Anne Hailes: Belfast is bustling, sure, but please consider the vegetarians

Faye McFarland, the woman behind Harlem Restaurant in Belfast

SITTING in the sun high above Donegall Square is a great vantage point for looking down at scores of people coming and going, with dozens of visitors being conducted round the City Hall grounds.

As I enjoyed lunch in Cafe Parisien in the old Robinson and Cleaver building I couldn’t help but notice how the skyline is growing taller by the month, with the Grand Central towering over everything in a somewhat brutal way. Belfast is a bustling city, especially when the sun shines, cafes and restaurants are thriving and with 148 cruise ships expected this year things can only get better.

Suddenly we’ve arrived at Easter Monday, time ‘off school’, packing up the car and getting out and about. On Easter Tuesday we always went round the coast to the Glens, the entire family, parents and children, granny, cousins, aunts and uncles complete with sandwiches and Primus stove. Those days of my youth still bring a smile of remembrance.

We have some great restaurants. But my one bitch about eating out is the lack of thought for vegetarians and vegans. ‘Options’ are beginning to creep in; some like Howard Street restaurant have an excellent separate menu – coconut soup, crispy blue cheese beignet, crushed Madras potato, all with the tasty embellishments.

That’s only a taste of the starters. Of course there are other eating places throughout the north providing a good range of vegetarian menus and more are acknowledging vegans so it’s worth looking around; thankfully caring chefs are taking non-meat-eating customers seriously, although at Christmas I ate in a very top-notch hotel and I had to settle for two of the vegetable side dishes as there wasn’t even a suitable option.

There’s a lack of understanding that being vegetarian can be because of a medical condition; if there was more understanding, menus would be more sympathetic.

Mind you, there can be a lack of sympathy among members of the public when visiting cafes and restaurants.

I was chatting to Faye McFarland, the woman behind Harlem Restaurant, and from the exciting decor a confirmed graduate of fashion and art in years gone by.

Situated on Belfast’s Bedford Street, this is a unique restaurant – eclectic, someone said. Certainly, styles and furnishings are drawn from a wide range of sources and it works – and some advice: you are wise to book.

It’s a draw for visitors to the city, especially cruise passengers, and with so many expected it should be a bonanza for all our local shops and cafes.

Harlem hit the headlines when a woman posted on Trip Advisor that she had the worst prawn salad in her life in the restaurant. The reply was a blackboard on the pavement inviting people to come in and try the ‘worst salad’ which, in my experience, is the best salad.

That’s why I don’t subscribe to Trip Advisor – it’s too easy for a competitor to post a negative review, someone behind the safety of a computer and the internet. On the other hand, Faye finds Instagram is a great way to spread the word far and wide.

Ask girls, and boys, who serve at table about customers and so often the story is the same: bad manners, the lack of 'please' and 'thank you', a superior attitude, clicking fingers for attention, arguing with no good reason and men, and some women, who ogle. It’s not easy running a restaurant nor being an employee, with hundred of orders to be taken and dealt with.

We are a very hospitable people and our standards are high and we should all appreciate those who devote themselves to our demands.

Rose-tinted specs

If you look at the website for The Port of Belfast you’ll read this Americanised gem:

"There was a time when the name Belfast raised an immediate red flag to visitors, but these days, the town's highly publicized political unrest has greatly subsided. Curiosity-seekers can still find elaborate murals and other relics from turbulent times lingering in certain neighborhoods, but for the most part, Belfast is now safer than many other European capitals, and its new image is one of both progress and hospitality.

"If you've been to Dublin, the differences between that city and Belfast may seem striking. Belfast, of course, is part of Northern Ireland, which itself is part of the United Kingdom; the Republic of Ireland is part of... just the Republic of Ireland.

"So British influence seems to have coated Belfast with a more polished veneer and a Victorian elegance that's evident in the town's shops, restaurants and even its pubs. The omnipresent Irish charm still exists, but Belfast also projects a cosmopolitan flair that's rarely seen elsewhere on the Emerald Isle.

The glittering row of boutiques lining the Golden Mile, Belfast's premier shopping district, is more reminiscent of Paris or Milan, while a new wave of trendy restaurants now offers visitors haute cuisine in addition to local favorites. The city has come a long way since the days of security checkpoints and armored patrols, and Belfast now appears poised to shed its unfortunate past and take its place among Europe's new hot spots."

I seem to have missed out on the glittering row of boutiques lining the Golden Mile!

Phoenix will arise

WATCHING Notre Dame burn was so reminiscent of Primark in the middle of Belfast and perhaps the same root cause. Like millions, Notre Dame means so much to me; memories of an awesome oasis of solace no matter your religion or none, the dim recesses, the pools of light round banks of candles, the Rose Window beautiful inside but also a bright and glorious vision when passing underneath sailing in a Bateau Mouche on the Seine to the music of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. So moving was the crowd standing together singing solemn hymns.

Thankfully there is optimism among the charred remains. The Hunchback will live to swing on the bells another day and people will kneel in prayer and give thanks.

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