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Saturday, 27 February 2010

Is It Granny Be Good?

1305 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow

It had escaped my notice that Granny Gibb’s on the border of Whiteinch and Scotstoun is part of Colin Beattie’s empire. His interests in and around Partick and Byres Road are well known along with his fairly recent acquisitions on Trongate, but I’d forgotten that his roots lie further west.
This was quite an oversight on my part considering the conversation I had with him a few years back, about pubs in the Yoker/Knightswood area. Jarvies on Kelso Street and the Dry Dock were mentioned – I can’t recall whether he revealed he had interests there or thereabouts but he did pass on the tongue-in-cheek advice that unless I was interested in an anthropological study these places were best avoided.
What woke me to the facts was news that he has ambitious development ideas for Granny Gibb’s within the year. So, what might his plans be?
Its location dictates much. Even non-regular Glasgow pub-goers know of Whiteinch’s dryness. No, not the locals’ humour, rather the city’s long-held licensing policy of not granting alcohol licenses in designated areas. Whiteinch is/was one of those areas, meaning that many locals head along Dumbarton Road to Partick for their regular drinking.
Thus there is very little competition in the area meaning that no pattern has really been set. The canvas is blank.
Maybe Beattie intends to introduce a Gaelic feel to the place, as he has famously for a number of his other establishments, or introduce an arts element, he being an enthusiastic patron.
Or the intention may be there to develop a food side to the business and also attach a degree of sophistication to the pub, bringing it, in spirit, more towards the centre of the city. At the moment it is very much a local, a friendly place in its own low-key manner. You can tell the regulars, but are not left feeling out in the cold if you don’t happen to be one of their number.
There is also the possibility of it attracting clubbers heading later to a night at the Big Joint nearby on South Street.
Unusually for a Glasgow pub, Gibb’s isn’t on the ground floor of a tenement. It sits alone, like a large, wide bungalow. Its main neighbour is a filling station that has recently had a Tesco Metro added to it. The new customers of that store – younger more affluent – may be the kind of clientele the owner is planning for the pub. These shoppers must like the convenience the Tesco brings to their hectic lives. Good for them. But not really for the locality or small shopkeepers. The area just becomes another catchment zone as devised by supermarket planning departments.
There is plenty of space to the front of the pub. Ripe for tables and chairs, unless planning regulations preclude it. If allowable, the smoking area that presently operates in an enclosed area to the side of the pub could be moved to the front.
The approach to the pub is reminiscent of a country inn, with the mullion-style windows and flowerpots. You can even picture it as the cottage that was built here in the late 18th century, serving as a howf for drovers approaching Glasgow, operated by the eponymous Mrs. Gibb after the death of her husband. Between then and now, the pub changed its name to the Victoria Park – after the beautifully tended nearby park – before returning to its original name sometime in the 90s.
The interior is large with the bar counter sitting unobtrusively on the left. At he front right is an almost self-contained sitting room. A throwback to the spaces set aside in many pubs of yesteryear, where respectable people, like ladies, did their drinking sitting down rather than standing at the bar.
Service is good without being particularly welcoming. On my last visit I thought the round I had ordered had been misheard. When I questioned why the barmaid was pouring an extra pint she informed me it was for a silent chap standing alongside me. He didn’t have to speak to have his order understood. Good work.
Because of the efficiency of the service you won’t have long to wait, but your eyes will be drawn to the quirkiness of the place. There is a raised area near the back wall; it is used for bands and open-mic nights. But what is unusual about it is its wild-west theme. Pictures and knick-knacks straight from cowboy-and-indian-land. Then, amongst all this, you notice the busts of Homer and Aristotle. And adjacent to the stage area is what can only be described as Stuart corner. Tartan and artefacts from the Scottish royal dynasty including a portrait of the particularly impetuous and ill-fated – and that is saying something coming from that family – James IV.
You soon get used to these odd touches though, as you sit in the easy atmosphere of Gibb’s. Things are slower and quieter in here, and you accept it. It’s possible to do a bit of eavesdropping too if that’s your thing. On a recent visit, an old gent near our table revealed to his pals he’d just picked up some marked-down food from the nearby Tesco. He and his mates then peered into his poly bag to check out the goodies.
We hope Mr. Beattie’s re-development doesn’t rule out scenes like these in the future. Just like two centuries ago, Granny Gibb’s sits on the edge of the city proper, poised ready to enter. But it can be part of a modern Glasgow without losing its peculiarities and without succumbing to the homogeneity epitomised by the adjacent supermarket.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Return of the MacCools

MacSorley's 42 Jamaica Street Glasgow

The Scottish cringe is renowned at home and well beyond our border. Blame Brigadoon, The White Heather Club, STV Hogmanay shows, the Kailyard literary tradition and all the rest. Here in the Lowlands there is an accompanying disdain for the seeming lack of cool associated with anything Highland or Island. It’s Teuchter this, teuchter that…
Things are changing in this town though. Various pubs with Gaelic associations have either appeared or long-standing venues have re-asserted their aims. Ben Nevis on Argyle Street was refurbished in ’99 after lying derelict for many years. Using traditional Scottish materials but with a contemporary design it re-defined the look and feel of a Highland pub in Glasgow. It is situated in the traditional Highland area of Yorkhill/Kelvingrove, an area where the Park Bar and the Islay Inn – finally settling down after numerous incarnations – also do their thing upholding Highland hospitality. Every weekend they play host to various Scottish folk bands such as Gunna Sound and Crooked Reel.
The Lismore (Lios Mor) in Partick also offers a refuge for homesick Highland and Islanders or just those seeking a well-priced drink in a place with genuine atmosphere. It may have lost some of its atmosphere over the last five years but still retains its unique dedication to the main characters behind the Highland clearances. Located within the gents’ toilet, a plaque informs you of their role in the despicable forced emigration of whole communities and then if you’re in need of relief you can offer them your respects via the urinal.
Up the other end of Byres Road OranMor was born 2004. This Gaelic-inspired Arts emporium hosts a club, brasserie and huge bar as well as space for gigs, weddings and plays. It has revolutionised drinking in this part of the world, with its late licence in the bar till 2am and the scale of its operations. All these places have succeeded in breaking out of the narrow category of being just whisky bars.
A common denominator in this Gaelic revival in the west of the city is multiple bar owner Colin Beattie. Having overseen the refurbs of the Lismore and Ben Nevis he now leases them, devoting his main energies to OranMor.
In the city centre it is the similarly focussed efforts of drink-trade veterans that have produced results in another traditional Highland area of Glasgow. Virtually sandwiched by those twin beacons of Glasgow cool The Arches and Sub Club, MacSorley’s pub sits on the corner of Jamaica and Midland streets.
Two blocks away is the Heilan Man’s Umbrella, the covered stretch of Argyle Street under Central Station, and the renowned meeting place for those arriving in Glasgow from up north.
MacSorley’s has been trading under one name or other since the 1860s. Around the turn of the century it became MacSorley’s – after new owner the eponymous Philip- and established itself as a sophisticated establishment serving some of the best cocktails in the land.
A Malcolm McIntyre of Stornoway took over in 1910, also owning the Imperial Hotel in that town. It is believed that this encouraged the use of the pub by Hebrideans employed as merchant seamen and from the nearby tram depot.
During the 1980s it masqueraded as Montego Bay but has since returned as MacSorley’s Music Bar, owned by the Sub Club’s co-directors Paul Crawford and Mike Grieve.
As part of their re-invigoration of the place as a pre-Sub joint they enlisted the help of Glasgow interior designers Timorous Beasties and their familiar style of wallpaper was one of the first things we noticed when we entered the pub on a recent Saturday night. The involvement of the famous interior design duo is unsurprising not only because they are still seen as being at the cutting edge but also as they are still known to enjoy Sundays at Sub Club.
Another eye-grabber is the original etched glass windows. These were one of the features giving the pub a reputation as a historical pub worth a visit. From the original plans it also can be seen to have the relatively unusual features of a manager’s office and separate luncheon bar.
Today’s layout seems to preclude these interesting details. The bar sits in the middle of the floor, an almost complete island bar, a horseshoe with the open end leading through to a staff area. Adjacent to this, stairs lead up to the eating area, which gives diners an open view over the rest of the pub, and where food from the “Scottish larder” keeps up the Highland tradition.
Above the counter replica gas lamps burn a little too brightly, but they at least give you a good view of the ornate mustard ceiling inlaid between the cornicing.
Much has been made of the use of Harris Tweed in the refurbishment. The influence of the Blythswood Square Hotel’s decision to use the tweed readily acknowledged. At the Blythswood the fabric is black, here more stone grey, and used to cover the chairs and stools as well as handrails and banister. Here it has been employed sparingly unlike the hotel. Also it seems to be a softer weave rendering it more comfortable especially for the ladies in skirts.
The operations manager Mike Donald is from Stornoway and his family have worked in the tailoring and weaving industries in that part of the world. To take the connection even further, he himself managed a small clothes shop in the Merchant City before joining the Sub Club family. All this has echoes with past associations, and it seems that he was the prime force behind the use of Harris Tweed from Lewis. The recently re-opened Shawbost mill owned by Harris Tweed Hebrides provides the fabric.
Of course the use of traditional materials and references to the past, provide no guarantee of the end product being effective. The Blythswood while a stylish venue over-played the tweed as it did with the red lighting. Other bars that have undergone Scottish revivals have employed materials such as slate, stone and copper in more subtle thus more effective ways.
Donald believes that there has been a bridge built between what you could call the modern and the Edwardian, between, for example, the wallpaper and the uncovered original mosaic flooring. He believes the Harris Tweed provides the link. Loyalty to your homeland is commendable but the right appearance of a pub only comes with coherence.
For example the carpet, which covers half the floor area beside the stairs to the restaurant, is rather scrappy looking, especially beside the quality of the tweed and the 1899 originality of the mosaic flooring. Incidentally, before entering that evening I had believed that the mosaic sat below the level of the rest of the floor. That is wrong and the actual mosaic is rather disappointing, the pattern smoothed or faded to almost obscurity. Still, at least you know you are looking at history.
And the lamps at the bar, while attractive, are too bright and made the candles, placed clumsily on our table halfway through our evening, redundant.
We had arrived as a band was packing up their things near the main window. Confirmation of the pub’s nature as a music bar, in case we hadn’t believed the publicity. This added to my feeling as the night wore on that this place has a similar vibe to that of The Admiral bar half a mile away up towards the hotel and call centre area of the city.
There were probably less students in here than The Admiral, but a good mix of musos, serious drinkers, clubbers of differing experience and the kind of colourful characters encountered south of Argyle Street.
This place will probably get less office workers too, but a good pub needs more than just those two groups to become something special.
So, Scottish is back. The Gaelic influence is back. Our heritage is back. Great.
Hold on though, just a minute. The Sub Club itself is due for a refurbishment. If that renowned club- in some folk’s eyes Glasgow’s greatest immovable cultural export- takes some design lessons from its sister pub, we may just have impetus behind this home-sourced renaissance. The revival may become a new tradition, one that can inspire the drinkers of the future.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Late Licenses, High Tea and Lighter Fuel

The introduction of the new licensing act – or rather the way Glasgow City Council chooses to apply it – continues to mean late-night venues in the west end and south-side are being denied parity with their city centre counterparts.
Boho on Dumbarton Road has been refused a 3am license for what appears to be arbitrary reasons. No residential buildings nearby and no history of trouble either.
The rot began when the council decided to stop drinking outside in the excellent smoking area. Once again we have an excellent venue hamstrung by an authoritarian local authority.
The Old Printworks on North Frederick Street is up for sale. In a quiet corner of the city centre, this was at one time a Hogshead outlet. Going up that direction from George Square there’s nothing much else around apart from the student union at Strathclyde Uni. Not surprisingly the Printworks is a student hangout, and what replaces it probably will be too.
I watched the rugby on Sunday in Waxy O’Connor’s. As mentioned before Waxy’s offers no surprises but does have plenty of screens and you’re guaranteed the game will actually be on, no matter what football match clashes.
On my way there I popped into the Station Bar on Port Dundas Road. Yes there’s no station in the vicinity. Just like Stromeferry in the northwest highlands where there is no ferry. But there used to be a ferry and there used to be a station. The old Buchanan Street railway station was closed in the mid-60s. It occupied roughly where the Caledonian Uni campus is now. The proprietor from those days recently moved on to The Steps Bar on Glassford Street.
The Station Bar has more of the feel of a neighbourhood place rather than town centre. The immaculate side room by which I entered by was empty but the main saloon was pleasantly busy. The stained glass murals behind the bar are quirky but the tables and chairs here are as if plucked out of someone’s kitchen rather than appropriate furniture for a pub. Still, the barmen were in white shirts and black ties and said cheerio as if I was a regular.
After the match we popped in to Dow’s by Queen Street station to have our previous suspicions about this place confirmed. Apart from some exceptions that I will detail someday, carpets should never be seen in a pub, nor hideous bric a brac on wooden shelves. Add in harsh lighting and you have a pub that fails on many levels. There isn’t even particularly cheap booze to make up for the deficiencies.
From there we got something to eat in the new restaurant Ingram Wynd. It’s billed as being Victorian in character but I felt it more Edwardian, and the Hogarth print further confused things – he being an 18th century artist. But the CM design interior is still pleasing, especially the ornate bars on both levels and the metal gantry walkway to and from the door. Their deconstructed High Tea was enjoyable too.
Metropolitan was quiet. Their Rob Roy cocktail is a good way of finishing off a quiet evening such as this. Smoky and sweet especially with the maraschino cheery at the bottom.
I don’t know what taste the woman on the No.9 bus home was getting dragging on her can of lighter fuel, but she wasn’t for telling.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Hyndland Coffee

Nick's 168 Hyndland Road, Jelly Hill 195 Hyndland Road, Cafezique 66 Hyndland Street

Hyndland was a genteel part of Glasgow. A place where middle-class maiden aunts or members of the traditional professions resided, well clear of the industrial noise, smell and toil to the east. Inherited money or those on comfortable but not necessarily lavish incomes
Nowadays, new money has entered, 4X4s abound, the school run is legendary and the small number of boutiques, delis and hair salons are far more flash and high-end. One thing that hasn’t changed is that here you have a coffee rather than a beer.
Since late last year there is new place to tempt Hyndlanders. Situated over the road from the main row of shops on Hyndland Road, Nick’s occupies the site of a former hairdresser come café (yes, only in the west end!) named Eden. That unusual combination never really took hold, not even with a perm, or a drinks licence, leaving an opportunity for someone else.
Lawrence McManus of Antipasti and La Vallee Blanche fame was that someone. His experience of the west end made him realise the potential of the location and the fact that in this particular kind of affluent area a bar can’t stand alone, it has to be a restaurant also.
The venture’s full name is Nick’s Italian Kitchen & Bar and the use of Italian makes you wish for some authenticity and flair. Certainly more than Antipasti, which only offers a watered down version of La Dolce Vita, though this proves very popular in Byres Road. Says more about that street than anything else.
In Nick’s there is indeed more interesting fare. The Calamari I’ve tried is light, fresh, non-greasy and complemented with a fennel salad and tartar dip. The Umbrian sausage stew- the bowl presented on a charming carved wooden pallet- was packed with flavour and every last piece of bread was used to mop up the rich sauce. The real delight though is the cold veal and tuna, served in a creamy mushroom and caper sauce, Vitello Tonnato the name. I took a punt on it on the recommendation of the waitress, and it proved a highlight within a menu that thankfully places little emphasis on pizza and pasta.
We are of course interested more in the bar aspect to this place. It seems to have been intended as the centrepiece of the joint, and finished in walnut it is impressively framed by an enormous wine rack. Opposite the bar there are a few simple tables and chairs built against the exposed brick wall. You can eat from there or at the bar itself, though whether this is a comfortable option remains to be seen. On the occasions I have been in the staff are a little to quick to suggest a table but that may be ironed so they can achieve the right balance between restaurant goers, casual eaters and drinkers.
The bar food choice is simpler than the full menu, with options easier to eat in a more limited space. But it is the breakfast menu that reveals the kind of experience that Nick’s is aiming to provide. We have waffles with maple, pancakes with whatever, fresh O.J., you get the drift. From Scotland to Italy via New York. The owner admits to this, freely referring to an eatery in Manhattan, I Tre Merli.
What would help this recreation of Italian America is a better beer and spirits selection. The wine list is fine with an almost-old fashioned Europe-centric emphasis but the non-eaters are left feeling neglected again. In the States a neighbourhood bar grill like this would stock almost any drink you could think of and have the bar people to deliver it with confidence. With the staff here still appearing to be finding their feet you feel even a mainstream cocktail would stretch them too far. This preponderance of wine over other tipples though is probably the owners paying attention to demographics.
The place is beautifully finished and feels established despite it being only weeks old. Earthenware colours such as ochre and copper are warm and welcoming. In the restaurant area upstairs the look is darker, stylish without compromising on comfort. The claim is 70 diners could be seated her but that spoil the sense of ease that pervades. This is enhanced by the lighting, adjustable by remote it appears. Quite common these hi-tech days but what matters is how that control is used. I’ve lost count of the number of joints whose ambience is ruined by too bright lighting. On each occasion I’ve visited Nick’s the lights were set to perfection, lowered at just the right point in the evening, raised when the weather suddenly plunged one particularly dismal late afternoon.
Nick’s will be popular with the locals and others popping by for a nibble and maybe a tipple. They have researched their market very well, providing a family-friendly location also with a genuine bambino menu, quite a rarity.
And I have to mention the backcourt. We had a window seat on our first visit and it is the tidiest I’ve seen in this city. If Nick’s are responsible I applaud their attention to detail and conscientiousness.
These qualities have declined at Nick’s nearest rival Jelly Hill across the road. The first of the new breed of coffee houses in this area – if you discount the wee space in the back of Peckhams, and I do tend to discount chains- Jelly Hill thrived under the careful, committed ownership of the late Gordon Mackay. Standards have slipped since he sold up in spring 2008 after six years in charge.
The service has lost its attentiveness: cups and saucers are left on tables, staff at the counter are keener chatting to each other than customers, and there seems to be no leadership.
The driftwood furniture once so hip now looks tired and tatty and even the drinks menu chalked on the huge blackboard seems lazy now. The coffee, too, tastes as if it may now be a cheaper brand.
I don’t know if Jelly Hill still attracts girls’ nights out – I once saw what may have been the beginnings of a hen night up at the back of this establishment. The wine flows on these occasions and the money spent was probably a just reward for this place also being well aware of the characteristics of its clientele. Prosperous ladies keen on having a good time with their closest friends, eager to spend heavily but in a place well away from the brighter, younger lights of the city centre.
Meanwhile the men of Hyndland seem to be having their serious fun elsewhere. Maybe they’re in the nearby Cottiers’ or The Rock, or further afield in the drinking stakes.
If they have walked past these two uninspiring pubs it is a good choice. We will do likewise and head off Hyndland Road and down Hyndland Road to reach another contender in the coffee/alcohol/eats battle of Hyndland.
Technically, Cafezique, is probably more Partickhill or Partick itself but in spirit it is probably of the more expensive precinct. Anyway, these demarcations are very fluid and not worth spoiling my point.
Cafezique was born of its adjoining relative Delizique, a delicattessen operating here for nearly a decade. Delizique was founded in the boom times, an era when consumers thought nothing of paying good – make that absurd – money for larder items, delicious though they were.
Delizique continued that policy when it opened two or three years ago. £15 for cod or a cheap pork cut was one particular blackboard offer I recall.
Since then prices have been modified in line with the times. It remains as popular as before for a coffee, a light bite or something stronger. You can sit at the bar with the papers, on cushions in a window seat – bit draughty – or on the mezzanine level. (A measure of the place’s popularity is that I’ve never managed to get a seat up there).
The mezzanine, the large windows, and the peeling paint exterior with frontage peeled back to the original shop signage, all give the place an effortless chic. But you know that effortless in anything often creates irritation rather than admiration. That’s the problem here; the place doesn’t endear itself to you, making you feel an outsider, almost as if your suitability is being judged. And sad to say, recent feedback on the service is not good, laid-back bordering on disinterested being the consensus.
Much of the food seems to be prepared from the deli next door, which can slow things down. The quality of produce can’t be faulted, but the execution is inconsistent. Our most recent visit was a case in point. Pea and ham soup: vivid in colour and flavour but little ham and too thin. Cullen skink: creamy enough but the chunks of haddock were far too big. Raspberry and lemon tart: a revelation, a smooth sweet and acidic sensation.
On the liquid front they fully utilise their deli’s variety of sourcing. Samuel Smith’s beer and various speciality lemonades in oversize bottles notable inclusions.
Contenders here that show there is more to Hyndland hospitality than a skinny latte or the occasional Pinot Grigio. In their own small way, service problems withstanding, they may be the kind of influences that shape the next stage in the evolution of this area.