When I decided — with my husband and his family — to go on a weeklong holiday in the west of Ireland, I honestly wasn’t sure if I would end up starving to death while we were gone. After all, “gluten” seems like such a foreign word in rural places, and let’s just forget about “Celiac”!
To my extremely pleasant surprise, it turns out that Sligo, Ireland is a Mecca for Celiacs. I was even able to do something that is a no-go in the big city of Belfast — eat breakfast in a restaurant! I’m so happy that my favourite little town in the world is able to cater for my particular needs so well.
It appears that the reason Sligo is so Celiac-friendly is because of the hospital in town. In 2010, they began testing and trials based around Celiac (Coeliac) and Hemochromotosis (“iron-overload”). Apparently, the incidence of Celiac diagnosis in northwest Ireland is very high, and gluten-related investigations in Sligo’s hospital sit at about 2,000 cases per year. That number is extremely high when considering Sligo is a very small place. Sligo now has the technology to perform Celiac testing in house, rather than sending the materials to Dublin for processing.
I was previously in Sligo in 2008. Though I can honestly say that I wasn’t looking for gluten-free options in restaurants, I do know that nothing caught my attention back then. (Having many restrictions on my diets, I tend to pick up on available options and the fine print that says to ask your waiter if you have any allergies even if they do not relate to me.) I can only assume that the more the community learns about Celiac, the more likely they are to provide options for their own citizens and vistors.
The following is only a guide. Since a lot of the information I found before heading to Sligo was quite old, I thought I would offer an updated account of what I found. It’s not exhaustive — I didn’t go door-to-door, restaurant-to-restaurant (though it does sometimes feel like what I do!). These are the places I discovered. [Note: Everything food-related in Sligo seemed to be a bit pricey. I was tempted to say that about all the restaurants.]
Bistro Bianconi, Tobergal Lane, Sligo town
I think we ended up eating here three times over the week. Pizza, pasta, etc. It’s a nice sit-down restaurant, but it doesn’t require dressing up. Everything we tried was great, gluten-free or not. They have gluten-free pizza bases and pastas. They don’t charge more for them, and they don’t look at you funny when you order. The four course early-bird menu wasn’t entirely Celiac-friendly (soup, Caesar salad, garlic bread for starters), but the regular menu is always available. Their ice cream was gluten-free, and they had a lovely pavalova on for the dessert of the day once.
Osta Cafe, Garavogue Weir, Sligo town
Ok, I’ll admit it. I ate their pancakes on four different occasions. But, in my defense, they have several different options! While there are not a ton of gluten-free choices on their menu, a simple breakfast is well-handled. There are scones (I had a plain one with jam and butter.) and muffins (Mine was raspberry and coconut.) baked every morning. Gluten-free pancakes come with the following options: lemon, butter, and sugar; cinnamon-infused berry compote and greek yoghurt (seen half-eaten above); local honey, greek yoghurt, and sliced almonds; bacon and maple syrup . . . and I’m pretty sure I’m missing something.
Bella Vista, Shore Road, Strandhill
Strandhill was a beautiful little place not far from Sligo town. It’s famous for its surfing (no swimming allowed), but the view is amazing. Of course, everything on the west coast is the Atlantic Ocean, but you really feel like you’re looking out into the ocean from Strandhill. As far as I can tell, all the businesses in Strandhill are on one road — Shore Road. We passed by a couple of restaurants where I could have eaten (a lot of Asian cuisine is safe if you know what to look for), but we stopped at Bella Vista because there were a lot of options. I think the place is a bit under-staffed, but hopefully that was only a temporary problem. They also charge €2 for changing a pasta or a pizza base to gluten-free. I ordered tagiatelle a la pollo. It turned out that they had actually run out of gluten-free tagiatelle, and the waitress was too busy to ask me if substituting spaghetti was okay until it was being presented to me. Of course, I was fine with it, but why bother asking if they had already made the decision? My husband, CB, would like to point out that you should discourage anyone non-gluten-free in your party from getting the steak sandwich. Everything else was good.
The Yeats Tavern, Drumcliffe
The Yeats Tavern is just down the road for where W.B. Yeats (and his wife! Don’t forget his wife!) is buried. Otherwise, it seems to have nothing to do with the poet. Regardless, I had a very decadent meal here. It started simply enough — their vegetable soup is gluten-free, and they have a lovely note just under it on the menu that says “Ask your server for gluten-free bread!”. And, what a lovely piece of bread it was! My main course was a special of pan-fried chicken smothered in roasted peppers and covered in a thick slice of goats cheese, which was baked to form a crust. It was drizzled with balsamic vinegar and pesto. It also came with a choice of potatoes — the dinner menu does not mention that the chips are not gluten-free, but I noticed it on the early-bird menu posted at the entrance — where I chose the buttered new potatoes and stole a few sneaky bites of CB’s garlic and cheese au gratin (we checked on their Celiac status!). For dessert, they have gluten-free ice cream, around which they formed several options, and a chocolate brownie with a “gluten-free alternative”. I didn’t find out what that alternative was because I opted for an ice cream dish with bananas and toffee — surprisingly light and refreshing!
Poppadom, O’Connell Street, Sligo town (no website)
Considering my love for Indian food, I knew I would be visiting this restaurant again after a positive experience four years ago. It did not disappoint (except that CB wanted Peshawari naan and did not find it on the menu — he got on just fine with his regular naan). I always find myself customising my meal in Indian restaurants as of late, and they were more than happy to provide exactly what I wanted. We were confused that there was a tasty chicken option on the early-bird menu (which we missed) that wasn’t on the main menu, though I can’t remember what exactly it was. Best yet was that, after a warm and muggy day, they had an air conditioner! I know, I know: I’m a spoiled American and my husband is an over-warm Irishman, but we like our cool air.
Tesco store, O’Connell Street, Sligo town
This entry is the one real oddball on my list because it is not a restaurant. However, I can’t speak on my time eating in Sligo without mentioning shopping at Tesco. They had a great selection of gluten-free flours (even Bob’s Red Mill!), mixes, sauces, breads, and other food-stuffs. I found things I haven’t been able to find anywhere up North. In fact, we indulged a bit on some sourdough bread (well-sealed) and a box of deep-pan pizza bases to bring back home with us! There were some mini baguettes from a gluten-free bakery in Cork (who knew?!) that made for great sandwiches for the days’ adventures (believe it or not, we did more than eat!).
And, in case you were wondering why I’m so shocked at the gluten-free selection, this was the view from our bedroom window every morning!