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Friday, 31 December 2010

Castaway - Tiki Bar

Tiki Bar, 214 Bath Street, Glasgow G2 4HW

You wonder what Thor Heyaddral would have made of one of these, arriving on Kon Tiki, his balsa wood raft. He was demonstrating that South American natives had travelled to the Polynesian Islands on similar crafts before Europeans discovered The Americas.

His probable feeling of incongruity would have been nothing on our thoughts approaching Tiki Bar in the depths of this extreme winter. In a basement on the quieter stretch of Bath Street, opposite Bath St. Pony, Tiki Bar is Glasgow’s first version of a theme, or indeed franchise, that has spread across the world’s bar scene.

The theme here is an imagined beach bar on an island in the South Pacific or the Hawaiian archipelago. Kitsch tropical is the template, that and extravagant fruit cocktails. The Tiki venue most famous in the UK is probably Mahiki in Mayfair, one of those clubs that features heavily in the paparazzi snaps of minor celebs making choreographed spectacles of themselves in the early hours.

Those Z-listers mostly appear with the minimum of clothing, unlike the Muse and I on our first visit. We wore basically our entire winter wardrobe bar the balaclavas. And instead of sand surrounding the place, it was under a prolonged snow-siege.
So the bright lights and warmth of the bar were welcome if a little absurd given the context. Maybe they should offer swimwear and garlands to hire for the duration of your stay.

The bar was empty when we arrived. Not that surprising mid-week, when the only action about town seemed to be on Sauchiehall Street’s student drag. But not a re-assuring sign for Tiki’s backers.

Inside doesn’t spring too many surprises. Island paraphernalia like bamboo fringes, hurricane lanterns and ships’ wheels. Staff are kitted out safari-style – not entirely out of place – but not quite right either- and they appear comfortable in their uniform. Our Australian barman was accommodating and chatty, enquiring about our Xmas shopping, a question we had to bat away, unfortunately, having been embarrassingly well organised enough to have completed that weeks ago.

There’s a popcorn dispenser at the counter and we got a complimentary pouch. Very grateful for that, obviously, but don’t know where it fits with the theme. Our first drink, a G&T, was well prepared. Likewise the Rum Bongo, a mix of rum, apricot liqueur and exotic juices; served in one of their Tiki mugs.

These mugs are one of the joint’s motifs, decorative figures based upon the greenstone carvings of the Pacific islands. You can have some of the cocktails in these mugs for one, or share them in what is called a Scorpion Bowl. We did share the next drink, but only in a mug. Two straws. It was a Zombie, a potent mix of five different rums, absinthe, various juices, bitters and grenadine. They ration this combustible concoction to two per customer per night. It is strong, but also remarkably tasty.

As you will have noticed, Tiki doesn’t do subtle cocktails. Rum(bustious) mixes and big flavours to suit the student crowd. Not to say there aren’t the expensive options; for £110 you can go large with a Blingin’ Berry Champagne Punch served in a ‘swell shell bowl’. A premium selection featuring Perrier Jouet champers, Stolichnoya vodka and rich berries. On the right occasion, and with prosperous friends, that could go down very well.

Halfway through our Zombie I was feeling the need to approach the barman and ask him about the décor. Whether they had overdone the peacock chairs, the flotsam on the walls was a little too well selected, and the totem pole from the wrong part of the world.

Further down the Tika mug and I was ready to question the other staff member on tonight about the big grey guy on the outside wall. Was he not a copy of the Easter Island statues? Did she know that Heyaddral’s raft, Kon Tiki, was named after the Inca sun god? And why is the attached upstairs restaurant, Kitsch Inn, a Thai eatery?
But the Muse shut me up by giving me the last slurp of the Zombie.

There is certainly a mish-mash of symbols, mixed metaphors (and not just in this article) highlighting the problems with theme bars. One wrong note and the effect falls flat.

But this is partly explained by the fact that present-day tiki bars are as much about reviving the beachcomber bars of mid-twentieth century America as representing anything authentic from the South Pacific. Thus you have Elvis’s Hawaiian movie pictures on the wall and an atmosphere as redolent of the Florida Keys as the Pacific.

These issues had vanished from my mind as my partner shepherded me upstairs past the lonely leather couch sitting in the outer basement ready for next year’s summer.
We were heading for somewhere where our Arctic clothing would be more appropriate, and I was dreaming of all the bars ahead of me in 2011.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Half of Maryhill - Harvey's Bar, The Botany, Elephant & Bugle, The Strathmore Bar

Harvey's Bar, 1482-1488 Maryhill Road, G20 9AD
The Botany, 1512 Maryhill Road, G20
Elephant & Bugle, 1397 Maryhill Road, G20 9AA
The Strathmore Bar, 795 Maryhill Road, G20 7TL

The Anniesland to Maryhill line was one of the casualties. The bus connections were convoluted and meant the counter-intuitive method of taking a bus going away from my destination in order to half double back to reach the target.

Initially that target had been the outer rim of north-west Glasgow, or the far end of Maryhill Road. A full traverse along the length of the road – something like 4 miles long – was the plan, taking in the double-figure of establishments on the way, before meeting some friends in the evening in the city centre.

But the snow and ice and the awkwardness of the travel meant I had to begin my pub journey near the Forth and Clyde canal viaduct. Harvey’s Bar was the first pub, sitting on the corner of Lochburn Road and the main street, this some mile or so away from my intended beginning at The Rams Head.

Harvey’s is one of the better-looking bars around here, the smart black and red frontage a notable local landmark. The taxi driver on the second leg of my journey, after an aborted ride on the 44 bus, had mistaken my reason for coming to Harvey’s. He thought I said a surprise party for a mate. I left his mistake uncorrected.

If I’d said I was here for an office party or similar, then he’d have known I was lying. Because there are no workplaces round here, apart from the benefit offices, a few mechanics and scrap dealers, and the massive new Tesco.

One of the new supermarket recruits was in Harvey’s when I entered. Along with a number of other folk at the bar who appeared to be regulars. The island bar here is said to have been altered from its original state but is still quite impressive in solid wood, the vertical bars on the far side from the door an interesting feature. It also serves to bring all the punters away from the edges of the room, into the centre beside each other. Things like that improve atmospheres, but are often forgotten by accountants talking about the efficient use of space as they persuade bar owners to demolish island bars during refurbs.

The Tesco employee and his mates were finding me quite interesting, not something I find entirely displeasing, just depends on the circumstances. Maybe it was the formal coat and black shirt. It’s happened before, being mistaken for CID. Tricky situation in certain establishments. Though not as tricky as being mistaken for a rival to the local man of influence, which happened in a pub on this same street about five years back.

Anyway, I just got on with my pint of Guiness and the attention died away, leaving me to look around in peace. There’s a raised area beyond the bar with tables and seating, which is probably the plushest area, where the pub’s striped upholstery is at its most pleasing. However, the whole interior has a slight air of neglect about it, having deteriorated in condition from my last visit, when the fittings gleamed with attention, and from photos I viewed recently.

During my short walk to the next pub, The Botany, I noticed of course the same neglect outside on the street. No work, no money, no interest. (Not that some people aren’t doing okay, as my photo of Harvey’s above, shows). That was partly what this trip was about, to see how bars in a less-fashionable district- out with the city centre, the west end and pockets of the south side – are trading in general, and specifically on this, supposedly the second busiest Friday of the year.

The Botany I suspect would be quiet in even the best of modern times. It’s a shell of a place. Just a large rectangular room with carpet that must have faded a decade ago. A few cheap tables and chairs and that’s it. I hope it’s seen better days because if this is as good as it gets then it never deserved any custom. But there are a few punters tonight; about five of them, two of those huddled outside smoking. No disrespect to them or the amiable barman but after a quick, cheap bottle I was away.

On the march through the bitterly cold evening towards my next stop I didn’t even slow to light a small cigar, but did notice the odious nature of the strip of shops I was walking by. A bookies, post office, a few takeaways and a chemist. The dirty slush everywhere added to the depression and decay of the drag. Down a gap between two of the shops was an overflowing wheelie bin, discarded takeaway containers and a shopping trolley. The only thing missing from this scene of urban malaise was a stray dog scrabbling around for scraps.

No fancy shops here, no well-stocked cheesemonger or vintage clothing store such as those available less than a mile away to the west. And I knew there would be neither cask ales nor tapas in the Elephant & Bugle up ahead. A pub that used to have a fearsome reputation, mainly because of rumours about the dodgy nature of the punters.

It looks just like one of the pubs at the centre of Nick Davies’ seminal investigative book on the deprivations and crime in inner city Britain, Dark Heart. A concrete block that resembles an exhumed bomb shelter. But in I breezed.

It was deathly. The night was getting worse. No, it’s okay, I don’t mean I was in any danger. There was no threat in the air here. Hardly enough of a collection of pulses for that. No, the theme of virtually empty premises continued. Just a few guys stuck at one end of the bar, back right as you enter.

Talking of death, I wouldn’t say the clientele of the Bugle in particular were knocking on heaven’s door but here was another pub lacking in youthful customers. Where were they? Perhaps they’d be coming out later, or maybe they were entertaining at home, using alternative types of intoxicating substances.

I got my drug of choice, a TL or other session lager, and retreated to a well-placed stand-at table. No problem seeing what was going on from here because it was so damned bright. One of my pet-hates, over-illumination.

One of the guys chatting near the bar I recognised from my varsity days, I’m sure. He and the rest were watching a chap in a wheelchair taking on all-comers at pool. He was effing and blinding and properly pissed, but still doing the business.

I was scanning the room for the door leading to the upstairs lounge I’d heard about. Couldn’t see it. Did notice the large picture tribute to the Highland Light Infantry, whose barracks were situated near here. This pub takes its name from the regiment’s cap badge.

Oops, missed someone else joining us. You would remember this guy. Normal enough haircut – apart from the black dye – but shaved round the edges so as to leave at least an inch between it and his ears. Wild. I wasn’t the only amused at the guy’s appearance, so much so that you could feel the jokes brewing at his expense for later on.

And later in here might well have been fun, but the road was still to be trod. The last thing I heard as I left was the disabled buy bellowing for his next victim, “Whose next, ya c***s ye?”

Waiting in the bus stop across the way, I recalled car journeys along Maryhill years ago. Then there was double the amount of pubs as now. Pubs like the White House and The Redan – where friends of mine enjoyed a coming of age experience one evening involving whipped cream and several types of soft fruit – are gone, while others such as The Royalty, The Thistle and, indeed, The Botany are up for sale/let.

You could hang the same sign over Maryhill as a whole. In the days of those car journeys, the area was hardly booming, but the area held a sort of mystique for me, there seemed to be a vast hinterland of housing either side of the main road, and people came from Maryhill, the area had that definable quality.

Today Maryhill Road is much diminished, a far quieter place. Now little seems to occur along its length and the large groups of homes in the roads off the main road have been thinned considerably. A dislocation in the district is apparent, a malady, ironically, that could perhaps be alleviated by thriving local pubs and clubs if social trends weren’t heading in the opposite direction.

About a mile or so further along the road, past the top of Queen Margaret Drive, The Strathmore stands alone. It has for as long as I can remember, the adjoining tenements long demolished. It was one of the jokes about Glasgow, that no matter what buildings round about vanished, the pub would remain. No more.

The Strathmore is a one- storey block building, proudly flying two Saltires. No beer garden, though there is plenty of space out back. From the outside with its two doors it looks as if there are separate areas but there is no internal division.

So it’s a basic layout, bar facing you as you enter, seating on both wings of the interior, and two unimpressive pillars framing the counter. The barman had trouble hearing my order for a half and a half (house staple, Grouse), either that or he was being discourteous. Perish the thought. He lightened up a bit when I paid him.

To my right three regulars were engrossed in their game of dominoes. What made this unusual was that they were playing it on the bar itself. The barman didn’t mind so maybe he isn’t such a bad fellow after all.

As before only a handful of people were inside out the bitter cold. A couple of them were wearing Glasgow Warriors rugby shirts, obviously preparing to go to Firhill to watch their team play Toulouse that evening. Some time later a couple of other guys were moaning about the effort that had been spent getting the nearby streets gritted and clear enough for spectators going to the match.

Now, I like rugby and have been to a number of Glasgow fixtures and think the council was right to invest in ensuring the game went ahead. But I could see the blokes’ point, money only being put in when there’s a glamorous ‘outside’ event being staged.

On the occasions I have been to Firhill for the rugby I have, as you would expect, popped in to a couple of nearby pubs, the nearest being Munn’s Vaults. There were very little rugby fans in any of the pubs. I got the feeling they were happy to come in to Maryhill for the game, but nothing else. Soon they would be back off to the west end and their usual haunts.

People and their money not staying long enough to help the area or any of its assets. Yeah. The irony of that thought wasn’t lost on me as I finished my half pint and headed off to the bright lights of the city. But I will be back, of course.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The 925 - Kudos Bar & Restaurant, Grill on the Corner

Kudos Bar & Restaurant, 29 Waterloo Street, Glasgow G2 6BZ
The Grill on the Corner, 21-25 Bothwell Street, Glasgow G2 6NL

Who knows the proportion of office workers in Glasgow city centre who are employed in call centres, rather than, let us say, more traditional and more profitable professions. In the 90s a flat-mate of mine was employed in one of the first call centres to locate here. They weren’t the most sympathetic of employers, with employee intimidation and timed toilet breaks the norm. So bad in fact that we had Channel 4 News round at our Finnieston flat to film an interview with my pal and other call-centre workers. Things, I’m told, have improved since then but the image remains.

Many call-centres are still situated in the main office district that is bounded between Broomielaw and Bath Street, and between Hope Street and Pitt Street. From some angles it looks like Scotland’s answer to midtown Manhattan. Whatever income bracket, from corporate lawyers to the folk manning those phones, come 5pm they have money to spend. And where do they go to unwind?

Options nearby are not as extensive as you might expect. There’s the indie Admiral Bar, host of gigs and club nights in its basement; the incredibly tacky Madness (Theatre of Fun!) Bar & Restaurant on Bothwell Street; the Glasgow outlet of the Living Room chain on St. Vincent Street, an elegant bar and restaurant, smooth but still a chain. An interesting mix but containing no stand-out venue.

Also in the area is the downmarket strip of pubs at the bottom end of Hope Street, the shady part of the street darkened by the massive Central Hotel and Station building. Cheap and basic they may be but the collection of establishments that includes The Alpen Lodge, Denholm’s and McGinn’s probably reveals more about this city than any amount of chain bars. As did the late-lamented Bonkers Show Bar/Buffalo Joe’s with its dancing bar staff seven nights a week.

A completely different nearby joint is the recently re-launched Grill on the Corner. Aiming - according to the manager- to establish the bar as a destination for drinks rather than just a warm-up for dinner. The circular bar has been replaced with a counter at one side of the room, opening up the space, and giving it a more grown-up feel enhanced by the solid furniture, the black and red colouring and the low booth-like seating by the large windows.

However, those windows are still decorated with an over-abundance of fairy lights and the bar gantry is an unimaginative shape similar to a bespoke wall-unit you might find in a large living room. Thus it’s not an area that will retain drinkers and create an all-important focal point.

The drinks menu is heavy on the champagne, giving a clue as to the clientele they have in mind. A nice touch is their monthly choice of wines and beers complementing the steak of the month. The Blackhouse chain of bar/restaurants – of which this is one - have built a reputation on their steaks. Devoted readers will recall my opinions about bar and grills/steakhouses. But despite my reservations, the dining area, with its darker tones and more formal air, does look the part. (However, if I was going to comment more on this section of the venue, the blog would have a different name, and I would be just another food critic).

So, time will tell if GOC’s bar achieves its ambitions but another outlet has opened nearby with sights similarly set upon the night-time market as well as lunch and dinner. Kudos Bar & Restaurant of 29 Waterloo Street, which was launched last month, sits beside premises previously occupied by The Alhambra, a bar with its heyday in the 1980’s, a popular choice for work parties of that decade. In the 90’s it became a far less desirable place. As a taxi driver at the time I can remember the prevalent atmosphere of that corner of Waterloo and Wellington Streets, due to its proximity to the red light district. The pub had then become The Rabbie Burns and many of the male drinkers seemed to be in residence there as well as probably profiting from what is quaintly described as immoral earnings.

Talking of Wellington Street, Kudos actually has another entrance on that street as well as Waterloo, handy for sharp, subtle exits from boring business acquaintances or disappointing dates, I suppose. But that design has allowed the bar to create a Unique Selling Point that, for instance, Grill on the Corner has failed to achieve with its new bar and gantry. Sandwiched between the two halves of the building is what the press blurb has described as a “glass atrium external courtyard” which sums it up pretty well. The atrium’s sides have very high walls reminiscent of those out back of The Courtyard bar on West Nile Street. The cladding on the walls appears like ultra smooth cold steel, and looking up your mind strays to thoughts of falling icicles during this arctic winter.

The creams, oranges and browns that predominate inside Kudos do bring some warmth but also remind me of a cafeteria, rather like another new-ish opening, Mediterraneo on Ingram Street. Added to this, the chef’s hatch and serving counter is a little too obtrusive. Most drinkers/diners will probably enter via the Waterloo Street and they will be greeted by and walk through a rectangular wooden arch, which looks fine, but is placed in a rather arbitrary place, twenty feet or so inside the entrance. As if: you have entered, but now you are really entering. Strange.

On my first visit, a cold afternoon, the place was quiet. A few, casually dressed middle-aged blokes walked around sizing things up, talking to the manager. Tradesmen maybe, but they seemed more involved than that, as if they formed a mini-consortium financially backing this venture. Call it intuition.

Service was fine, apart from the paper serviette on which my pint was placed. The condensation soon reduced the paper to a sodden mess. We need a re-introduction of beer mats, 21st century trendy versions. The toilets are accessed down stairs, above which a massive mirror allows you to survey your appearance halfway through a heavy evening. The toilets are impressively appointed, with the latest mesh hardware installed within the urinals to avoid the dreaded splashback.

On return I headed outside (or inside as it seems) to the atrium for a closer look, and a think about a possible business producing the new generation of beer mats. The glass-encased space is really impressive. The feeling of being indoors, while technically outside for smoking legislation, is a winner, in much the same way as at One Up. And the awnings and mini-hedges recall that bar’s smoking area.

The advantage that Kudos’ atrium does have over One Up’s equivalent is its proximity to the bar itself. Only glass separates one side of the bar from a ledge in the atrium complete with stools allowing you to look into what is happening inside the main room. And it appears that the glass may have a sliding hatch to allow actual bar service when the climate allows.

From my own experience and from the general word, Kudos has made a decent start at attracting a party crowd of an evening, a place for after hours fun in the heart of the business district. Whether it becomes an outstanding bar depends on whether it can appeal to an eclectic mix of people. From the rich to those of more modest means, from management to staff, call centre workers or not.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Hot on the Trail - The Golden Heart, The Samuel Pepys, The Banker

The Golden Heart, 110 Commercial Street, London E1 6LZ
Bar Music Hall, 134 Road, London EC2A 3AR
The Banker, Cousin Lane, London EC4r 3TE
The Samuel Pepys, 48 Upper Thames Street, London EC4V 3PT

Sometimes you have to establish your priorities. And stick to them. Job or hobby was the issue, and I had chosen the professional option. I ordered another drink to toast my dedication. The location for this celebration was The Golden Heart on the corner of Commercial Street and Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. A honest-to-goodness pub so I’d heard.

Quite standard inside, certainly, and reasonably welcoming in a wood-panelled fashion. But that was almost irrelevant because the weather on this August Saturday afternoon meant drinks were taken outside to the sunshine. But not before I queried the missing ingredient within my G&T with the sour manageress. She’d been tutoring, in a desultory way, a trainee from Eastern Europe at the time but that was still no excuse for missing the G in my drink.

Eventually the drink was reluctantly reconfigured and I could join LJ – minus the jacket – outside. He was talking to a couple from Milton Keynes. The bloke was an ageing ex-casual it seemed, dressed in an expensive but too baggy black leather jacket. His vivacious lady companion rather more fetching in a red corset top and blue jeans.

They spent most free weekends in the city, due to the, apparently, barren cultural nature of their hometown. A North, East, South, West tour was their itinerary, the next stop being south of the Thames under the Vauxhall Arches. Sounded interesting but we had our own plans.

Those plans were to continue my exploration of Thames-side bars, begun some months previously. But to do that I had to forego indulging one of my interests, namely the Whitechapel murders of 1888. This interest is a combination of Victoriana, whodunitry, and a lifelong fascination with the labyrinthian nature of the fog-bound, dark heart of the then greatest city on earth.

The day today was far from foggy and the tight east-end streets and alleys have long-since been eviscerated – 60s planners more to blame than the Blitz - but on the train in I even toyed with the idea of joining one of those tourist rip-off Ripper tours to pit my wits in person against the thousands of theories that have surfaced in the last century.

But no, despite being amidst evocative names such as the afore-mentioned Hanbury Street, Brick Lane, Goulston Street, Whitechapel Road, booze, sorry work, had to take precedence. Hence the G&T in The Golden Heart.

It wasn’t the second of the day, that had been up in the Bar Music Hall on Curtain Street, a large, airy live music bar that only comes into its own at night when the amps are on. The pint of Vedett there was a little too strong and a little too similar to Stella for us after the previous heavy night in the towns of Essex, but at least it made the decision for us as to the kind of day it would be.

From there we crossed Old Street into the rest of Hoxton, looking to find the hype within this area of great nightlife repute. We entered the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, a minimalist joint with a slightly subterranean look. Again it was too early in the day to properly judge the place, but I have since learned that the staff are unhelpful and too self-absorbed to be an asset.
Halfway through our drinks we faced a dilemma. Stay around this area sampling its ambience on into the evening in order to do the district justice or move along. In the event we headed south, back towards the City, popping in to the Rainbow Sports Bar and The White Horse on Shoreditch High Street, pubs we had sampled some years ago on a different kind of weekend entirely. Only the latter came anywhere near our memories, it being the more traditional, indigenous of the two with a battle-scarred semi-island bar. Both were quiet, lacking the presence of City gents – sorry we don’t call them gents anymore – it being the weekend.

Thence to The Golden Heart and an enjoyable hour spent outside on the corner watching East End locals and market shoppers go by. We were off before our Milton Keynes friends, along Hanbury Street then down Brick Lane, stopping off in a Bangladeshi fried chicken café that put KFC to shame.

Aldgate East tube was just round the corner. Cannon Street was my planned destination but weekend closures meant it had to be Mansion House. During our underground interregnum the weather had turned to heavy rain so LJ and I had to scurry along Upper Thames Street peering down the adjoining lanes looking for The Banker, a riverside pub situated under Cannon Street bridge.

Eventually we located it and hurried inside, eschewing use of the patio and its superb close-up of the river. The low-lit interior and scattering of leather couches across the wide floor was welcoming us as we crossed the threshold. But that was as far as we got. A staff member was upon us in a flash. Private function. “No problem, mate,” I said, “We don’t mind sharing the space.”

Walking away in the even heavier rain LJ was laughing. Next time it would be his turn to persuade entry, I told him. “Next time?” he replied. The next place on my list was The Samuel Pepys, just along the Thames walkway from The Banker.

The Samuel Pepys has a reputation as a gastropub as well as for its riverside location. A re-conditioned former warehouse that sits down an even narrower lane than that of The Banker. This time no barperson was on hand to give us bad news and LJ had no need to use his silken tongue. A sign at the door was enough. Another private hire was excluding us from our investigations.

The London waterfront does seem to be an exclusive place, as I had found out on my previous riverside expeditions, of which more on a future blog. Also, this being in The City, and on a weekend, footfall is scarcer for bar owners and they are pleased to hire out to parties and guarantee some income.

It was time to cut our losses and head for a rendezvous with a pal in the West End, exact time and location as yet unknown. So it was up to Fleet Street, the link between The City and The West End.

I directed our route via Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese tavern on the north side of the street. This famous pub dates back to the 17th century and was a Dickens’ haunt gaining it much repute ever since. Its dusty, dark nooks and alcoves fit with our modern conception of an old tavern, and this and its seemingly untouched nature draws in the tourists.

Too many of them, in fact for LJ, he took one look round its doorway and decided we should continue along Fleet Street. Fair enough. But his eventual choice, on The Strand, The George was even more touristy. It too, claimed a centuries old history but this only applies to the site not the actual premises.

Inside there’s an overdose on wood and little atmosphere, with those tourists looking underwhelmed by their English pub experience. Still, we were out of the rain. And the night lay ahead. I took the time over my pint to reflect on our riverside ramble. Our quarry hadn’t been run to ground, that was true, but the fun is in the hunt itself. A bit like Jack the Ripper theorising really.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Run For The Border - Station Bar, The Lovat, The Boundary

Station Bar, 2493 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow G14 0PR
The Lovat, 2562 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow G14 0PT
The Boundary, 596 Glasgow Road, Clydebank G81 1JA

There have been a number of books recently published commemorating the Clydebank Blitz of March 1941, two nights of bombing which killed hundreds, made 35,000 homeless and saw the heaviest concentration of bombing experienced in the British Isles.

Nicknamed “The Holy City” Clydebank’s tenements on the hill above the modern Clyde Shopping Centre and cinema were decimated in the bombardment whose target was the Singer armaments factory as well as the naval dockyards. Some believe the Luftwaffe mistook the A82 Boulevard for the River Clyde, a blow for the notion of German wartime efficiency.

Glasgow’s westernmost district, Yoker, adjoins Clydebank and this, in stricter licensing times, made for some desperate attempts to secure more drink on a Sunday, when normal hometown residents were prohibited from imbibing. Under the bona-fide traveller’s dispensation, if a Glaswegian could convince a Clydebank, or any other neighbouring town, landlord of his genuine travelling status then the demon liquor was allowed to pass his grateful lips. So for Yoker folk the trip over the city boundary became quite a ritual.

Today, Yoker has fewer public houses than for many years and even the ones that remain standing have their troubles. Smugglers Inn has recently been boarded-up, The Anchorage continues to look for a buyer and The Dry Dock has changed its name to The Gulf of Corryvreckan in an attempt to re-charge interest. And The Wharf, a relative newcomer to the district, was burnt to the ground, but that’s another story.

These troubles reflect the difficult times felt in Yoker as a whole. Forget blue-ribbon companies as being the pioneers of re-branding, Yoker had done it years before, re-naming notorious streets, so bad was their reputation for lawlessness.

With less business from the shipyards, changing drinking cultures and draconian legislation the area’s nightlife has altered dramatically from the times my own great- grandfather was a regular in The Anchorage. Still, if you can stop yourself from drowning in your pint from despair at our brave new world, there are some good wee places around, especially around the Glasgow/Clydebank boundary.

One such is The Station Bar, a pub of quite some longevity and run for a large proportion of that time by the Scott family. It presents a reasonably smart exterior; its nameplate resembling that seen in older railway stations.

Inside there’s the customary split between public and lounge bars, and as usual the public bit is the more inviting, despite the ugly false ceiling. Having been in on a number of midweek occasions it is busier than you might expect, with a crowd mostly in their forties and above.

A friendly bunch it appears. On my first visit I was sizing up my options at the bar – drink options that is – when a punter nudged me to recommend I go for one of the bottled beers. A good choice as it happened: £1.10 for Stella, Peroni etc. Yes, you read it correctly. Prices to rival off-licences for a change.

The Lovat (Arms) is a few hundred yards further west, on the other side of the main road. Unlike The Station, it sits on its own; a wedge shaped one-level building framed by the high rises to its north.

The depth of the building is surprising, the interior stretching away improbably into hidden, secret corners, for those of fanciful minds. Quieter than The Station, on my visits, inside it is predominantly dark green to match the paint-job outside. Notable is the high shelving and ornate fans.

It is owned by Punch, and an indication of the difficulties faced by wet-led pubs such as these is the new sign outside. To paraphrase, it goes: “Want to help your local community? Want an excellent business opportunity and help create a great local service and attraction? Contact Punch at _____ and begin your new life!” Prospective tenancies beware, never has so much been hidden between the lines.

The actual border between Glasgow and Clydebank sits between The Lovat and The Boundary Bar – as aptly named as you can get. The Boundary occupies the ground floor of two buildings and adjoins a tanning salon and a filling station. Two businesses, at least, that you can see will remain in demand for the foreseeable future.

There’s nothing much else about other than the high flats I mentioned earlier, much space has been created presumably by those bombings, so-called urban improvement plans and wider economic forces. The kind of area tourists don’t exactly flock to, and a camera pointed at solitary buildings viewed with suspicion, a DSS snoop more likely than a bar chronicler seeking illustration to accompany his words.

So The Boundary is a good refuge from harsh late autumn winds and the fiscal realities expressed in the countenance of the surroundings. On my first visit the few afternoon customers in the pub seemed to have the same wish as me, to get out of the cold and enjoy a pint and a bit of contemplation. As good a reason as any for visiting a tavern. Though any warmth they might have gained is lost as they huddle outside the door (there is a beer garden out back beside various small business premises, but if you are only out for a couple of minutes with a roll-up, the front door is handier).

I got talking to an old bloke and he commented on how quiet things were in here, though I couldn’t work out whether he meant five or forty-five years ago. But next time I came in, on a midweek lunchtime, the place was busy with two score customers of different ages with both genders equally represented, and I thought this place was bucking the trend, turning back the clock. What’s more the clientele were smartly dressed, as if for an occasion, raising the tone of the place.

And it was an occasion all right. A wake, to be precise. So no real upturn in trade, and a sign that for some landlords even good news is bad news if you see what I mean. Anyway, two of the threes sections of the pub the public and lounge bar - were lively, with Suspicious Minds on the juke. The third section, The Boundary Late, was empty. I’ve yet to find out how late is late with regard to that section.

Added together you have a spacious pub, that’s made very few changes in décor and fittings recently, red leather seating of a 60’s/70’s vintage and a fairly old-fashioned projector screen set-up for the big games.
Despite the party beginning to hit its stride, I decided to limit my lunchtime imbibing to one drink and headed off, though not before toasting the dearly departed. And raising my glass for these three brave frontier pubs, hoping they and their like remain in the land of the living for many years to come.

Friday, 12 November 2010

People Will Wander - Stravaigin

Stravaigin, 26 Gibson Street, Glasgow G12 8NX

Well over a decade ago, Colin Clydesdale, son of the late-lamented Ronnie (chef-patron of The Ubiquitous Chip) went traipsing around the globe in the way that carefree youngsters unburdened by issues of student debts, quantitive easing and perpetual structural deficits used to do. Oh, it does seem so last century.

He returned with new ideas and techniques that were soon applied to his creation, Stravaigin on Gibson Street, down the hill from the university. This bar/café/restaurant soon acquired a reputation up near his Clydesdale’s father’s place for innovative cooking, local sourcing and honest hospitality. Stravaigin 2, off Byres Road, and The Liquid Ship near St. Georges Cross have since been added to Clydesdale Junior’s portfolio across the west end without a dilution in standards at any of the venues.

I’ve always liked the original best, partly because of the location – Gibson Street is perched above the River Kelvin and the area reminds me of somewhere in Middle Europe– but mostly because of the straightforward quality of the joint, consistently applied. The fine-dining area downstairs has accommodated me and my entourage on special occasions only, but upstairs has been a fairly frequent haunt for years – I don’t do the ‘ bar-regular’ thing – whether for brunch, lunch or drink to start the evening (it’s never been a place to finish the night).

The bar area was small and even more cosy than the place as a whole, and the use of dark wood throughout welcoming without being dated. It fitted with the soft (as in how some folk used to be called politically soft left) bohemianism of this part of town, leaving you at ease with your pint, coffee, red-wine, cocktail or imported beer, watching lucky diners tuck in around you and upstairs in the cramped mezzanine. It didn’t matter who was drinking and who was eating, everyone got on.

I liked it as it was, slightly too small for purpose and operating on its own terms in its own space. But maybe the customer is not omnipotent. If there’s money to be made… Our own Adam, JM Keynes, Milton Friedman and the rest have all written about demand outstripping supply and the perils of lack of capacity. It gets all rather complex, this economics business, but in our simple terms, if you can’t accommodate the punters they will go somewhere else.

Stravaigin’s extension was well trailed and the opening day likewise but I waited a relatively long time before visiting the enhanced premises. Perhaps it was an unconscious reluctance to find out whether a favourite had been spoiled, but whatever the reason I did walk past the large new windows on quite a few occasions before eventually thinking the time was right for a visit.

A Saturday night was the evening in question. For mid-evening there was quite a throng in the bar part of the premises. This building was bought over by Stravaigin and the separating wall knocked through to double the previous size of the ground-floor. Yes, a busy-ness about the place more intense than the previous laid-back nature of next door. Maybe fresh blood coming in to the area for the night, attracted by news of the changes.

The interior has that unfinished chic fashionable the now, with walls and ceiling looking as if stripped and ready for decorating but the actual wallpapering never to take place. This roughness is tempered by the smoother appearance of the bar counter, with its metal hanging gantry; cool and minimalist, if a little two years ago. Then there’s another tone introduced with the variety of lighting; from basic spots, old lanterns, factory salvage and a basket gibbeted with rope.

Some of the furniture has a reclaimed nature too, the table at the window, for example, appearing to be two farmhouse tables bolted together out of necessity, with the effect, conversely, one of pleasing quaintness.

As for the booze, they have Tuborg lager on draught, an instant pleaser for me with my soft spot for all things Danish. Economic considerations prevented us sampling Stravaigin’s cocktails that evening – Blogspot’s expenses budget is pretty limited – but it is to be hoped they have continued their organic approach to cocktail making here, free-range if you get my drift, but with none of the expense. Particular favourites from the past included their famous Bloody Mary and the Bry Thai, a local variation on Thai Martini. Their basic G&T was satisfying enough on most occasions, Stravaigin being one of the first I can remember to offer you a choice of gins.

And the choice and local sourcing never came with a price premium so beloved of other inferior west end venues. Our couple of rounds that evening confirmed that the prices haven’t gone up to pay for the extension, the extra traffic maybe doing that job.

With our drinks we moved away from the bar to find somewhere to stand. But the room gives you no indication of where it’s best to loiter. There is plenty of space, especially between the corner of the bar and the fireplace, almost too much. We shuffled around trying to work out if anyone else was having the same feeling.

Talking of the hearth, by the wonders of modern technology we have a fireplace with no chimney that still manages to look fully functioning. The wee stove looks good though, and will give off warmth and probably mean that like the old Stravaigin, this place will be at its best in the winter.

We wandered through to the old section, noticing that the previous bar area has become what you could describe, if you were constipated with jargon, as being a service coordination point. Through here things were as before, with a few more tables taking up the space previously set aside for standing drinkers. But now this is a eating-only area reserved for those casual dining as opposed to the more formal stuff downstairs, which is as before.

There were no signs of disapproval at our presence in the eating area but we headed back to our imbibing fellows where the room had grown even busier in our short absence and those with tables and spare chairs for coming friends guarded the seats jealously.

We were content to admire the curios strewn around the pub including a number of signs and testaments to the value of food and drink, the most notable a sign pinned to the bottom corner of a painting of a highland cow. It is a conduct rule from Chattels Workhouse, Rope Street, London, 1883: FOOD REFUSAL WILL BE PUNISHED, an order that many chefs may agree with.

Since then we have returned for an afternoon session. Busy again. In the daylight it was noticeable that despite the doubling of space tables do appear to be closer together than before, and the cramming-in of punters extends to the mezzanine where a tiny counter in the corner is available for diners, serviced by two stools. But no one else seemed to notice or mind, as they continued to flock in all day.

So economics are nakedly at play here, as in everything else these days. But perhaps the new Stravaigin owes less to the macroeconomics already mentioned than to Kevin Costner. “Eh?” you say. Yes, you remember Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come…”

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Drinks Now Arriving... - Grand Central Hotel

Champagne Central - The Grand Central Hotel, 99 Gordon Street, G1 3SF

Glasgow has waited a while for the return of The Central Hotel. Opened in 1881, four years after Central Station itself, its celebrated reputation as host to statesmen, actors and entertainers from across the world took a battering when it became a down-at-heel venue under the ownership of the misnamed Quality Hotels.

During that period I visited the hotel for a demonstration of a hair-brained scheme conceived by a friend of mine; a golf simulator in fact. Ahead of its time, you could say. The dowdy condition of the hotel was a great disappointment to me, having harboured lofty impressions of the place from my boyhood, imagining it to be the most romantic and grandest location for an overnight stay. Picturing myself arriving by train at night before strolling through the concourse towards this hotel, built into the very structure of the station.

Then things went from bad to worse at the Central. It shut. Leaving a shell in the heart of town, a sorry sight for locals and train travellers alike. The architecture was of an English baroque revival but the building nevertheless enjoyed iconic status within the city. But for a time it seemed that in these troubled economic times it would remain empty indefinitely.

Fortunately, the Principal Hayley group filled the developmental void and this autumn the hotel re-opened. They chose to add ‘Grand’ to the original name, something that obviously owes more to Manhattan than to Glasgow’s heritage. Not the greatest start but you can see the reasoning behind the marketing.

On our first visit we deliberately chose to approach via the station concourse, in order to view our destination – the Champagne Central bar – from the travellers POV. It is situated above one of the booking offices in a wood-panelled semi-circular part of the building which extends out from the station’s interior wall.

The doorman was polite but lacking polish but at least we got a reaction from him. The staff on reception gave none, only enquiring as to our business once we reached the stairs. Of course, I knew where the bar was located, so the directions we received were as superfluous as they were rather curt.

The champagne bar lies on the entresol floor but it takes two flights to get there, up the very impressive stairway within the clock tower. An improbably extravagant tubular chandelier gathers attention as you ascend.

The main restaurant, Tempus, along with its bar was in temporary mode until the end of the month, so instead of heading off right along the corridor we went straight on to our principal target, Champagne Central.

Our going was quiet underfoot, along a rather sombre, panelled, passageway reminiscent of the Mitchell Library. The black and cream floor creates that feeling of hushed sobriety and reserve normally found in academia or in the premises of a well-established law firm.

There is not enough artificial light to dispel the relative gloom and even daylight will probably not penetrate sufficiently due to the relatively small sash windows found in this kind of architecture. Suffice to say you are not dazzled by first impressions; the bling present in the boutique resort hotels of today is certainly absent, despite the chandelier.

Things do brighten up in the champagne bar itself. Light from the station positively floods in, supplementing the sparkle of an immense chandelier within a huge dome, the centrepiece of the room. The bar counter itself is curved mirroring the shape of the room with high chairs in black, yellow and cream. There are few other opportunities for seating in here, so we retired to the lounge, off to the left through a modest arch.

In here carpet replaces the tiled flooring, design and colour matching the seating next door. The chairs here are comfortable and high-backed, plum and mustard joining the medley of colours. And burnished gunmetal ceiling, impressive enough, but if I’m not mistaken already applied in One-Up and the Ubiquitous Chip bars.

This area is a haven, quieter colours and a low murmur of voices rather than the relative hubbub in the main bar. In here you don’t have to compete for service, waiters do the tending. We were all couples in here, apart from four middle-aged ladies who arrived around the same time as ourselves.

The competition between those ladies and us began quickly. Who would be the first to receive some service? They had their drinks menu, we hadn’t received ours yet, but a waiter had visited neither group. Ten minutes into the game one arrived with a cocktail menu, explaining that the reason for the delay was confusion over the timing of the end of his shift. The kind of information you nod at when you receive despite realising it is totally irrelevant to you the customer.

The menu we were handed is old fashioned and fussy looking, the decorative bow and the article itself already looking worn. There are around 20 choices built around champagne, vodka, rum and gin, prices from £6.50 to £8. The Muse took a Silver Angel, which consists mainly of Zubrowka vodka, passion fruit and champagne. My choice, the Corpse Reviver No. 2, featured gin, fresh lemon, cointreau and absinthe, differing markedly from Frank Meier’s - of the Ritz, Paris- original classic with Pernod, champagne and lemon juice. Still, this version looked interesting enough to leave tradition behind.

Looking up from our study of the menu we saw the older ladies walking out. Obviously, we had won the contest. But the losers were definitely the hotel management. To their credit though, the women were soon returned, accompanied by a manager, laughs all round. Some financial concession seemed evident from the good moods. Effective trouble-shooting but not something you can do for every customer.

There was time, not surprisingly, to look at the rest of the menu. Inconsistency and strange pricing characterise the list. So, while beers, and spirits are priced fairly for this sort of establishment (eg malts at £3.50) and the champagne pricing seems also to be within the bounds of reason, the prosecco with nothing below £25 is less attractive. But what is unusual is the way in which 125 ml glasses of wine (ie 1/6 of a bottle) are priced at 1/6th of the whole bottle. This unheard of pricing practise does nothing to encourage volume selling.

The marketing strategy (if it is one) is continued in the food menu. Warm oysters come in at £2.50 each whether you order 3 or a dozen, and grazing platters are doubled in price if a couple chooses to share. Food prices in general are not cheap; £22 for a charcuterie shared platter, £5.50 for soup of the day and mushroom and salad focaccia at £7.50 being illustrative.

So our cocktails eventually arrived, both well made, the Corpse Reviver particularly, and appropriately, invigorating. They came without decoration or garnish which disappointed The Muse, bemoaning the continued lack of pzazz. I gave the benefit of the doubt; quiet sophistication may have been the object.

Cocktail in hand, in this environment, you want to sit back and relax but staff problems continued to conflict with our ease. The restful dimmed light in the lounge broken by the constant opening and closing of the staff door near our table; staff coming and going wearing their coats, as if taking their breaks; staff carrying black bags of ice to and fro to supply the bar. But the staff are probably not to blame. A design issue this, exits and entrances should be in place to allow discretion in all these necessary functions. The customer wants it all to be invisible, desn’t want to see the strings.

And neither can the humble waiting-persons be responsible for the brown aprons which jar with the black uniform. Also the gait of most of the staff was a hunched, downtrodden one, as if this was not the place they wanted to be. Morale and motivation seemed in low supply, something the various mangers who had suddenly appeared when the delays hit earlier in the evening should be able to inspire.

Despite all this, our evening continued pleasantly enough and even the raucous, harsh voices amplified by the shape of the main bar room couldn’t disturb our easy mood, nor the shell-suited guy at the bar who proved there’s no dress policy here yet. The interesting music selection, the antithesis of laid-back lounge muzak, softened any disturbances and any place that plays Gimme Shelter is a joint I will hang about for longer than I perhaps should.

We were pleased to see a few elderly couples in to rekindle memories of the hotel from yesteryear, and a well-dressed family of mother, father and teenage children sharing a bottle of bubbly. The continental elegance of this scene was though, rather compromised by the eldest son having to carry in the flutes for themselves as one waitress brought the bucket.

And that was it for our evening, no more mishaps or hospitality errors… if you don’t count the bar running out of rose prosecco; the cold ladies toilets being situated miles from the bar and with a malfunctioning hand towel dispenser; and our final round of drinks going unpaid-for due to the massive delay retrieving a mobile credit-card pay-point.

Yes the sum of, what could charitably be called teething, problems was large, but somehow the experience at The Grand Central was a positive one. Maybe because of the aspiration shown in the venture, even though the execution doesn’t yet match that ambition.

But the future holds great opportunities for this venue; it can become a high-rollers bling hang-out to rival, One Up, 29, Corinthian et al and it can attract drinkers looking for a party rather than just to wind-down the evening. In short it can become a destination. All possible if the details are correct.

As for us, there was no overnight train ready to take us to the Continent, just the No. 9 bus on Hope Street. But at least, unlike the service that evening and in all probability the sleeper, it was on time.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A Light in the Far West

La Bodega Tapas Bar, 1120 South Street, Glasgow G14 0AP

As covered in one of my first reviews, last year, things have been looking up west of Partick. That early blog looked at Velvet Elvis, one part of Alan Mawn’s now three-pronged attack upon the Thornwood section of Dumbarton Road. The Criterion Café, his latest shoulder-to-shoulder outlet, is recently opened to much fanfare. I’ve been in a couple of times, as it seems has everyone else, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself for now, perhaps until it has settled down.

It’s further west I’m going, to beyond Whiteinch even. I know estate agents call it ‘the new West End’ out here but it remains an area short of destination eating or drinking joints. And South Street, the Clydeside short-cut that time forgot (ie no traffic lights) joining Partick with Yoker, is the last place in the vicinity you would expect to find a significant new-starter.

But there it is, La Bodega, amidst the tyre warehouses, scrap merchants, MOT garages, furniture showrooms and small workshops; what passes for industry in modern Glasgow. The only type of eatery that doesn’t look incongruous round here is an open-flapped snack bar, of which there are a couple.

It is worth remembering though, that without industry there would be no pubs or leisure. Think about it…So why shouldn’t a bar or restaurant sit happily alongside the sources of it and society’s wealth.

La Bodega occupies the bottom floor beneath a dance studio, Dance With Attitude. Upstairs you can learn a variety of dance including Salsa, and, ingeniously, you can try out these same moves down in La Bodega, after your din dins. I’ve seen it done. As the sun set over the Clyde, couples of all ages unashamedly moving onto the floor and strutting it before one and all.

That’s the kind of place this is, free and easy. Somewhere you can sit outside with a coffee and a cigarillo, stand at the bar with a frosted glass of draught San Miguel, or watch while hens order whatever cocktail they can think of, as they wait for their Hummer-limo to arrive.

Co-owner Alexia, originally from Gran Canaria, was trying to recall his club cocktail making days as he tried manfully to fulfil the girls’ orders of variations upon Pina Colada and Sex on the Beach, while experimenting with new combinations which he dispensed to other grateful customers.

And that’s another characteristic of La Bodega, ask for something, a particular drink or service – say an unusual aperitif, craft beer or extra large table for outside - and if it isn’t quite on their menu they’ll have it in next time, or do their best that night to satisfy your needs. Sometimes their efforts are a little amateurish but they do make a damn good stab at it.

The interior is a basic, ramshackle mixture of cheap flooring, real exposed brick, and hap-hazard carpentry – including a customised DJ booth and low stage – but none of this jars, because it complements the service, and more importantly, the distressed, dilapidated urban environment La Bodega inhabits.

The bar has been going now for around six months and this is the first time I’ve mentioned it, in contrast to other new joints. I can’t explain why, maybe I was too busy quietly popping down for pavement nightcaps; a novelty for my locale.

Despite my reticence La Bodega, along with Alan Mawn’s mini-empire further east, is spearheading the resurgence of this part of Clydeside. Previously lonely stretches of road have been brought to life, the transformation particularly obvious at night, when their lights provide a beacon for passers-by.

So, a note to local councillors and our legislators in general, hold back with your rules and restrictions, and observe the colour and community that good bars bring to our neighbourhoods.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Antler Stew

The Moulin Inn, Moulin, Pitlochry, Perthshire

In northern Europe a good test of a country inn is how much of a haven it becomes in harsh weather. A light in the distance beckoning the weary and battered traveller towards warmth, comfort and sustenance is the stuff of books and movies but it is more than fiction. Everyone has left the cold of the night or winter’s day to enter a warm, welcoming pub, and sighed with relief, looking forward to that imminent pint or bite.

We had need of such comfort on a day in the middle of last winter, the coldest in a generation. We had ventured north in search of some pretty, wintry views for The Muse’s photo album, duly obtaining plenty, the best probably being trees bowed over, overburdened with snow framing the road high above Glengarry. We could have then pressed on to the remote Cluanie Inn but the cold turned us around.

On the way back we called in at Laggan on the Caledonian Canal. The great pub, The Eagle Barge berthed there, was, unsurprisingly, closed for the winter, so I dipped into my list of country-pubs-not-yet-visited. There was one obvious place, but it meant a drive across the country- instead of southward- to the A9.

The Muse had been slightly reluctant going with this decision and I did start to think she may have been right as the going on the A86 got more and more remote and the temperature gauge dropped along with the remaining daylight.

Reaching the A9 itself was a bit of a relief as was the eventual signpost for Pitlochry. Now, I have ambiguous feelings for this town. It is tremendously located and I have enjoyed a great wedding reception in the Atholl Palace Hotel on the outskirts, but it, rather like Callander to the south -west, promises more than it delivers. Both towns have straight, dull main streets with uninteresting hostelries and a couple of grey, dour hotels which may have public bars but no-one with any sense would want to find out. They both also proclaim themselves as ‘The Gateway to the Highlands’. Lazy marketing.

But we were headed to Moulin, a village adjoining Pitlochry, reached turning east off the main street. As we pulled up to the Moulin Inn the temperature touched the high, minus-teens. A good time to stop.

The Moulin Hotel has been going for quite a time now, 1695 is claimed. It is the focal point of the village, which developed over the years into a staging post for horse-drawn trips both north and south, and for the railway.

The hotel part of the buildings looked nice but we ducked into the Moulin Pub, it being the object of the exercise. This pub has won numerous awards over recent years, including Scottish Pub of the Year in 2006, but my recommendation for the place came from climbing acquaintances. Some bearded some not.

Coming from these hardy outdoor folk, I knew the place would offer hearty food and have a fireplace. In fact, The Moulin has two fireplaces, the second of these dividing the room. The larger area is mainly kept for tables at which to enjoy said food, the other beside the bar itself is more for standing.

I’ve always preferred the upright areas in bars, so much easier to mingle, mutter and eavesdrop, but the interesting little nooks in the former area made me pause. The reaction one gets when stopping in the middle of a bar gives an indication of the place’s attitude. Here, there was indifference or casual acceptance of our presence, depending on my particular level of paranoia at that hour and that day. I can’t recall.

Anyway, we moved into the standing area, mainly for the extra heat we would receive from the proximity of warm, breathing bodies – despite the well-stacked nature of both fires they weren’t blazing quite strongly enough to stave off the freezing air plunging down the chimney.

We squeezed in behind a small table after the drinks were ordered. There were quite a few locals around us – you can tell by the way they stand, trust me – and a few interesting conversations on the go. One guy, was informing everyone who ventured within earshot of his long drive to London either late that night or early the next morning to get back to his “day job” that of a lawyer or other such moneyed profession. Seems he had a home in Moulin as well as The Metropolis and was “taken with the country way of life”. He also mentioned something about a commission he had received to make a light fitting out of deer antlers. Evidently a talented bloke.

Talking of deer, we had the obligatory venison stew while I admired the beams and panelling. They appeared to be original, or at least not replicas there to imitate the ancient and antique. I was right and wrong. They are actually from the old coach house, used in older times for the staging post purposes mentioned above. And the coach house now accommodates the Moulin Brewery- from which I enjoyed halves of Ale of Atholl and Braveheart beers. Every building in the little complex now seems to have been profitably utilised in a gradual refurbishment that began about 15 years back.

In the pub a couple of things detract. Behind the bar, there is rather cheap shelving which doesn’t fit with the rest of the interior. And they have done the bank-note-collection-thing, adorning the walls. Too many pubs have done this now, for it to have any decent effect.

We had finished our food and enjoyed another drink standing up, as it were. More locals had arrived now in the early evening and the chat was getting even better. A woman near us was talking to her female pal about a local gent she may have recently ‘partied’ with, as Americans say. The bloke in question was said to have “more wrinkles than inches,” which brought grins and laughter all around, from her neighbours and the rest of us.

I don’t know if she was referring to antler man but I do hope so. But it doesn’t really matter because the conversation sums up this place. No, I don’t mean it’s a den of sexual adventures and innuendo (it may be but I didn’t have the time to find out), but rather that it includes everyone in its welcome, from seasoned locals to passing strangers in out of the cold. This quality is rarer than you might imagine, so call in to The Moulin, whatever the weather.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Couple on Renfield Street

The Maltman,59-61 Renfield Street, Glasgow G2 1LF
The Renfield Bar, 70 Renfield Street, Glasgow G2 1NQ

The liquid lunch is evaporating. The recent recession, puritanical influences and stricter working practices are conspiring against it. Even in France cafes and bars are noticing a culture change, the leisurely feed and drink being replaced by swift snacks and soft drinks.

On a recent lunchtime – around noon but because of my strange hours it was not actually my lunchtime – I found myself on Renfield Street, right at the heart of Glasgow on the last day of the working week. I began thinking of decent joints I could visit round about, purely for research purposes of course. The Pot Still on Hope Street for a half and a half or Stereo in Renfield Lane for something more contemporary were just two of the options.

But why not be contrary – not for the first time – and avoid self-indulgence. Meaning: try some places you normally walk by.

The Maltman was the first obvious candidate; a big place that looks like a chain pub, regardless of its actual status. The flooring half wood and half carpet, one of those hard-wearing ones, red with a white flower/ thistle mock heraldic design. A design no no only matched by the ghastly curtains, which, I suspect, will never be drawn.

Just the kind of things I expected in here, along with the ubiquitous shoddily-varnished wood and etched windows and partitions. I looked through towards the back of the pub and spied what might be a unique feature, something different amongst the blandness. It looked like a skylight of some sort. Immediately I began to think that there might be more to this place. Maybe a second level with a partially-glassed floor with private drinking and dining; another bar; a club? The possibilities were endless.

But I was brought back to earth when I looked at it more closely. It was just a circle cut into the depth of the ceiling with red fringing. Returning to the bar, which runs along the side of the room, I ordered a bottle of Bud. Used to drink this stuff in my youth, but have eschewed it for years because it is gas with no flavour. Why I ordered it here, I don’t know. Perhaps because it went with the surroundings. Perhaps because the barmaid didn’t appear to be inclined to give me a list of their beers. To add to the annoyance factor, it wasn’t even cheap, at £3.10.

I have mentioned the design issues here already but the first thing I had noticed upon my entrance was, in fact, the smell of fish. Haddock I think. Quite overpowering. The last time I remember a similarly strong smell was in Molly Malones one teatime. (That’s another big bar with little to recommend it, but at least it sometimes gets the after-work crowds).

As well as the fish, you can imagine the menu here. Steak pie, burgers, lasagne etc packaged in various ‘meal deals’. To draw in the local workers – didn’t see many of them – and the OAPs in on their free bus rides- plenty of them. The attraction being offers like £1.99 for a scone and a hot drink, I reckon. Roll on my twilight years.

My spirits fell further when I noticed their ‘Xmas Fayre’ menu already on display. Time to go. I went to the toilets first, though. Partly to investiogate for the purposes of this review, partly to see if there actually was more to this place through the back or downstairs.

No, nothing. And the toilets were shoddy too. In one of the sinks, a soap dispenser sat, ready – but not yet, mind - to be fixed to the wall, Rawl- plugs lying loose beside it. Kind of sums the place up. As does the fact that this place was our city’s first non-smoking pub in the 80s. Don’t get me started…

Heading up the street I was initially inclined to call it an afternoon, but this reviewing self-flagellation was beginning to get addictive (some people swear by it, I’m told). I ignored the Bay Horse (that was going too far) because, apologies to its regulars, it just looks like an even poorer version of The Maltman.
It’s too easy to scoff at these joints and just walk on, but bear in mind naïve travellers visiting our dear, green city. Those without any guide, whether personal, anecdotal or virtual could easily stumble into such bars and end up being assaulted by the sheer boredom and stultifying nature of them. Their location almost ensures this. Mores the pity. Even I, as a younger man, went to places like this when I was similarly uninformed. Now there’s a confession for you.

Tourists would probably be less likely to enter The Renfield Bar, on the other side of the road. At first glance it appears there are no windows at all breaking the grey exterior of this pub. A Glasgow windowless pub, they would think aghast, my mother/father/brother etc warned me about these places.

But there are windows. Must be some sort of optical illusion that dissipates as you examine closely. This I did. And then went inside. Like The Maltman it was the smell here that first got me. Smoky. No, not BBQ chicken or any other menu option, smoky like the aftermath of a fire. And there is a fireplace in here, but there was no warmth to indicate it had been on for a while.

I chose a drink at the bar (Tennents £2.55) and looked around. The smell went with the look of the place; like the interior of a bothy up north, the furniture only a little bit less ramshackle than you would find in a mountain hut.

But, even so, this place is kind of welcoming, and you do have a meaningful choice of seating, each table and chairs defined from the next. I sat at a table near the fireplace and adjacent to what looked like the best seats in the house, a stall-like enclosure occupied by an old gent, definitely a regular.

Saying that though, there is also a snug here, on your right as you enter. It is a makeshift affair, not properly enclosed, and with walls that don’t reach the low ceiling. And another old bloke sat even nearer the door, at a table right by the window.

That was it in here, apart from a couple of blokes at the bar, who were making up for the quiet of the rest of the patrons, the barmaid just about tolerating the two of them. Meanwhile, a stooping, decrepit looking guy appeared and shuffled across the floor in front of me heading towards the toilet.

I could feel the smoke at the back of my throat, not an unpleasant experience somehow, as if I’d been inhaling the joint since I’d arrived. Maybe the staff had just brushed the fireplace, or cleaned the hearth or whatever it is you do with real fires?

The shuffling guy hadn’t re-appeared yet, making me wonder if the reputed passageway through to Drummonds on West Regent Street still existed. Okay, it wasn’t bright in here- the lights are definitely needed in here unlike The Maltman with its huge windows – but I would have seen him return.

At the back end of the pub there’s a board advertising DJ Shades hosting karaoke every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Wonder if the clientele will miraculously drop in age come the weekend to make that entertainment appropriate, because at the moment the music playing is Wrong Radio (as opposed to Real and Your and the rest) blaring through the quiet thoughts of the gents in here. I was enjoying the soundtrack ok, but maybe they wanted something more their vintage, or nothing at all.

The boss man was in now, for the takings evidently. From the mutterings it seemed he wasn’t too pleased with one of the drunks at the bar. When the boss had gone, the drunker of the two tried to apologise to the barmaid: “Sorry, Amanda,” he said.
“Nae mair drink for you,” she replied.

He turned to the rest of us for support but none came. Despite the pathetic nature of his gesture I envied the guy, maintaining the great tradition of the lunchtime refreshment. It will continue in places like this, on a small scale yes, but it will still be with us.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Corinthian's Smokin' !

The Courtyard, 84 West Nile Street, Glasgow G1 2QH
Corinthian Club, 191 Ingram Street, Glasgow G1 1DA
One Up Bar & Nightclub, 23 Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow G1 3AJ

I’ll start with an apology. Sorry. I missed a key element in the Corinthian review. They do indeed have a smoking area. But in my defence, it is subtly, or more accurately, obscurely signed. It’s on the second floor, a small space from which you overlook the roofs of the gaming room and main bar. It possesses an interesting quirk, a couch that looks perfectly normal but is in fact, solid and stone-like to touch. Take care when plonking yourself down on that!

I discovered this on Saturday. Arriving mid-evening my companion and I made straight for the Tellers Bar & Brasserie, the largest room in the building. We needed some company because our last pit-stop before here was The Courtyard, West Nile Street. I hadn’t been there for a while and was expecting a busy start to the night. A previous host venue for Sunday Circus the electro/funk night, I won’t say I always felt entirely at home amongst the cool young things in there, but the place had a definite voice of its own.

Not tonight it didn’t. The bar room itself was extremely quiet, only peopled by a handful of sad-looking punters not exactly in keeping with the style of the place I remembered. Still, the outside area at the back would be busier, maybe even a bit of a party going on.

No. This courtyard area has probably the highest walls of any outside enclosed space in town, the bricks of the neighbouring buildings countless and seemingly climbing forever upward. It is thus an atmospheric place, improved by being on two levels with plenty of seating and umbrellas. But with zero people there can be no atmosphere. The look on my companions face was priceless, “where the hell have you brought me now!” he mouthed. Before we departed we were joined outside by a bewildered middle-aged couple who must have been thinking likewise. They proceeded to sit right under the blaring speaker, intensifying their enjoyment I’m sure.

So in Corinthian a bit of a contrast with the last joint was required. And that’s what we got, plenty of folk to mingle in and around. Probably not quite as many as on launch night but a fair crowd for around 9 in the evening.

Over the course of the next couple of rounds I showcased the whole place, up, down, left and right. Surprisingly enough Boutique made the best impression on my mate, it was busier than the masculinely-styled Bootleg and probably had the more attractive ladies. Not really a puzzle then, is it. Charlie Parkers didn’t exude the same buzz as it had a fortnight earlier – Tom Ure was absent this time – and people had made less of an effort with their dress.

This is the drawback in many Glasgow establishments, folk, guys especially, not really making the effort. Surprising in a city that has always embraced the bling concept. The laidback, casual – not to say can’t be arsed- look is fine in some places but in the opulence around here it jars slightly, especially in the gaming room, which from looks of things has yet to draw in big crowds.

As we left, quite a queue was forming at the entrance, and at our next port of call, One Up, the numbers were down on a usual Saturday night. One Up’s bouncers were obviously aware of the newcomer’s presence because they asked us our opinion of Corinthian. They rather sneered at our answers as if their place had nothing to worry about. Not the case, my friends. The competition could be fierce. One Up, by the way, did get back to some semblance of a respectable turnout by the early hours of Sunday.

For the rest of the night I did have a slight regret we hadn’t stayed at Corinthian but we had made that decision because it is, as yet, missing something. Large venues with many disparate elements need a focal point to bring everything together, somewhere to gravitate towards as the night draws in. I can’t find it yet at Corinthian. So, as Stanley Ipkiss may also have said: “close…but no cigar.”

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Drake's Progress

The Drake, 1 Lyndedoch Street, Glasgow G3 6EF

I’ve made a few references towards The Drake already but not given it the in depth-treatment (whatever that means). A recent Saturday gave me the chance to remedy that omission, and to see how the place is developing a few months in.

Halfway through a normal Saturday eve I arrived at the basement doorstep accompanied by LJ, who can count this joint as a local if he so wished. I noticed the recent utilisation of upstairs into a - now almost de rigueur- private dining space, or a way to charge that little bit more for the same food.

A few people were taking advantage of the pre-rain interval to sit at the front of the building in a pebble filled area below the street level, complete with decent quality furniture. Opting to try the back area instead we entered the bar to the sound of jazz. This form of music always divides opinion I reckon. Musical Marmite. One thing is definite, though, it keeps the neds away, especially in the live form as was happening in the adjoining room, the area predominantly occupied by diners.

But the wrong sort of clientele (if bar owners these days can be that choosy) is not likely to be a problem in this sophisticated space. Wooden floors and stylish use of deep browns and blacks create a homely yet smooth atmosphere. It looks like an expensive basement flat that happens to have more than one set of table and chairs. I guess that’s why I previously described it as a clubby, yet non-staid environment. And with the actual bar placed at the far end from the door, meaning you don’t immediately see it, then the impression is doubled that you have walked in on someone’s trendy abode.

The welcome I’ve received each time I’ve been in has dispelled this though, certainly no feeling of trespass. Same guy on the bar each time- he being one of the owners it seems – and every time a cheerful greeting, always a good start to any drinking experience. This evening it was a perfectly acceptable “How’s it going, guys?” but no recognition in his eyes. Bad for the ego, good for the reviews’ business.

LJ is not one for waxing lyrical on interiors but he did notice, without prompting, the various touches such as the palm leaf wallpaper, black beams, pink sphinx (yes, indeed!) and Easter Island masks. I was nodding, impressed by his observations, but impatient to show him the highlight of the place.

I led him past the bar and out the back. I felt like a child showing his wee pal a hidden Santa’s grotto. The area is improbably squeezed between the building and the back lane, a high wall trapping any sun that happens to be around. The area is enclosed by the screens you get on beaches and back garden decking areas.

I almost felt like opening my arms and saying “Ta, da….!” but LJ just gave the slightest head movement signalling appreciation. There were double figures out here, of different ages, but all looking comfortable with the place. The TV stuck against the back wall was off on this occasion. (Another time I watched Messi’s Argentina in bright sunshine, the glare putting me off, though not as much as they guy with the drill attaching various signs to the wall). Still, the TV is sheltered from any rain by a special shelf, which means that if you’re getting pissed on at least the TV is dry.

Talking of getting wet, the expected rain arrived. We could have sheltered in the covered passageway, right at the back door, but who knows, perhaps there is slightly more than 50% of that area enclosed, so rendering us liable for a fine from the roving smoking enforcement officers. If you ever see one let me know what they look like.

So back insid. The diners in the ‘jazz’ room seemed to be having a good time. Not surprising because the menu is an interesting little thing with a healthy lack of carbohydrates- an overabundance of these is a sure sign of an eatery on the make– and an imaginative interspersing of the drinks choices through that of the food.

The food-hatch is obtrusive though, placed too near the bar counter. And on a previous lunchtime visit the chefs in their less than pristine whites were too visible also. Unlike some folk I don’t want to see a joint’s inner-workings, back of house, the bowels of the kitchen, forgive the metaphor.

This is a small complaint though, because The Drake is a good place to sit and eat at any time of day, from brunch - just don't order their eggs benedict - to dinner.

It was well past dinner time now though so me and LJ were off on our customary travels. As it happens, the night went downhill from then. Quiet bars and the sense of decay. “What!?” you may say. Let me explain: The Ivy for example, along in Kelvingrove, was that dead that we left without ordering, and its eponymous plants
hung outside were just as lifeless.

And the end of the night was in the main upstairs bar in Oranmor; here there was a stench I couldn’t quite place until LJ pointed out that it was stale beer. He was right. It was if some giant bar towel, wringing with ale, had been left behind the counter. Do something about it, Oranmor. The whole depressing scene there, people desperately unwilling to go home but too old (they think) for the nightclub downstairs, reminded me of Hogarth’s series of paintings. But it was dissolution without the fun.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The In-Crowd

The Corinthian Club, 191 Ingram Street, G1 1DA

One of the many benefits in being The Bar Biographer is the invites you receive. And I don’t just mean on Facebook (though these are, rest assured, gratefully received). No, I’m talking film premieres, book launches, gallery openings. Well, the pub equivalents of these, anyway.

The latest was the re-birth of Corinthian. This was received via my parallel working life – an RSVP email to be specific – but who cares. An invite is an invite.

It was the night before the casino/club/restaurant complex opened for the general public and I was striding to the grand entrance. A bit too busy for a select gathering I thought, as we moved through the crowd, past the outer doormen and up to the reception desk.

A pleasant lady smiled but said nothing. “I’m on the guest list,” I volunteered. She looked at no list nor reached for a clipboard. “****** plus three guests” I continued – my companions being The Muse, LJ and HT – but she just smiled and handed us all some bits of card. That was it.

So on in we went. Through the impressive lobby and by the grand staircase – the maelstrom of folk all around making it impossible to stand, observe and admire – and then in to the Teller’s Bar & Brasserie, the largest area within the complex.

I believe they also call it the networking bar. There are two actually, at opposite ends of the room on either side of the 26ft glass-dome which is one of the design highlights. Sumptuous cornicing and elaborate panelling are features obvious even to design laymen like myself. Blurb I’d read beforehand emphasised the employment of local craftsmen within the overall Graven Images contract – a company behind many Glasgow pub/club refurbs – and here their work has found full expression.

Fine period furnishing: drop chandeliers, wing-back chairs, heavy-based tables, live up to the standards set by the room itself. A more modern touch is the full-length wall couch in purple, offering bling that doesn’t overwhelm the classic feel of the room.

After a drink and a mingle we aimed for the basement. In its previous incarnation the access downstairs was via the narrow corner stairway, which now seems to be a staff area, but now a broad staircase drops from the middle of the room.

From this wide, open scene upstairs we descended into the confines of the Mash & Press Rooms and Club. Probably the vaults from the building’s use as a bank in the 19th century or the cells when it operated as courts from 1920 onwards, the ceilings are low and large stone pillars further cramp the space.

But this aids the atmosphere in this more communal, casual area. As does the clever lighting, white-tiling and benches. Less effective are the beech doorway frames, they just don’t fit the colour or feel of the underground space, the shape of which is largely unchanged from Corinthian of the early 2000s, where it was a sweaty hangout – similar to downstairs at Aarta – in contrast to the space above it. The designated club area is probably smaller now, accessed through the only closed door in the whole area.

Small snacks – most of which are finger-food - and craft beers seem to be the staples down here. The craft beers are marketed on a level with the wine selection, a further confirmation that nowadays beers are being treated as near equals in the connoisseurship and high-end hospitality stakes with fine wine. It’s a little disappointing though that the speciality beers only really cover the Brewdog range in any detail, but their 77 lager is a welcome addition as a draught.

Returning to the ground floor, the numbers had lessened in the main room presumably they had dispersed to do their own exploring of the 5 floors and 14 rooms. Now there was space to admire the way that this area has now been opened out. Windows previously blacked out have been reinstated allowing us the privilege of seeing outside, placing this building in its city context. Daylight will add another dimension.

The 1920s conversion of the building into a judiciary court covered much of the Victorian features – the bank itself a replacement of an earlier mansion dated from 1752 – and this latest version of the building is touted as being a restoration rather than a simple refurb; revealing the interior’s original glory, but how much of this was done on this occasion and how much from the 1999 makeover is hard to tell, I don’t have the photos to compare.

But this is now, I reflected, so enjoy it. I tried, but my realisation that this was not the select evening I had expected dampened my enthusiasm. This may have been re-invigorated had I realised that names such as Carol Smillie and Suzy McGuire were in attendance, but then again maybe not. The less said though the more my chances of a decent night in 29 again.

A new thing is the view from the Tellers bar through to the glass-sided suspended gallery above the gaming room. This is a grand perspective, like viewing the main chamber of an art gallery. We strolled through to the tables. Not many were gambling tonight, most preferring to watch or pose, some from the floor, some from tables above in the gallery, and from the small bar also overlooking the room.

The impression I had been given was that gaming would be throughout the complex but it seems it is only in this room. And it is in here and the main room that the bulk of the £5.7m investment seems to have been spent. Viewed as a whole it does remind you of a Regency palace or French chateau. (No, I hadn’t drunk too many sherbets, thank you very much).

We had been given a gaming voucher each – in effect a free chip – from reception on arrival but we decided to keep on moving. Back into the reception area, which remained as busy as before. This bottleneck would be a problem and a hindrance on any busy evening, too much come and go through this area. The main toilets were accessed from here and smokers headed through to the only smoking area – outside the front entrance – as well as those entering or leaving. The lack of smoking provision remains an issue in this venue, I guess the listed nature of the building and its central location prevents alteration such as a new door or terrace.

To the right as you enter the building there is the Boutique bar, previously a piano bar which was tending towards the shabby before the rebirth. The centrepiece in here is a catwalk-style table. The fashion/retail theme is continued with display cabinets and drawers, the content supplied by high-end designer labels from shops in the nearby Style Mile. The ladies in here – for this is a definitely a girlie space – seemed more comfortable than those who had looked slightly bewildered in the gaming area – maybe because there is no doubt in here, you won’t be getting your money back -especially those in the fabulous window booths.

Across the hall the emphasis is more masculine. Bootleg concentrates on ‘mature spirits’ in a prohibition setting. This ‘theme’ has been explored in quite a few new bars inside the last year, lessening this joint’s impact somewhat but there are some nice touches such as delicate silver tankards and safe doors built into the bar. The staff wear flat caps straight out of The Sting which complement the grey suits and black shirts wore by the rest of the Corinthian staff.

The Malt Whisky Flight is a good idea. For the decent price of £7.50 you get a taster of four nips of malt, said to fit the main flavours you’ll find within the range of Scotland’s national drink: Light & Floral; Fruity & Spicy; Rich & Rounded; Full Bodied & Smoky. In addition to a big range of whisky they stock some less well-known US whiskey such as Elijah Craig and Jefferson’s Reserve. The rum selection is extensive too.

The upper floors are largely occupied by private function rooms but there are reasons to go upstairs for the ordinary punter. And the main staircase is worth the hike alone. The Laird’s Room is billed as a private space but I’m not sure if it was on this occasion. Seems to be Corinthian’s concession to Scottishness. Nosey Parkers is similarly, a place to hire. That is a pity, because it overlooks the ground floor, the general public thus denied a great view.

Somewhere everyone can access is Charlie Parkers, also on the first floor. It is named after an early style bar in Royal Exchange Square which closed around the early 80s. A legendary place, in some circles, but beyond even my vintage. The new version is good fun. Lowered lighting and décor that you would expect in uptown Manhattan.

Just like Boutique downstairs this lends itself to the ladies’ requirements and will be doing a great trade in champagne and cocktails. This evening there were many people of a certain age, enough to make one wonder how many had been regulars in the original CPs. But not faces I recognised from the Vroni’s, All Bar One, Rogano, One Up/29 circuit. Where have they been hiding all these years?

Charlie Parkers is a live piano bar with the bar counter itself shaped so that bar seating surrounds the piano player. Those said ladies crowded round the pianist, one Tom Urie. He had a reasonable repertoire and a good voice, in an old-fashioned crooner-ish way. This man also appears in our very own River City so is a moonlighting crooner to boot. There are many detractors of RC – including me - but it says something for the quaintness of this soap that Big Bob can appear here and no one bats an eyelid. Can you imagine Phil Mitchell tinkling the ivories in such a manner?

My shattered dreams of reaching VIP strata withstanding, an interesting time was had. Corinthian is large enough to offer a variety of experiences and the millions have been well spent, creating a complex that is, in parts, magnificent.

However, the 1500 people reputed to have attended this opening evening were easily swallowed up by its sheer size and it will need this amount of people on many nights if it is to be viable. Is Glasgow big enough or rich enough to provide those numbers? The roulette wheel is spinning; place your bets ladies and gentlemen.