Photos and Words by Nandini Ahuja
Yawning wearily, I traipse into the most pleasantly gray day I have ever seen and hail a Dublin cab.
“Where will it be? You’ll be staying in Temple Bar, won’t you?” the genial cabby asks me in an accent, just colloquially rough enough to be charming.
“Actually sir, I’ll be staying at the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street. Can you recommend a cafe nearby?”
“Well you’re in luck! You’ve got two Starbucks in walking distance,” he grins at me through the rearview mirror. Unknowingly shattering my illusion of culture within the first ten minutes of my trip, the cabby begins to speed off into Ireland.
“You can just drop me to the Gresham,” I grimace.
My near-comatose body finds its way back on the street to seek a much needed caffeine rush after checking into one of the Gresham’s quaint standard rooms. Tourist map in hand, I schlepp down the wide sidewalk towards the River Liffey. Gradually, Dublin begins to remind me of Boston with its cobblestone roads and slate-colored structures. But just as my mind settles into a stupor of sameness, it jolts awake when I see the massive white and purple-doored building of Dr. Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium sitting between a grocery store and a government building.
Bam! I almost feel as if I deserve a warning before walking past Dr. Quirkey’s over stimulating arcade. Visitors to Dublin will quickly discover how undeniably authentic Dublin’s spontaneous eccentricity is. Dazzled by plum strobe lights, I walk straight into a swarm of people hovering in front of a white kiosk called “The Rolling Donut.” And where there are doughnuts, there is coffee.
The Rolling Donut is one of those happy food accidents that would surely be ruined in America. Family run and born out of one of Ireland’s many economic slumps in the 1970’s, The Rolling Donut sells fresh doughnuts and coffee at the corner of O’Connell Street to local Dubliners. Fortunately, it hasn’t gone the way of The Halal Guys’ cart in downtown Manhattan and been replicated hundreds of times. I approach the kiosk with hungry eyes and an even hungrier stomach to ask a chestnut haired woman for a small latte and 70-cent cinnamon sugar donut. One long minute later, she hands me a perfectly round doughnut and petite coffee. I sigh gratefully as the steam from both heats my chilly hands and the woman laughs at a little at my near-reverential expression. Closing my eyes, I tip the coffee into my mouth and feel the liquid warm my soul. Delicious. The Rolling Donut makes a drink with equal parts creamy milk and aromatic coffee, putting Dunkin Donuts’ tepid latte to shame. Within five minutes, I lick the cinnamon sugar off my lips and toss the empty coffee cup into a rubbish bin.
The next morning, I plan a far less harried cafe experience than my last as I head to brunch with a friend at Bewley’s Cafe and Theatre on Grafton Street. Sarah Epstein, a fellow Boston University student, studies abroad in London and has taken a short plane ride over to meet me. Peppery skies mark the day, but no one on Grafton Street seems bothered. Laughing teenagers saunter out of Dunnes and Topshop and children gripping Kinder bars run around their parents. The large chocolate brown cafe with a Chinese-inspired awning and sign that says “Bewley’s Oriental Cafes” is difficult to miss even amidst the hustle and bustle. I smirk, expecting kitschy Asian fusion and panda statues, but when I push the door open, I’m bowled over by history.
Ernest Bewley opened the cafe in 1927, a venture that gave Ireland a boost in morale during its bloody war of independence. The cafe grew to be the den of choice for literary legends James Joyce (who mentioned it in Dubliners), Samuel Beckett, and Patrick Kavanagh. Having coffee at Bewley’s is an experience much like watching a play at the Globe Theatre in London or attending mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It feels pure and original. I meet Sarah on the second floor where she has secured a table overlooking the busy dining room on the first floor. Next to our seating area, a tiny door leads to the dinner theatre. Later that day, it will put on Anglo-Irish author Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In an indulgent mood, I order a mocha and blueberry pancakes. When I take my first sip, I finally relate to the snarky coffee connoisseur popular today. Bewley’s mocha is first chocolatey and then a silky coffee bringing a smile to my lips. The sourness often found in organic, fair trade coffee from the states never appears in my Bewley’s mug. Sharp taste avoided, my mocha smoothly transitions me from tired to fully engaged in my conversation.
“There’s something really romantic about Dublin, isn’t there,” Sarah poses. Images of rowdy Irish pub-mongers and overflowing Guinness glasses circulate globally, but most visitors to Dublin find a city grounded in passion, literature, and spirit. It’s true, pubs are abundant in this city. And yet, the sanctity of tea and coffee time still lives in the ample, independently owned cafes around town.
Although I try with all my tourist-y might to avoid a chain cafe, I still end up in line at one. The chilly Irish air pushes me through the doors of the nearest cafe, Insomnia, after I spend the morning strolling through St. Stephen’s Green, one of Dublin’s largest parks. I look around and see all the warning signs of a mass-produced franchise. Pre-packaged sandwiches in plastic containers. Buyer reward points. Punny names for drinks like the “Dunkaccino.” When it’s my turn to order, I consider saving my integrity and shivering my way to an indie haunt a few blocks away. But my frozen extremities speak for me and I blurt out, “one flat white, please.” In the United Kingdom and Ireland, a flat white means a double shot of espresso and flat, smooth milk. A cheery blonde man hands me my beverage and I brashly snatch it, ashamed of my choice. My irritation dispels the moment I take a gulp. It tastes almost exactly like what my mom used to make me on winter mornings: a soothing mug of milk with a hint of sugar and coffee, offering a blanket against the cold instead of a rude shock to rouse me awake. Perhaps too late, I thank the blonde and leave Insomnia with some important insight into Dublin.
On my flight back to Boston, I ask the flight attendant for a cup of coffee. Many of the other passengers prefer to sleep, but I choose to stay up and muse about my time in Dublin. Sipping on the pleasant, albeit airplane coffee, I think about Dublin’s jarring realness. Nothing about Ireland’s biggest city is put on or falsely elevated. Experiencing Dublin is experiencing true honesty, right down to your daily cup of coffee.