Living in the United States, you can be forgiven for believing that Irish people only eat potatoes, cabbage and corned beef! But if you’re planning a trip to Ireland, don’t worry --- the food on offer in Ireland is widely varied to suit a variety of tastes and is generally delicious.
Types of Food Available in Ireland
An advanced Western country, Ireland offers a huge variety of foods to consumers and restaurant-goers. To get an idea of what Irish people eat, visit an Irish supermarket. There you will find a wide range of
- Breads – local and internationally-influenced
- Pastas, rice and grains
- Fruits and vegetables --- local, organic, exotic and international
- Meats --- cold meats, cooked meats, locally sourced, internationally sourced, etc.
- Fridges full of all sorts of dairy products such as milks, yogurts, cheeses, etc
- Salads and deli counters
- Cornflakes, Rice Krispies, Cheerios, various mueslis, granola and lots of breakfast cereals
- Aisles full of sweets, candies and chocolates
Vegetarians and Allergy Sufferers
Irish supermarkets have plenty of foods to cater for vegetarians and allergy sufferers and packaging is usually well-labelled, with allergy warnings such as nut warnings and gluten warnings clearly indicated. Restaurants usually have a vegetarian option on the menu, or customers may request one. If customers have an allergy, they should make staff aware when they are ordering the food. Even if the staff member taking your order seems unsure, ask them politely to inform the chef about your allergy. The chef will be able to advise you on the suitability of your order in relation to your allergy.
Traditional Irish Food
Perhaps unusually among European nations, Ireland does not have much of a traditional cuisine culture – France or Italy it is not. It is true that Ireland was once “hooked” on potatoes, a crop that grew easily on Irish soil and provided lots of nutrients – and many once-popular Irish dishes such as boxty and Irish stew were based on the humble spud. Nevertheless, while the Irish palette has vastly broadened due to international influences, these hearty dishes are still well-made and well served in tourist destinations such as Dublin’s Temple Bar.
The Full Irish Breakfast
An old staple of Irish hotels and B&Bs is the full Irish breakfast. This usually consists of a mixture of eggs (scrambled or fried), sausages, toast and bacon. Note: The cooked slices of bacon, also referred to locally as “rashers”, are different to U.S. bacon. Resembling thicker Canadian bacon, they are surrounded by a rind of visible fat. This may be discarded --- although some Irish people eat the fat too! The Irish breakfast may be served with beans, fried mushrooms, fried tomato and black and or white pudding – which is a type of sausage made from pork blood mixed with oatmeal. Note: “pudding” on the Irish breakfast menu is definitely not a desert! While a fried breakfast can be tasty, the quality of the food really depends on the establishment. If the breakfast is cooked to order, it is more likely to taste better.
Alternatives to the Full Irish Breakfast
If you’re vegetarian , or simply want to avoid a highly calorific breakfast, don’t worry hotels usually do have alternative options for breakfast, sometimes called a continental breakfast. This typically includes
- An assortments of fruits / fruit salad
- Café style cakes / patisseries
In fact, most hotels offer a buffet breakfast, where guests may have any of the items from the full Irish or the continental, along with tea or coffee. Another alternative is to skip the hotel breakfast altogether --- perhaps even booking on a room-only basis --- and having your breakfast in a nearby café. This is a good option if you’re staying in an urban area, where there is likely to be a café close to the hotel. It’s worth checking out the area on Google maps before you book on a room-only basis, however.
A wide variety of eateries serve lunchtime food in Ireland. Many cafes and bars serve a range of lunchtime favourites. Here are some typical examples of what might be on a pub’s lunchtime menu:
- Filled tortilla wraps
- All sorts of hot (toasted) and cold sandwiches made to order
- Homemade vegetable soup
- Chowder made with local seafood
- Chicken wings, Fish Goujons and other “finger food”
- Homemade burger with fries
- Thai Salad
- Caesar Salad
- Breast of chicken in curry sauce
- Cottage pie
For lunch at a café or bar/pub, expect to pay between 5 euros ($6.50USD) for a small lunch of soup or a small sandwich or snack and around 10 euros ($13 USD) for a larger lunch, such as a homemade burger. If you want a jug of drinking water, ask for “tap water”, as bottled water costs extra in Ireland. Tipping is not mandatory at a café or pub, but it’s nice to leave a euro or two, especially if there is a tip jar.
Lunch at a Restaurant
Another lunch option is to visit a good restaurant. The majority of restaurants in Ireland open for lunch. Just as in the U.S., the food served at the restaurant will depend on what kind of restaurant it is --- Italian, American, Thai, whatever. Lunch at a restaurant typically costs around 10% to 20% more than lunch at a pub or cafe. Plus, you should tip around 10% at a restaurant. (See also: Do people tip in Ireland?) But restaurants are more likely to have special offers, such as (for example) 2 courses plus tea/coffee for 10 euros.
Dinner at a Restaurant
If you do not choose to eat in an Irish restaurant by day, you really should eat in one at night – especially if you are staying in one of the cities, such as Dublin. Don’t just eat in your hotel. A long time ago, I worked with an American who had visited Ireland and the UK on a business trip. He complained that the food was “cold, and badly presented”. While there are undoubtedly still some eateries that will serve disappointing food, for the most part, thankfully, things have changed. A new, young generation of Irish people, nicknamed the "Ryanair generation" because they have grown up along with the growth of the country's successful airline, have travelled all over the world, developing a taste for the planets’ finer cuisines. The result? A burgeoning gourmet scene has emerged in areas like Dublin’s George’s Street, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and the harbour town of Kinsale in County Cork. Throughout Ireland, exciting, trendy restaurants have emerged that leave locals happy and visitors surprised.
What to Eat
Lamb and Beef
For meat-lovers, menu options featuring beef or lamb are generally to be recommended. Irish spring lamb in particular tends to be juicy and succulent, with the animals being fed on the country’s bountiful supplies of high-quality grass.
An island nation, it is somewhat surprising that seafood has not been central to Irish cuisine. But good quality, locally sourced, fish is now showing up on many menus throughout Ireland. Examples of the fish you might see include:
- Sea trout
If fast food is your thing, never fear --- you’ll find MacDonalds and Burger King are well represented throughout Irleland. Kentucky Fried Chicken is also here, but there aren’t as many KFCs as the others. A local competitor to MacDonalds, called SuperMacs and serving good quality Irish beef in its burgers, has lots of stores throughout the Republic of Ireland.
Cafes and Coffee Culture
Dublin and the smaller cities have evolved their own café culture in recent years, and the new generation of Irish have become coffee-lovers. Where the barman has always been a respected member of the community, the barista is seen as having a more chic and contemporary skill. Starburcks has also established a big presence in Dublin.
Food in Bars and Pubs
A wide variety of eateries serve lunchtime food in Ireland. With the introduction of the smoking ban, along with a general trend towards socialising at home more, Ireland’s pubs have had to reinvent themselves -- and now they serve lunch to hordes of hungry Irish workers. Most Irish pub lunches offer tasty food at a good price.
Vegetarian dish served at Cafe Paradiso, Cork. Image by Barbro Björnemalm