If you can’t stand the heat… U2’s legendary The Kitchen nightclub opened 25 years ago… [February 1994]
Saunter along Dublin’s East Essex Street on a sunny afternoon, and if you look closely, you might find an inconspicuous wooden door with the letters THE KITCHEN engraved in the granite above it.
While to the layperson (or, indeed, anyone under the age of 35), this discovery may seem inconsequential, for an eight-year period from 1994 to 2002, this unassuming entrance was the gateway to a legendary nocturnal haunt.
The Kitchen nightclub, which, like The Clarence Hotel above it, was (and still is) owned by rock band U2, officially opened its doors on 14 February 1994, 25 years ago.
To mark the occasion, 909originals has reached out to a handful of DJs, promoters and those closely involved with the club, to get their perspective on the impact it made on Dublin nightlife.
RAISING THE BAR
The early 90s were something of a golden age for Dublin clubbing, with nightspots like Sides, Columbia Mills, The Funnel and the Olympic packing in the punters on a weekly basis.
The Kitchen, however, sought to raise the bar; it was a purpose-built venue, developed for around £300,000 (about €610,000) in today’s money) by a team of noted architects and artists – a painting by Bono’s mate Guggi adorned the wall of the crypt-like back room.
Writing in The Irish Times in February 1994, journalist Robert O’Byrne was suitably impressed with his first visit to the cavernous venue, describing the interior as “extremely impressive, beginning with a curving lobby lined in leather panels”, with the dancefloor itself “surrounded buy a moat, its water lit to reflect rippling shapes complementing those being thrown by dancers” [more on this later].
Or, a “cross between a Peter Greenaway film set and a Tom and Jerry cartoon”, as Bono once put it.
When the time came for the grand opening, the glitterati were out in force – theatre group Macnas patrolled through Temple Bar, while notables of the period (including the late Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries) engaged in Valentine’s Day frolics. Scotsman Nodd McDonagh, who would go on to manage Ministry of Sound, was appointed manager, with Paul Dakeyene, aka Tinman (of Eighteen Strings fame) installed as resident. All systems were go.
An MTV News report from February 1994 captured the venue’s unveiling, featuring U2 (and assorted punters) in salubrious form, as you might expect.
But not all were caught up in the razzmatazz – just three weeks after opening, influential dance magazine Generator questioned “what the world’s most bankable rock band [were] doing opening a club?”, sniggering at suggestions that U2 were “old fogeys trying to remould themselves with an injection of hip and trendy youth culture”.
“The crowd is surprisingly mainstream, the party people have stayed away”, the magazine wrote, accompanied by a picture of a Dublin clubber with a suitably epic ‘tache.
“Part of the problem is the novelty value of the club; people who aren’t actually clubbers want to come to experience ‘U2’s club’.”
For good or ill, The Kitchen was up and running.
What most don’t remember, however, was that The Kitchen’s opening was a case of second time lucky.
Long-time U2 compatriot Gavin Friday held his wedding (to Renee O’Reilly) in The Clarence the previous October, with the reception taking place in the downstairs club, which, while kitted out at great expense, turned out to be highly impractical… not to mention downright ugly.
Paul Dakeyne, writing in his blog a few years back, described the original layout thus, “A bog-standard red brick dancefloor had pretty much zero in the way of club lighting, and the soundsystem consisted of four […] free-standing mobile DJ style speakers on each corner. The underground basement looked grungy, dark and dingy, with absolutely the most bog-standard of furnishings, bar and decor.”
“There were tiled steps above the dancefloor, and lots of copper everywhere,” says Sarah Delamere Hurding, a fellow wedding attendee who went on to work on the club’s door. “I think that night showed the band that the original design was not very functional, so they promptly closed it down and redesigned it.
“I was lucky to see the original layout, and I quite liked it – but they decided it was a bit of a health hazard. The redesign turned out to be a lot more functional.”
Bristol native Delamere Hurding, now a noted psychic and author (check out her book Mermaid in the Kitchen for more warts-and-all gossip from the club), was originally in the running to manage the venue, and soon fell in with U2 and manager Nodd McDonagh as part of the startup team.
“It was a real family,” she explains. “I came over with Billy, my Scottish boyfriend – who ended up working in The Pod – and was made to feel so welcome. Nodd was kind enough to organise a room for me in The Clarence Hotel, with all my stuff in it, while I was looking for a place to live. It felt like a home away from home.”
But initial plans to develop The Kitchen into Ireland’s answer to a superclub like Cream or Renaissance didn’t resonate strongly with punters, and within a few months of opening, a reappraisal took place.
“Paul [Dakeyne] was coming over and doing a few weekend nights, but for some reason, it wasn’t bringing people in,” Delamere Hurding adds. “Nodd wasn’t there for very long actually, only a few months, and by the end of the summer, there was a new manager and a new approach.”
“People were very sceptical in the beginning,” says DJ Podje, aka Stephen Goulding (check out 4sumotion.com for his latest release) who graduated from playing Thursday nights to becoming a Saturday resident in the club’s early years.
“They [U2] were trying to create a superclub vibe, but when that didn’t work, they very quickly changed their tack and turned it into something more down-to-earth, somewhere more cool and accessible.”
FINDING ITS GROOVE
One of the beneficiaries of The Kitchen’s ‘more open’ approach was Pussyfoot Records label boss Howie B (pussyfootrecords.com), who worked with artists as diverse as Björk, Tricky, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Soul II Soul as well as U2; co-producing both the Passengers and Pop albums for the latter.
“I got to know the boys somewhat by accident,” he explains. “Bono and The Edge were round in their friend David Quirke’s [ex Nude restaurant], and they heard a 12-inch of mine, which I think was on Mo’Wax Records. On the strength of that, they asked me to work with them, and literally three or four days later I was in Dublin to work with them on the Passengers album.
“Every Thursday, when we finished in the studio, we got into this little ‘groove bus’ – an extended Transit with a mental soundsystem – and we would head down to The Kitchen. I would get on the decks, and play whatever I wanted. After that, I would hop on a plane and play in Tokyo or New York or some place for the weekend, then back to the studio during the week… and The Kitchen the following Thursday.
“The atmosphere in the place was incredible. I played sets there that I couldn’t play anywhere else, because you had an immediate contact with the crowd; it was so intimate. I would be playing anything from En Vogue to EPMD to breakbeat to jungle, switching from 90 BPM to 140 BPM, and it just worked. It had such a great party vibe.
“Even when the big name DJs came over, they weren’t coming over to get paid, they were coming over to enjoy themselves.”
Having been through a few managers in its formative years, the job of running the day-to-day aspects soon fell to Ricky Mooney, who was working in The Clarence Hotel when he was asked to step in – a position he held pretty much right up until the club’s closure.
“The ‘peak’ period was the first three or four years that the club was open,” he says. “During that time, we had a huge amount of regulars, and we all became like one big family.”
Saturday nights were particularly eye-opening, particularly those helmed by Kerry native Donal Dineen. “We had some of the top DJs in the world play there,” he recalls. “The atmosphere on those Saturday nights was special.”
Special for everyone, that is, except those that lost their drinks, bags and wallets in the aforementioned moat that surrounded the dance floor.
“I did hear that someone connected to the design of the club thought that running water around the dancefloor would having a calming effect on people,” says Mooney. “It turned out to be a serious flaw, because at the end of every night it was full of cigarette butts, bottles and glasses.”
Not that the club’s staff couldn’t poke some fun at others’ expense, of course.
“We always got great entertainment out of the moat, because Ricky would fill it with suds at the start of the night, and it would sort of ‘disappear’,” says Podje.
“Myself and Dave McDonnell, who was on warmup duties, would have a bet to see who would lose their drink in it first – somebody put their drink down on what they thought was the floor, and ‘gulp’! To be honest, I’m not sure what the purpose of the moat was. I’m sure it made sense to someone.”
The club’s open-door policy also enabled it to experiment with club nights on historically-quiet nights of the week.
This was a club, as Bono told RTE at the club’s opening, that had “no VIP room. Hopefully there’ll be special treatment for everybody that wants to queue up and come in”.
Why not extend this to Monday or Tuesday nights, therefore, as well as the weekend?
As Delamere Hurding explains, U2 kept an eye on how things were progressing with the club (albeit from afar), as different nights began to spring up, such as Blue on a Wednesday, run by Hugh Scully and Shay Hannon, and Influx, helmed by Paul Davis and Johnny Moy on a Thursday.
“Behind the scenes, Bono asked me to keep him informed on how the club was doing and what the different nights were like,” she says. “They wanted it to be a place where they could come along and have some adult drinks with their friends.
“U2 were touring a lot at the time, and they loved to come down when they were in town, to socialise. In time, they felt that they couldn’t come along and be adults in their own club; some of the nights there had got quite wild. But at the same time, those nights were some of the hottest underground club nights in Dublin.”
The most popular midweek night was undoubtedly Genius, a student night complete with cut-price drinks, hammering techno, and the most up-for-it crowd this side of Ibiza’s San Antonio.
“Somebody had tried to open a Tuesday night event in the club and it had flopped,” says Peter May, the promoter behind Genius. “Putting on a techno night midweek was a brave step, because at the time, you could only get techno at the weekend, in places like Temple of Sound.”
Everything changed, however, with the arrival of a little-known energy drink to Irish shores.
“We already had a Smirnoff promotion on, and one day, Red Bull came in and said they wanted to get their foot in the door. They also offered to do a promotion on Tuesday’s, but we had never heard of them before. To be honest, we weren’t sure if vodka and Red Bull were a good mix.
“It turns out that vodka did indeed go very well with Red Bull, and pretty soon we were wedged.”
Combining the best of Irish techno talent – Francois, Joe McGrath, Warren K and others – with this new-found elixir (priced, somewhat unbelievably, at £1 for a vodka and £1 for a Red Bull) made for a heady mix.
“The clientele that used to go in there were really up for it, and that’s what made Genius ‘the’ night to go to. Because it was U2’s nightclub, you also had American tourists coming in and being blown away by the energy of the place. You would see them grabbing their friends and pointing to the dance floor: ‘just LOOK at what is going on over there!’”
Looking back, May believes that Genius and other nights in The Kitchen set a standard for midweek clubbing that has not been equalled in the years since.
“I feel a bit sorry for the kids these days, because most of the midweek nights are all chart music,” he says. “Back then, if you went out to listen to chart music you just weren’t cool.
“There are a few clubs that do well during the week, like Copper Face Jacks and maybe one or two more, but the rest of them are just scrapping for business. To me, the midweek nightclub scene is now completely dead.”
THE PLACE TO BE
Given the U2 connection, The Kitchen also became the ‘must-attend’ venue for any international celebrities that happened to be in town… often with Bono or one of the boys in tow.
“It was the place to be when you were in Dublin, like The Viper Rooms in Los Angeles,” says Delamere Hurding. “Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Michael Stipe, lots of supermodels… I remember Bjork fell down the stairs one night, she literally ‘fell into’ the club.
“One night that was particularly fun for me was when Prince came to the club, along with his wife, Mayte, and Bono. My job was to sit with them and light their cigars, occasionally getting a Stoli and Kahlua for Prince, if he wanted one. We had a policy of not taking tips from celebrities, but at the end of the night, he put some money into my hand… about 40 quid. Not bad for a night’s work.
“Another time, Michael Douglas came down – I was sitting opposite him – and every time he walked past, he seemed to trip over my feet. Then, I went to the loo, and he followed me! That was pre-Catherine Zeta-Jones, so who knows, things could have worked out differently.”
Podje, from his position in the DJ box, also rubbed shoulders with the great and good – “Kevin Spacey stayed back for a lock-in one night, and Mike Myers came in every night for six weeks” he says. “Another time, Danny DeVito hit the dancefloor with my then-girlfriend… she was short, he was shorter.”
Then there was the infamous evening when Naomi Campbell demanded that DJ Aiden Kelly play The Prodigy for her.
“It was the night of a U2 concert, which I had been at, so by the time I got to the Kitchen I was bloody hammered,” Podje recalls.
“I saw this thing going down between Naomi Campbell and Aiden Kelly – I didn’t know it was Naomi Campbell, to be honest – and then I saw Aiden being dragged out of the place. Ricky came over to me and explained the situation, and said that Naomi wanted a song played, so I said ‘no problem’ and headed for the DJ box.
“I put on the Prodigy CD, but with me being so hammered, I didn’t realise it was skipping – the same note over and over and over. I only realised what was happening when I looked across the floor and saw Ricky banging his head off the wall in disgust.
“I actually think Aiden was barred from the club for a couple of months. Naomi was going out with Adam Clayton at the time, and it was a case of ‘nobody says no to the boss’s girlfriend’.”
BEGINNING OF THE END
When the end came for The Kitchen, it was symptomatic of a ‘cultural change’ underway in Dublin nightlife, coupled with growing apathy from the band towards the idea of running a nightclub – post Pop, U2 were evolving into safer chart-friendly territory with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, released in 2000.
“I’m not sure that they saw what it was doing for them any more,” says Delamere Hurding. “I think Bono was looking to live in America at the time, and there was conflict with the hotel over certain refurbishments that needed to be made.
“I think there were times that the hotel would have preferred if the nightclub wasn’t there – they wanted to create this ‘boutique hotel’ vibe, and they didn’t want kids falling out the door at two o’clock on a Wednesday morning.”
The Kitchen had been one of the venues targeted in the late-90s Garda drugs clampdown, Operation Nightcap, while changes to licensing laws meant that late bars could compete on an equal footing in terms of opening hours, decimating midweek trade.
This impact was visible: simple repairs, such as to the velour seating in the back room, weren’t being carried out.
“It was simply a case of falling numbers at the box office,” says Ricky Mooney, who left the venue shortly before its closure. “When I was there, it was open seven days a week. Towards the end, I think that was down to three.”
Peter May, meanwhile, whose Genius night ran right up to the venue’s conclusion, is sanguine about the reasons for its eventual demise.
“There was a feeling that it was a natural changeover,” he says. “You had people getting married and having kids, and the vibe was different. Dance music, as we knew it in the 90s, was changing.”
The Kitchen closed its doors on 25 May 2002, with Dave McDonnell and Podje on the decks.
It wasn’t long after The Kitchen closed that the rumour mill began to churn; would the venue – located in prime real estate, let’s not forget – be turned into a gym? A garage? A private members club?
Speaking to the Irish Independent in 2002, The Clarence general manager Robert Van Eerde hinted that a new project was potentially underway.
“There are so many new places that have opened and the environment has also changed,” he said. “We are looking ahead and the Kitchen needs a change. Things are changing and we want to be at the cutting edge of that.”
But in reality, the venue would remain shuttered for nine years, when a valiant effort was made to reopen it once more as The Kitchen, bringing in both new faces and some old regulars (techno DJ Ritchie Rock, a former Genius resident and one-time Boyzone member, headed up the Saturday night), but the project didn’t fare well, and the venue would close again, reopening as the stylish Liquor Rooms in 2013.
“When it reopened, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be the same,” Delamere Hurding says of the short-lived Kitchen revival. “Today, The Liquor Rooms is probably more like the ‘adult drinking space’ the band had in mind at the start of The Kitchen days, but I don’t know if they ever use it.”
The Kitchen spirit is kept alive by regular staff reunion nights – at the last one, in 2017, Bono and the boys produced commemorative dog tags for those present. But such events will only ever be an encomium to the hedonistic exuberance of that basement venue over an eight year period in the late 90s and early 2000s.
“Every place at some point has a peak and then comes down, but The Kitchen was like a wave, every time it got a bit quiet, it wasn’t long before it was on the up again,” as Howie B puts it.
As the saying goes… you’ll always find me in The Kitchen at parties.
[Afterword: If this article appears to be something of a love letter to The Kitchen, you’d be right, I had the pleasure of working there for three fantastic years – between the bar, the cloakroom, the floor, and even the lighting desk on a couple of occasions – and loved every minute of it. In terms of brushes with fame, there was the time I was told I could have the rest of the night off because Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood were taking over the bar. Or, when Joe Strummer and Shane McGowan arriving to the door, pissed as newts, with Shane wondering where the nearest blood bank was. Or, how about Chelsea Clinton getting down with drunk students on a rowdy Tuesday – a West Wing storyline that never was. Here’s to all the mad eejits that visited the club, the even madder ones that worked there, and those that are no longer with us. Steve]