The Man Behind the Magic on Merrion Row – Restaurateur Joe Barrett of BANG Restaurant
Through my job I often find myself in a restaurant during those in between hours. Sometimes its in early morning before the lunch rush picks up, or just as the debris of the midday meal is being cleared away and the dining room is being set up again – just be dashed a few hours later by the next influx of diners.
I see the front of house team polishing silverware and discussing the specific demands of the next service, delivery men dropping in and out, and most often get to chat to the chefs who are mid mise en place. But behind these most obvious players are the people who connect the dots, balancing logistics and staff, all the while keeping the restaurants vision in mind.
This time around the restaurant is BANG on Merrion Row, and it’s not head chef Niall O’Sullivan who I’ve come to see but the man who started it all, Joe Barrett.
Well, rather restarted it all since this is the second edition of BANG. The first running for ten years before closing in 2009, at the peak of the recession.
“Things were rotten. They were the blackest days, things really falling apart,” says Joe who had returned home a few years earlier after 17 years living in the States.
Though he admits there was some light in the darkness. “Prior to me coming back the market was so red-hot and over inflated that you couldn’t even think about opening a restaurant, so I moved on and did something else for a while but by 2009 there was some room to look at some options.”
“When BANG came on the market I thought I would be silly to miss this opportunity.”
Having worked in the restaurant industry for most of his life, Joe spotted the potential in BANG. Although the doors had closed, the building blocks of a great restaurant still stood strong.
“I had eaten here before on one of my visits home,” he says, “what I wanted do was to allow it to evolve.”
“It has always had a great reputation for food but it needed some changes on the service side of things. It needed to be a bit more relaxed, a bit more casual, a bit more approachable, and certainly it needed to be better value.”
Over the past seven years Joe has gently introduced the changes that has allowed him to achieve this vision.
Though one thing that has changed very little is the team that has helped him do this. Renowned chef Philip Yeung, now chef patron at Craft Bistro in Harold’s Cross, was with Joe for five years, before current head chef Niall O’Sullivan, previously of Isabel’s and East Side Tavern, came on board.
Aside from these big names Joe says the BANG ‘crew’ includes members have been with the restaurant for years. “Keeping people together, in the front and in the kitchen, is so important to us.”
Where does Joe slot in? “I’m really involved on a day-to-day basis. It’s what I love to do. Be that helping create menus, clearing plates from tables or getting out on the floor to meet customers in the evening, and there’s a lot that goes on in between.”
There’s a lot of competition on Merrion Row, but the restaurateur says that with three different floors BANG has an edge, offering diners three unique dining experiences.
“Up here, while it is a formal and private dining room and you can see that we have it set for a board meeting that took place over lunch that’s just one piece of it. Last Friday night there was a private celebration for an 80th birthday. It just depends on what the customer is looking for.”
“Downstairs on the mezzanine area because we can open the windows it has an al fresco feel about it. There’s a great buzz and you get a sense of the hustle and bustle of the street outside.”
“The lower ground floor is probably the most relaxed area, and we have also used that for all sorts of things like live entertainment or discos after weddings.”
Right, smack, BANG in the middle of the city, corporate clientele are a given but Joe says their customer demographic spans “the widest possible spectrum.”
“We’ve the Shelbourne, The Merrion and The Conrad nearby, so that attracts international travellers. That can be those on business travel during on the week or tourists who want to sample something local. What they want is to have great Irish food, personable people who can take care of them, and experience a great Irish dining experience.”
“We have a lot of repeat customers, both local and international, which is hugely gratifying.”
There’s also a range of different packages that speak to diners across the board, be a special tasting menu that might pop up, the pre-theatre menu available Sunday through to Friday, or a luxurious lunch for a snip.
“We focused as a dinner business for years but now we are also opened for lunch, Monday through to Friday, and its great value. It’s a great date night restaurant too!”
Getting to know these customers is at the core of the business, so when questioned on industry trends its natural that the one that Joe takes most seriously stems from the needs of the diners: allergens.
“It’s now the first thing we ask. There are so many specific things we have to be aware of. We have to write the menus every single day, because it’s a creative space where things change. So every single day the menu has to have an analogy of exactly what it is and we have consider each one of the allergens. It’s a complicated time consuming procedure, but it is important to people so it has to be important to us.”
BANG 2.0 isn’t the only thing that has risen from the depth of the darkness Joe says. “Out of the debacle of the recession it was almost as if a lot of dead wood fell away and really what has come about is a fantastic explosion of great Irish chefs serving great Irish food.”
“I think the food scene is really booming, it’s the best it has ever been in the city there’s no doubt about it.”
Despite the noise of this crowded market, and its moniker, BANG restaurant hasn’t gone about getting its name out there in a brash, shouty manner. Rather it has built a reputation by speaking through innovatively prepared seasonal food created with chef Niall’s lightness of touch, and a style of service and management that carefully curates a unique dining experience for each and every guest.
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 degree, 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.