Four years after the closure of The Olive Grove restaurant in Athlone, its proprietor Garry Hughes is back in the restaurant business having recently opened the town’s first dedicated tapas eatery, Las Radas.
The restaurant on Pearse Street opened on Wednesday, March 29, and Garry said the response so far has been very positive.
Garry ran The Olive Grove with his wife, Gael, for sixteen years. Despite the popularity of their restaurant, difficulties meeting repayments on hefty Celtic Tiger-era loans led to it closing in 2013.
Since the closure, Garry said he always maintained a desire to get back into the restaurant trade.
“I am a sucker for punishment!” he smiled. “It’s what I do. I like to think I’m good at it but, more importantly for me, I really enjoy it.
“I have got that feeling of enjoyment back. I had lost it for a long time because there was so much debt hanging over you and, really, that’s all you were worried about. You were not functioning the way you should be.”
He said the closure of The Olive Grove had been “like a death in the family”.
“There was a grieving process involved when we closed. We’re only human, so we had to go and deal with it in our own way. It was very tough for a long time. Really tough. There were lots of dark days, because you see yourself pretty much as a failure.
“It’s about how you deal with that. You can’t be an ostrich, bury your head in the sand, and say tomorrow it will be fine. It’s not. You have to face it head on. And we’re still doing that. We’re still in the process of facing all of that. But we’re working on it.”
Garry is the general manager of Las Radas, which he runs with Gael’s brother, Jules, and his wife, Joanne. Jules and Joanne already run a successful tapas restaurant, also named Las Radas, in Naas.
The idea for the Athlone venture had been brewing for some time, and Garry started looking for a premises around seven or eight months ago. He ultimately decided on the Pearse Street unit formerly occupied by Café Mama, which has now been given a colourful facelift.
Describing the food as "lively world tapas," he spoke about the concept behind the restaurant.
“Tapas is a style of eating. It’s a social way of eating. It’s small plates, and when the food is cooked it comes out. I think with so many Irish people having travelled abroad, a lot of them do understand the idea of tapas," he said.
“I felt that if I was to come back in Athlone, I needed to do something different. There are so many really good restaurants in the town. What they do, they do really well so why go into direct competition with them? I thought, ‘let’s do something a bit different.’
“This is upmarket casual. It’s based around friendly service and really good-tasting food.
“It’s cool, it’s funky, good music in the background, lovely décor. Just sit back, relax, and we’ll look after you. That’s what it’s about.”
His wife is running a bed and breakfast – the Village B&B – providing accommodation in two apartments adjacent to their home in Mount Temple.
“The B&B is listed on booking.com and Airbnb, and it’s going really well,” said Garry. “We’ve had such an eclectic mix of people coming to stay. We’ve had pretty much every European nationality, as well as Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans… it’s incredible.
“The beauty of it is that we’re only an hour and 15 minutes from (Dublin) airport, so what Gael is finding is that we could be the first port of call for people who come in from the airport, get their car, stay the night with us, and then go on their road trip. Or else we’re the last port of call before they go back to the airport.”
He said there had been tremendous goodwill expressed toward himself and Gael by people from the Midlands.
“I want to say thank you to everybody for that. I never got a chance to say goodbye to people when we closed, but I do want to say thank you to each and every person that ever came through the door of the Olive Grove.
“The goodwill from people in Athlone and surrounding areas has been phenomenal.
“I’ve had people I don’t know coming up to me on the street, shaking my hand, and saying it’s good to see you back. And it’s good to be back. It is really good to be back,” he said.