Tasty but teeny tapas

Café Bar H gets lots of things right, but the prices are on the high side and the portions small, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

Café Bar H gets lots of things right, but the prices are on the high side and the portions small, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

RAKING THROUGH Anglo’s Ashes Ireland, can we find any nuggets to dust off and hold up proudly to the light? I think Grand Canal Square could be one. It’s a neighbourhood where once there was industrial wasteland. It gives Dublin a waterfront where bars and restaurants should thrive. It’s a place for people to stroll under a bigger sky and get the expansive feeling of a city by the sea.

Right in the middle is Café Bar H, the H standing for owner Harry Crosbie, a man not known for his self-deprecation. At a time when many restaurants were fitting themselves out with junk-shop furniture, Crosbie slapped a red neon H the size of a farm gate over the bar, in a place designed to help us forget the R word ever happened. Crosbie’s wife Rita and chef Johnny Cooke are the brains behind the brand. Cooke ran the city centre Cooke’s Cafe until 2008 when the expense-account lunch hit the rocks and Cooke’s closed after 16 years.

I’m here early on a Friday night and my friend is glad to see me. Not least because it means her son will stop biffing her on the head with an inflatable tricolour hammer and go to the match with his dad and sister. They leave with a “nice, but expensive” verdict on what they ate.


Café Bar H has gone down the familiar tapas route here. It’s the standard method of separating diners from their cash with the promise that they will get a good snack for under a tenner. And the plates are tasty. But they’re also teeny. A shrimp cocktail (€9.20) comes in a glass with retro Marie Rose sauce and lettuce mixed together. We share it and two plates of crab cakes and calamares, both of which cost €8.20 a piece. The squid rings are thin and crispy, fried in clean oil, and come with a tangy tomato sauce and mayo dip. The crab cakes are four small croquette rolls of proper crab rather than the lumps of potato interspersed with crabmeat that often come in the guise of crab cakes. But you wouldn’t want to be starving. We have three glasses of the house Rueda at €6 apiece.

The staff here have a brilliant blend of friendliness and efficiency, particularly a waitress who has to contend with plaza life beyond the outdoor tables. At one point there is a loud crash, as if a part of the building has just fallen above our heads. Everyone jumps. It’s a football landing on the awning. The second time it happens we jump slightly less, but hold on to our wine glasses. The waitress makes eye contact with the footballer, one of a group of teens at a loose end outside, and asks him to be more careful. It’s deftly handled and has the look of an ongoing conversation.

A vanilla panna cotta is insipid and has a quenelle of what looks like ice cream but turns out (disappointingly) to be whipped fresh cream. It’s a palette of bland. The only thing with flavour is a sprig of fresh mint. Carol’s chocolate pecan tart is tastier, but chewy and fridge-chilly. A good Americano (€2.50) rounds it off.

In the meantime, Grand Canal Square could go either way. The wild grasses in the raised concrete beds have sprouted wild flowers that look messy, a metaphor for our struggle with how to make public space pleasant and interesting. A playing pitch on any of the nearby derelict sites would be a great start.

A brave move for Café Bar H would have been to reach for the culinary stars and try to make the place a beacon, outstanding for its food. The halo effect of one brilliant restaurant could have spread over the whole area. Unfortunately that has yet to happen.

Tapas for two with three glasses of house wine came to €58.10.


Cafe Bar H

1 Grand Canal Square, Dublin 2, tel: 01-8992216

Facilities: Swanky

Music: Inside, but not at outdoor tables

Wheelchair access: Yes

Food provenance: None