With a shock of scarlet hair, knuckles flanked with chunky rings, and blue eyes as striking as her mane, you couldn’t help but notice Elaine Murphy; and in contrast to the modest, traditional surroundings of her restaurant The Winding Stair her signature style is all the more eye-catching.
Sitting down with this much-loved Dublin restaurateur Elaine reveals a personality that is just engaging as her appearance. This assertive, articulate, and ambitious businesswoman is behind a clutch of North-side eateries, is a champion for Irish food, and a passionate advocate for the restaurant industry; with her sixth venue to open later this year, Elaine explains how she helped put Irish food back on the menu, why she feels the Northside’s food scene is neglected, and why regulation is killing creativity.
Admittedly obsessed by food and hospitality from a young age, Elaine admits she never considered it as a career. Instead she studied history, politics and sociology at Dublin’s Trinity College, and earned a music degree in piano from the Dublin Institute of Technology, though at the same the restaurant world tinkled in the background.
“I worked in restaurants throughout college and I loved it, then I started managing restaurants; I managed 101 Talbot and then I ended up managing The Mermaid, on Dame Street,” Elaine explains. Working at Mermaid in particular informed and inspired her to open her own place with chef friend, Ian Connolly.
In the same basement on Baggot Street where L’Ecrivain and Peacock Alley once called home started, the pair set up Moes, a critically acclaimed restaurant that Elaine admits was a stop gap for both of them. “It was such a gorgeous little restaurant, but it was tiny and shared a kitchen with the B&B above so it was very hard to manage. Everyone that started there went to a bigger premises because you basically have to!”
“We went our separate ways, Ian ended up working at House in Howth and Avoca, and I went onto manage Il Primo with John Farrell from SMS Luna.”
Then, in 2006, Elaine was head hunted by the Thomas Read Group to bring The Winding Stair back to life as a restaurant. First opened in the 1970s as three story bookshop and café, The Winding Stair, named after both a Yeats poem and it’s twisting staircase entrance, was a hub for creativity; with the iconic view of river Liffey and the Ha’penny bridge serving as inspiration for many a novel, poem, song and movie script.
“When I was in Trinity this place was part of student life,” says Elaine, recalling the lino, walls of bookshelves and sandwiches named after Moby Dick, and other literary characters. “People used to come a sit for hours writing, Sinead O’Connor wrote stuff here, Roddy Doyle wrote here, Nancy Griffith played a gig. It was cool, it was one of those places that was really part of my growing up.”
“I wanted to honour its past with all the people who grew up with it, I like to say that we’ve grown up and the Winding Stair has grown up, but it has the same soul.”
Devoid of bell, whistles and ego, Elaine created a menu that championed Irish artisan food producers and traditional Irish cuisine, and while that seems commonplace now Elaine says at the peak of the Celtic Tiger a menu littered with the names of local purveyors and artisan producers was novel.
“When we opened in 2006 people thought what we were doing was a revelation; an Irish restaurant serving actual Irish food, which seems bizarre now but nobody was doing that then, or using clip-board menus and mismatched crockery, or embracing exposed brick walls.”
Elaine proudly listed dishes like hand-smoked haddock, poached in milk with onions and white cheddar mash, that until then would have only been found in traditional home kitchens.
“One of the big things for me is that we didn’t want to do a ‘contemporary twist’ on great Irish food, I wanted to bring back traditions. One of the things you’ll see here is it’s a plate of food, it’s not delicate plating, it’s no ‘cheffy’, it’s pub grub with a bit of a step up.”
Elaine feels that whereas now traditional Irish food is being celebrated before it was looked down upon: “The history of Ireland plays a big part in it, I think we are a very post-colonial nation, I think we threw a lot of our own traditions out with the bathwater so to speak, we very much looked internationally to have any sense of ourselves.”
In 2009, when The Thomas Read Group went into receivership, with the help of her business partner Brian Montague Elaine rescued The Winding Stair, and together the pair went on to purchase The Grand Social in 2010, and The Woollen Mills, which links the two sites, in 2012.
Like at the Winding Stair, with The Woollen Mills, formerly a long standing haberdashery where James Joyce once worked, Elaine felt like the custodian of something special, and designed it to feel local, Irish and accessible.
“I called the Woollen Mills an ‘Eating House’ with the intention for it to be a celebration of food, making food democratic, no matter what type of food it is, as long as it’s good, sourced impeccably, cooked yourself. There is no fine dining-ness attached to it; people can come in and have ham, egg and chips, or they could something a little fancier like tuna tostada.”
A tour of the building on Ormond Quay, from the top floor of The Winding Stair down numerous flights of stairs to the street entrance of The Woollen Mills, reveals not only the amount of work that has been put in to restore the entire block, but also just how creative Elaine has been with its design.
Every scrap of space is functional; dining rooms aside, there is a large covered terrace, and two private rooms where birthdays, anniversaries and even weddings, most notably that of Senator Katherine Zappone, have been celebrated; all with one of the most picturesque views of Dublin framed through large double aspect windows.
In 2015, Elaine brought her now trademark style to The Washerwoman on Glasnevin Hill, creating a similarly relaxed, rustic feel at this more family focused restaurant, and construction is underway at their next project The Legal Eagle pub beside the Four Courts, which will be a gastropub with its own craft beer, offal, pies and slow cooked meats.
The last piece of the puzzle, The Yarn Pizza & Cocktails, located between The Woollen Mills and The Grand Social, opened in July. Elaine’s vision was to create a casual place for friends to gather, with slice of pizza in one hand and a cocktail or craft beer in the other. To find a style of pizza perfect for socialising Elaine sent friend Ian Connolly, now her executive chef, to pizza academy in Lazio, Italy.
“There are loads of people doing great Neapolitan pizza so I said let’s go a little bit Roman, but not as crispy, so we have ended up with what they call Italiano which is kind of like a New York pizza, so you can hold it,” she explains.
Despite creating a family of successful Northside businesses Elaine feels strongly that there are barriers hindering the growth of the area’s food culture.
“The Northside is neglected by everybody. It’s like the tale of two cities, it’s unbelievable. At night time if you go to South William Street it’s just like the golden triangle there, it doesn’t really matter what you open, and that’s no disrespect to all the great places there, everywhere is full. The streets are really busy and everybody feels safe, whereas on the Northside after 6 o’clock when the shops close and it’s dark there is just nobody around. So it’s a really big ask for people.”
“Capel Street is starting to liven up as is Parnell Street, but between O’Connell Street and Capel Street it’s tough enough,” Elaine says.
“I think the City Council have to look into great street lighting, relaxing some of the nonsense regulation, they need to get people out on the street, possibly a bit more lenient with street furniture licence, it’s so expensive. They are not giving people change of use licence to do late-night stuff. The support is not there.”
Looking outside the Northside and to Ireland as a whole, Elaine believes over-regulation of restaurants is killing creativity and the flavour of our food. “Over regulation can take sense out of things,” she says.
“I received a lot of criticism the last time I spoke out about what I call ‘over-regulation’ but I think I was misinterpreted. What I’m saying is that our current regulations are not necessarily making the industry safer, more accessible or healthier. In fact, the opposite may be the case. Without a real conversation with a customer, we are being forced to document, for example, allergens, which may be in the kitchen but not in the dish. The result is that many restaurants exist in fear of and list all fourteen allergens on every dish thus bypassing the necessary conversation from the customer and staff.”
Stern health and safety sanctions are also curbing creativity she says. “They must be less strict elsewhere, particularly places outside of the EU, like Eastern Europe or Asia; there is just so much more character because you can put stuff out on the street, you can have stall selling amazing street food. Whereas for us you can’t even have a BBQ now technically.”
Despite these obstacles, from her little office on the top floor of The Winding Stair Elaine runs her mini empire with passion and pride. “I think passion is the biggest thing. There is no point to opening a business particularly hospitality with a view to making the next buck, because it’s not an easy way to make money. I don’t think money making should be the first motivation because it’s hard, it’s long hours, it’s tough, it’s not glamourous.”
I leave Elaine feeling encouraged. Elaine Murphy is a rebel restaurateur with a cause; having already helping spark a revival of traditional Irish food, she dreams of seeing our nation’s food culture bloom and boom, and is not afraid to boldly call out those standing in the way.
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 a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree 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.