Belfast hadn’t been on my radar as a favored travel destination until I learned that Van Morrison was planning to do a 70th birthday concert on Cypress Avenue, the idyllic residential street he made famous in the song of the same name on his legendary 1968 album Astral Weeks. I managed to finagle a pair of the 1,400 tickets available for the first of his two August 31st shows. While that 90-minute immersion in Van the Man’s mystic soulfulness was the highlight of a trip that included forays into Dublin, London, and Galway, it was also a metaphorical door through the wardrobe (C.S. Lewis was from Belfast, too) into wonders I’d never expected in the once-“troubled” capital of Northern Ireland.
Our guide described the success of the seasonal and organic Love Local food movement and explained that meat merchant Peter Hannan’s Himalayan-salt aged beef was the favorite of UK gourmets, a claim I better understood after having one of his rib-eye steaks at The Bar + Grill at James Street South the next night.
Four days of lunches and dinners—at The Terrace at Robinson & Cleaver, Howard Street, Deane’s Meat Locker, and The Barking Dog in East Belfast—barely scratched the surface of the ongoing culinary renaissance. And we didn’t even make it to the most talked-out restaurant in town, Alain Kerloc’h and chef Stephen Toman’s OX, overlooking the Lagan River.
I expected great pubs in Belfast, none more legendary than Kelly’s Cellars, built in 1720. But only on this visit did I learn that a New York City bar that has twice been named best in the world, The Dead Rabbit, is rooted in Belfast’s drinking culture: It’s the brainchild of Northern Ireland natives Jack McGarry, from the Merchant Hotel, and Sean Muldoon, from the Duke of York.
In 1995, Van sang his song “Days Like This”—the anthem of the peace movement in Northern Ireland—to a crowd of more than 60,000 when President Bill Clinton visited Belfast. Twenty years later he brought it full circle as one of the 17 songs he performed on Cypress Avenue.
Visit the AFAR Media Spotify page for a Van Morrison playlist based on his Cypress Avenue concert sets.