The week after the shoe finally dropped and the closure of the Bernard Shaw was announced, the disquiet about the ongoing state of affairs in Dublin’s pub and nightlife scene – which proxies for the social fabric of the city generally – has begun to bubble over. How this plays out in the longer term remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that for the time being we will continue to experience An Bord Pleanála’s desired “emerging character” of corporate homogeneity run rampant. In particular, the powers that be are determined to create “quarters” – as in “hanged, drawn, and” – such as the “Camden Quarter”, where the emerging character is most emergent.
The old Camden De Luxe Hotel was, in more recent times, home to the Palace Theatre, then Planet Murphy’s snooker hall and the Palace nightclub. There is an actual hotel and Jimmy Rabbitte’s Speakeasy bar attached. Given the elegant symmetry of the building, all this confusion and jumble is a bit unfortunate, but the opening of a new bar, The Camden, on the site seems clear enough. The attractive facade of the building is obscured by a banner advertising its opening, or reopening. Up the stairs and past a few bouncers exuding the sinister bonhomie of the older school – totally unnecessary on a Monday evening – and into what was unmistakably once a hotel lobby, stairs sweeping down on either side. And then through to the main bar, a vast room with black-and-white floor tiling, exposed brick walls and art deco-esque touches, appropriately dominated by a black marble-ish stadium bar. And inappropriately dominated by an astonishing number of enormous television screens all grimly tuned to West Ham vs Aston Villa.
I take a position towards the entrance – there are a few people scattered around, but it is by no means busy. I note a well-conceived mise en place of garnishes and tools of the bartending trade. There are about half a dozen staff members, none of whom seem delighted to see me, or, indeed to see me at all. The playlist drifts from Dire Straits to Take That to The Lumineers, catering no doubt to the punter who would rather be sitting in traffic on the M50. One bartender manages to stand more or less where I am without my presence making any sort of an impression. I while away the time taking a look at a drinks menu. The first page is “Classic Cocktails”, which augurs well, and several of them actually are! Pride of place, with a heavy double border, is the house special, an Old Fashioned made with Jameson Caskmates, house bitters, and smoked sugar.
When a bartender approaches, this is what I order. Her response is to take out her phone and, presumably, start searching for old-fashioned recipes. This takes some time. If I am making an old-fashioned at home, my method is to put sugar and bitters in a glass, muddle to dissolve the sugar, add a large ice cube, pour whiskey, stir once, add garnish of a strip of orange peel, maybe doing the squeeze-and-flame trick if I have company. Whatever the internet is telling my barkeep, it is not this.
The minutes pass. The phone is consulted, put away, taken out again. Bottles are nervously addressed. I feel a mounting sense of awkward humiliation on behalf of the bartender who has been put in this position, and a seething rage for the management who have put her in it and her colleagues who can easily determine what is going on and make no attempt to step in for either her benefit or mine. A bottle of Worcestershire sauce is carefully examined. At this point she asks for help and is guided towards the bottle of Angostura bitters (there are no “House bitters” apparently), but then she is left to continue to flail. What other ingredients are eventually combined I do not know but they all go into a shaker with an abundance of chipped ice. And then, yes, the concoction is shaken.
Now, Ian Fleming has a lot to answer for in this regard, but so does Harry Craddock. If you must shake your Martini, I won’t stop you, but I cannot countenance an Old Fashioned being shaken. It is a small mercy that whatever is being prepared is not an Old Fashioned. A glass – a beautiful cut-crystal old-fashioned glass – is filled to the brim with more chipped ice. A quantity of murky, pale pink liquid is poured in, and a half-time orange slice is added. The procedure has taken fully twenty minutes and cost me €10.
I try a taste of it. It is sweet, watery, vile. I have had enough. I leave the nature of the beer selection and the details of the remainder of the vast building as an exercise for the reader, or someone the reader doesn’t like. The experience has left a bad taste both literally and figuratively that it will take a pint or two in Grogan’s to remove.
Of course, a huge barn of a place serving booze on Wexford Street has something of a license to print (more) money and doesn’t have to care about much. If a naked contempt for staff, customer, and craft doesn’t cost anything, that’s what we’ll get.
Words Ben Walsh
84 Camden Street