Designer at Heart, Restauranteur by Trade: John Farrell

When serial restaurateur John Farrell arrives at Super Miss Sue on Tuesday morning, he asks if we can go down to the darkness of Luna, its sister restaurant in the basement.

He’s wearing checkered slacks, a shirt, a blazer, runners, and a pair of sunglasses — an attention to patterns and design that can also be found throughout his portfolio of restaurants.

These include Dillinger’s and The Butcher Grill in Ranelagh, 777 on George’s Street, and of course Super Miss Sue and Luna on Drury Street. The latter is named after his daughter.

Farrell greets Luna’s head chef, Karl Whelan, with a hug before we settle into a spacious booth away from the window.

Leo Molloy, Farrell’s right-hand man sits to his left. He’s the community manager for the restaurants or, as Farrell calls him with a chuckle, Dr Phil.

Molloy does the payroll, checks in on the restaurants, picks drinks, and is the emergency contact for managers when something goes wrong. He handles the details.

As for the concepts? Those are Farrell’s forte, says Molloy.

Team Dillinger’s

Molloy and Farrell go a ways back.

Molloy was friends with Farrell’s ex-wife Jill first, and at her request met with Farrell to discuss an idea he had for a restaurant.

At the time, Molloy was leading a laid-back life in Portugal where he ran a small yoga business. But during one of his visits home to Dublin, the pair crossed paths.

Farrell’s vision for his first restaurant was still inside his head at this stage, aside from some furniture and light fittings he’d bought from the US.

“I remember Dillinger’s when it was stacked up in the corners of John’s apartment,” says Molloy. “It was just a mood board. He didn’t have a menu, a chef or a building, but he had this concept and this design.”

Farrell says he knew he wanted the restaurant to be an American-style diner. He had a few chefs in mind, but he needed a venue before he approached anyone.

As Farrell tells it, after their first encounter he got the impression that Molloy thought he was a lunatic. “He did this whole psychology thing on me, where he just didn’t say anything,” he says.

And indeed, Molloy did think he was a little bit crazy – but not in a bad way.

A few months after their encounter, Dillinger’s opened and Farrell gave Molloy a call to see if he was interested in helping with the bar.

Molloy was in Dublin on another visit and started out on the restaurant’s second night. A week later, he packed his bags in Portugal and moved back to Dublin.

“Sometimes I look back and ask, ‘Why did I do that?’” he says. “I lived 30 seconds from the beach and worked 20 weeks out of the year . . . But I don’t regret it.”

A Lucky Recession

Farrell used to work front-of-house at Il Primo on Montague Street but says he left so he could push himself to start his own restaurant.

He had some savings and a credit card with a limit of €35,000, a hefty sum that he told the bank he needed to buy a car, which he promised would be paid back by the end of the month.

“I quickly ran to the bank to write a cheque and whacked it into my current account. They didn’t see that for a while,” he says, with a laugh.

Dillinger’s opened in 2009 where Dylan McGrath’s Mint used to be, and it was recession-proof, say Molloy and Farrell.

“It was cheap and cheerful with big portions and really good quality,” says Molloy. “It’s what people wanted at the time.”

The extensive media coverage of its opening didn’t hurt either.

Dillinger’s was followed in quick succession by The Butcher Grill in 2010, 777 in early 2012 and Super Miss Sue in 2014. Luna opened last summer.

Farrell hadn’t intended to be so ambitious. “I had ants in my pants for sure, but it just kind of roller-coastered,” he says. “Everything happened in the recession for me.”

Alan Dunn, head chef at 777, says Farrell puts in effort across the board – food, staff, service, look – which helps keep people coming back. “People do judge by appearances,” says Dunn.

Farrell has worked in restaurants since he was 19, doing everything from payroll to peeling potatoes, says Dunn, so he knows what he’s doing.

But Farrell says he’s still learning and makes sure to hire people with plenty of knowledge. “I always like to surround myself with people who know more than me,” he says.

Early on, he decided not to work in the restaurant as a staff member. “It’s not my job to come in here and micromanage, because then I can’t walk in and see clearly,” he says.

Besides, this gave him time to work on expanding, and to concentrate on other things, most of all, design.

The Design Factor

Farrell says he’s long harboured an interest in carpentry and design.

He studied furniture design, but didn’t finish because he couldn’t afford to, and so he started to work in the food business. In many of his restaurants, he brings both trades together.

Dillinger’s started with stacks of furniture.

The Butcher Grill challenged him to come up with a layout and a concept that would work for the tight room. The final concept was inspired by a steakhouse he remembered seeing in Cape Town when he worked there in his early 20s, he says.

Farrell grew up in the Ballymun flats, but in the 1980s heroin-use haunted the area and the loss of a 16-year-old neighbour to the drug was the final straw for his mother. She decided to move with Farrell and his sister to Zimbabwe, where their grandmother lived. He was 11 and he spent the next 12 years of his life there.

The layout of The Butcher Grill is the same as that of the Cape Town steakhouse, but they don’t actually look alike, he says. “That idea, I remember was called the wooden shoe . . . so that stuck in my mind,” he says. “I liked the challenge of doing something in such a small place.”

Look up in 777, and you can see the rectangular lights that Farrell designed on AutoCAD. The tiles on the walls are based on the drawings by a tattoo artist, which Farrell sent to Bolivia to be turned into life-size portraits.

Looking at the walls in Luna’s, and you can see the speakers. Wooden and chunky, they match the restaurant’s decor perfectly.

Farrell says he has two warehouses in the city stocked full of furniture and fittings for restaurants. “I think I’ve accidentally started owning restaurants because I like designing stuff,” he says. Adding that he’ll have to sell off some of his stockpile before it results in another restaurant opening

Mellow Manager

An average work week for Farrell includes stringent research, drawing up designs, fielding phone calls, and a whole lot of meeting people. At least, that’s what Molloy and Dunn say.

Farrell says Netflix, wine, and the company of his two dogs are often a feature too.

He often applauds his staff, who he can trust to look after things.

Mid-conversation, he recalls tasks to be done and begins to brainstorm after I ask if his travels in Africa were ever an inspiration.

He starts talking about a restaurant in Capetown called Mama Africa and gets Molloy to Google if it’s still around.

“An African restaurant would be killer, wouldn’t it?” he says. “Don’t be giving me ideas.”

After Luna, we head to 777, where he’s eager to see footage of the previous night’s cocktail-fueled event – Margarita Monday.

He sips a glass of white wine as he waits for the footage, apparently the camera captured some of his friends singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on the bar. Before it uploads, though, he’s off: he has a meeting about fried chicken recipes.

I stay and chat with the head chef, Dunn, who clearly likes working for Farrell because of the freedom it allows him.

“John allows us to create and move forward with what we want,” he says. He gets to order the ingredients he wants, and can take expensive risks from time to time.

Hiramasa kingfish, abalone (sea snails), fried bugs, and pig’s brains – he’s served them all at 777 since he arrived there about three and a half years ago.

Dunn tests new recipes with tasting menus and on Sunday’s all dishes are €7.77. It might not be profitable for all of the dishes, but it’s about filling the seats, clearing the fridge at the end of the week and experimenting with what’s left.

“It’s very rare to find that in an owner, where you can say we’ll make a loss,” says Dunn.

Farrell says he’s probably spent more money than he should have surrounding himself with good staff. “But I value my time. I’d rather have more time to myself and make less money,” he says.

When he first opened 777, wholesalers weren’t supplying good Mexican products, like tequila or chillies. So he imported them himself and gave his accountant a fit.

The Future

Farrell takes his research seriously. Before he opened 777, he flew in a chef from a Mexican restaurant that he loved in the US.

More recently, he and Whelan jetted off to Hong Kong. Now they’re even thinking about opening a Luna there.

Alongside Whelan and Molloy, he also trawled New York for the best Italian food, and picked around Nashville in search of the most scrumptious fried chicken.

“Nashville was to research booze and chicken,” says Farrell.

“Pretty much,” says Molloy. “Bourbon, chicken, country and western, and cowboy boots, and belt buckles.”

That was all research for Farrell’s next business venture, which is motivated in part by a wish to spend more time with his daughter who lives in the US with her mother.

He plans to open a chain of fried chicken takeaways that serve quality food. “It’s fast-food with integrity,” he says. “As stupid as that may sound.”

They’re working on the recipe at the moment. The trick to getting the taste right is in what the chickens are fed, says Farrell.

He envisages a fried chicken version of New York chain Shake Shack, which Farrell describes as an adult version of McDonald’s.

He plans to call it Blackbird and to target cities around the world, with each one becoming home to a 60-seater restaurant, with a bar, dancing, music and links to the local community.

Then after setting up this initial base to build the name, more modest takeaways, or maybe even just order windows, will be dotted around each city.

This time next year, he plans to roll out one of each in Dublin as his pilot runs. From there, the hope is to spread to London and the US.

“Well I registered the name in 130 countries, so I plan to put it all over the world,” Farrell says, casually.

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