Bar/fly: The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast

By Ewan McDonald

In Belfast, Ewan McDonald finds there is nothing like The Crown for picking you up.

The Crown Liquor Saloon is a gem of finely preserved Victoriana - a genuine gin palace. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
The Crown Liquor Saloon is a gem of finely preserved Victoriana - a genuine gin palace. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

The clue is in the sign above the doors. This is not a bar. Not a pub. Nor a bistro nor a cafe-bar-restaurant. It is a "Liquor Saloon" and, to make sure everyone gets their priorities straight, "The Crown" is written in smaller letters, inside brackets, on either side.

Step past the tiled exterior through the oak doors and experience what this town's most famously grumpy son called "a sense of wonder".

For The Crown Liquor Saloon, sited on a corner of Great Victoria St, Belfast, is a gem of finely preserved Victoriana - a genuine gin palace.

Mosaic tiles are everywhere, apart from on the ceramics that are moulded into otherworldly creatures on pillars and graceful florals along the bar. Gas lamps hang from the original, elaborately decorated pressed-metal ceilings, illuminating the red granite-topped and ornately carved wooden bar with its heated footrest underneath.

The image of a cathedral to whiskies, ales, stouts, porter and brandies, listed like the names of saints around the architraves, is complete with 10 wooden booths opposite the bar.

With carved lions' and griffins' heads, lockable doors, highly polished mirrors and stained-glass windows of shells, fairies, pineapples, fleurs-de-lis and clowns, they resemble and probably still provide the same services as a confessional box.

On their walls are gunmetal plates for striking matches (now redundant because of no-smoking laws) and antique bells for summoning bar staff.

The place opened in 1849, when Felix O'Hanlon and later Michael Flanagan hosted passengers at The Railway Tavern from the then-nearby station. Flanagan's son Patrick renamed and renovated the pub in 1885.

He persuaded Italian craftsmen, who were brought to Belfast to work on the booming industrial town's many new churches, to work on the saloon after-hours.

Since it's just across the street from the Europa Hotel - a boarding house for journalists and dignitaries during the Troubles and therefore the most-bombed hostelry in Europe - The Crown fell into disrepair by the 1970s.

English poet Sir John Betjeman and other campaigners convinced the National Trust to buy the property and spend almost £400,000 to restore it to its original state. In 2007, the trust invested another £500,000.

It is the only bar (okay, "liquor saloon") the heritage body owns. The day-to-day running is leased to a craft hostelry operator.

It is a tourist attraction but I meet just as many locals nursing a pint as visitors toting a camera.

It's a museum with benefits: as well as Guinness, if you must, there are real ales from the local Whitewater Brewery. I recommend the 4.5 per cent Belfast after taste-testing its label-mates Crown & Glory and Copperhead. There's also an upstairs dining room: Irish stew or grilled ham and eggs with champ?

So on a damp and chilly (to be honest, hailing and freezing) night, the bartenders at The Crown pull pints and measure shorts as they have done almost every day for 165 years.

Apart from when the beer stopped flowing for a few days in January - the tenants of the most famous public house in Northern Ireland had forgotten to renew their liquor licence. Since 2012.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates' four daily flights out of Auckland all connect to Belfast via the airline's hub in Dubai, and code sharing with Aer Lingus from London.

Further information: See visit-belfast.com.

The writer visited Belfast with help from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Emirates.

- NZ Herald

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