I have a weird relationship with Belfast.
I'm from Northern Ireland and was born there but having grown up abroad I only visited Belfast the odd time when on holidays there. I always remember driving into the city in the '80s and '90s with genuine fear – army patrols on the way into and out of the city and an atmosphere that was always hostile and uneasy at best. Even in recent years when I was working there, the flag disputes were ongoing and a bit of hostility was never too far away.
And even if you do manage to forget about the Troubles and take the city on its merits – particularly if you're a returning visitor – you'll quickly spot a mural that brings you right back. I think it's fair to say I never really loved Belfast.
The city is changing though. Not as quickly as Dublin and still miles behind London, but there are pockets of new foodie spots and a trendy young generation who knew no trouble growing up and who want the same as their counterparts in other cities.
One thing that our generation seem obsessed with at the moment no matter where you go in the world is good coffee, and Belfast has a spot that I spent some time in today that could rival any coffee shop in the world. It's called Established Coffee. It's in the Cathedral Quarter, and as I sat down with an Americano and opened my laptop at the communal work table I could just as easily have been staring out at the streets of Berlin or San Francisco.
Indeed Belfast has that raw stripped-back, gritty, working city feel that you see in both those great cities. I often wonder if the shit times the people had in Berlin bred the insane levels of creativity they enjoy today, and if so, maybe the hard times that Belfast has suffered in the past will help form a brilliant new city in the future. A Phoenix from the flames sort of job.
I'm a sucker for good design and top class coffee and this place comes only second to 3fe on the island of Ireland – in fact, that's hardly a coincidence, as 3fe supply the coffee to this place.
That alone would have been enough for me as I blared techno through my headphones and enjoyed the buzz that you get from working on stuff that (you think) is super important with like-minded people sitting around the table. Laugh at them all you like, but I often think the MacBook working crew with their fancy notepads and designer facial hair add as much to the energy of a cafe as anything else.
Without them, cafés feel dull and boring and like something from the past. I go to coffee shops to work, people watch, be inspired and enjoy the craft of people doing what they love. Established Coffee is right up there with the very best spots I've been to in the world. I'd say easily in my top five.
If the design and coffee were good, then the food is something else. All I had was a sandwich and soup but both were fresh and homemade. I was too full to have a mini "loaf" dessert as they call them but they looked spectacular.
Back in Dublin this evening I talked to a friend about how ridiculously friendly the people in Belfast are. As he said, "suspiciously so". You sort of look at the staff and wonder what the deal is? Whats the scam? It turns out the people in this city are just nice and that will stand them stead in the long term.
I've high hopes for Belfast in the long term. It isn't there yet but there are pockets of brilliance emerging and this is definitely one of them. Creators and inventors bringing what they've seen abroad and adding that unique local twist to it. You'll struggle to find a better coffee shop in the world – and that's not something I thought I'd say about Belfast even 18 months ago. Top marks.