somewhere to play board games. A lot of board games.
Bookshelves full of them hug the walls and, regardless of the food on offer here, it’s clear it’s a sideshow, a diversion from the serious business at hand of having a bit of fun – which it’s clear the packed tables of gamers are having a bucket load of.
So, is it unfair to judge what’s coming from the kitchen against a similar place that is solely dealing in food and drink? Maybe.
More than a few pubs now have the odd game behind the bar, with places that lean towards craft beer and bearded clientele seemingly not complete without the clatter of Jenga blocks hitting a distressed-wood table.
But in places like these, the games are not the main event, they’re a bonus and shouldn’t be a deal-breaker in assessing the overall experience. No-one’s going to hold it against a pub if you can’t have a game of Colonizers of Malaar or The Cones of Dunshire over your IPA.
You can bring your own IPA to Jack Straws. You can bring a bottle of wine too if you fancy it and you can eat from their menu that goes from breakfast through to evening platters of cheese, cured meats, olives and the like.
But to play is the thing at Jack Straws, whose name comes from a version of pick up sticks – so there’s still a gap in the market to open a former Labour Home Secretary-themed cafe, but you’ll need to go down the Herbert Morrison or Jacqui Smith route to avoid any confusion.
The bright cafe, with tables of various sizes and a couple of sofas, was rammed with enthusiastic players on a Saturday afternoon.
The absurdly knowledgeable staff will help you choose from one of the 400 games available. One waitress reeled off descriptions of game after game to the table behind us that deserved a curtain call and a standing ovation.
The back of the menu features a flowchart to guide you to an appropriate one that will suit your situation best. The front offered much of what you’d expect from any cafe – various types of sandwich, hot and cold, on various types of bread, some salads, soup, sausage rolls, pastries and traybakes.
As well as the evening platters, later on you can get hot dogs and pizza.
Everything did the job perfectly well, while nothing was anything special. A cheese and pickle toastie was fine, while the baked potato with coronation chicken, sweet and warmly spiced, was better.
The even sweeter stuff available was even better. Good milkshakes – one strawberry and one Nutella – were bettered again by the desserts. A slab of sticky banoffee did what banoffee should – leave you feeling a combination of guilt and self-satisfaction.
The summer berry crumble with custard provided warmth, cold, sweet, sharp and a little less guilt on account of the fruit – the banana in the banoffee being the perfect amount, ie next to none.
For anyone not already hepped up on sugar thanks to all that, they stock blocks of excellent fudge from Co Antrim producer Granny Shaw’s as well.
You still have to pay for game time even if you’re giving the menu a thorough going over like this.
So, a bill of £25 for a couple of lunches, desserts and coffees would be swollen by £4.50 for three hours of game play (children and OAPs get three hours for £3.50).
With games the focus, and not everyone coming through the door eating, that’s where they have to make their money, and that’s fair enough, but it might encourage more people to eat if spending on food equated to some sort of concession on the price of play.
Jack Straws styles itself ‘The Board Game Cafe’. The emphasis is very much on the first part of that and, like a pub with only Scrabble, a deck of cards and a set of draughts sitting in the corner, you can’t really hold that against it.
Baked potato £6.45
Berry crumble £3.95
Trio of fudge £3.75
Milkshake x2 £6.50