Café en Seine on Dawson Street in Dublin, 1999
A few years back I was in the Porterhouse in Temple Bar watching a band do their thing, loud drums, guitars, a lead singer doing his best impression of a rock star, an appreciative crowd rocked along, most on their third or fourth drink.
During the performance, I smelled an acrid scent. It wasn’t sweat or beer, or perfume or any of the traditional smells of a pub at 11pm. No, it was vinegar. I noticed people, tourists probably, eating fish and chips at the table just behind the scrum around the stage.
It was then I realised the blurring of the lines between a bar and a restaurant in a city famous for its pub culture and nightlife, and a developing movement to making money from food which is spreading all across Dublin bars.
Understandably, the pubs are interested in serving food, a much bigger mark up can be gained. But, in my view, it diminishes both experiences. I want to be tolerant, but who the actual fuck orders fish and chips in a rock bar at 11pm.
You can eat at home, you can eat out at the usual time of 6pm – 9pm in a restaurant, or you can eat after in Dublin’s many takeaways. This system was the norm up until recently.
Now the pubs, which before were set up for drinking, resemble restaurants with nasty food and a bar. The result is a kind of greasy pong generated throughout the day and night.
Understandably, suburban pubs have been doing this for years. But for city centre pubs, who have no trouble getting punters in, it dilutes the experience of the pub entirely.
This food and cocktail culture has begun to permeate the Dublin bar scene. There was a time when people had their dinner and went out on the lash, this seems to be getting all rolled into one now.
Between technology, commerce, greed, and Instagram bollixology, Dublin and probably other cities, seem to have lost touch with a central tenant of why many adults socialise.
To put it bluntly, sex, and all its various intrigues.
Before we discuss how great your cocktails are and how you like your steak done, maybe we can ask the single people, where do you meet other single people?
What environment can be created where in people can drink and dance and socialise in comfort? And where people can dress up, with a mixture of ages and nationalities, somewhere with a sophistication that was never attached to Ireland’s most stubbornly popular nightspot Coppers.
That place was Café en-Seine.
With its large high ceilings, an airy dark dance floor, and plenty of room around the bars, it was the antidote to most Dublin bars and club and the opposite of the claustrophobic corridor bars of Sams and 37.
It was, in fact, probably the best dance floor in Dublin, and this in a city which has got many left. It had a loyal and a mixed crowd, women liked it, and most importantly people could meet dance and hook up.
The music was decent, not just the chart nonsense in other places and it had a multinational appeal which appealed to people who disliked the provincial agricultural atmosphere in Coppers.
When they closed their doors for a refurb in early 2018, I was not optimistic. How can we turn this place into a restaurant while still getting the night time crowd they pondered? The result is neither one nor the other.
But the nightlife component of the business has certainly suffered the most. It’s like they made a list of the things that made the place so loved and systematically destroyed them.
The charm of the bar has been replaced with a generic ‘could be anywhere’ vibe, and they have managed to create the same feeling of claustrophobia as their neighbors, but it is the dance floor which is the coup de grâce.
Firstly the music, let’s play the hits of the 1970s, that’s what the people want! Can you imagine the kids of the 1970s thinking that a brand new bar would open 45 years in the future and play their fave tunes? It would be like a bar opening in Dublin in 1985 playing the hits of Glen Miller.
But bland is the name of the game. The “dance floor” is lit like a dentist’s waiting room, complete with artificial trees running through the center and a bar taking up at least a third of the available space. The result is people drinking in a brightly lit hotel lobby.
Gone are the basic natural rituals of men and women, people-watching, modern music, private flirting and kissing, replaced with a halfway house between a coffee shop/bar and a nightclub.
It was Winter when I discovered what a mess they had made of Dublin’s best bars, and as I stood at the far end of the dance floor I realised another monster fuck-up.
The architects in their wisdom put a wall of glass down the end of the dance floor, the idea being to catch passing trade and light for the day time coffee drinkers, all commanding views of a lane way.
The result in the month of February there was a cold draft of smoking area air flowing through the doors at every entry and exit. The dancers not only had to try to have fun under florescent lights but they needed to do it with their coats on.
Now in the scheme of things a bar losing its soul is not a big deal, but in a city that is filled with loud noisy cramped pubs, playing Paddy for the tourists, the option for people to go to a bar that reflected a modern sophisticated city was quite unique, and now it is gone. There is no money in dancing after all, why not have a cocktail or a piece of cake…
Soon people won’t remember the way it used to be, but a big part of Dublin nightlife has been lost. A friend remarked that many of his female colleagues met their husbands in Cafe en-Seine, because the place had weird alchemy whether by chance or design that facilitated this.
I feel the old design reflected more the priorities of humanity, not the glossy profit-focused Instagram bullshit of modern times, but people meeting people, people having fun with dance and music.
It is more evidence of the style over substance obliteration of our shared humanity, and if that sounds heavy go stand on that dance floor in February and tell me it’s an improvement.
Previously: En Seine In The Membrane