IN the late 1980s, Peter Murray, curator and later director of the Crawford Art Gallery for three decades, decided the place should have its own café, like many other fine museums and art galleries the world over.
Who was he gonna call?
The name at the top of the short-list was Myrtle Allen, of Ballymalloe House.
“Even back then, in the ’80s, Myrtle Allen was very well known,” says Peter, who is credited with transforming the Crawford Art Gallery into a national institution.
“The café started out as an experiment with Myrtle’s daughter, Fern, coming on board,” he recalls.
Forty years ago, there was no museum in the world that didn’t depend on its café or coffee shop for its visitors.
“Our idea for the café was very simple at the beginning. There was a tiny room that doubled as the kitchen. Back then, it was rather dark and gloomy. The room still exists today. Before the café, there was no life in it.
“Fern cheered it up with pretty cheque tablecloths on the tables and gave the room a life of its own.
“It was transformed without anybody knowing if it would work as a café or not.”
Fern Allen came to work in a little red van and recalls: “Myself and two chefs would fill up the boot at 7am every morning with freshly baked bread, fresh fish, scones and home-made jam,” says Fern. “Starting off, we kept it very simple, a few sandwiches, scones and coffee.
“Dad lent us the van. We’d all pile into it for the big journey to the city, gathering our supplies on the way. There was no bypass then.
“We’d get to the Crawford at mid-day and unload our goods and get cracking in the tiny kitchen ready for lunchtime.
“The van carrying our supplies had a big boot and it had a ladder on the back. One day, travelling up the road, the boot opened while in transit and a chicken fell out. We got a call in Ballymaloe from a man in Cloyne saying he had picked up a chicken on the road!”
Fern found her mother’s hand-written menus for the Crawford Art Gallery Café, reproduced here, were very popular with the patrons.
“We never knew what were on the menus on any given day, so everything was really fresh, made from scratch!
“There was only bar food and dinner available in Lovett’s Restaurant and lunch and dinner in Halpins in Cork back 30-odd years ago,” says Fern.
“In Patrick Street, you had Pizza Hut and one or two other fast food outlets. There was really nowhere for ladies in Cork to go and meet their friends for lunch or for coffee.”
Monday mornings were quiet and sedate at the Crawford café, which opened its doors in 1986.
“Monday morning was calm. As the week went on, the noise levels increased,” says Fern.
“By Friday, the café was buzzing. We got to know all our customers. To this day, the daughters and granddaughters of the ladies who frequented the café stop by for lunch and coffee.”
Another patron was soon a familiar face at the Crawford Art Gallery Café. “I used to bring Fionn, my eldest son, to the café with me when he was a baby!” says Fern.
“His play-pen was made from wine boxes! My friend would often come and collect him when the café got really busy and Fionn would want attention.
“Later, a girl on work experience at the cafe would walk around with Fionn in her arms to keep him happy. He could be crying at times and there’d be a queue out the door!”
Fern continued double-jobbing as chef and mum when her daughter, Seibhe, came along. After baby number three, Fiadh, arrived, she took a step back from the café, which was now nicely established at 1 Emmet Place.
“I continued working at the café for a while. After all, it was my baby and I had huge pride in the cafe. But then I took a break,” says Fern.
“Family members from Ballymaloe stepped in and we stared serving dinner as well.
“My niece, Fawn, and some of our long-standing staff like Jim Whelan and Florrie Cullinane were real gems.
“Rory O’Connell worked at the cafe too for a time. I was always very lucky with staff. And catering for the Eurovision Song Contest held at the Green Glens Arena in Millstreet in 1993 when Niamh Kavanagh won, was a real highlight for us.”
Rory remembers the time he whizzed up and down the road to Cork in the little red van.
“My memories of the Crawford are indeed happy ones,” he says.
“Whizzing up and down the road to Cork, boot full of goodies on the way up and empty on the way back!
“I have always been interested in art so being in the gallery was a joy. I remember going into the stores at the gallery with the then curator Peter Murray to pick out art for the walls of the café. That was a thrill.”
Rory had another important gig.
“More recently, I was asked by Sinead Doran to cook dinner for Prince Charles and I was delighted to prepare a meal at the Crawford to showcase the best of Ireland, especially Cork — so may happy memories.”
Waitress at the Crawford café for more than 25 years, Carol Mclauchlan, recalls many favourite customers she got to know at the café.
“I got to know all the regulars, who were really nice people,” she says. “Waitressing at the Crawford was my first real job.
“I learned a lot about food and about the wonderful ethos of Ballymaloe cooking. And I learned service with a smile goes a long way.”
She worked for really nice people too.
“When I got married, the cafe closed for the day and everyone joined us for the wedding reception at Blarney Park Hotel. It was a great day.
“I often call into the Crawford café and reminisce about those good old days.”
Ballymaloe chef Florrie Cullinane, remembers those good days too.
“I was presented with my 21st birthday cake at the Crawford Art Gallery Café,” she says. “It was a lovely surprise. And we had a little party. It was an exciting time then working under the Ballymaloe regime.
“We worked off Mrs Allen’s hand-written menus, which included tips at the end of each dish. She created the soup of the day on the day and created the desserts as well. The home-made cakes and breads were always a big hit,” says Florrie.
“It was exciting for us and the daily menu was always a surprise for the regulars. “
The regular customers didn’t always welcome surprises.
“I remember one busy summer season, there was a shortage of spinach in Cork and we had to take the spinach and mushroom pancake off the menu,” says Fern.
“There was consternation! The pancake remains one of the most popular dishes on the café menu, standing the test of time for over 30 years.”
Current lease holder and chef at the Crawford Art Gallery Café, Sinéad Doran, thought she might modify the pancake recipe at one stage.
It didn’t go down well.
“We reverted back to the original recipe pretty quickly!” says Sinead.
After working in Ballymaloe House in the ’90s, Sinead graduated to the Crawford café.
“I worked in Waterford Castle before and I was introduced to Rory — and the rest is history. I love the Art Gallery and the café, which I took over in 2014. It is busier now here than ever,” says Sinéad.
“We open at 8.30am and have half an hour to get the scones baked and out of the oven.
“New director of the art gallery, Mary McCarthy, is a breath of fresh air. We work very well together. I think now we have one of the nicest dining rooms in the country.
“The gallery and cafe have a nice, relaxed atmosphere. Small wedding parties enjoy celebratory receptions savouring the ambience at the café,” says Sinéad.
She was pretty relaxed when she entertained Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, at the Crawford Café last year when they visited Cork.
“We had certain protocol to follow,” says Sinéad. “Rory planned the menu and cooked the food to perfection for the royal party. But when I was introduced to Camilla, I said ‘Hiya!’ in a broad Cork accent. And I’m not even from Cork!”
But now Sinéad has won the hearts of Cork people.
“I know the regulars so well, I know the table they like to sit at and I know what they are going to order!
“The couple that used to own the ‘Walk’ shoe-shop in Paul Street used to come in here for lunch with their baby daughter who was in a Moses basket. They’d put the basket on the windowsill beside their table when they were eating, keeping an close eye on baby. Now that baby girl has grown up and she comes in here for lunch often!”
Peter Murray, retired now in West Cork, practising and exhibiting his art, still stops by his favourite place when he’s in the city.
“The café was a gamble really,” says Peter.
“Back then, more than 30 years ago, you could try new things. There were no barriers.
“The cafe took off from the very beginning and it just grew and grew. Visitor figures for the Art Gallery began to rise and rise,” says Peter. “People came not just for the art, but for the food.”
Peter, like many Crawford Café fans, finds time to stop and watch the world go by when he rolls up there now.
“I watch all the busy people on their lunch break getting ready to go back to work. And I wave to them!”
Crawford Art Gallery Café, Emmet Place, Cork, open 8.30am-4pm Monday to Saturday. Sunday 11am-4pm.