The Rise and Fall of Nightclub Meals

In the mid-1990s, the dance-music scene in Ireland emerged from the underground, as raves in fields gave way to big-name acts performing in mainstream clubs.

The GPO nightclub in Galway was packed to capacity for a guest performance by the legendary DJ Fatboy Slim.

Sweaty young people are dancing under coloured lights and flashing strobes, machines are blasting out icy smoke. The beats are building, the dancers are euphoric.

Suddenly the music stops. It’s time for dinner.

“It was one of the more surreal things that happened, and it’s certainly something I remember,” says Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim. “If I ever write a book it’ll be in there.”

“We had to switch the music off for half an hour, but what they didn’t do was shut the bar,” he says, by phone from Ibiza.

He filled the half-hour break with beatboxing, and passed around the microphone, he says. “Everyone drunk lots, there was actually carnage when we started the music up again.”

From 1935 until 2000, if you wanted a late-night licence, you had to serve a substantial meal. It didn’t matter if no one wanted to eat the food.

They must not have wanted it in the GPO that night, as Cook doesn’t remember seeing food at all. He thinks the music was stopped to provide patrons with a break.

Pat Nolan, editor of the magazine Drinks Industry Ireland, says that as far as he can recall, to secure a late licence, one had to impose a break when ordinary pub hours ended and the special late licence began.

According to the letter of the law, during this interval, lights should be turned on, music switched off and food served, he says.

So throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Dublin and all across Ireland, nightclubs, discos and dances had to make shapes at serving food.

Eat Up

Before 2000, it you wanted a “special exemption order” for a dance, it had to take place in a hotel or restaurant and you had to serve “a substantial meal” to people there,  said a press officer for the Department of Justice.

The price of the meal had to be included in the admission price.

Over the years, what you got in clubs has changed.  “If you go back as far as the 1960s in Dublin you had the beat clubs,” says Paul Tarpey, a DJ and music journalist. “These were held in a basement and often didn’t have a licence to sell alcohol at all.”

Beat clubs were popular dancing venues influenced by mod culture, where live bands played the hits of the day, as Donal Fallon has explained on the Come Here to Me! blog.

Ken Tubbert was the singer with a band called The Others who played in beat clubs in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Zhivago was probably the biggest club in Dublin at the time,” he says. It only had a wine licence, but still needed to produce the meal so they could serve drinks until 2am.

“They had to provide a room where people could sit down and have this so-called meal,” he says. The food was “the cheapest of the cheap, it was nearly always a curry”.

“Moving on to the ’70s, you had the supper clubs, with wine and dinner and dancing all in the one venue,” says Tarpey, the DJ and music journalist. “These clubs were fairly high-end.”

By the 1980s, disco had taken over from band-led venues, and the mandatory meal was becoming unpopular, says Tarpey.

The meal would ordinarily be a chicken curry or a basket of chicken and chips, he says. “Sometimes you had a hatch and the food was just there in case the cops came.”

By the 1990s, many clubs in Dublin were keeping up an appearance of serving food, rather than really providing customers with meals, says Tarpey.

Nolan, editor of Drinks Industry Ireland, says that most patrons didn’t want the food, and the chicken and chips often ended up all over the floor.

Tarpey agreed. “Some people definitely did want it, but most didn’t,” he said. And he was sometimes among those who did. “My gang were drinkers, and we had no shame,” he says.

Club managers started to try to guess how many people would want the food and made less accordingly, says Tarpey.

One Dublin venue he worked in used to print just 30 dinner tickets, despite drawing crowds of over 500 he recalls.

“It’s safe to say that some of the clubs realised that this was ridiculous … what killed them was throwing food away,” he says.

Clubs would publish on their flyers, in small print, that food was available, so they could hand these to their solicitor when they needed to renew their licence, he recalls.

While dance venues had to pretend to be restaurants, some restaurants were doubling up as nightclubs too.

In Dublin in the ’90s, closing hours were stricter and there were few venues open after hours.

Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, says that Mr Pussy’s was an all-night restaurant that circumvented the strict closing hours. As a restaurant, it could serve food that contained alcohol.

“A milkshake laced with vodka qualified as food,” he says. “Those in the know would skip straight to dessert and we would just drink half vodka, half milkshake all night.”

It seems that a lot of well-known people drank – or ate, nudge nudge – in Mr Pussy’s too.

Cook says he went there one night with U2’s The Edge after a charity gig, and they were joined by the owner, Mr Pussy.

After a few too many milkshakes, they started singing Abba’s greatest hits.

“About half past three in the morning, in walked a very grumpy Van Morrison, he sat down beside us and just scowled at us murdering the Abba songs,” says Cook. “I lost it a bit and was like, ‘It’s Van the Man!’”

When and Where

Tubbert, the singer with the band The Others, doesn’t recall the lights being switched on or the music stopped to serve the meal in Dublin throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

That might be because there was a lot of variation in how the rules were enforced around the country. It depended on how strict the local judge or garda superintendent was, says Nolan, the magazine editor.

That might also explain the dramatic interlude during the Fatboy Slim gig.

“It was all down to one superintendent in Galway who insisted on the meal-rule being enforced,” says Tarpey, the DJ and music journalist. “He was extremely strict.”

There was a clampdown on dance venues in particular too, says Tarpey. The authorities didn’t seem to like the lack of respectability associated with the rave subculture.

“It had nothing to do with the social rituals that had grown up since the ’50s,” he says.

“All they wanted was the appearance of respectability, of courting and dancing, but this had nothing to do with any of that, this was just a group of young people going crazy.”

For Tarpey, the requirement to serve food was part of an “archaic” approach to licensing, which also included “holy hour”.

Regulations at the time also dictated that all pubs be closed between 2pm and 4pm on a Sunday. The practice was dubbed “holy hour”.

Many pubs simply closed their doors and kept serving. In 1999, that stipulation was dropped.

The following year, the requirement for meals to be served was also abolished, with the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000, said the press officer for the Department of Justice.

Tarpey points out that Ireland in the 1990s was a very different place from the Ireland of today. At the start of the decade, it was still illegal to be gay, he says.

“Whoever came up with this food thing must have been a far-right Christian,” says Tarpey. “Remember that there was a huge resistance to giving people a place to meet that wasn’t supervised by the church.”

Throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s most bands and DJs were also expected to play the national anthem at the end of the night, says Tubbert, of The Others. That was a custom and not a law, though.

He never played the song, but he was regularly criticised by some in the audience when he failed to do so, he says.

Not Just Us?

It wasn’t just Ireland, though, that had a practice of forcing clubs to serve meals that nobody wanted. At least, not according to Cook, aka Fatboy Slim.

He remembers something similar in the UK. “I remember my first ever residency in Brighton we had to serve baked beans on toast to qualify for the late licence,” he says, with a laugh.

Another popular club handed people hot dogs on the way in, whether they wanted them or not, he says. “By the end of the night there were squashed hot dogs all over the floor.”

There seems to be little appetite for bringing back the late-night meals.

Tarpey says that he enjoyed them many times himself, but says they were ultimately scrapped because most people didn’t want them. The food was being wasted.

Cook says he performed a DJ set for a large room of people having their dinner once. It was strange, and he isn’t inclined to do it again.

He favours the separation of restaurants and nightclubs. “Eating and drinking and taking drugs and dancing are not the best mix and it gets very messy,” he says.

Reader responses

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D
at 14 June 2017 at 12:24

ha, I remember this from my years of working in Coco’s nightclub. The absolute mess of the deep fried ‘food’ served was a nightmare to clean up. I never knew why it was done – thanks for sharing this.

Janet Canning
at 14 June 2017 at 14:39

We did this in San Francisco when I was at UNI, but mainly I think because a lot of alternative clubs we sub basements of bars and restaurants. Part of it was its better to have full stomachs after dancing and drink. Or just the party all night. Not sure if SF had as an ordinance. This is very interesting to know, went to some clubs in UK and wondered.

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