I must admit to a measure of opportunism in my choice of the Shelbourne Hotel’s Horseshoe Bar. We had been invited to join family at their table in The Saddle Room for dinner – and it seemed like a fitting moment to perform the old two birds, one stone manoeuvre. In theory I would get to the hotel an hour before dinner, belly up to the bar and do my thing. No one would be the wiser. It didn’t quite play like that – two family members were standing sentry in the vestibule when I revolved through the door at about twenty past six. No matter, I figure that I can pivot, get a round in and broaden the base of my review.
Walking out of the white early-Summer light of the lobby into the Horseshoe Bar proves a little disconcerting. The stygian gloom is pervasive and mood altering, it requires you to adjust to it. I make a mental note that this windowless spot is not the place for day-drinking. The carmine walled room, while high-ceilinged, is of relatively compact proportions. I feel like I’m re-entering the womb and not in the good way. The Sam Stephenson designed bar protrudes into the cavity of the red-limned space like a lascivious brassy tongue and I realise that I want a cocktail.
When it comes to cocktails (and most other things) I’m something of a classicist, favouring the salty, desiccating pleasures of the dirty martini, always made on vodka. I tend not to order them in Dublin because the act of combining liquor and olive brine with an insinuation of dry vermouth seems to confound bartenders. I order one anyway because this is the Horseshoe, right? When the barkeep parrots the word ‘dirty’ back at me with an implied question mark, I reply with ‘filthy’. This means that I require a porno-strength level of salinity. The drink, when it arrives strains to reach mere erotica. I’m drinking cold Belvedere from a nice coupe and that’s dandy, but it’s not what I ordered. Also, with a price tag of €20 I could reasonably expect it to come with a reach-around. To put that into context I could get a cheaper (and properly made) martini in the recently (and lavishly) refurbed Grill Room in The Four Seasons New York. This thought repeats upon me as I put the drink away in a couple of lumps.
My girl’s negroni is deemed too sweet and I’m less than surprised. Rounding out the order a Bristol Cream and a vermouth over ice go unremarked. The barman gamely offers us a dish of miniature pretzels.
After dinner, replete but unsatisfied I return and get a serviceable old fashioned for €14 – it feels like a happy-hour deal after the sanitary martini. Ray Charles is playing for the four other patrons, two puce-faced captains of industry braying at one another and a couple of tired looking American tourists. Around the top of the bar there is a series of backlit Hogarth scenes depicting dissipation and debauchery, drunkards staggering around full of gin and transgression. I wonder what it would cost me to get into that state in this place.
The Horseshoe Bar @ The Shelbourne Hotel
27 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2.
Phone: (01) 663 4500
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick