Northern Ireland’s scenic Causeway Coast offers windswept golden beaches, ruined castles perched on rocky cliffs and of course what most visitors come to see, the Giant’s Causeway (or is it the Game of Thrones locations?) While I enjoyed all of these, what most impressed me most was the quality of the food. I found artisan producers creating new and interesting products and restaurants dedicated to using the best and freshest local ingredients. And the seafood, oh the seafood! So let me take you on a tour of some the restaurants and dishes I enjoyed in between visiting the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge and Mussenden Temple. In Northern Ireland’s 2016 Year of Food and Drink there’s plenty here to make your mouth water.
1. The best of Irish cooking at The Bushmills Inn
I loved eating my way through the menu at the Bushmills Inn where I stayed while exploring Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. If you want to feel the warmth of Irish hospitality, not to mention the peat fire that burns summer and winter at the entrance, this is the place for you.
The hotel started as a coaching inn and the oldest part of the building that fronts the main road now houses the Gas Bar. Lit by gas lamps the bar has a traditional feel, with red walls and subdued lighting casting a rosy glow. It’s especially atmospheric on a Saturday or Wednesday night when they have an Irish band sitting in the corner, playing all the folk favourites.
Breakfast was served in the oldest part of the restaurant where I sat in one of the wooden booths and enjoyed the thick, juicy slices of Irish smoked salmon with scrambled eggs served on crested china plates.
I was even more impressed when I had dinner in the newer part of the restaurant which is glazed on one side, creating a lighter feel. The hotel is committed to using local produce and the suppliers are listed at the end of the menu, right down to the farm that produces the herbs. Having heard that the beef here was outstanding I chose the Braised Belted Beef with a mustard crust with vegetables and champ, which was meltingly soft having been cooked very slowly ‘sous vide’.
My friend’s Kerry Hill Lamb was also getting oohs and ahs of approval. The dishes were at once sophisticated yet totally Irish and beautifully presented. They have an Innkeeper’s Choice section of the menu that changes regularly and a decent vegetarian selection too. This is the place to treat yourself for a special dinner and a taste of traditional Irish cooking at it’s best.
The Bushmills Inn, 9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills. I ate: Braised Belted Galloway Beef £18.50 and Forest Berry creme brûlée £5.95
2. Seafood on the beach at Harry’s Shack
I’d heard so many great things about Harry’s Shack at Portstewart that I was determined to have lunch there and managed to fit it in between a visit to Mussenden temple and Dunluce castle. (I was on an excellent day tour run by Glenara Elite Travel) This is the sort of beach cafe you find on every other beach in Cornwall although a surprising rarity in Northern Ireland considering the number of unspoiled, golden beaches. I half expected to find Jamie Oliver popping in for lunch with the family.
The ‘Shack’ is an overgrown garden shed set just above the beach, with space to eat outside on picnic tables and plenty of light flooding in. I’d heard that the fish here was outstanding so was surprised that there were so many meaty crowd-pleasers: Beach burger and chips, chicken terrine, Irish chicken and mushroom pie. I certainly wasn’t complaining when my pan fried fish arrived with capers and cockles in a pool of buttery sauce with a bowl of mash to soak it up.
My friend’s fish and chips also looked very good, with the chips in the obligatory metal pail and mushy peas on the side. I was tempted by the cakes on the counter but settled on a single salted caramel macaron to have with my coffee. Harry’s shack is definitely a place I’d head back to. It manages to be both family friendly and please serious food lovers of all ages. Rustic beach style with simple food done very well. Why aren’t all restaurants like this?
Harry’s Shack, 118 Strand Road, Portstewart. We ate: Pan fried fish £15, Fish & Chips £11.
3. A honeycomb ice cream at Ballantoy Harbour
I’d probably have missed Ballantoy harbour, had I not visited as part of my tour with Glenara Elite Travel. It’s as picturesque a place as they come and was used as a Game of Thrones setting for the port of Pyke in the Iron Islands (OK, I admit I had to look that up). Because the road down to the harbour is steep and narrow you won’t find any larger coach parties down there, although I suspect it’s still packed in summer.
As we arrived in the late afternoon, the small tea room on the harbour was closing but we just managed to buy a locally made ice cream to eat at the golden hour. I chose honeycomb flavour which is a local favourite although not much to do with honey, but studded with the kind of burnt sugar honeycomb you find in a Crunchie bar. If you ever get to the Ballycastle Auld Lammas Fair this kind of honeycomb is a local speciality and sold along with Dulse seaweed (but not eaten together!)
4. A lively Saturday night at Ramore in Portrush
Ramore in Portrush is the foodie spot on the Causeway coast where you head for good food and good times at the weekend, a place to put on your high heels and have a laugh. The tall white building overlooks the harbour with the Coast Pizzaria on the ground floor and The Mermaid on the top floor with a sophisticated driftwood and deckchair stripe theme. Ramore has spread sideways to the Harbour Bar next door while the Neptune and Prawn serving Asian inspired dishes is just across the road. None of them is bookable except the Mermaid, which is where I found myself sitting at the cocktail bar for dinner on a Saturday night feeling like a fish out of water amidst the perfectly groomed hair and fashionably bright lipstick.
Things looked up once my Hendricks Southside cocktail with gin, cucumber, mint and elderflower arrived. At least I was in a great spot for people-watching as the cocktails were mixed and shaken before my eyes, expresso martinis decorated with a carefully placed coffee bean, mint and ice being crushed for the Mojitos.
By the time my starter of roast scallops with black pudding and curry cream arrived I was definitely converted. This could possibly be the prettiest dish I’d seen in a long while, with the richness of the scallops and sauce being offset by the sweet sharpness of the redcurrents scattered across the plate.
The roast hake was perfectly cooked, balanced on top of a broth with vegetables and new potatoes but I should have known better than to order the floating brandy snap for desert. Here I had to admit defeat and could only nibble bits of the plate size brandy snap, scrape off a taste of the four different ice creams beneath and try a little of each of the three sauces that came with it. The clatter of glasses and chatter of friends was overwhelming but perfect if you want to party on a Saturday night and probably a little calmer at other times.
Ramore Restaurants, The Harbour, Portrush. I ate in The Mermaid: my cocktail £6.95, starter £5.95, fish £14.95, desert £4.95
5. A drop of Bushmills Whiskey
Of course on the Causeway Coast it’s difficult to get by without a drop of whiskey from the famous Bushmills Whiskey Distillery in Bushmills where I was staying. I’d recommend doing the tour which gives an excellent insight into how the whiskey is made, even though you are walking through a not-particularly-attractive commercial production plant. The fun bit comes at the end when you get to taste a generous slug of the Bushmills whiskey which is included in your ticket. You can take your time sipping it in the cosy cafe area and buy your favourite in the shop, including a personalised bottle of the 12 year old which they sell exclusively at the distillery.
If you are interested in trying a few different whiskeys, you can have a mini tasting of 3 of the whiskeys (£7.50) and chat to the bar staff about the different flavours, or better still book for the tutored tasting which takes place every day at 3pm. You can book for this on its own (£15) or combine with a 2pm distillery tour (£20) and you get to sit at the table in the cafe next to the old copper still and taste your way through 5 of the finest whiskeys, (including the 21 year old which sells for over £100 per bottle).
One of the distillery staff will tell you about each whiskey which are different ages, but also matured in different oak casks that have contained bourbon whiskey, port or madeira, each taking a different flavour from the casks. My favourite was the Bushmills 16 year old with flavours of honey, almonds and vanilla matured on port casks (I looked that up from the tasting sheet but it was delicious). Be sure to arrange someone to drive you back to your hotel after the tasting or better still book in just down the road at the Bushmills Inn so you can walk (stagger?) back and spend the rest of the afternoon snoozing in front of the peat fire.
Bushmills Distillery Tour, 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills. Tour: Adults £7.50 including a taste of one whiskey |Tasting 3 whiskeys after the tour £7.50 | Tutored tasting of 5 whiskeys £15 or £20 including the tour (takes place daily at 3pm and must be booked in advance)
6. A fine Sunday lunch at The French Rooms in Bushmills
While visitors will enjoy the Irish charm of Bushmills Inn, it’s also fun to have a change from oak panelling and peat fires. Practically next door and in complete contrast is the light and airy French Rooms in Bushmills which I tried for Sunday lunch. With a gift shop and deli at the front and a cafe at the back it feels like you’ve stepped into a market for deceptively expensive brocante and vintage finds in Aix-en-Provence.
From the Sunday lunch menu I chose the roll of pork stuffed with apples and raisins, with prettily presented side dishes of carrots, peas with lettuce and both mashed and roast potatoes (always a choice of potatoes in Ireland). In between courses I discovered that there was a lovely, light conservatory room at the back, giving out to a charming courtyard garden.
There is a French connection to the area in the French Hugonots who settled here in the 17th century in search of religious freedom and brought with them their skills in the manufacture of linen, using locally grown flax. This is definitely a place I’d love to return to linger over a coffee with cakes or have a light lunch with a friend.
The French Rooms, 45 Main Street, Bushmills. Open Wednesday to Sunday We ate: Sunday lunch 2 courses £13.65 3 courses £16.65
7. Italian inspiration at Bartali Wine Bar at Portballintrae
On a quiet Sunday evening I ate at Bartali Wine bar overlooking the bay at Portballintrae which was just a short drive from Bushmills. The long whitewashed building with a slate roof looked as if it had been converted from an ancient barn or fisherman’s boathouse, but in fact was only built around 10 years ago. Inside the wooden booths, brick arches and Victorian fireplace might have been from an old pub, but there was also a young, trendy feel to the place, with an emphasis on local produce and craft ales.
The staff were friendly and knowledgeable and told me that this restaurant and its sister restaurants in Belfast are named after Italian champion cyclists, this being the namesake of Gino Bartali, the others being Coppi (named after Fausto Coppi) and il Pirata (named after Marco Pantani) which serve cichetti bar snacks and rustic Italian cuisine. I enjoyed my market fish; sea bream with cabbage, pancetta and gnocchi which had just the right blend of Irish and Italian. I’d recommend Bartalis for lunch after a walk on Portballintrae beach as well as a relaxed dinner and it has a family friendly conservatory too.
Bartali wine bar, 6B Seaport Avenue, Portballintrae. I ate: Market fish £13.50, Passionfruit Panacotta with white chocolate £4.50. They do a set menu 3 courses or 2 courses + glass of wine for £15
8. Meeting the goats at Broughgammon Farm
As I left Bushmills for my drive past the Glens of Antrim I stopped at Broughgammon Farm near Ballycastle. The family that runs the farm are friends and I was meeting up with Becky Cole, who with her husband Charlie has started a business to rear billy goats for meat which they sell at farmer’s markets around Ireland. They run butchery and cookery courses on the farm, have a small farm shop selling their meat and other local products and Becky also has a blog about seasonal living on the farm at Terriers and Tweeds.
Becky told me how they had found their niche after realising that most goats are reared for their milk and the billy goats are slaughtered at birth. For a sustainable approach they buy the male kids and rear them to make cabrito goat meat cuts and sell the famous ‘billyburgers’ at farmer’s markets and country shows, recently branching out into free range rose veal and wild game.
Becky took me to see the goats in their barn where they were full of fun and mischief, nibbling my hand and checking me out with an inquisitive gaze. There’s a whole scene of artisan food producers like Becky and Charlie in Northern Ireland which you can look out for at local markets and in farm shops and delis.
Broughgammon Farm, 50 Straid Road, Ballycastle, BT546NP. The farm shop is open Weds-Sun 10am-5pm closed 1-2 for lunch. Check out the meat boxes that can be delivered anywhere in the UK and the events calendar will tell you at which markets you can find the billy-burgers.
9. The Central Bar in Ballycastle
I’d already visited Ballycastle when I took the ferry across to Rathlin Island but decided to stop there again for lunch before driving down the Glens coast back to Belfast Airport. On a Monday lunchtime many of the shops and restaurants were closed but I settled into a table in front of the fire at The Central Bar, an attractive stone building on the main road through town.
Without looking at the menu I knew I had to order the seafood chowder which had been recommended by Caroline Redmond who runs food tours in Ballycastle. It was a delicious creamy soup with chunks of vegetables, fish and prawns from Mortons fishmonger down at the harbour. On the side were three different breads which are cooked on the premises; a treacle and fennel seed, Guiness wheaten bread and a tomato focaccia. The lunch was a real treat and all I needed to set me up for the drive along the Glens coastal route. The Central Bar uses fresh local ingredients cooked to order and there was something to please everyone from Italian pizza, local seafood, steaks, curry and chicken dishes.
Central Wine Bar, 12 Ann Street, Ballycastle. I ate: Seafood Chowder £9.95.
While you’re in Ballycastle
Ballycastle is one of the main towns on the Causeway Coast and there’s a thriving food scene going on here. I had plenty of recommendations although unfortunately when I visited on a Monday many were closed. Check out the following and let me know what you think;
Morton’s Fish and Chips – Look out for the kiosk beside the Ballycastle harbour which is renowned for the best fish and chips in the area. The family own their own fishing boats and also have a fishmonger selling the fresh fish next door so you can be sure that the fish is ultra-fresh and cooked to order. The locals travel miles to buy their fish and chips here and sit eating it with a view of the harbour. Open weekdays 3pm-8pm, weekends 12-9pm Freshly battered cod from £4.00
Ballycastle Food Markets – There’s a regular food market in Ballycastle where you’ll find plenty of different local artizan food producers. Check out the Naturally North Coast and Glens website for more details.
Caroline Redmond offers food tours in Ballycastle which visit many of the foodie stops mentioned. She also does walking tours of the Causeway coast so check out her Facebook page or contact her by email: [email protected] The Ballycastle walking food tours cost £25
Thyme and Co, 5 Quay Road, Ballycastle – a pretty and airy cafe that uses a lot of local produce. Perfect for breakfast, brunch or a light lunch of Mediterranean tarts and aromatic soups served with crusty breads. Open daily 8.30-4.30 Closed Sunday and Monday
Ursa Minor Bakehouse, 56 Castle Street, Ballycastle, is the place that everyone mentioned to me for bread and cakes and they have a small café too. They make their bread with organic ingredients using traditional methods and supply many local cafes such as Thyme and Co and Harry’s Shack.
The North Coast Smokehouse isn’t open to the public but look out for their smoked fish at markets and local cafes like Thyme and Co and their smoked sea salt at delis and food shops – I also saw it on sale at Belfast airport. Their website has details of stockists.
Causeway Coast Foodie Tours are run by Wendy Gallagher – you can take one of her 6 hour Coast and Country tours by coach to visit a range of different food producers along the Causeway Coast for tastings and food demonstrations. The tours start and end in Colraine and cost £55. Email: [email protected]
Cushendun and Cushendell as you drive down the Glens coast
On my drive south from Ballycastle I passed through the coastal villages of Cushendun and Cushendell. Unfortunately most places were closed on the Monday but I was recommended the following for a place to eat;
Cushendun is a pretty village is managed by the National Trust and has a long beach, picturesque old stone bridge and a shop where you could easily buy a picnic if the weather is fine. Mary McBrides (2 Main Street) is a tiny whitewashed bar right by the bridge and serves good lunches with a fish restaurant upstairs.
Cushendall is a larger village with several cafes and restaurants with the beach a short drive from the centre. I was recommended the fish restaurant above Jonny Joe’s bar – Upstairs @ Joes (23 Mill Street) where they also run a cookery school and Harry’s Restaurant (10-12 Mill Street) which is just across the road, both of which serve local fish and seafood.
10. Afternoon tea at the Glenarm Castle Tea Rooms
My final stop before I reluctantly returned to Belfast airport was the tea room at Glenarm castle which is just off the coastal road and makes a great refreshment stop. You can visit the tearooms even if you don’t want to visit the walled garden and they serve brunch, sandwiches and soup for lunch and tea and cakes. I just had time for a slice of Lady Grey and orange tea loaf washed down with raspberry fruit tea.
The tearoom looks as if it was once a garden building and is all painted wood and pine tables with pretty garden flowers on each table. I wish I’d had time to visit the walled garden which I could glimpse through the archway and just popped out to take a photo before continuing my drive, with the majestic glens and glacial valleys on one side and the sea on the other.
Glenarm Castle: Garden admission £5. I tried herbal tea £1.85 and cake £2.65. They serve a traditional afternoon tea for £10.95 per person.
A golden bonus from Broighter Gold
Everywhere I went I kept spotting bottles of Broighter Gold who produce cold pressed golden rapeseed oil on their farm at Limavady. They also sell a range of salad oils infused with flavours like basil, lemon and chilli and to celebrate Northern Ireland’s 2016 Year of Food and Drink have created a special edition that contains 23 carat flakes of gold for a bit of extra sparkle.
It’s fashionable to use olive oil with abandon in our cooking but this rapeseed oil made me stop and wonder why, when there are delicious and healthy local products like this that are part of our own farming landscape.
I loved my foodie tour of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast exploring local artisan products, fabulous seafood and outstanding quality meat, all served up in huge portions with a healthy dollop of friendly Irish charm. I hope your mouth is watering too!
Have you any favourite foodie spots from Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast? Do leave me your recommendations in the comments
More things to enjoy in Ireland
Visitor Information for visiting Ireland’s Causeway Coast
Heather stayed at The Bushmills Inn in Bushmills which is a luxury 4 star hotel that is close to all the major things to see such as The Giant’s Causeway and the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery. The hotel has a traditional Irish warmth with excellent food and friendly service and the peat fire is always burning to welcome you. If you’re lucky you may find your own country’s flag flying from the tower to greet you!
For guided tours I recommend Glenara Elite Travel who operate tours in a comfortable mini-bus that enables you to easily see all the attractions of the Causeway Coast in one day. They run regular day tours that cost £35 per person.
My extremely knowledgeable guide for the Giant’s Causeway and other local attractions was Mark Rodgers of Dalriada Kingdom Tours who fed me with local tales of fishing families and mythical giants.
Caroline Redmond offers food tours in Ballycastle at North Coast Walking Tours and Wendy Gallagher runs Coast and Country food tours at Causeway Coast Foodie Tours. Thanks to both for their food recommendations.
Thanks to the Causeway and Glens Tourism Board for hosting my stay on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.