Belfast’s Best Boozers
It’s festival season in Northern Ireland. While the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival has been and gone we’ve still got Open House Festival, East Belfast Arts Festival, Feile an Phobail, Belsonic, Tennents Vital and probably a few more still to go over the next few months. There’s also Glasgowbury or Sunflower Fest for those of you who like your festivals with a little more fresh air and rural charm. I guess anyone could go on Google and dig up some facts and figures about whatever bars and venues are dishing out hipster beers and advertising budgets but we thought we’d save you the bother and present you with our own top ten places to hang out with like minded folk this summer.
We’ve got our favourites from this list and I’m sure you will too. So here, in alphabetical order is a quick rundown of a dirty dozen of Belfast boozers. Drink responsibly, be nice to the staff, bit of hush for the musicians; you know the rules.
It’s one of the city’s newer bars and may be a little bit too ‘cool’ for some of the more traditional folk music fans but we like this place. You’re probably quite likely to hear some Frank Turner, Noah and the Whale, Gaslight Anthem etc during the day. It’s well worth calling in for their American style dining experience along with a couple of drinks. We recommend the chilli dogs, anything from the McGrath’s brewery or if you’re feeling adventurous treat yourself to a bacon infused bourbon cocktail. Yeah, you heard right. Thursday night is our favourite timt to be here. Get down early, grab a seat and let Stephen McCartney and Gentry Morris fill your ears with the sounds of Dylan, Young, Cash and Ryan Adams.
Duke of York
Featured on possibly every tourist website related to the city, The Duke is steeped in history. Lurking down a cobbled lane in the Cathedral Quarter it’s been serving out great Guinness and Whiskeys for many years. The bar gets fairly busy early in the evening at weekends but don’t let that put you off. There’s plenty of craic to be had out on the cobbles or across the road in the Dark Horse which is the sister bar and café of the grand old Duke. There’s a trad session every Thursday night where you can enjoy some authentic Irish music along with your pint. If you’re heading to Belsonic, call in early for a pint of the black stuff or if you’re round the corner in the Black Box come round for a dram of Bushmills before bed.
The Empire has snuck onto this list, just on the cusp between big bar and decent sized music venue. The building itself used to be an old church and every Tuesday you can catch the comedy club where someone will be shouting down at you and no one will want to sit near the front. Well, some things never change. Some Empire gigs have gone down in history as truly memorable occasions and I’ve personally enjoyed the likes of David Ford, Foy Vance, David Kitt as well as regular sessions from Ken Haddock. I was even rocking out there with emo-merchants Hell Is For Heroes back in my younger days. Recommendations for The Empire are, call in early in the evening, enjoy a bit of pub grub and if Duke Special’s playing upstairs miss it at your peril.
The Errigle is a lovely bar, nicely located out of the city centre and on any given weekend filled with sports fans by day and music fans by night. It’s proximity to Ravenhill makes it a firm favourite with Ulster Rugby fans but it’s best known now as being the home of the Real Music Club for the last fifteen years. We’ve witnessed some truly spectacular shows in here over the years from local acts, touring bands like This Is The Kit up to legendary performances from The Paperboys and Steve Earle. Other promoters have been known to put on shows here too and there’s a great pub quiz on a Monday night if you’ve got enough brain cells left after all the pints.
You’ve read this blog before. We obviously like music but by now you know we love a good beer and by God, does the Garrick know a good beer. You’ll get one of the most impressive lists of local brews and craft beers in the city. My personal favourite is the Belfast Blonde. That’s a lager folks, not a sweeping statement of bar staff sexism. On the gable wall of the bar is painted:
A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.
And that is just how The Garrick rolls. If we’re having our traditional July rainy season you’ll welcome the open fire and traditional music at a mid afternoon session but if you’ve a little more spring in your step you can also find the likes of Kenny Mathieson or Chris Caul DJing up a storm in the back bar.
Another relative newcomer to the Belfast drinking scene is The Hudson. It’s a bit off the beaten track which means you rarely have to battle through the crowds but you’ll be well rewarded for taking that extra bit of time to seek out a great bar. I don’t like to judge my readers but let’s just say if you like a bar with character, you’ll love the decor and atmosphere in here. If you like a decent ale you’ll find a good range on rotation and on tap. You’ll find all sorts of musicians, actors, artists and craic merchants hanging around the place and if the weather’s being unseasonably kind there’s a new beer garden out the back. Find out if there’s anything happening upstairs. You might get a gig, a movie or even Good Vibrations’ Terri Hooley on the decks.
There are many reasons to love the John Hewitt, from it’s great lunches, excellent stout, ever changing art exhibitions but did you know it’s also run by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre? What a great bunch of people! The bar looks and feels like it’s been around a long time but only opened in the late nineties and has been instrumental in helping the Cathedral Quarter become the mecca for drinkers, artists and creatives that it’s now become. If you’re a serious fan of folk music you’ll love this place. Expect to see knitwear, beards, foamy white stout moustaches and to hear many tall tales while you listen to some great trad musicians. It was in the John Hewitt I learned that Walker’s crisps always go out of date on a Saturday.
They’ve changed our little Katy Daly’s recently but sure a change is as good as a rest. There’s not as many live music nights here anymore but for a few pints after work or a warm up for a gig in the adjoining Limelight complex it’s hard to beat. You never know who you’ll bump into in Katy’s. We’ve recently spotted Ron Sexsmith and Conor Oberst enjoying a spot of Belfast hospitality here and it wasn’t so long ago the bar played host to a memorable show from ex-Hold Steady man Franz Nicolay. It’s had a lick of paint, a new screen in for the football at the weekend, a new range of beers on tap and there’s a glorious wee roof terrace now if you need a smoke along with your Stella.
There are highs and lows to a night in McHugh’s. The pillars in the middle of the floor downstairs can ruin a decent gig and the aromas from the toilets leave little to the imagination at times but if it’s atmosphere, great staff, good booze and excellent gigs you’re after then you’ll feel right at home. Any decent blogger should always declare an interest and sure, I’ve DJd here and put on shows here almost as often as I’ve got them to pour me a pint but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make the list. Outside of my own shows I’ve caught the likes of Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Bear’s Den playing down in the basement. Keep an eye out for shows from Shine or Communion as they both love the place as much as I do.
Alright we’ve had enough of beers for now. Full to the brim with stouts and ales and you just fancy something a little bit lighter. A rum bar you say!? Let’s go! The Spaniard is the place to be for a great selection of rum and rum based cocktails. Don’t be a dick and ask for a Bacardi or Malibu. This is all decent booze served by decent staff. The background music varies from night to night but is usually effortlessly cool. We ended up drinking with Midlake’s Eric Pulido in here. He loved it and who’s going to argue with him? The walls are kitted out with old record sleeves, battered old notes from worldwide currencies, gig posters of yesteryear and a postcard of Bill Murray behind the bar.
The Sunflower bar is our newest favourite hang-out in town. It’s on Union Street, a few minutes out of the city centre so you have to make that extra effort to get there but there’ll be a warm welcome and a beer you’ve probably never even heard of waiting for you. The decor is 70s Belfast at its finest with the old security grill still a feature over the front door. The only trouble you’ll have in here though is deciding what drink to order. I’ve yet to see a bad gig in here whether part of CQAF or Ludwig and Brendan’s regular Saturday blues sessions. We reckon it’s worth coming down for a bowl of stew or a bite to eat before enjoying a session downstairs or venturing up the backstairs for more music, more beers and more fun.
White’s Tavern is one of those ‘is it or isn’t it the oldest bar in Belfast’ contenders. It might be. It might not be but history says that people have been propping up the bar here for centuries. There’s an inscription outside with the tale of Henry Joy McCracken who imbibed a Guinness or two here and today it’s still full of characters. You’ll get warmed up by the fire if needed and probably end up next to some oul’ fella and his dog with a stout or some trendy kid and his haircut with a Corona. There’s a venue for live music upstairs which is often used by the smaller Belfast festivals as well as local promoters. Kid Carpet rocking out here in 2003 was an unforgettable musical highlight and more recently it’s played host to Sons of Caliber, Feet For Wings and The 1930s amongst others.
Disclaimer: We’re massive fans of The Limelight, The Black Box and the Student’s Union up at Queen’s University but they’re all pretty well known and falling into the category of larger venues. Let’s save that for another day.
You’re here for the music, the shows, the reviews etc. and that’s why we don’t believe in advertising on Folk & Tumble. The only money that’s changed hands in the writing of this article is for the copious pints I’ve purchased in every one of these fine establishments. If you’re a regular in any other bars or just visiting the city for a bit, let us know your favourite places for a pint and a good tune.