Restaurants in Ireland are surprisingly expensive—even after the economic crash, the cost of eating out here is still well above the European average. On the plus side, Ireland’s restaurants are varied and interesting—settings range from old-world hotel dining rooms, country mansions, and castles to sky-lit terraces, shop-front bistros, riverside cottages, thatched-roof pubs, and converted houses. Lately, appreciation has grown for creative cooking with an emphasis on locally grown produce and meat.
Before you book a table, here are a few things you should know.
Reservations -- Except for self-service eateries, informal cafes, and some popular seafood spots, most restaurants encourage reservations; most expensive restaurants require them. In the most popular places, Friday and Saturday nights are often booked up a week in advance, so have a few options in mind if you’re booking at the last minute.
Tip: If you stop into or phone a restaurant and find that it is booked from 8 or 8:30pm onward, ask if you can dine early (at 6:30 or 7pm), with a promise to leave by 8pm. It works sometimes.
Prices -- Meal prices at restaurants include national sales taxes (universally referred to as VAT, or Value Added Tax), at the rate of 13.5% in the Republic of Ireland and 20% in Northern Ireland. Many restaurants include the tip as a service charge added automatically to the bill (usually listed at the bottom, just before the bill’s total); it generally ranges from 10% to 15%. When no service charge is added, tip around 12% or so, depending on the quality of the service. But do check your bil—some unscrupulous restaurants do not make it clear that you have already tipped, thus causing you to inadvertently tip twice.
Dining Customs -- Don't be surprised if you are not ushered to your table as soon as you arrive at some upscale restaurants. This is not a delaying tactic—many of the better dining rooms carry on the old custom of seating you in a lounge while you sip an aperitif and peruse the menu. Your waiter then comes to discuss the choices and to take your order. You are not called to the table until the first course is about to be served. You are not under an obligation to have a cocktail, of course. It’s perfectly fine to order a soft drink or just a glass of water.
Dining Bargains -- If you want to try a top-rated restaurant but can't afford dinner, have your main meal there in the middle of the day by trying the set-lunch menu. You'll experience the same great cuisine at half the price. The slow economy has caused restaurants to compete for customers by offering more set-price meals, early-bird specials (sometimes through the whole evening, or every night early in the week), and other discount enticements. Keep an eye out for them.
Alternatively, try pub food. Pub menus usually include a mix of sandwiches and traditional Irish food, including stews and meat pies. In recent years, many pubs have converted or expanded into restaurants, serving excellent, unpretentious meals at (somewhat) reasonable prices. But beware: Some pubs have taken advantage of rising restaurant prices to raise their own prices. Check the menu before you sit down at a table (most places post them by their doors).
Supermarkets and grocery stores in Ireland sell good premade sandwiches (these are much better than similar supermarket sandwiches in the U.S.) for a few euro. These can make a good, cheap lunch or dinner. Coffee shops also sell sandwiches for a few euro, and muffins for even less (for a quick, cheap breakfast).
The pub is a mainstay of Irish social life—every city, town, and hamlet has a pub. Most people have a “local”—a favorite pub near home—where they go for a drink and conversation with neighbors, family, and friends. Pubs are more about socializing than drinking, and many people you see are just having a soft drink (lime cordial and soda water is a favorite, or orange juice and lemon soda). So even if you don't drink alcohol, feel free to go to the pub. It’s a good way to meet locals.
Pub Hours -- Pubs in the Republic set their own hours, although closing times are bound by the type of alcohol license they have. Those with a regular license must shut by 11:30pm from Sunday to Thursday, and 12:30am on Friday and Saturday. Those with late licenses can stay open until 2:30am Monday to Saturday, and 2am Sunday. In Northern Ireland (which is governed by different laws), hours are slightly more restrictive, although this is currently the subject of debate. On Friday and Saturday nights, many pubs stay open until midnight or 1am, and a few even later than that, particularly in large towns and cities. It should also be noted that legal closing times can be hard to police in rural areas.
You’ll notice that when the barman calls “closing time,” nobody clears out of the pub. “Closing time” is simply the time when the barmen must stop serving alcohol. Expect to hear a shout for “Last orders!” (or the marvelous if antiquated “Time, gentlemen, please!”) Anyone who wants to order his or her last drink does so then. The pubs don’t actually close for another 20 to 30 minutes. Eventually, bartenders shout “Time to leave!,” lights are turned up brightly, and patrons head for the exit.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.