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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.