Eating Out: City Picnic hopefully a taste of things to come from rebuilt Bank Buildings
6 Castle Street
028 9031 4499
JUST about every day for nearly 20 years, my journey to work has involved walking through Belfast city centre.
On far more of those days than not it has involved passing the Bank Buildings where Castle Street, High Street, Donegal Place and Royal Avenue meet. Some of those days I stumped up the courage to actually go into the Primark store the building housed. Not an expedition for the faint hearted.
The fire that tore through the landmark in August 2018 left a gaping wound in the city centre. It burned for three days, then smouldered way beyond that, a grotesque attraction for selfie takers. At night, eerily lit up from within, it took on the appearance of a film set, part recreation of a devastated cityscape from the past, part an imagined apocalyptic scene from the future.
A cordon went up. Yellow dots on the ground diverted the familiar route to work a safe distance away.
Still now, 17 months later, with a likely three-year restoration given the go-ahead at the end of last year, it sits, its modesty protected by scaffolding and canary-yellow shipping containers.
Culturally at least, you can’t compare the effect on the city to that of the fire that threatened to bring down Notre Dame cathedral in Paris – one’s a temple to faith and devotion the other to pants and socks – but everything’s relative and, in the very real world of people’s livelihoods, the Primark fire was a genuine trauma to the life of Belfast city centre.
Surrounding businesses closed, reopened, closed again, moved away.
Sitting right across Castle Street from Bank Buildings, City Picnic was the last of the businesses affected by the fire to reopen, at the start of December.
One half-a-million quid investment and revamp later and you’ve got everything you’d expect from a 21st century, casual spot where burgers are the first thing on the menu.
Iron columns and beams, artfully positioned pot plants, naked air conditioners and oh so funky lightboxes.
Some aspects of the aesthetic do grate a bit. A new logo – a pallid pink tongue hanging out of ‘C’ looks like the Rolling Stones lips and tongue if the Rolling Stone lips and tongue made you feel a bit queasy.
They’ve also come down with an awful dose of the propers, with that most loaded of menu adjectives slapped on their wings and pizza.
But the food is good. Those wings are properly hot. Nose-runningly, lip-burningly so, but not before it was clear they were meaty, well cooked and flavoured beyond simply an effort to make you sweat.
Somehow, they do an even hotter version.
Messed up fries are covered in all the good stuff – garlic butter, bacon – their bacon is serious – and Parmesan, but the chips themselves, skin-on, crisp, hot, stand up to all of it.
A veggie bean burger, in common with every veggie bean burger ever made by anyone who remotely knows what they’re doing, is absolutely fine.
The classic Caesar is nothing of the sort – chicken, bacon, mixed leaves, hard boiled eggs and all – but it doesn’t matter thanks to quality of ingredients and the fact the only two things people want from a Caesar salad anyway – the croutons and the dressing – are pitch perfect.
The banana milkshake is just the right side of Chewit flavour every banana milkshake needs to flirt with to be successful.
A sit down visit was complemented by another to take away and find out whether they do produce the #bestburger in Belfast, as their social media channels are determined to claim. Is it? Possibly not, but it would take an extremely good one to stake a claim against this, though with the likes of Bunsen, Pablo’s and Tribal, Belfast city centre is blessed in that regard.
It also arrived, ready to go, remarkably quickly for a burger of this quality.
Given where it is, City Picnic just being open again is an achievement, but to deliver this level of competitively priced, casually excellent food, is even more impressive.
It’s very good to see. And very good to eat.
Original burger £6
Messed up fries £3.50
Hot wings £6
Caesar salad £7
Bean burger £7
Banana milkshake £3.25