Art enables people to assert their individuality in the face of hostile prevailing orthodoxies.
In 20th century Northern Ireland, that was a potent force as generations of artists – from playwright and poet Seamus Heaney to the band Ash – sought to define themselves not as Protestant or Catholic, nationalist or loyalist, but primarily as human beings.
“There’s a massive tradition here of what I call ‘third-culture’ stuff,” says Adam Turkington, who runs Belfast arts organisation Seedhead. “That’s where Terri Hooley, Stiff Little Fingers, David Holmes, all those guys come from – a subculture that stands out and, in a sense, says we’re not interested in either political tradition.” During the Troubles, that stance was provocative. It is less dangerous now but, says Turkington, Belfast’s arts scene remains crucial to an unrepresented group who want to express themselves outside of the traditional binaries of community politics.
Turkington is currently working on Culture Night (250 free events, being held on 16 September) and says: “I feel like we’re building shared cultural space.” Whatever the obstacles today – arcane licensing laws and the UK’s lowest per-capita arts’ funding – this is what Belfast’s creatives have always done. The city’s tight-knit, DIY music, clubbing and visual arts scenes have repeatedly found ways to work, party hard and cultivate new talent.
House duo Bicep were Belfast’s most recent breakout stars but, at venues such as Voodoo, Black Box, Oh Yeah and club night Twitch, plenty of new talent is percolating through. Girls Names, Hot Cops, Sea Pinks and Documenta are the pick of the current indie crop, while, on the electronic side, check out Bobby Analog, Brién and the labels Extended Play and Computer Controlled.
Elsewhere, the optimism engendered by the peace process is transforming the food and drink scene in Belfast. From craft brewers such as Boundary to independent, Michelin-star restaurants such as OX, a new wave is ramping up quality. Belfast now expects its restaurants to be fully cognisant of global trends. As OX chef and co-owner Stephen Toman puts it: “People just want to live. They want what every other city experiences.”
Albeit with a distinctive Belfast flavour. Here is where you can get a taste of it.
The Hudson Bar
From one-off gigs with cult German producer Ulrich Schnauss to visits from the Low Profile DJs (local evangelists for leftfield electronic music), there are interesting things going down at the Hudson – where events are usually free. The Belfast Music Club crew regularly take over a huge outdoor smoking terrace for day/night hoedowns that run the gamut from cosmic disco to jackin’ house. Previous guests have included Optimo and Young Marco.
•10-14 Gresham Street, 028-9023 2322, hudsonbelfast.com
Vandal, White’s Tavern
Seventeenth-century White’s Tavern is among Belfast’s oldest pubs but the venue cannot be defined by its history. Its landlords used to run the legendary Stiff Kitten club and have turned White’s top floor into Vandal, a graffiti-clad pizza restaurant which morphs into a late-night club. “It’s a hidden gem,” says Bobby Murray, from the record shop and online radio station, Belfast Underground. “It’s a got a low-ceiling, an intimate feel and nights such as Dialogue which plays the deepest house and techno.”
•3 Winecellar Entry, 028-9031 2582, on Facebook
This bar and gig venue – “dark and dingy,” says Belfast Underground’s Murray approvingly – hosts everything from drum’n’bass nights to thrash metal gigs from promoter the Distortion Project. Punk legend Terri Hooley, of Good Vibrations fame, is the resident DJ on Thursday nights. “It’s a city-centre safe house for punks, rockers, ravers and rude boys,” says Charlotte Dryden who manages Oh Yeah Belfast. The OYB complex comprises a studio, gig venue, offices for Belfast music entrepreneurs and a permanent exhibition on Northern Irish music.
•9-11 Fountain Street, 028-9027 8290, voodoobelfast.com
Aether & Echo
Run by the people behind renowned cocktail haunts Love & Death and Apoc, this bar has a tidy club space upstairs. Murray says: “Saturday’s Night Institute with DJs Jordan and Timmy Stewart is one of the city’s most exciting nights.” A&E is also a sometime venue for the roving Beat BBQ, which on 28 August is offering the unlikely combination of burgers and Blawan’s savage techno.
•1-3 Lower Garfield Street, 028-9023 9163, aetherandecho.com
Ad hoc Belfast
Due to a lack of standalone music venues visitors will often find gigs and club nights (such as the discerning queer disco Ponyhawke) happening at traditional, multi-roomed pubs such as Lavery’s, the Pavilion and McHugh’s, as well as various temporary spaces. Look out for gigs from promoter Strange Victory and the affiliated DSNT and audio-visual Lumen techno parties. “There’s also Warzone Centre, which has a punk, DIY ethos,” recommends Neil Brogan, a musician who runs CF Records.
The Black Box
Like the Sunflower (below), this bar and venue is a crucial hang-out for the Belfast arts scene, which could easily slot into this guide’s music or culture sections. “It’s got an underground soul,” says Dryden, of a space that maintains a packed programme of leftfield cabaret, film, theatre and art events with upcoming gigs from Cate Le Bon and Battles. You’ll also find craft beers among its 13 taps. “It’s the centre of underground art activity in Belfast – where that community meets,” says Seedhead’s Adam Turkington, who runs a weekly magic night here.
•Pint from £3.60, 18-22 Hill Street, 028-9024 3281, blackboxbelfast.com
Hidden on a backstreet and identified by the Troubles-era security cage at its door, the lefty, boho Sunflower hosts nightly eclectic jam sessions, a monthly flea market, public meetings and serves wood-fired pizzas in its grungy, colourful beer garden (from £5). “It has a lovely intimate venue upstairs which is great for folk gigs,” says Brogan. For Boundary Brewing founder, Matthew Dick, the Sunflower’s landlord Pedro Donald is one of the heroes of Belfast’s craft beer scene: “He takes a risk with the bottle selection which is still mainly unheard of here. There’s always something interesting to choose from.”
•Pint from £3.30, 65 Union Street, 028-9023 2474, on Facebook
Seven rotating taps and several fridges carry an impressive range of modern Irish and global craft beers. “Being the first to really go for great beer, they took a big risk and it’s paid off,” says Dick, whose co-operative brewery, Boundary, opens to the public on the last Saturday each month (4pm-11pm, thirds only, from £1). For more beer check Brewbot (451 Ormeau Road) and the ABV festival (September 1-3).
•Pint at the Woodworkers from £4.10, 20-22 Bradbury Place, 028-9087 1106, on Facebook
Muriel’s Cafe Bar
“Probably the best selection of gins in Belfast,” says Felicia Matheson from drinks distributor Prohibition. “And if gin isn’t your thing ask Avril to make you an Old Fashioned; hers are awesome.” Muriel’s tiny sister-venue, the Spaniard, is similarly fixated on rum. “Expect to have a great night … and a rough next morning,” enthuses Kris Nixon, who blogs as Belfast Barman.
•G&T from £6.05, 12-14 Church Lane, 028-9033 2445, on Facebook
Most visitors gravitate to the MAC arts centre, but to get under the skin of the Belfast arts scene, head to the photography gallery Belfast Exposed and contemporary art hub, Golden Thread. “It’s always a bit out there and it’s a beautiful space. It’s my favourite Belfast gallery,” says Turkington, who also leads tours of Belfast’s street art.
•84-94 Great Patrick Street, 028-9033 0920, goldenthreadgallery.co.uk
A project space for the artists at Paragon Studios, this former shop is a small room with a big rep thanks to its turnover of events, many somewhat off-the-wall. Recent exhibitions have included a sound diary of Belfast’s Lagan Meadows, a performance art piece on alcohol inspired by pubs and AA meetings and, currently, Amalgamate, which explores the division between “art” and “craft”.
•18 Donegall Street, 028-9023 5912, pssquared.org
Late night arts
On the first Thursday of each month, most of Belfast’s galleries open late, many taking the chance to launch new exhibitions. It is a great opportunity to visit smaller galleries such as Catalyst Arts and the new Artcetera or artist-run spaces, such as Platform or Belfast Print Workshop, which have limited public opening hours. “Most have free booze, too,” says Turkington, “so if you’re in town it’s basically free booze and loads of interesting contemporary art.”
Talking of that intersection between applied art, design and craft skills, Space is a shop and exhibition space – representing the Craft & Design Collective – where you will find everything from curious sculptural pieces to modern examples of traditional basketry. It is both a decorative homeware store and a beguiling gallery. Note: from 8 August, 2016, Space Craft will be at a new unit in the Fountain Centre.
•9b Fountain Centre, College Street, 028-9032 9342, craftanddesigncollective.com
This innovative group is all about rethinking the potential of theatrical performance in new locations. Its work can range from the relatively larky (Belfast Bred is a culinary tour by an imaginary HMS Titanic chef), to productions that deal with the complexities of conflict resolution, such as Laurence McKeown’s Those You Pass On The Street .
•Various venues, kabosh.net
The diligently home-cooked food at this simple sandwich shop/cafe is, insists Turkington, a cut-above, particularly its specials such as Maltese tomato and rice soup or sesame pork noodle broth. “It’s only four or five pounds for lunch and the gumbo’s amazing. That’s my Friday treat. If I could find a Grapevine in other cities I’d be delighted.”
•Dishes £3-£4.95, 5 Pottinger’s Entry, 07794 653259, on Facebook
The Muddlers Club
Dimly-lit, music blaring, one bare wall covered in urban art, Gareth McCaughey’s restaurant is pretty rock’n’roll and his dishes, such as shortrib lasagne or blackened lamb with romesco, deliver in spades. “His cocktails are amazing too – smoking creations in whisky decanters, stuff like that. It’s good food in a cool setting,” says OX chef and co-owner, Stephen Toman.
•Mains from £14, Warehouse Lane, 028-9031 3199, themuddlersclubbelfast.com
Howard Street and Permit Room
With high-fliers Eipic and James St South nearby, Howard Street and its East Asian-kissed, modern European cooking is, reckons Kris Nixon, somewhat overlooked: “They’re using superb local ingredients in innovative dishes with no unnecessary embellishments.” Meanwhile, its new spin-off venue, Permit Room, is giving Belfast’s brunch scene fresh zip with its filled flatbreads, plates of shakshuka eggs and its Thai-spiced Bloody Maria.
•Howard Street mains from £11.50, 56 Howard Street, 028-9024 8362, howardstbelfast.com. Permit Room brunch £3.50-£7.50, Unit 6, McAuley House, Fountain Street, 07967 201209, on Facebook
The hip, minimalist Established is best known for what Toman rates as “outrageously good coffee”. But its breakfasts and Ottolenghi-style lunches make this a destination even if you drink decaf. Early doors, expect topped slices of Zac’s Bakehouse sourdough and, later, dishes such as a tea-soaked raisin tabbouleh with buttermilk tzatziki, tomatoes, pickled cucumber, toasted cashews and crispy kale.
•Dishes £3.50-£5.50, 54 Hill Street, 028-9031 9416, on Facebook