Looking for restaurants in County Cork? Want to know where to eat in the Irish county? olive’s food director Janine Ratcliffe shares her insider trips for the best restaurants in County Cork, along with where to find the best whisky cocktails, fresh oysters and Italian cheeses.
olive’s top 10 must-visits for foodies in County Cork
Greenes, Cork – for fancy dining
You’ll find Greenes down a narrow Harry Potter-style alleyway, opposite a waterfall (yes, really!). It might be one of Cork’s oldest and most established restaurants, but Greenes has recently overhauled its menu and is ticking all sorts of trendy boxes (squid ink crisps, leek ash, fermented barley and the like). The combinations can read a bit out there (pork belly with black pudding porridge for one), but what’s delivered is thoughtful plates of food that showcase delicate cooking. The list of local suppliers on the front page of the menu gives a clue to the restaurant’s ingredient-led focus. Book a table with a waterfall view if you can – it’s a truly magical sight.
Cask, Cork – for expertly crafted cocktails
Next door to Greenes, Cask is a low-lit temple to finely crafted cocktails. The interior is a mix of plush and stark with deep blue velvet chairs and booths, and warm exposed brick walls fitted with twinkly filament lights. The cocktail menu is updated every 12 weeks to make the most of seasonal herbs, fruits and foraged ingredients, including rhubarb, bramble leaf and sorrel (and there’s always a seasonal shrub on the menu for non-drinkers). We tried With the Fairies: a heady mix of whiskey, blanco tequila, lustau blanco, burdock, spruce and soda. If you want something to buoy up the booze, there’s generous cheese, charcuterie and antipasti boards to share, as well as a small plates and street food menu (try glazed chicken wings, sourced from Cork’s English Market, with blue cheese foam).
Arthur Maynes Pharmacy, Cork – for a bar with a twist
Housed in a 120-year-old chemist shop (the old sign still hangs outside), every inch of this quirky bar is lined with original cabinets that house vintage medicine, perfume bottles and make-up. The bar is the old glass counter, where the very first chemist ledgers can still be found. As well as various craft and traditional beer offerings, there’s a decent wine list and food served until 1am for late nighters. Climb up narrow rickety stairs to find an even smaller candlelit cocktail bar, Arthur’s Upstairs.
Café Paradiso, Cork – for legendary vegetarian food
Chef Denis Cotter has been reinventing veggie food here since 1993, and this Cork institution has become a must-visit for meat-free eaters (and omnivores). The intimate, relaxed dining room is only open for dinner with a two-or-three course fixed-price menu that aims to make veg the hero of the plate. Cooking is refined and adventurous, with many elements expertly balanced on one plate. Try roast carrots, mozzarella, burnt aubergine, honey, pickled fennel and ras-el-hanout crumb; or feta and pistachio couscous cake, smoky greens, lemon chickpeas, coriander yoghurt, zhoug oil and date jam. You’ll need to book ahead, as it’s often full well in advance.
The English Market, Cork – for exploring Ireland’s larder
If Cork is the larder of Ireland, then the English Market is its showcase. This covered market is a warren of food and drink stalls – grab an artisan sourdough from the Alternative Bread Company, antipasti and cheese from the Real Olive Company, and a slice of chocolate mousse cake from Heaven’s Cakes, and you have yourself an instant picnic. If you’re going further afield, Kay O’Connell’s award-winning fish and seafood stall will vac pack your fish and send you away with a cool bag to keep it fresh. Upstairs, the Farmgate Café sits on a balcony overlooking the stalls and serves a breakfast and lunch menu using products from the market – enjoy a traditional Irish fry-up, or a plate of fresh oysters with a glass of Eight Degrees Knockmealdown Stout .
Jacques, Cork – for a lunch pit stop
Bang in the middle of bustling Oliver Plunkett St, Jacques is a buzzy restaurant that’s perfect for a quick break from shopping (having said that, it’s also great for a more leisurely lunch or dinner). The sandwiches here are famous, and for good reason – they’re so enormous that we’d recommend splitting one with a friend. Don’t miss the Cork Reuben, stuffed with Tom Durcan’s spiced beef, Ballinrostig cheese, gherkins and pickled red cabbage, that’s best chased down with a West Cork Brewing Co. The Rapids Rye, a spicy, nutty IPA. Dinner is a bit more refined with an a la carte and tapas menu, plus a great selection of natural wines.
Toons Bridge Dairy, Macroom – for Italian cheeses, olives and pizza
Making mozzarella in West Cork countryside might seem like an odd choice for a cheesemaker, but Toons Bridge Dairy doesn’t just stop there. Oozy, creamy burrata, smoked scamorza, fresh ricotta and caciocavallo are also made here using sheep, cow and buffalo milk. Founders Toby Simmonds and Jenny-Rose Clarke travelled to Italy to learn the craft, and they employ both Italian and local cheesemakers in the dairy today. The duo supply some of the best restaurants in Ireland, as well as selling at The English Market, online and at their own dairy shop. From April onwards, visitors can also stop by for lunch or dinner – a wood-fired pizza oven is in action from 12.30 on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, for Neapolitan-style pizzas, tapas boards, flatbreads and salads.
Ballymaloe Country Hotel House and Restaurant, Ballycotton – for dining at a national treasure
Ballymaloe in its current incarnation encompasses hotel, restaurant, kitchen garden, shop, grain store venue and cookery school. Dinner at the house is an occasion: a five-course celebration of the food produced in the walled garden, farm and locally (the evening menu isn’t totally finalised until Brenda’s 4pm fish van visits with that day’s catch). The dining room is a warm, welcoming, tranquil space with no hint of country house stuffiness, although the crisp white linen and twinkly glassware give a hint of the refined dining experience to come.
The food, as you’d expect, is really special. A simple salad of St Tola goat’s cheese comes with roast beets, a hazelnut dressing and leaves from the garden; and East Cork lamb is perfectly blushing pink with a mint béarnaise and leek mousse. Dessert is a revelation – a trolley loaded with a selection of puddings including chocolate torte, caramel ice cream, pears poached in cardamom syrup, crisp little shortbread biscuits and a traditional carrageen moss pudding that has never been off the menu. You’ll be encouraged to try everything, so save space!
Fishy Fishy, Kinsale – best for fresh seafood
This harbourside restaurant serves only spankingly-fresh fish caught in the Irish Sea and landed in Kinsale, so the menu changes according to what’s good that week. There’s plenty of simple classics (including fish pie and fish and chips), as well as more adventurous dishes such as lobster bisque – a deeply savoury seafood base with a little cream added. Other winners include pan roasted scallops with cauli purée and delicate fillets of plaice in a buttery caper sauce. There are two bright and airy dining rooms (one upstairs, the other downstairs), and in the warmer months crowds spill out onto a sunny outdoor terrace.
Kinsale Mead Company, Kinsale – for a taste of ancient history
Mead is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink and after years of being sold only at dusty shops at the back of monasteries, it’s having a bit of a comeback. At this small Kinsale meadery (the first in Ireland for hundreds of years) you can sample and buy three different types of award-winning mead, and even enjoy a mini tour and fascinating history lesson from makers Kate and Dennis Dempsey if you book ahead. We loved the Atlantic Dry Mead – crisper than you’d imagine, with an almost dry sherry-like character – and the Hazy Summer Mead, touched with a sweet berry edge from Ballykelly blackcurrants.
Words by Janine Ratcliffe, April 2019
Photographs by John Allen
More places to eat and drink in County Cork
We’ve been drawn to Midleton by Sage, where chef Kevin Aherne is a real talent. For a small town, this informal, bustling restaurant’s food is remarkable. The ‘12-mile’ ethos – the majority of its free-range, line-caught or organic produce is sourced within 12 miles – is a rare, successful demonstration of locavorism at work. Its 12 Mile Sharing Board offers a croquette of sweetbread; sticky pigs’ cheeks with a suggestion of local chocolate; white pudding topped with a crisp of pork crackling. A courgette fritter – like the Turkish classic – is light and lovely.
The presentation is sophisticated, and nothing is too much trouble – if we want to substitute hake for cod, it’s done with grace. It’s a proper community restaurant, too, with a legion of local fans. The friendly front-of-house welcome comes from Kevin’s wife Réidín; there’s a lot of blarney talked about Irish charm but Sage has it in spades.
Words by Marina O’Loughlin, January 2015