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Arabian nights

Liam O’Dwyer says he’s not so much a pub operator as a concept originator and prop man. But, over the past five years, his concepts have been at the leading edge of Dublin’s nightlife. His latest, Zanzibar, is a Ir£5m (£4.4m) investment on Dublin’s North Quays.

Zanzibar is a 10,000sq ft pub and café just a pedestrian bridge away from the teeming Temple Bar area, where most of the 3.5 million annual visitors to Dublin find their way.

Yet, so far, just 5% of the clientele have been overseas visitors. The rest are locals who want something different at night to another “Irish” pub. There has been no advertising in the four months since it opened. Zanzibar has been a word-of-mouth success.

Opening on the Friday of Whit weekend – even before all the construction work had been completed – Zanzibar offers 20-year-old-plus Dubliners an unusual drinking venue. O’Dwyer describes it as “kind of romantic, pleasant a fantasy”.

He has had the words of an Arabic poem inscribed in gold on a muted purple background down the four-storey faáade of the building:

“Hot white walls, black shadows

the aroma of strong eastern spices, bazaar delights!

The scent of sandalwood and cloves.

A sound of laughter and music and drums.”

Inside the south-facing doors, the marble weave-pattern floor is reminiscent of cool shelter on hot Mediterranean days. All around are original paintings, urns and furnishings in tones of mustard, cream, deep reds and gold. Long, upholstered seats meander around alcoves hidden by palm trees that reach towards the high ceiling. Scattered lattice tables provide twin chairs for intimate meetings. A staircase half-way along the building sweeps into the upstairs area.

At weekends, there’s a dance floor at the furthest end of the second floor, although it’s easy to get away from the loud music by retreating into an alcove.

The wickerwork chairs and inlaid tables came from Morocco, while the brass olive oil urns began life in Istanbul. The pictures of slave girls and Arab buyers in the slave market in 19th-century Zanzibar were bought individually. “It took a lot of leg work,” says O’Dwyer. “I am the only one who can buy these things because I am the only one who knows what I want.”

Tax incentives

The building’s metamorphosis from furniture auction house to Arabic drinking house took two years. The building originally qualified for tax breaks in 1994, when the quays north of Temple Bar were designated a tax incentive area.

It is currently owned by a tax consortium that claims double rent allowance for 10 years against taxes. At the end of that period, the O’Dwyer Leisure Group will own the building and, in the meantime, it can write off tax against profits.

“When we started two years ago,” says O’Dwyer, “the whole thing was a different story: others had not developed here, the IRA cease fire had broken down with the Canary Wharf bomb, and the future looked bleak. It’s satisfying, now, to think that we decided to go ahead.”

The Ir£5m project, which includes the purchase of the freehold, has already chalked up a turnover of Ir£100,000 (£88,834) a week, which spells projected sales of Ir£5m (£4.4m) in its first year.

The building is licensed for 1,300 people and there is no entrance charge. From Wednesday to Sunday, it’s full, although, as general manager Jillian Stout explains, they pay close attention to numbers.

“We click people in and out and we know the numbers for fire regulations. On Fridays, too many pubs pack people in and it’s not comfortable. We try not to admit stag parties. The place is so open that sound travels and stags can be raucous. We want people to enjoy themselves.”

On the last Monday evening of August, 1,300 were admitted, and by 11.30pm – closing time – there were still 700 people on the premises. On Friday night, 2,600 came through the doors and 1,200 were still there at closing time. At weekends, between 9pm and 9.45pm, a 60-metre queue forms as people wait to get in.

Pints are Ir£2.50 (£2.22), half pints Ir£1.55 (£1.37), whisky, vodka and gin Ir£2.10 (£1.86) and soft drinks IR£1.40 (£1.24). Stout says she’s introducing a range of flavoured vodkas at Ir£2.20 (£1.95) a shot. “We have flavoured vodkas, an Amarula drink with wild berry cream that’s a little like Baileys – very appropriate for here – and we have Russian Berry.”

But most drinkers go for beer – Zanzibar offers Budweiser, Guinness, Heineken, Smithwicks, Carlsberg and Millers on draught – vodka and other popular spirits.

“We can cater for drinks parties for up to 150 people,” says Stout. “We have two rooms for parties: one overlooks the whole pub, and the other is a quiet room. But we do not take bookings after 7pm. That’s just empty chairs – and nobody likes that.”

Food is seen as an add-on to the main bar business and is self-service, both for lunch and dinner. “We’re staying away from carvery meat-and-two-veg,” says Stout. “We offer quick and tasty food. We aim at a trade that wants good food for around a fiver. Pastas and baked potatoes are popular. In the evenings, people drink more and we offer more substantial food.”

Chef Owen Binchy, cousin of Dublin novelist Maeve Binchy, offers mushroom and vegetable soup at Ir£2.25 (£2), pan-fried citrus-marinated chicken with peppers, red onion and Marie Rose sauce at Ir£4 (£3.50), salmon in oyster sauce at Ir£5.95 (£5.30) and Thai green chicken curry at Ir£5.50 (£4.88). There are also sandwiches with side salad, priced at Ir£3.25-£3.75 (£2.90-£3.30) or baked potatoes filled from the salad bar at Ir£3.70 (£3.30).

Binchy uses taquitos because they are easier to hold and do not break as easily as tacos. “We’re mixing and matching a lot of ethnic fillings. Thai food is becoming very popular,” he says.

Urban tax incentives have led to many new apartments being built within walking distance of Zanzibar, and it is well positioned to cater for the new well-heeled local population. It looks as if Liam O’Dwyer’s concept has hit its niche spot on.

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