There is a well-known story among foodies in Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast. A cook went into a shop and ordered sirloin, chicken, ox kidneys, and sausage and had them delivered by bicycle to the nearby docks where his ship, the Titanic, was about to sail.

That shop with all its historical connections still stands in Fountain Centre but today it’s more likely to offer a tin of $36,000 caviar, pomegranate turkish delight, Guinness stout cheese, and a whole case of succulent cuts of alligator, ostrich, eel, and kangaroo. The food may have changed but Sawers, a delicatessen now owned by Kieran Sloan, was my first stop on an evening’s food crawl through a city just emerging as a haunt for foodies in the know.

Kieran Sloan, owner of Sawers, the oldest deli in Northern Ireland. (Susan James)
Kieran Sloan, owner of Sawers, the oldest deli in Northern Ireland. (Susan James)

For decades Belfast’s reputation was defined by the conflict of the Troubles but in these peaceful times food tourism has become a major draw. St. George’s Market in the center of town provides a delicious showcase for the variety of foodstuffs available locally. Young growers, artisanal food producers, and up-and-coming chefs have created a vibrant dining scene that local foodie Caroline Wilson from Belfast Food Tour invited a small group to explore. Sampling the exotic at Sawers (oh, that Guinness cheese), we moved on to try a genuine local sport, beer tasting at The Garrick Bar, a historic pub in Chichester Street. 

The Garrick Bar. (Susan James)
The Garrick Bar. (Susan James)

It was World Cup season and the pub was hung with festive flags of participating countries. But Garrick’s also has other sporting connections; it serves a line of premium Irish ales named for one Master McGrath, a champion greyhound racer in the mid-19th century. The pub’s beers are numbered 1 through 6 in commemoration of the numbers on greyhound racing jackets.

We sampled everything from red ale to dry cider to Irish black stout, a specialty of Northern Ireland. “It’s all about the malt,” Wilson told us, explaining that the flavor presented better at room temperature than when chilled. The cider was made from Bramley apples grown on National Trust land and had a bright, light finish. A bowl of Caroline’s favorite Belfast champ was paired with the tastings. Born out of the Great Famine, champ is a mix of mashed potatoes, scallions, butter, and milk, with a dash of salt and pepper, and makes a tasty alternative to bread or crackers.

Hungering for something a little more substantial to eat, we headed to Deanes Meat Locker, one of a triple threat of restaurants owned by Michelin-starred chef Michael Deane. Deane has something for everyone as his other restaurants sitting in a line on Howard Street are Love Fish, specializing in seafood, and Eipic, the Michelin-starred eatery under the command of Deane’s protégée chef Danni Barry.

Firing up the grill at Deanes Meat Locker. (Susan James)
Firing up the grill at Deanes Meat Locker. (Susan James)

Decorated in sirloin red with portraits of Deane’s suppliers on the walls, the cuts of meat at Meat Locker are stored in glass-fronted refrigerators stacked with pink translucent blocks of flavor-enhancing Himalayan salt. Through a picture window I watched asador chef Cathiel McGreevey skillfully turn huge chunks of chateaubriand, T-bone steak, and prime rib on a flaming grill. The melt-in-your-mouth meat was served on wooden platters with demure pitchers of pepper sauce and tiny baskets of crisply cooked chips. Chez Deaneo’s house wine, a peppery red, was the perfect complement.

Having stuffed myself on the beautifully cook meat at the Meat Locker, I wasn’t sure I could eat anything else. Then Wilson mentioned chocolate—and I was in. Deidre McCanny owns Co Couture on Chichester Street, the ultimate stop for a Belfast chocoholic. Cases of hand-dipped delicacies fill her small cave-like shop.

Deidre McCanny at Co Couture. (Susan James)
Deidre McCanny at Co Couture. (Susan James)

“Chocolate,” McCanny informed us, “is a food group.” She favors Madagascar cacao beans, with its fruity flavors. The secret is in the roasting, and each chocolate house has its own style. Our crash course in the growing and processing of cacao beans finished with a salted chocolate fondant topped with chocolate sauce. Densely rich and intensely-flavored, it left me no doubt that I was eating the food of the gods.

Salted Chocolate Fondant at Co Couture. (Susan James)
Salted Chocolate Fondant at Co Couture. (Susan James)

Our last stop was at Ox Cave, a wine bar on Oxford Street, for a sampling of local cheeses and chutneys. Young Buck, Mike Thomson’s award-winning raw milk blue cheese, and Leggygowan Farm’s goat’s milk blue finished off the food crawl—a crawl that proved beyond doubt that Belfast’s food scene is thriving.

Belfast Food Tour
www.belfastfoodtour.com

Sawers
www.sawersbelfast.com

The Garrick Bar
thegarrickbar.com

Deane’s Meat Locker
www.michaeldeane.co.uk/meat-locker/

Co Couture
www.cocouture.co.uk

Ox Cave
oxbelfast.com/cave/

Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.