I have been remiss in visiting Bonobo, open in Smithfield since April — it has been a busy season of openings – and the new-bar smell is beginning to fade when I roll in. We are ostensibly in Smithfield, but even though you could throw a stone and hit the Cobblestone, Church St is a liminal space, an unlovely stretch of urban dual carriageway where pedestrians are caged in behind crash barriers, the tenements of tomorrow rising up in the guise of student accommodation. The corner with King St holds on, with Taproom 47 and a row of Georgian brick that once housed The Richmond, which, having swapped its cream-and-claret for a darker kit, is now Bonobo.
This is the third animal in Shane Clifford and Hugh O’Farrell’s nationwide menagerie, joining Impala in Cork and Caribou in Galway. The two are veterans of the Cassidy’s / P Mac’s / Blackbird group, and it shows, but here there is a softer and more mature aesthetic and, mercifully, no bloody candles. The zoological names are all, apparently, an homage to popular electronic music artists. Certainly, there is nothing overtly simian about the place, and if the theme relates to the well-known proclivities of our cousins Pan paniscus then I am over-dressed.
First impressions are favourable; there is a lot of natural wood — floors, furniture, ceiling vault, and fittings — but the treatment is more harmonious than this might sound. The colours are muted to the point of being sombre, but there are flashes of whimsy. The bold primary-colour art of Marco Oggian lifts the mood a bit, as does the sheer space of it, in a city where useable and livable room is increasingly hoarded, rationed, and restricted. There are three distinct areas, a sensible scattering of furniture and seating, and then a beer garden that seems almost as big again. And, magnificently, there is a fully-fledged branch of the Dublin Pizza Company, wood-fired oven included, which is more spacious and better-appointed than their Aungier St headquarters, which has the best in the city for my money.
To business, and there is a lot of it. The massive wooden bar is graced by thirty beer taps, most of them interesting imports or domestic independents, with a few macro interlopers. I understand the rationale for the single Guinness tap at the end, but could do without the Molson-Coors products in their “Franciscan Well” and “Blue Moon” costumes. For the rest, it seems that the fashion is still for fruity, hazy, and sour, and things are increasingly out of hand. The following flavour combinations are all on offer: strawberry, basil, and pepper; apricot and lemon; mango, lime, and vanilla; lime and agave.
I stress that these are beers, served on draught, meant to be consumed by adults — and not soaps, lollipops, or Magic Tree air fresheners. In reserve is a wide selection of cans and bottles, reflecting the draught options, and a spectacular range of Irish whiskeys including some very rare Midletons and full flights of Lambay Island, Knappogue Castle, and Clonakilty.
In a contrarian spirit I choose a pale ale from Larkin’s, a true independent outfit from Kilcoole in Co Wicklow. It is a very drinkable 4.5%, pleasantly fresh with experimental “Lemondrop” and reliable Cascade hops, but the thin body advertised by its ultra-light straw colour is unappealing.
My friend Lensman arrives and tries to make sense of the flavour combinations on offer. We have a sample of the Orange Velvet from Norway’s Lervig brewery — this is the mango, lime, and vanilla concoction — and I suppose it’s about as good as a beer with those flavours could be. Whatever about the fruit, the appeal of vanilla in a beer is a mystery. At €7 for a 400ml “schooner” we decline any further investigation and have a Veltins helles instead.
This isn’t the prettiest corner in Dublin, and Bonobo is making a statement by striking out here with confidence. Certainly, the full package that Bonobo provides — selection, space, outdoors, pizza — is an appealing one and by all appearances it’s working well for them, attracting a crowd that’s youngish, if not young, and maybe not as hip as they’d like to be; they need to be able to afford these prices, after all. Is there a place here for the former regulars of The Richmond? Or those who will live precariously in the new bedsits when the student accommodation pretense is dropped? Probably not. The city is on a course to make us all either Eloi or Morlock. A €12 kumquat and licorice gose for some, a bag of lukewarm cans for the rest. Your Time Machine awaits.
Words: Ben Walsh
Photo: Killian Broderick
119 Church Street Upper, Smithfield, Dublin 7