Monday lunchtime on the Emerald Isle and the bars and pubs — the life and soul of the place, but dormant for so long due to COVID-19 — are back in the swing of things.
The "craic", I can tell you, is good at The Garrick at the heart of Belfast. Laughter and chatter — mostly in the "upspeaky" Northern Irish twang — drifts from the cosy, partitioned booths of a restored watering hole that dates from the age of Queen Victoria (who bestowed city status on Belfast in 1888).
The Garrick's vibe is old-school yet trendy, with its dark-wood-panelling, tiled floors, padded leather seats, a revolving selection of craft beers and ciders, plus what I'm told is some of the city's best pub grub.
Sláinte (cheers)! My crisp Belfast Lager — by Whitewater, one of the province's top microbreweries — goes swimmingly with what's ostensibly bangers and mash, but with a twist. Champ — a traditional Northern Irish offering blending scallions (spring onions) with peppery, creamy mashed potatoes — is served with gravy and chunky, deliciously juicy pork sausages.
"They're from Coffey's, one of the best butchers around," says Ali McDevitt, a likeable guide leading tours of Belfast's thriving food and drink scene.
Ali explains there's been a greater emphasis on, and awareness of, top-notch Irish ingredients, particularly since the end of "The Troubles" that blighted Northern Ireland in the late 20th century.
"When I was 15 I couldn't wait to get out of Belfast," says Ali. "Now I'm so glad I stayed. We might not have the same quantity of venues as Dublin and London, but the quality is up there."
I'll check out some of his favourite restaurants later in my three-night stay (including a few that pleased the Michelin inspectors). But first, we have some drinking to do.
Continuing our city-centre dander — Belfast slang for a walk — we dive into establishments helmed and peopled by engaging characters.
Bittles Bar resides in a charming flat-iron building. Photo: Alamy
At Bittles, a bar in a striking "flat-iron" building beside an ornate Victorian drinking fountain, we enjoy a revitalising Irish whiskey with ginger ale — a soft drink invented, I hear, in Belfast in the 1850s.
Bittles is famed for its extensive whiskey collection and contemporary artworks of Northern Irish figures, including politicians involved in the Troubles-ending peace process, celebrated writers and sporting heroes like George Best, Barry McGuigan and snooker "whirlwind" Alex Higgins.
Teetotal owner John Bittles says he missed his bar so much during lockdown he set up a mini-bar at home, stacking whiskey bottles onto shelves to remind him of "normal" times (he shares a photo from his phone).
The Deer's Head is another gem. This saloon bar was established by a wine and spirit merchant in 1885, but has undergone a plush revamp, including the installation of the Bell's craft brewery.
I see its shiny copper vats through giant windows as I sample a flight of unpasteurised, unfiltered beers: a lager, pale ale and Guinness-like stout named after old neighbourhood alehouses.
Gregarious bar manager Barry Rylands tells me this is Belfast's first brewpub — because Northern Ireland's antiquated licensing laws meant breweries were previously unable to sell alcohol on-site.
"We're in what was Belfast's main brewery area," explains Barry, adding that Bell's uses the name of a brewery that opened here in 1778.
Upstairs, meanwhile, is a 200-capacity music hall. It's one of Belfast's numerous live venues, hosting everything from local blues talents to tribute bands.
This is a UNESCO City of Music — Gary Lightbody, frontman of local band Snow Patrol, said music was "woven into the DNA of Belfast" — and later I get into the groove with Davy Maguire and Jason O'Rouke, who lead traditional (trad) Irish music tours around haunts in the city's cobbled Cathedral Quarter.
Davy, on his flute, and Jason, on his prized concertina, admit they feel rusty performing live after the pandemic. But my feet are soon tapping as they unfurl and explain the rhythms of the reels (medleys) of this folksy genre, which witnessed a revival in the 1990s thanks to Michael Flatley and Riverdance.
What makes our intimate session that more special is the setting: by a roaring fire at The Dirty Onion, a bar and music hub in a 17th-century timber-framed building.
Earlier, I had popped into this former bonded spirits warehouse with Ali for a zesty drinks combo: a tropical Imbongo IPA by Belfast co-operative brewery Boundary and a Caribbean-inspired whiskey aged in Dominican rum casks at legendary Northern Irish distillery Bushmills. It's The Dirty Onion's take on the American Boilermaker tradition, where 19th-century steelworkers in Pennsylvania typically took a whiskey shot, chased with a beer, to help wash away the toils of factory life.
During The Troubles, central Belfast was virtually deserted after dark, with British army patrols and security check-points commonplace. But it's now a much livelier place.
Not only are its entertainment venues (usually) in high spirits, top restaurants are in high demand.
It's 8pm on Tuesday and there's not a spare table at Deanes Meat Locker. Flames flicker from the Asador Grill in the open kitchen of this slick operation, part of the growing restaurant empire of Michael Deane, a Michelin-feted Irish chef who counts among his fans Kit Harington (Jon Snow), who enjoyed Deane's food when he was based in Belfast shooting Game of Thrones.
With his rockstar long hair, arms-folded and face-mask on, Deane is overseeing the floor this evening, and he'll have no complaints from our table.
Among chef Michael Deane's fans is Kit Harington of 'Game of Thrones' fame.
While my fellow diners tuck into dry-aged and grass-fed beef sourced from Hannans — an award-winning Irish meat merchant — I plump for Carlingford oysters and Kilkeel seared scallops with bacon and cabbage. Then Mourne Blackface lamb chops with triple-cooked chips, veg and whiskey and mushroom sauce, followed by apple and berry crumble. It's all scrumptious and the only thing that isn't Irish is the wine, though a Bordeaux Chateau Monconseil more than compensates.
If Deanes is full, try next door at James St South, where the night before I enjoyed crispy squid with squid ink mayo, sirloin steak from County Tyrone and a sticky toffee and butterscotch sundae.
For more casual dining — perhaps chilli-and-coriander-spiked crispy duck salad and tempura prawn tacos — Gnostic Bar & Kitchen is a new addition to Belfast's historic, seen-better-days, but developing Sailortown district, which faces the Titanic Quarter (home to the fantastic Titanic Belfast attraction) across the River Lagan.
On our last evening we sample a six-course tasting menu by Ox, a Michelin-starred restaurant specialising in seasonal modern cuisine by Belfast-born chef-owner Stephen Toman (they also serve small plates and charcuterie at Ox Cave, its neighbouring wine bar).
A few dishes stand out for me: the wild venison tartar, kohlrabi, black garlic and broccoli flowers, and the pinky chateaubriand, miso, salsify and buckwheat. And the 70 per cent chocolate, ginger, lime and coconut sorbet is a tangy thing of beauty. Full of interesting flavours, it is, like Belfast, the city and its many characters, sure to linger in the memory.
Qatar and British Airways fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Belfast via London.
Taste and Tour offers guided group and bespoke jaunts of Belfast's food, beer, whiskey, gin and cocktail scenes from £57 ($108). See tasteandtour.co.uk
Belfast Traditional Music Trail runs on Saturday afternoons, £15 per person. Private tours also available. See belfasttradtrail.com
The new Grand Central Hotel is well-located to explore Belfast. Rooms from around £117 ($221). See grandcentralhotelbelfast.com
Northern Ireland is part of the UK, where double-jabbed travellers no longer need a test to enter.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland
FIVE MORE BELFAST HIGHLIGHTS
THE SUNFLOWER. A security cage — from The Troubles-era — adorns the entrance of this welcoming watering hole with a beer garden. See sunflowerbelfast.com
KAFFE O. Enjoy more-than-decent flat whites at a Danish-inspired cafe with a handful of branches across the city. See kaffeo.coffee
HENRYS. There's live music seven nights a week at this refurbished old pub, tucked down Joys Entry, a narrow lane where Belfast's first newspaper was printed. See henrysbelfast.com
CUFFS BAR & GRILL. Local produce is served at the historic Crumlin Road Gaol, which once housed scores of political prisoners and is now a visitor attraction. See cuffsgrillbar.com
THE MUDDLERS CLUB. This Michelin star restaurant takes its name from a secret society that used to meet at its premises 200 years ago. See themuddlersclubbelfast.com