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Packing up pans in l’Ecrivain to bring Irish food to the tourists of Temple Bar

Derry and Sallyanne Clarke are moving on from their Michelin-starred restaurant

If there’s one thing l’Ecrivain restaurateurs Derry and Sallyanne Clarke don’t like, it’s Tripadvisor. As an outsider, one would think criticism rarely darkens their door and, even if it does, they’ve satisfied some of the toughest critics around by winning and holding on to a Michelin star for 17 years.

But disapproval from the oft virulent reviewers on the travel site really seems to stick in their craw.

“It is the most negative, demonised thing I’ve ever come across. It’s just awful. It’s made business much harder. I’d advise anyone who opens a restaurant: do not look at Tripadvisor, stay a mile away from it and you’ll be much happier because every food nutter goes on to that,” says Derry when I broach the topic.

Of course, more often than not, the users of Tripadvisor aren’t food critics. “Haven’t a clue,” Derry says in agreement. “There’s no quality control, there’s no follow up,” adds Sallyanne.


I want to open a place that's really fun, happy, all ages, all people . . . because business can be fun

Though there may be good reason to get angered by wannabe restaurant critics with no credentials, the Clarkes don’t particularly need the validation of a select few who enjoy airing their inexpert opinions online.

Over the past 31 years, the couple have built a successful, lasting business in a tough industry where fashions change rapidly. Wanting to ensure that they don’t become outmoded, the Clarkes will this July shut the doors of their popular eatery on Dublin’s Baggot Street.

Like the “boy bands”, this is a “last world tour”, jokes Derry before quickly clarifying that they really are closing.

New business venture

"The fact that Temple Bar has come along made our decision a little bit easier", adds Sallyanne, referencing their new business venture, which will see them partner with other investors in a facility at which they'll do about 80 covers in the restaurant area and 120 in the bar per night.

“It’s double [l’Ecrivain] in the sense we’ll do more tables,” Derry notes of the venture about which much has yet to be revealed.

In their new business, the pair will relinquish the coveted Michelin star and start a new phase in an altogether more relaxed atmosphere in a building which includes a 38-bedroom hotel. “I want to open a place that’s really fun, happy, all ages, all people . . . because business can be fun,” says Derry.

If punters expect l’Ecrivain mark two, however, they won’t get it. The Temple Bar offering will be more bistro-esque in a facility overlooking both the Liffey and the streets of the buoyant riverside neighbourhood so adored by tourists.

It is those very tourists that have piqued Derry’s interest, given that their tendency to roam around the confines of Temple Bar rarely exposes them to the variety of Irish cuisine that exists. Derry wants to bring Irish food to them.

The timing of their move could be viewed as a tad unfortunate, with the restaurant industry among the worst hit by the fallout from the spreading coronavirus. “Had I known that this coronavirus was coming into play, I would have waited,” says Derry, who has yet to assess the damage this could cause.

But the couple have been in trying business situations before.

Even at the beginning, it wasn’t clear that l’Ecrivain would work out. As we spoke over coffee in the restaurant, the pair recalled travelling to a conference about six months after they initially opened where a man was talking about the necessary ingredients for a successful restaurant.

Three things that should be avoided at any cost, he said, was having yellow lines around the premises, being in a basement and, “most importantly, have a name people can pronounce and remember”. “I said: holy s**t, we’re f**ked here,” Derry recalls.

As it happens, they survived just fine in their original yellow line-surrounded basement location before moving to their current Baggot Street location on what was known at that time as the “golden mile”. The couple would ultimately buy two buildings and merge them to house what became one of the capital’s most popular restaurants.

Over the course of their tenure there, business changed considerably. When they started, for example, there wasn't a minimum wage, rubbish was collected by Dublin City Council and both rates and rents were cheaper. More importantly, people entered the world of hospitality to have a career, rather than the practice that has since taken hold of people doing it for a summer and then moving on.

And, Derry notes, “when a guest made a reservation, they turned up”.

That compared starkly with the heady days of the boom when l’Ecrivain had to stop taking bookings from certain people because they just “lost the run of themselves”. One such example was a bank, which has since failed, that used to book tables in several restaurants across Dublin.

Dinner habits

“The boys would come down at half twelve and they’d say ‘listen lads, what restaurant do you want’.” After they failed to cancel the unused bookings on a number of occasions, l’Ecrivain just stopped taking their bookings altogether.

During that time, the restaurant had a lunch service from Monday to Friday, but now it just offers lunch on Friday – an indication of the way in which the dining habits of Irish consumers have changed.

It seems all the more bizarre, then, that so many restaurants opened in Dublin as the economy begun to turn around. More recently, some have failed and have been forced to close their doors on a Monday having taken bookings of a Friday.

“There will be more, I’m sorry to say,” says Derry.

“And Dublin City Council has an awful lot to be blamed for because every retail outlet that closes up in one respect or another has become a coffee shop, a restaurant, a bistro or an eatery and it seems to be the easiest thing for people to get planning for,” adds Sallyanne, a fact she sees as ironic given the length of time it took them to get permission for their extension some years ago.

People don't realise the margins are so tight in restaurants. They see all the trappings of a Michelin star and the money you get in return is very small

The Clarkes have long been on record over their disapproval of authorities’ failure to put a hold on the rapid expansion of the restaurant sector. For Derry, the situation has allowed the rise of an uncompetitive landscape.

“It’s a very frustrating thing in our business that you’re competing with other businesses that aren’t playing on the same field. There are different rules completely and they’re getting away with it,” he says, referencing some businesses that have closed leaving behind substantial debts.

For the Clarkes, that was never an option and the couple made a conscious decision not to close their doors when the restaurant carried liabilities and instead to face the consequences of the global financial meltdown, “keep it going and move on”.

Thinking that the crisis would be short-lived, they did the prudent thing and invested when times were bad to be ready for the turnaround. With the closure of Henry Grattan’s pub across the road, they made their bar area bigger and completed other substantial renovations.

Times got tougher still, but the couple cut their cloth and discounted meals to get punters through the door.

Michelin star

The costs of running a Michelin-starred restaurant are naturally high, notes Sallyanne. “People don’t realise the margins are so tight in restaurants. They see all the trappings of a Michelin star and the money you get in return is very small,” she says. “It’s somewhere about 5 or 6 per cent net,” adds Derry. “People slag me about that.”

Perhaps with their high-quality offering, they were more exposed to the fortunes of the global economy. But, in hindsight, those quality restaurants survived where others faltered. One need look no further than the restaurant chain of TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to see how rapid expansion of a middle-of-the-road offering worked out.

Did that model ever interest Derry and Sallyanne? “It never interested me because I felt you couldn’t be true to it,” says Derry. His one regret is that a hotel wasn’t part of the l’Ecrivain offering, or that l’Ecrivain didn’t form part of a wider hotel because the opportunities that would have brought to diversify their income stream.

Not a couple to spend time navel gazing, however, they don’t dwell on areas where they fell short. But I’m still curious as to the extent of hardship they felt during the downturn. It quickly becomes clear, though, that it wasn’t their hardest time in business.The economy has risen and fallen through cycles and local regulations have come and gone in the years since they started in business, but what hit them hardest was the smoking ban.

“We all agreed that it should come into play, but it came in in the wrong way,” says Derry of the law which came into effect in 2004. “What happened was that people who did smoke didn’t go off cigarettes, they stayed at home, ate at home, drank at home. They didn’t go out.”

And after they got used to spending so much time at home, they never went back to restaurants or pubs.

Talk of recession and the smoking ban makes it sound as if the Clarkes haven’t enjoyed running a high-quality eatery with loyal customers and that just doesn’t appear to be the case.

They weren't necessarily expecting the elevation to the Michelin star ranks when it came in 2003. Sallyanne recalls restaurateur Richard Corrigan ringing Derry at the time to tell him the news and Derry said "you're joking". He had been telling people the week before that it was unlikely they'd pick one up that year because the Michelin inspector had noticed crumbs near the seat at which he'd been placed.

The system within which Michelin star inspectors operate is a closely held secret but a restaurant is told after they’ve dined that they were paid a visit. Surely, though, the Clarkes have a good idea after almost 18 years with a star, what is required?

“No one knows. I actually think I know after 18 years: I think it’s consistency,” says Derry. But consistency in the restaurant business is the hardest part, he adds.

“If you get from start to finish unscathed, you’re doing well. In my 30 years here, I left here just one night thinking I did a spectacular job, I very rarely feel that,” he says. “But you’re very hard on yourself. We both are,” adds Sallyanne.

What was important to them in the decision to move on wasn’t the desire to make more money or to keep people happy but rather that they didn’t want their hand to be forced. Losing the star and having to close as a result wasn’t an option.

“One thing we were toying with was revamping the place but we’d need to put €300,000 or €400,000 into it and it would need to be revamped completely,” says Derry. With the Temple Bar opportunity, that requirement was removed and they are not nearly as exposed financially. And, “because we’ve got the reputation for being at the top of our game, people will come in to see what it’s like and see what the food is like,” Sallyanne says.

For all the intensity of running a Michelin-starred restaurant, Derry and Sallyanne aren't all business and have interests outside the four walls of l'Ecrivain. Eating out, as with all in the industry, is one such pastime. Like other Michelin restaurateurs I've spoken to, Derry and Sallyanne are reluctant to nail their colours to the mast when it comes to picking out their own favourite eateries. They do, however, name the China Sichuan in Sandyford, south Dublin, as one place they love. Derry says it is the "best Asian restaurant in Ireland by far".

So if they don’t have a favourite restaurant, is there any dish they particularly enjoy?

"Every year I treat myself when I bring my boat down to Kilmore Quay. I'll go ashore and I'll go up to the village into the Silver Fox and I'll have black sole on the bone with local floury spuds with butter and some lemon and a glass of nice dry white wine and that sets me up for the year. How is that for you?" he asks after I pressed the issue.

For Sallyanne, duck a l’orange – one of the first dishes Derry cooked for her – remains a favourite and, though he does most of the cooking at home, she does a stew which “shouldn’t work that does work”. The ingredients: “a tin of oxtail soup, a tin of tomato soup, good quality cocktail sausages, carrots, onions potatoes and meatballs – lightly simmered for an hour, turned off and heated up the next day because the next day is when it comes alive. And it is delicious. I love it,” says Derry.

That may not play well on Tripadvisor, but after long, successful careers, that should hardly matter to the Clarkes.


Names: Derry and Sallyanne Clarke

Age: Derry is 62 while Sallyanne is 57

Position: Owners of l'Ecrivain.

Family: Daughter Sarah May.

Something you might expect: Both are foodies and will eat out when and where the mood takes them.

Something that might surprise: Derry is a "brown sauce man", although he's not particular – Chef or YR will do. Sallyanne previously worked for years in local radio. "I was a pirate," she confesses.

Derry and Sallyanne Clarke on:

Tips: "From the day we started, the gratuities were always split between the kitchen and the front of house because he was in the kitchen and I was in the front of house so we felt that it was only fair," says Sallyanne.

The future of the l'Ecrivain name: "I'd be amazed if somebody bought it as a going concern. I'd be shocked actually," Derry says. Sallyanne notes, however, that the building it is in is ready to go as a restaurant. "If this was a bistro, you could get 250 seats in here, you could get big numbers," she says.

The big challenges in Temple Bar: "Making the cut because the overheads are astronomical down there," says Derry.

What the crowded restaurant sector means: "The ones I feel sorry for in all this are the small owner/operator businesses. The chef or the couple running a little restaurant in the suburbs. I feel sorry for them because they really are going to suffer," says Derry.

Retirement: "I don't think we'll ever retire," says Sallyanne, noting that her mother (88) kept up work until 10 years ago.