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Alan Smartt flips burgers and sways to the salsa rhythms playing on his iPod.
He is talking about watching people dance in Aruba. “You should have seen this guy, the way he moved was incredible, even the other dancers couldn’t keep up to him,” he says to the customers along the counter.
“And then there was these guys from Jamaica. They mixed Guinness with white wine and danced all night long.”
Little Mac’s in George’s Arcade has drawn in regulars, and tourists, for more than 30 years. Smartt, 53, knows most of their names – the local traders from the market, the students from the nearby colleges, and the office workers who have ducked out for lunch.
“Here it’s not like McDonald’s where you have to be polite,” says Smartt. “You say it as it really is and that’s why people come back – it’s for the banter.”
Prices are chalked up on blackboards: burger and chips for €5, a full Irish breakfast for €7.90, a bag of chips for €3.
There are red twirly stools along the bar. A snowman and a polar bear sit on the counter and tinsel is wrapped around the screen that divides the little restaurant from the rest of the market.
Eric Mooney walks in with two others, and shakes Smartt’s hand. The three sit up at the counter and order tea.
Mooney used to run a hairdressers nearby, so has dropped by for the last 26 years. Today, he’s brought in his aunt and uncle, who are visiting from Yorkshire, to meet Smartt.
“Once a cobbler, always a cobbler,” says Mooney, as he tucks in to a bacon-and-egg sandwich. It’s an in-joke between the two of them.
Smartt used to mend shoes, working for Mooney’s Uncle Des Turner, who owned a stall in the arcade. Des tipped off Smartt’s brother that there was an opening for a food place there. Smartt took over Little Mac’s from his brother a couple of years later.
“I deserted Des and took over the chip shop in 1987,” he says. “I hated the burger bar at first, but then I hated fixing shoes too, and I made more money in the burger bar.”
Sometimes tourists will drop by and Smartt is ready with tips about the city, or to question some of the questionable facts put forward by tour guides. He points to the back entrance of the Market Bar, in front of Little Mac’s.
“The tour guides are always coming in here, telling the tourists that the Market Bar was originally a shoe market,” he says, with a laugh. “They just say that because there are loads of shoes on the wall in there, but that building was the old sausage factory.”
Two young men appear.
“Veggie burger with cheese and hot chilli sauce,” says Smartt to the first.
Siddharthi Bhaduvuria smiles and nods. He studies nearby at Dublin Business School and stops by Little Mac’s two or three times a week, he says. “The veggie burger is as good as in India, even the hot sauce is the same,” he says.
“He used to be skinny when he first started coming here,” says Smartt.
Bhaduvuria sits back, and Smartt switches his attention to two buskers from Barcelona, and a discussion about the price of drink.
With five stools at the bar and two round tables with two stools each, Little Mac’s is designed to be a take-away as well as a sit-in shop. It is Friday lunchtime, and while there are some customers for take-aways, business isn’t the same as it used to be.
“Once upon a time we did a massive trade in chips at lunchtime,” says Smartt. “The kids from Bruce College used to order 30 bags of chips at a time.” They weren’t allowed out at lunchtime so a staff member would come and collect them.
“I was one of those kids,” says another customer, Shane O’Meilia, helping to fill in the story. “Betty, the secretary, used to come up here and get us our chips.”
“She tried to pay me separately the first time,” says Smartt. For 30 bags of chips. He told her she would have to sort out the money herself.
“You knew if you asked for anything other than chips you were stretching it,” says O’Meilia, who has been a customer of Smartt’s ever since. He says he calls in now whenever he’s in town without the kids.
Smartt says his business has been in decline in recent years. It’s the healthy-eating trend, he says.
“People think they are getting fat because of what they are eating, but it’s not that. They are doing no exercise, sitting on their phones and never going outside, that’s what is making them fat,” he says.
Chipper food used to be a Friday treat for many workers. Nowadays, Friday is his slowest day. Perhaps, he speculates, office workers go somewhere fancy on a Friday now.
Saturday is his busiest day but even then he handles the burger bar alone, puffed-up paper bags lined up on the counter ready for chips to be shoveled in at speed. “I can work as fast as the machines go, so an extra person wouldn’t really help me,” he says.
A young couple from France order fish and chips, and a burger and chips.
The burgers are home-made says Smartt. There’s his award-winning leek and pork-steak burger or his simpler chicken burger.
“People walk past and they don’t realise that it is good-quality food, it just looks like a stall,” he says, as he drops two pieces of fish in the deep-fat fryer. He serves the large piece of fish and chips on a real plate.
Another customer orders two bacon burgers and ducks back out, saying he’ll be back for them in five minutes.
“He’s a chef from a nearby restaurant,” says Smartt, with a whisper. “I get quite a few of them.”
Joe Hennessey, who manages the arcade, comes in and out for tea. Smartt rinses out the china mug with hot water, and pours him a good strong cup.
For Hennessey, it’s clear what the draw of Little Mac’s is. “They come in here because he slags people,” he says.
A lovely portrait of a place I’ve walked past countless times, but never stopped to see it properly.
I’ll definitely see it through new eyes next times!
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