Bringing the world to Belfast
Had Martin Murphy (40), had just a little less stamina, his hugely successful Howard Street restaurant in Belfast might never have seen the light of day.
In 2013, Martin Murphy was busy trekking around Belfast on an exhausting hunt for premises that he felt could accommodate his vision of a new eatery for the city, a restaurant that was capable of harking back to Belfast’s industrial past while presenting itself as modern, chic and minimalist.
By this stage, he’d been looking for 18 months but the buildings that he viewed did little to inspire him:
“Nowhere suited,” he told LCN this month. “What I was after was an old-style Belfast industrial vibe and somewhere that would allow me to introduce customers to some of the new ideas that I’d seen while travelling around the world.”
The Howard Street unit was his last visit of the day and Martin admits that he was so tired, he considered skipping out on the viewing altogether. As soon as he walked in, however, he knew that he’d found his location.
This was Martin’s first foray into restaurant ownership and he and former business partner, Niall Davis, opened the doors to Howard Street later that year.
For Martin, it was the realisation of a long-held ambition to own his own restaurant by the time he was 35.
He’s been in the catering business for the last two decades, ever since a portering job at a restaurant in Florida convinced him that his future lay in hospitality. When he was 21, he returned to Northern Ireland and immediately went back to college, embarking on a course that included work experience with chef, Michael Deane in Belfast.
When Martin had finished his training, he moved to spend a short time at Shu, which had only just opened its doors on the Lisburn Road, and then he was off to Australia, where he spent the next two years:
“There’s no doubt about it, that was a game changer for me,” recalls Martin. “I began to experience lots of south-east Asian cuisine, I was shopping at the Chinese markets, things I’d never seen before and it really made my mind up for me in terms of what I wanted to do in my career.”
Martin came home when he was 25 and spent a short time at James Street South before he was offered his first head chef position at Ten Square. Two years in post there were followed by more international experience, this time in Amsterdam, where he spent the next two years:
“I think travelling is essential for a chef,” he says. “There’s only so much that Belfast has to offer so you have to get out there. It doesn’t matter whether it’s London or Sydney, just take your pick and go. For me, it was essential that I see what was going on.”
Martin embarked on a variety of other projects after Amsterdam, including a round-the-world trip. On his return, he became head chef at the former Potted Hen restaurant in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, where he remained for the next three years.
Martin marked the success of the 74-seat Howard Street venture recently when he unveiled the results of a £40,000 revamp at the venue.
“Howard Street has always had a strong industrial vibe and we wanted to hang on to that identity,” Martin told LCN. “I think that some of our customers were scared that was going to change, but it hasn’t. I think, if anything, it’s been enhanced.”
The main changes centre on the removal of a partition at the bottom of the dining room and the addition of new seating and feature lighting. Changes were also introduced in the kitchen to make service more efficient. New dishes and cocktails have also been added to the offering.
“I think that no matter how long you are in business, you are always working at it,” says Martin. “When Niall and I went into business, we hit the ground running. We got a lot of press exposure and we were pretty much busy straight away. We had a really solid business plan in place, we would grow in increments as we were ready and that’s what we did.”
This is the first major refurbishment that’s gone ahead at the venue since it was opened. Howard Street closed for a week at the end of April to allow the work to go ahead.
“Now that we’re open again, we’re focused on just keeping doing what we do,” says Martin, who is head chef at the restaurant. “We want to keep building the business from the ground up, that’s where we are at. I want to make Howard Street a destination restaurant. At the moment, we are full every night, we get so many tourists in here from all around the world and we have so many dishes on the menu, it’s a reflection of everything I’ve learned from my time travelling and we’re receiving a very positive response.”
In the longer term, Martin is aiming to install a head chef at the Howard Street venue, which would free him up a little to consider expansion options:
“I am definitely very keen to bring another project to Belfast, that’s for sure,” he says.
Our image above shows Martin Murphy in the Howard Street restaurant.
On the menu at Howard Street:
Salt & Chilli Barbecue Squid, Cucumber, Sesame & Rice Wine Dressing, Spiced White Cabbage Spring Roll – £8.75
New Season English Asparagus, Marinated Feta, Spiced Hummus, Parma Ham & Burnt Onion – £8
Monkfish & Prawn Coconut Curry, Peanut & Thai Basil Pesto, Jasmine Rice & House-Made Naan – £17.50
Crispy Pork Belly, Crushed Potatoes, Char-Grilled White Broccoli, Black Pudding, Rosemary Jus – £17.50