Dublin’s Brunch King – Geoff Nordell of Whitefriar Grill and Bow Lane
Along with superb business skills, ambition, flexibility and persuasiveness, a good bar owner should be the type of person who you would imagine throws the best parties, and who themselves would be at the heart of the festivities. Geoff Nordell is that kind of guy.
Both a chef and a business man, Geoff has established one of the Dublin’s best-loved restaurants, Whitefriar Grill, and launched one of the most exciting new bar openings, Bow Lane, and for his role in making brunch in the city what it is today, and introducing a boisterous Drag Brunch, he has earned himself the unofficial title of Dublin’s Brunch King.
Brunch in Dublin is now a weekend ritual for many, but when Whitefriar Grill opened in 2011 Dublin’s brunch-time offering was limited. “People just had no respect for brunch, but just like everything I treated it as a decent revenue stream,” says Geoff.
Spotting a gap in the market, he seized the opportunity by “doing all the things you would never be able to get out of a head chef.” “So I did quite a big menu, it was a difficult menu to cook because there were so many items.” “There were about ten different egg dishes there for a time, it was an absolute nightmare for a chef,” he admits.
Taking inspiration from the U.S cities that made brunch into the cultural phenomenon that it is today, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, Geoff shook up the brunch scene in Dublin, introducing a menu that included extravagant dishes like Chicken Parmigiana Hero on ciabatta with sausage, melted mozzarella, rocket and fries, and Black Pudding Waffles with whipped foie gras and seasonal chutney. Before he knew it “everyone was eating lobster and drinking champagne for brunch.”
Looking stateside once again, he came across the concept for Whitefriar Grill’s incredibly popular ‘Drag Brunch‘. What started as once-off Pride Week event, it was such a hit that Dublin’s fiercest drag hosts Davina Devine and Dolly Grip now take over the restaurant on the last Sunday of every month.
The sell-out brunch spectacular combines food-porn brunch classics, cocktails competitions, lip-syncing battles, and, Geoff admits, foul language. “My mam and my aunt are up for the next one, but it’s not PG rated, Davina has a filthy mouth!”
Now running from 3pm to 6pm in Bow Lane, Geoff says the Drag Brunch is mayhem, “and to be honest you’re not even obliged to order brunch. I’m not that bothered, a brunch dish in here is a tenner and a cocktail is a tenner. People are likely to order six or seven cocktails, or a bottle of Prosecco.”
“I have this thing with ‘off-days’ and making these the busiest days of the week.”
His methods have proved effective, turning the last Sunday of the month into one of their busiest days: “It’s bonkers in here from half ten in the morning until half ten at night.”
This business saavy combined with his experience and creativity as a chef has been crucial to his success. Originally from Greystones, Geoff was “shipped down to Tramore” every summer to work in his grandmother and aunt’s pub, and says it was a natural progression to go into catering college. He worked as head chef at La Mere Zou, Blue Bistro (where The Greenhouse is now) and Town Bar & Grill..
In 2008, aged 29, Geoff took out a lease on a hotel in Galway with a friend. “I went over to Galway with my buddy and then three days later we were signing a lease on a hotel,” he reveals, saying they had heard the closure of the hotel being announced on The Jerry Ryan show on 2fm and took a chance.
“We literally just knocked on the door and got the right person.” “That was an eye-opener,” Geoff says about what was a crash course in how to run a business: “We signed a lease, and 48 hours the country went into recession.”
Coming back to Dublin, when Conrad Gallagher’s restaurant Salon Des Saveurs went out of business Geoff jumped at the chance to open Whitefriar Grill in the same space, bringing “a neighbourhood restaurant to the city.”
Despite an unstable economy, Geoff knew the market could hold a good value restaurant, and with him taking up the wage of the head chef he was off to a good start. At first only open five days a week, as Whitefriar Grill built roots in the community Geoff tested the waters first by introducing brunch and opening Sundays, and soon after on Mondays too.
With a limited bar licence at Whitefriar Grill, Geoff dreamed of taking ownership of the off licence and bar next door on Aungier Street. When the opportunity arose in 2015 he took on an extensive refurbishment project to bring to life his newest bar and restaurant, Bow Lane.
With the slogan ‘eat, imbibe, drink’, Bow Lane is many things to many people, as Geoff says: “It’s still moving, it’s still evolving.” Open just over a year, Graham O’Donnell, the designer behind some of Dublin’s slickest bars and restaurants, is still in the process of adding the final flourishes on the bar.
“It’s just the way it goes, bars evolve. I was sure at the start I would never use the restaurant opening, but the restaurant is doing really well now so it warrants its own front door. In January I will open up that side, I will extend the smoking area, and I will paint it a different colour to define it.”
Despite its shifting shape, Geoff says he has achieved his vision for Bow Lane:
“Monday to Thursday I wanted it to be full of corporate people; Friday and Saturday night I wanted there to be a party; Sunday I wanted it to be brunch. I wanted it to fill up at the weekend.”
“It kind of has to tick a load of boxes,” explains Geoff, and says how some of his weekday corporate clients are surprised when they stumble into Bow Lane in full party mode on a Saturday night. It will be another six months before it fully settles he says, and Bow Lane recently revealed another side positioning itself as a live entertainment destination, with top class acts like Dave Jarred, and Queen of Disco.
Today he relies on two head chefs and an executive chef to keep things running smoothly in the kitchen. “This project is full-time,” he says gesturing to our surroundings in Bow Lane, and admits just keeping up with constantly innovating Dublin food and drink scene demands his attention, “you have to keep on moving, you have to keep on changing.”
“Staff is my number one job; trying to keep everyone on track, trying to keep everyone motivated and on the pathway I’ve created and let them know what exactly what is expected of them and what they will get in return. That’s a full-time job without a doubt. After that I have it broken down how to increase sales and decrease costs.”
“2017 and 2018 are going to be really good fun,” says Geoff smiling.
“For 2017 we are going to work on getting into the RAI Awards for the Best Cocktail Experience, and for Best Gastro Pub. For 2018 we are want to have a mention for being a gastro pub in the Michelin Guide, and everything in between there.
“It’s not that awards are everything, but awards are keys to cracking revenue and that’s my responsibility.” A little less overtly he says: “There is going to be other things happening too, they are signed off on, but not until Bow Lane is fully finished.”
Whatever he does next it will be on the thriving strip of bars and restaurants that extends from Portobello down to Aungier Street, nicknamed the ‘Camden Mile’. “Believe it, or not,” he says, “in 2011, when we were dead at the beginning, I was giving one of my Braveheart speeches trying to keep everybody motivated saying “don’t worry, someday the streets will meet they’ll call this the Camden Mile”. Three years later, I have a cocktail on the menu called the Camden Mile, and it’s brilliant; not only the cocktail but the whole idea of it, it’s here and it’s happening!”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.