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The Star shines on

May 25th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
The Star shines on
Venue Spotlight
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The Morning Star is a tradition in Belfast and under its current family ownership, it’s winning a formidable reputation for the quality of its local food offering…

Nestled into its cosy niche near the end of historic Pottinger’s Entry in the heart of Belfast, The Morning Star is one of those proper-looking pubs that never fails to draw the eye of visitors and locals alike as they hasten through the alley on their way to Cathedral Quarter or the shops on bustling Ann Street.

In fact, there’s been premises with some tie or other to alcohol in this spot since the 1730s and the building itself has been licensed for the sale of drink since around 1810. It’s probably not the oldest bar in Belfast, but there’s a fair measure of history and heritage in the rafters here nonetheless.

These days, The Morning Star is owned and run by the McAlister family. Seamus and Corinne McAllister bought the bar – already christened The Morning Star – in the late 1980s and since that time, there have been various alterations and improvements to the fabric of the building, most recently, in the restaurant upstairs.

Unfortunately, Seamus passed away some years ago but Corinne is still heavily involved in running the bar with her son James and daughter, Peita.

“Mum is still the boss and the rest of us do what needs doing,” says James with a smile. He claims to have been “scraping chewing gum off the tables” in The Morning Star as a youngster, brought to work by busy parents with a new pub to tend to.

“This is very much a traditional bar that does good food, great beer, wines, whiskies and now, of course, local craft gin as well,” adds James. “But what we are really passionate about is local food produce, that’s where we’ve made our name. I have an aunty who has a farm and an uncle with an abattoir. We keep a butcher on the staff here and we would slaughter about two beef cattle every month. Mum even grows her own herbs and salad vegetables, so in terms of traceable food, The Morning Star is second to none.”

It’s an approach that has its roots the family’s rural background. Seamus was a cattle dealer by trade, born and raised in the Glens of Antrim:

“This was in his blood and it’s what we’ve always done,” adds James. “We support the local farmers. The local produce we have in NI is outstanding and is only being recognised now, we know we can source cheaper elsewhere but we’re supporting local jobs and that’s important to us because of our own roots. It’s something we believe in.”

Pictured is James McAlister (left) with bar staff Alanagh Trainor and Mark Midgely.

The airy and high-ceilinged public bar downstairs at The Morning Star can accommodate around 150 people at a push while there is room for around 120 diners in the restaurant upstairs. There is no live music on offer although provision for this might well be made during the next facelift at the bar, admits James. The bar does screen a lot of sport and it’s a popular haunt for those who enjoy a flutter.

The focus in the bar is its food and despite the air of history and heritage that permeates the place, James says that they are also concerned with staying abreast of trends and preferences among their customers:

“We’re always aware of new gins and whiskies and so on. We keep abreast of all that and we’re always looking for things that will help us enhance our presence and give the customers a better experience,” he adds.

But costs remain as much an issue here as everywhere else:

“They’re always going up,” says James. “Wages are going up, prices of stock are going up and look at how the euro exchange rate is affecting prices, but you still need to balance your books at the end of the day, so you need to be flexible.”

Costs at the bar are offset to some extent by another venture which James launched in 2012 – Jolly Pies – a mobile catering service that offers gourmet meat pies, sausage roll and quiche long with home-made Irish champ and gravy.

His mobile units and marquees are often seen at events such as Balmoral Show, Tennents Vital, St George’s Market and Ulster Rugby matches.

James explains that mum, Corinne, was born in Australia where pies are the top grab and go snack and while they were going back and forth on visits, he decided that it was something he could try at home in Northern Ireland:

“We already have a butcher at The Morning Star, we have great meat coming in all the time and we are making pies and other things,” he says. “So we came up with the idea of going mobile.

“We source all our ingredients from farms and suppliers with which we’ve dealt for generations so we know exactly how the animals have lived and how the vegetables are grown.”

The skills shortage that affects everyone in hospitality these days is felt here too:

“People are always looking for chefs, the demand is very high and because we are always very busy, we need more of them. We have about 10 chefs working here now, including our own butcher whose been with us for more than 10 years,” says James.

“It takes time to develop good staff, they have to learn the whole trade. If they’re going to be in the bar, they have to know what goes on in the kitchen and on the floor, so you have to experience everything and that’s particularly true of a family-run pub like this one.”

As for the future, James says the simple objective is to stay busy:

“The competition in the city is serious now, but that’s good for us. Belfast is becoming a destination that people want to visit for a drink, for entertainment or good food and craic. So there are lots of places to go now.

“Going forward, our focus will still be on our food offering and hopefully, as the café culture continues to develop here, we’ll be able to look forward to opening at a normal time, especially on the weekend when visitors and locals are actually around in the city and looking for something to eat and drink.”

 

 

What’s in a name…

One of Belfast’s oldest pubs, The Morning Star’s name is said to derive from the nickname given to the building by the lads who worked at the nearby Old Mall coach depot. It was their first port of call in the day when most of Belfast was still asleep.

It’s a listed building today and it’s been restored over the years with an eye to its unique architectural features.

Acquired by publicans James McEntee and Henry McKenna in 1892, the property was recorded as a ‘licensed house’ and its value increased by £65.

In 1941, the building narrowly escaped being destroyed in the Belfast Blitz while many of its neighbours on Bridge Street and High Street were not so lucky.

These days, the bar is owned and run by the McAllister family who strive to offer everything from a buffet lunch to their Gourmet Beef Club, supporting local farmers, growers and producers along the way.

 

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