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Friday, 20 December 2013

The Butterfly and the Pig (West) and The Bank Street Bar Kitchen




The Butterfly and the Pig (West), 2 Partick Bridge Street, Glasgow G11 6PL
The Bank Street Bar Kitchen, 52 Bank Street, Glasgow G12 8LZ

Can The Butterfly & The Pig (West) and The Bank Street Bar (Kitchen and Café) succeed where many others have failed in two tricky Glasgow locations that have never yet been the scene of successful pub operations?

It is a perennial topic on this here blog – is location the key to a bar’s success? Can experienced operators buck previous form for unpopular addresses? Two bars that have opened fairly recently will answer these and related questions by their progress this year and the many (hopefully for them) to come.

The Butterfly & The Pig, was one of the venues that transformed Bath Street from a stretch of city centre offices into an entertainment districts. B&P’s kitsch interior and miss-matching crockery has been much imitated and seen by some as a major trend setter but this humble reviewer actually preferred the bar before it, Spy Bar, despite the silly name.

But now, following the precedent of Bar Soba replicating a city-centre name in Byres Road, B&P has taken over the troublesome site at the very bottom of the same street. Specifically under the modern flats built around 15 years ago on ground most famous for the Volcano nightclub, a favourite west-end last stop for the reasonably trendy and a notable location in the shooting of Trainspotting.

Whites/500 Club was the first to fill the commercial unit beneath the expensive residences and for a while they prospered on a pre-club crowd mostly heading for the, then, Boho. That nightclub, however, continued for a lot longer than the bar here. It closed in the early 2000s and since then a variety of operators have tried their luck, the most ambitious being craft beer purveyor, Bruadar. It too closed despite (or because of) its earnest intentions.

The B&P are probably a more hard headed bunch, and less interested in the niceties of craft beers. More footfall, branding and adding value through food. And the branding part means that you get the B&P look merely stenciled onto the canvas that was an empty bar.



It’s the kind of interior that your wealthy great aunt would inflict on every room of her substantial flat, commemorating past familial generations, as far back as Edwardian, with layers of different styles of furniture and fittings. Or, perhaps, the waiting room of an eccentric notary who has decided to be left behind by the 20th and 21st centuries.

All very charming and appropriate, maybe, for the basements of the elegant Victorian sandstone terrace of Bath Street, not so in a modern building of brick and large windows. No, this context requires a brushed steel counter, the very latest in drink dispensing, clean lines and even some glitz - of the knowing kind, of course. And you could add in some splashes of fabric for warmth.

Lack of warmth is something you experience in the basement toilets here, the un-insulated nature of this area has always been the case but now it seems to have crept upstairs too, I just couldn’t get comfortable no matter where I sat but the coldest part of all was the strange raised area in the corner. It looks and feels more like a place of interrogation than of pleasurable imbibing.



The money behind B&P means that it will last for a while even if the takings are low but eventually we will find out if its incongruity will outweigh the trade it gets from dedicated but undiscerning brand followers.

Number 52 Bank Street has an even longer history of failure than number 2 Partick Bridge Street. Joe’s Garage, a licensed restaurant reasonably popular with GU students partial to a cheap burger, was there from at least the late ‘80s but it has been gone for at least a decade and a half.

Since then? Nothing really. A few eaterie attempts failed despite plenty of effort, I’m sure. The difficult nature of the site prevailed. But why exactly? Parking isn’t ideal on this corner but a lot of establishments have awkward access.

At the time of Joe’s Garage there were no actual pubs nearby – apart from the GU union – but there was a curry house and a pizza/pasta joint. Now, Stravaigin and The Left Bank are long-standing Gibson Street fixtures perhaps making the area ripe for another settler.



The Bank Street Bar, Kitchen and Café lets you know what is on offer. Booze, grub and… coffee and tea. You would think that all these delights are under one roof, so to speak, but no, the café is separate from the bar/kitchen and is of the traditional Glasgow sort.

The bar is a split-level affair with the upstairs tables a decent option because the large windows afford a view outside. The overall interior is white and bright with a modest counter area and gantry. Quite fresh in feeling and not lacking in quirks due to an interesting variety of light fittings. There is exposed brick and beam but we won’t hold that against them. One word of warning – don’t sit in the leather couch in the left corner if you intend to make it a short visit - easy to get into, hard to escape from.

That they’ve done well on a small budget is apparent in the limited menus. Probably the smallest range of wine and spirits I’ve seen in a while and the food is basic, with burgers taking prominence, just like at Joe’s Garage. None of this may matter as they are going, I believe, for the student market. Let them go for it.

A success here may push the Gibson Street Quarter towards that point where it attracts further interest and becomes the next Finnieston. Depending, of course, on the Licensing Board. Their role is central in all aspects imbibing. With a more enlightened attitude popular areas could respond to demand and adventurous sorts could open completely new bars in areas that could do with a boost. And the question I posed at the beginning of this blog would become redundant.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Amsterdam



Amsterdam offers hedonists a place where they can indulge in safety, relatively free of state intervention. Even the humble alcohol user can have extra fun here. The Dutch are very proud of their traditional pubs, the legendary brown cafes, and once you’ve visited you’ll see why.



Northern Europe, not the Med, offers the closest thing to British drinking habits you’ll find anywhere. Maybe the Costas’ pubs provide an even more home-from-home experience but those are expat bars so can’t count.

Amongst those countries - Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, even Belgium – Holland is the neatest fit. They even go big on darts, for fuck’s sake. So, for an urban pub-goer seeking a holiday where bars are not only at the centre of the fun but in which the culture is understandable straight from one’s arrival in the city, Amsterdam is as good a destination as any. And it has a distinct advantage over the UK in the way it describes its pubs as I will explain later.

I’ve now been four times, thrice BBB. Eventful trips involving a mugging, hallucinations, disorientation and a near drowning. This time was a safer experience but not without its pleasures.

Concentrating on the Nieuwmarkt, Red Light/Medieval Centre and Jordaan areas one finds a density of drinking venues unparalleled in a working city of this size. Everything is crammed in but in some style. The historic economic necessity of remaining compact creating beauty and practicality today. The countless canals just further reduce the space.



Amsterdam isn’t afraid of its past and its bars show this. The Golden Age of the 16th century during which those canals were constructed is celebrated in pictorial form in many pubs including our first stop Café de Dam – an ordinary wee place near Dam square. A tableau depicting Amsterdam as a hub of sea-borne trade, with countless sails billowing at every corner of the city.

A very typical pub this with a small, dark wooden interior. Every feature narrow from the frontage to the incredibly steep stairs up to the toilet. I met a Dutchman struggling upwards as I was about to descend. “Great stuff!” he exclaimed and I wondered how long he had held that phrase before using it.

This, the oldest part of the city is chocked with such little pubs. All worthy of a wee drop in. Less so are the ones that are so anglified you would think your North Sea ferry went right at Dogger Bank. We experienced a couple, by mistake, Café Trinity and the Old Sailor Bar. Just as swervable are the Irish pubs that appear here as they do in every city centre across the globe. Don’t go in. Do something different.

That ‘different’ could well involve any number of other drugs – look at the picture below taken on a typical street around here – how many available and legal substances can you spot? Alcohol, maruijana, caffeine, red meat at least. The other stimulant/narcotic – if I can call flesh and blood this - you would expect is just around the corner, exhibited in red backlit rooms. And the endorphins from exertion may also be nearby if there’s a back street-gym just out of sight.

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Or, for a more relaxing time you can chill in a variety of student hang-outs such as the split-level Buster’s Café which is more of a seminar venue than a binge joint.

If the Medieval district is indeed the heart of the city, two adjacent ventricles offer slightly different nighttime delights. Nieuwmarkt, to the east, has more space and a number of more sophisticated bars both in the square itself and in the streets branching off.

Café Fonteyn was one of my picks and has a less frenetic feel that the bars of the Red Light District. A place for sipping and conversing about art and design or French movies. Quite agreeable, up to a point. For even more elegance and a little more party we then moved to Café Cuba for mojitos and longed for sunshine to enjoy Niewumarkt square, if not the Caribbean.

Moving further away from the market square this district holds many side -treet bars and local corner cafes – places such as Café Captein by Binnekant Canal which can feature a sing-song and associated revelry just as likely as a quiet brandy contemplating the canal-side evening.

Our house boat – I recommend this way of living to everyone – floated on that very canal, to the east of the medieval centre. To the west is Jordaan, a once working class area that retains its reputation for having the best selection of pubs per capita.

Authenticity is supposed to be the worthwhile characteristic of these Jordaan joints. For this is the land of the brown café. Aged places that wear their longevity with pride, up to and including the brown tobacco staining on the walls - from decades, if not centuries, of use. Thus the colour(ful) name.

And thus, as I mentioned right at the start, the Dutch have a name for traditional watering holes that, as a branding exercise would give modern marketers wet dreams. Brown café evokes cosiness and conviviality in joints with tangible histories. The more you have the more you feel it. Over here we call them old men’s bars or traditional bars and so we sell them short.



Anyway, Jordaan is famous for its brown cafes most of which sit on the corners of streets and pull in all ages. Café Eland, on Prinsengracht, is a typical example. Compact and dark. Furniture and fittings as old as the building. Worn in, you could say. And all the better for it. Places to sit all day. Read the papers. Down a beer. Sip a coffee. Chat a bit. Have another drink. Repeat as often as you want.

The nearby Café de Pels and the much- lauded Café ‘t Smalle offer their variation on a theme – take your pick or just do as many as you can. At some point you’ll experience what the locals call gezelligheid. A warm sensation of well being and brotherhood that only bars/cafes can give. Having a few jenevers to chase down the beers helps.

Other attractions around this general part of town could include a coffee and brandy at Luxembourg (defined as a Grand Café) in Spui, a rival in elegance to the coffee houses of Vienna. And a Texels bock in one of the oldest restaurants, the raftered Haesje Claes. This was described in some guidebooks as being “touristy”. I don’t agree. “Touristy” is the myriad of generic steakhouses on or around Damrak.

This trip wasn’t without its disappointments though. It rained almost throughout. Our Sunday evening visit to Der Sluyswacht, the most famous Nieuwmarkt pub found this tiny former canal keeper’s house shut for the night. One of the most highly regarded brown cafes – De Pieper was also shuttered after I’d walked for over 20 minutes in the rain to find it.

Some places failed to live up to their promise. One such being Café Het Schuim on Spuistraat. Billed as a quirky extrovert of a place it only reminded me of uninspiring venues on or near our own King Street. And nostalgia for previous trips led to a wasted traipse to Rembrandtplein which on this wet, windswept night was virtually closed. Taking refuge in La Bastille bar nearby we swiftly realised this was a tourist trap of the worst sort – boring, that is.



But these setbacks are at the back of my mind, left far behind. What I remember far more clearly is a little bar on Lange Niezel – Café Weiner. I walked into it at random on our first afternoon. Another cosy little place with football scarves covering every inch of the ceiling and a mostly middle-aged bunch of regulars. I noticed those elements after first being struck by an amazing sight – ashtrays! Indoors!

I looked around at the other punters. No knowing smiles or winks. Looking back at the black, shiny ashtray sitting there on the counter I wondered if this was a trick. Either of my eyes or of the police, who could be hiding in the cellar or a stock cupboard ready to pounce. But this was Holland. Land of liberty.

So, I lit up my panatella and enjoyed my first proper indoor smoke in seven years. No officer of the law appeared and no-one else paid any notice. They continued to chat and drink and some of them smoked.

On our last evening I brought the Muse with me. As I approached the bar the barman asked me if I’d just smoked a joint. I smiled but shook my head. “What do you think I am,” I asked “The Hash Hack rather than the Bar Biographer?” He looked puzzled but humour never really works directed at those using a second language.



Perhaps I looked pale but it was just excitement at my imminent VegaFina robusto. And puffing on that monster I ruminated on the smoking laws here and on freedoms in general. The exact legal position on smoking in public places, I couldn’t establish, but this and other pubs response to the law encapsulates the Dutch way of life and way of thinking.

They look at a law or a moral standpoint and think about balance. The balance between the freedom of the individual and the state enforcing its will. If there is negligible or debatable harm to others caused by an action they will always err on the side of freedom. And if the ‘harm’ is confined the individual themselves they will stay well out of it.

And my advice for anyone visiting Amsterdam from these islands, is in the same vein – do something that is illegal in the UK.



Friday, 11 October 2013

A Gorbals' Story - The Brazen Head and Sharkeys




The Brazen Head, 3 Cathcart Road, Glasgow G42 7BE
Sharkeys Bar, 51 Old Rutherglen Road, Glasgow G5 9DT

The Gorbals used to be home to scores of pubs to cater for the hundreds of thousands that lived there. Now, only two remain in Gorbals proper. The Brazen Head and Sharkey’s both live under railway arches but offer very different experiences.

For Glasgow, the Gorbals serve as a shorthand. They represent the past in all its glory and dirt. Old Glasgow of overcrowded tenements, teeming streets and cutthroat gang warfare. No Mean City, in deed, going well beyond the pages of that famous book.

But there was another story of The Gorbals, of hope triumphing over deprivation in an area with probably more of a mix of cultures than anywhere else in Scotland. Immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe and the Sub Continent as well as the Highlands and other parts of Scotland all came together to often defy the cramped, insanitary conditions to build a community.

Post WW2, the unassailable city elders did what they did to many other parts of the city, they rendered destruction and called it progress. Extensive improvements and the clearing of the worst tenements were required but what was given, other than being an academic experiment in planning, was a void.

So, now with 99.9% of the residents from the 1940s either dead or displaced far and wide along with their descendants, the Gorbals now only has a relatively small amount of modern flats and half-demolished high rises. On the whole, better housing, but little else. No real places for people to socialise within their own district.

Which brings me to the two remaining pubs. Yesteryears' temperance campaigners condemned bars as do their puritanical counterparts in the political and medical professions today but even they should not deny that pubs do provide a place for people to MEET. Without such venues you don’t have a community.




Anyway, concentrating on what remains: The Brazen Head is famous beyond our small town. Some time in the late 90’s, when I drove a private hire for a living, I took two Danish football fans from their hotel in Garnethill to the BH, on their instruction. They knew all about it.

With the demise of Baird’s Bar the Brazen Head may now be the pre-eminent Celtic bar. There’s no mistaking its allegiance as you approach by taxi or by foot, the vivid green beneath the arch of the defunct Barrhead railway line. The building for the Gorbals railway station was here and the railway owned the attendant pub to get their hands on the inevitable profits.

Everything is quieter here now allowing the pub to dominate this road junction. It has never been shy about advertising itself or its beliefs, most notably the huge poster of Paolo Di Canio that was draped over the building when he was Parkhead’s idol. The memory may be embarrassing now with the man’s fascist sympathies laid bare and contrasting blatantly with Celtic’s supposed left leanings.


Politics don’t have to be discussed though, inside, the many screens mean you don’t have to discuss much, just gaze and comment, occasionally, on the action. But amazingly, there are even more football shirts and flags than screens on the walls.

Despite this there is stone visible, letting you know exactly where you are – under a railway arch. You may not feel there is a need to be reminded after only a couple of pints but nearly all the best bars are strongly founded in their surroundings, they are part of the place even when that ‘place’ has changed dramatically. You would expect no less of premises that have sited a pub from around 1851, the most famous incarnation being The Granite City.

For the first-timer the interior is surprising large, boot-shaped with a three-sided bar. Little wooden semi-booths line the south wall and a permanent stage on the opposite side towards the back. Another surprise is even further back, out the back door, in fact - a covered smoking area to rival most in town.

Visit here match day and it will be predictably mobbed but during the week, too, it continues to host a fair amount of punters meaning the large space rarely feels underused. Its future fortunes look fairly good and decidedly better than the Gorbals in general.




Around a half mile closer to the city centre is Sharkeys, also sat under an old railway arch. It’s been there around 20-25 years. Set beside small industrial units, a quiet Holiday Inn and more bland new flats things are peaceful if not dull around here.

But, I have to suppose that is an improvement upon events in nearby Hospital Street in 1979 when a bar of the time, Clellands, bombed. No, I don’t mean it failed to live up to critical expectations; it was actually subjected to an attack by explosives. Ah, the good old days, when people made it clear when they didn’t like you.

Inside this joint you could be anywhere. No windows and a strange retro décor that although is Artexed to death seems to belong to no particular decade. The tables and chairs, though, are easily definable – 1980’s Bullseye. And they’re complimented by the cute brickwork under the bar counter.

Long and thin and split in two, only one half in use during the day and with small windows and a low, false ceiling it could feel oppressive, detached from what’s happening but for some pub-goers that’s no bad thing.

And it seems you can eat all day in here while you maintain your separation from the rest of the world – the hatch at the far end serves very basic food – and its presence pushes the atmosphere here well towards that of the canteen.

But the punters always seem to enjoy the fare and that’s the thing – despite all I’ve said, everyone in here seems to like the place and wouldn’t need much prompting to stay all day and night. Something is being done right.

Where are these people from? Are they local? Are they folk from the old Gorbals who pop back when they can? One group who are identifiable are those with the sailor uniforms. The nearby Nautical College is the reason. And talking about neighbouring institutions, an actor friend of mine once informed me that many of those working in the Citizens Theatre frequent Sharkey’s. But I’m unconvinced, I’ve not yet seen any loveys in here, I reckon they float back towards their fancy pads in the West End or the Merchant City before they imbibe.

The continued existence of Sharkey’s, The Brazen Head and, hopefully, other bars of the future won’t be down to a theatre’s staff or any other group of people who haven’t particularly chosen to be in the Gorbals, life and resurgence will only come from within.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Speyside and the Moray Coast



Speyside is recognised worldwide as being at the heart of whisky production. Many drink enthusiasts travel its green straths and charming waterways, merely dotting from one distillery to another but there are many other attractions for the imbiber in this part of northern Scotland.



The Glenlivet, Tomintoul, Glenfarclas, Macallan… the names slip as easily from the mouth of a whisky lover as the golden liquid goes in the other direction. Many hours or days or even week can be spent visiting the 50-odd distilleries in Speyside that produce the nectar enjoyed from China to Chile.

But you don’t have to set foot in these whisky factories to have fun sampling alcohol in this land of mountains, native forests and broad glens. This can mean a cocktail in the understated granite elegance Boat of Garten’s Boat Hotel or a simple neat dram of Tomatin in the homely bar of the Cairn Hotel in Carrbridge.

I enjoyed both of these pleasures recently but I’ll concentrate instead on the pub experiences to be found on the Moray coast, the shoreline that is breached by the mouth of the Spey.




The quiet coastline, which changes from rocky to sandy and back again within very short distances can be enjoyed for its beauty without any liquid accompaniment but, as we know by now, a glass in hand and a warming feeling in one’s belly and brain does wonders for one’s appreciation of any setting, so why not combine both?

Nearer the eastern end of the coast there are quite a few small fishing villages that offer great maritime vantage points as well as welcoming hostelries. Portsoy is one of them.




It isn’t a tourist magnet, more of a normal village where life has followed a similar pattern for many years unaffected by who comes to look at it. That isn’t to say that the blights of dying industries and unemployment haven’t impinged here. Quite the opposite, as can be seen in The Shore Inn.

A myriad of notices such as Drug Free Zone, Moray Pubwatch, Child Zone, Zero Tolerance for Nose Picking etc etc etc litter the walls. Perhaps some of the instructions here offer real, valuable guidance but mostly they just advertise what kind of fun can be had or, rather, avoided here on a swinging Saturday night.

So much so that sheltered souls might run out before properly sampling the low-ceilinged interior and the decent range of cask ales. Indeed, another poster proclaims CAMRA’S endorsement of the inn but that turns this reviewer off as much as the other notices.




Despite it’s location the only fish on the menu is haddock and scampi but eating isn’t really what this place is about.

It’s worth hanging around to see how things turn slower in this kind of bar than in a city counterpart. Conversations are left hanging to be continued later that day or the next and the local drunk is given that bit longer before he is turfed out.

After a while I headed west along the coast where in places like Cullen and Portknockie there is a slightly softer appearance to the seaside and there are a fair choices of places from which to sample local beverages and the salty air. The latter can bring up quite a thirst. The Cullen Bay Hotel - sitting at a high vantage point of the town and its golf course, both of which are split in level and in character - is the most notable venue in the area.




Moving even further west past the sadly neglected town of Buckie the landscape flattens after Lossiemouth and the shoreline becomes more open. Findhorn, with its particularly pleasing bay, is probably the best stop along this part of the coast. The money in the area seems to recognise this too because the kind of drinking/eating establishment you get here is far removed from the unreconstructed kind present in Portsoy and neighbouring villages.

The Kimberley Inn is a thriving little bar/eatery whose front beer garden gets busy as soon as the sun shines. Just up the road, the Crown and Anchor has a larger beer garden and interior. But even this garden, complete with smoking shelter (barn, actually) isn’t enough sometimes and drinkers often slip down for a seat and view overlooking the bay, and why not? After all, there are no Strathclyde police officers around.



If you do go inside, you’ll find a bar with two personalities. A dark, older, low beamed front area where drink and bar food are served and a brighter back end with dining room and entrance hall complete with whisky showcase cabinet.

After a long day coasteering I felt like finishing the long daylight hours with the drink (remember I mentioned it earlier?) that has made this part of Scotland especially famous. I had one outside at the shore and one in the traditional part of the Crown and Anchor. A fine 21-year-old Benromach. There was no other way of toasting the day.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

LUAC - Little Urban Achievers' Club


LUAC - Little Urban Achievers' Club - 508 Great Western Road, Glasgow G11 8EL


Unlikely as it sounds I don’t often find myself as the first ever customer in a new bar. Launches don’t count and, anyway, I can’t recall any recent invites to such – I still go, mind – but to be the first real punter is a privilege.

And it’s one I enjoyed today. 12.03pm precisely. I know the exact time because the staff checked it with each other before pulling the pump. LUAC (Little Urban Achievers’ Club) has been threatening to open for a while now. The acronym’s OK but please tell me the full name is ironic.

It replaces The Wise Monkey and, previously, Hubbards. Both were very unsatisfying joints the latter especially poor, its refurb from Hubbards can only be described, charitably, as half-hearted.


This incarnation is a real change. You can see the work they’ve done – a decent paint job outside, freshly distressed walls, new lighting, and a revamped counter area are some of the obvious things. But the long wooden tables and the condiment dispensers reminded me of G1 Group’s Ketchup so I enquired if the behemoth had acquired another outlet. It seemed even more likely as nightclub Viper is upstairs.

“No” said a friendly member of staff who set me right by revealing that the people who own Lebowski’s and it’s excellent sister The Finnieston are behind LUAC. The guy also told me about the Trade Launch last night. My grin set hard in my face, frozen – you could say.

“Oh, how did it go?” I replied, hoping the insincerity of my expression wasn’t too obvious.
“Great, there must have been 150 here.”
“Nice one!” I congratulated.

As he left I consoled myself with the realisation I was the first real drinker here in the first real day of trading. And I added a half pint (times are hard) of Schiehallion to my earlier Heverlee. This gives you an indication of the decent range of beers and craft beer is intended to be one of the main attractions in here along with decent food, including gourmet hot dogs – a dripping sandwich may well be the next thing to get the gourmet treatment, my epicurean friends tell me.


If The Finnieston is anything to go by the food will indeed be good but talking of that other part of the West End this is quite a departure for the Lebowski’s team. To begin, leaving aside their Edinburgh venture, this will be their first attempt outside of their home ground. And this place is big, too big.

Both Hubbards and the Wise Monkey laboured to maintain the atmosphere in this substantial space, especially on long, quiet winter nights. LUAC has compartmentalised the space so this may help to contain and preserve a decent ambience no matter the time of day or night.

They also have to decide whether to go for the pre-club pound or the quality route of knowledgeable service and premium drinks. Maybe they can do both. Here’s hoping I’m not the last drinker in here as well as the first.

Friday, 28 June 2013

A West End Festival




As it’s been going for almost two decades I feel it’s a good moment for me to reflect on my interaction with the West End Festival. I used to take 15 minutes out to watch the eponymous procession down Byres Road but now that involvement has ended.

Mayfest was an earlier version of the fest but now June is the time when the leafiest part of Glasgow attempts to fill the gap left by students after term time. Local businesses were behind its inception knowing that a continued buzz around the area helps trade. Of course, there is a cultural ambition running through the month of events but perhaps quality doesn’t yet quite match the quantity on show.

Was it better when it was smaller and younger? Somewhere, some folk may be asking themselves that question over a glass of alcohol. In parallel I’ll ask myself a smaller question: How does the present West End drinking scene compare to an earlier time?

The focus can narrow down to Ashton Lane and the top half of Byres Road because for many that is the heart of the West End and its entertainment centre.

2001 was a turning point for the area and its pubs. The fire that gutted the Grosvenor Cinema gave Stefan King of G1 Group the opportunity to move in seriously on the locale. Although his application for a late-night club licence was rejected he still pressed on with The Loft – a massive eating and drinking venue on two levels with almost more floor space and capacity than all the other West End pubs put together.

In addition he added another smaller bar underneath – the unimaginatively named Lane – and a cinema, the juxtaposition of drink and the movies a new one for this city. As soon as the complex opened Ashton Lane and the wider area was transformed.

Previously, Ashton Lane had evolved slowly from the 1970s when the only place to drink had been The Ubiquitous Chip. From the mid 80s The Cul De Sac at the other end of the lane attracted a younger, more stylish crowd in contrast to the Chip, filled with lecturers and acolytes.

Jinty McGuinty’s brought an Irish theme early the next decade and not long after Brel arrived with the novelty of Belgian food and drink. None of these joints markedly changed their surroundings – they fitted with the small is great philosophy that set the West End apart from the city centre.




Now, G1 also have the old Cul De Sac – changed into Radio and Nude – and for many drinkers this is how things have always been. Cheap cocktails and shots bring them along the cobbles to the westernmost outposts of King’s empire and Vodka Wodka with its draw of a completely self-contained beer garden allowing booze outside after 10pm.

Jinty’s still does its unpretentious thing helped by some exemplary bar service that gets you your drink quick despite the tiny bar counter. The Chip now has three bars and a broader range of drinkers than before. It remains a stalwart booze provider even though prices have risen faster than inflation over the last couple of years.

Beyond Ashton Lane, the chief development has been Oran Mor. Its birth was overdue - teasers advertising its imminent arrival almost became tiresome - but suddenly one hot July day in 2004 that saw enormous crowds drawn in by a play in the Botanics and the sweltering weather – it sprang open.

My first look at it was downstairs – the only bar then open – and again the scale of the place was what was remarkable. It still is. Theatre, weddings, gigs, events, lunches, dinners, cocktails, whisky, dancing and late nights all take place, sometimes even simultaneously.

The initial mistake of only having one large bar area instead of dividing the space has been addressed somewhat with the late-night cocktail bar that takes over the brasserie after 11pm. Downstairs, while the club doesn’t draw the massive numbers it used to in the noughties, it still ticks over profitably, I’m sure, despite – or maybe because of - the continued residency of the oldest, least-hip DJ in these parts, Bobby Bluebell.

Over the road the Hilton’s Bo Bar seems to be going through a fallow period but it will never be as quiet as its predecesor the carpeted Piano Bar, one of the most dispiriting bars ever to have stocked booze.

Booly Mardy’s, on the other hand, remains a busy joint frequented by people who savour their drink in understated style. Lucky then, that the bar staff here are unusually knowledgeable and this bar is one of the few in Glasgow where bar tending seems to be a vocation.

The other side of Vinicombe Street has the incongruously titled Hillhead Book Club. Students like it but what students and books have in common in 2013 I don’t know. Its predecessor, the relatively sophisticated Gong with its twin bars either end of a large dimly-lit restaurant is much missed, along with its late-night suppers.

West End drinking is today dominated by Oran Mor and The Grosvenor Café (new name for The Loft) two venues that didn’t even exist a dozen or so years ago. They bring numbers into Byres Road that dwarf the previous amounts and while it is now more like a western version of the city centre than a different entity altogether, it still retains enough variety to be worth an imbiber’s time.

But then again, maybe another way of looking at it is that, for drinking at least, the rest of Glasgow has become more like the West End rather than vice versa. Another question, another time…

Friday, 31 May 2013

The Bridge Inn, Ratho




The Bridge Inn, 27 Baird Road, Ratho, Newbridge, Edinburgh EH28 8RA


Prosperous cities cast their wealth well beyond their actual boundaries. Aside from London, and despite the recession, Edinburgh is probably the wealthiest place per capita in the UK. So, it’s not surprising that Fife to the north and, across the firth, East Lothian show many of the trappings of money earned in our capital. Bankers and ancillary professionals have bought up much of this land for first or second homes, raising prices and dominating the neighbourhoods.

One recent day, The Muse, FBB (Fledgling Bar Biographer – if there are any bars left in 17 years time) and I headed east to examine this phenomenon for ourselves. At least, I think that’s why they came with me.

We did, eventually reach the East Lothian coast but we stopped for lunch in a district even closer to Edinburgh: Ratho, just to the west. It’s slightly too far out to be a suburb but too close to be commuter belt. It’s only pub is The Bridge Inn and I’d spotted it a few times from the train. A situation right above the Union Canal made it look particularly inviting and it went down in the wee black book (the book’s original use has considerably lapsed) for future investigation.

The original building is at the road front and is three or four rooms, one with TV and pool table, served by a modest bar. Nicely traditional and a comfortable place to spend a few hours, not necessarily, though, a place you would count on for a real good skinfull. Ratho’s not that kind of place, really. Good times are to be enjoyed quietly with an air of reserve and respectability. Enjoy yourself, certainly, but keep those things in mind.

The nature of Ratho is more obvious in the large extended section of the inn. Large windows and smooth wooden floors give it an airy feel. This is the bistro part of the operation and from here you have an elevated view right along the westward canal. The only better view is, in fact, from the large patio.

A few loud rugby-shirt-wearing blokes were outside – a side event from some UK tour it seemed – but inside it was pure Ratho – local couples out for lunch, middle-aged ladies in intimate groups of old friends and the occasional tourist passing through. The food on offer is fresh and pleasant and not too expensive. It seems the Ratho-ites do their costly fine dining in the Capital itself on expense accounts.

I’ve since learned the inn has its own walled garden a few hundred yards away from which most vegetables used come and even its own herd of saddleback pigs. I had the pork belly and crackling so can vouch for the quality of this product and for the owners’ serious commitment to food provenance.





A nearby table were probably aware of all of this as they seemed like regulars. Ten or twelve of the same family. Three generations out for a celebration lunch. The patriarch – around 65 – had the relaxed air only the rich possess and the family beneath him spoke of the professional classes and/or third-generation inherited wealth.

Three seats remained empty and inside five minutes they were exquisitely filled. The son of the main man – early thirties and a presentable enough chap – accompanied by his spouse and son of around five years of age. Mother and son were the attention grabbers. They made the rest of their company look ordinary. The lad – a trendy patch navy tweed jacket probably from Harvey Nicks Kids and his mummy in impossibly white jeans and an effortlessly casual cream jacket either from a boutique in the New Town or, say, Lower Sloane Street if she and hubby had visited London within the last six weeks or so.

Now, the Muse and I make up a decent-looking couple but this was, frankly, intimidating. It is easier to accept in a nightclub where people push the limits of appearance and bling can be as easy to admire as it is to envy but in this relaxed daytim-setting the effect was magnified.

The rest of our lunch was uneventful and I was merely pleased to limit my glances over to THE table. Inwardly, though, I toasted them their good fortune and continued luck ahead, if they needed it.

The Bridge Inn is a decent refreshment stop; a well-appointed hostelry with a winning waterside location. Private dining cruises along the canal are also available as are four very comfortable rooms. And it’s ideal for those not wanting to dip completely into Edinburgh itself for lunch, dinner or drinks.

We continued on our way to discover just how far that city’s tentacles of wealth reach out to grab the surrounding land and people. Gullane, Haddington, North Berwick et al were to follow that afternoon and evening. But that can wait.




Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Munro's



Munro's, 185 Great Western Road, Glasgow G4 9EB

When I heard Brewdog had teamed up with Urban Outfitters to open a pop-up bar in one of the latter’s shops it kinda figured. Because they are very similar brands. Both claim to be edgy but, in fact, they just service the egos of the complacent middle classes.

In many ways the selling of craft beer has come to resemble that of clothes. Shops such as UO TELL their customers how trendy the product is before selling it to them at inflated prices. The purveying environment is faux utilitarian/industrial and the product itself is often more worthy than worthwhile, functional rather than fun.

Munro’s is a recent example of the way premium beer selling has gone wrong by borrowing from the high street while neglecting age-old rules of hospitality and entertainment.

It used to be The Captain’s Rest and I didn’t like it, despite/because of the rumours of what went on its corners after hours. A dark, disheveled almost dank place only ever filled by Woodlands students or local bums, the last time I went I fell out with a pal of my pal but I didn’t care because she was a Captain’s Rest regular. Yet on my couple of visits to Munro’s I have yearned for the old place and its haphazard nature and clientele.

It begins as you approach the bar – the earnest enquiry if you are looking to eat this evening. “Give me a minute,” I muttered, “Let me order my beer before I decide. I know Maclay Inns - also owners of Dram, Three Judges and a growing list of others – “pay close attention to their margins but you don’t need to remind me.” I declined anyway and went for a Thrappledouser from the impressive array of cask and bottled beers.

While he poured, I surveyed the uninspiring gantry and ubiquitous white tiles. That along with the abundance of unvarnished wood fills one with boredom. My server was a big fellow in a pristine apron and white shirt and the three or four others in sight were of similar build and attire. Well, at least they do sample their product – in litres.

I took a high stool and noticed I could see virtually everyone else inside as could everyone else outside because of the large windows that are as customary nowadays as those tiles. Openness and transparency are admirable in politics but not necessarily in pub design.

As mentioned earlier the drinks list is good, particular note going to the revolving cellar of cask offerings. All flagged in the wee brown envelope/menus everywhere but the food is less varied with not much beyond pizzas and platters.

Returning to the booze – as is customary in this blog – I know holding a large range of beers does add to a pub’s costs but it still doesn’t justify £3.99 for a Guinness especially when over the road Wintersgill’s has it over a pound less. You don’t always get what you pay for just like in clothes retailing.

From where I was sitting the smell of linseed was very strong, its presence due to all that wood? But, saying that, there are a few innovative touches that bring some interest to the interior: upturned bales as tables, tyre light fittings and an eclectic selection of low seats and high stools. However, the homestead-look in one corner – complete with stove, wicker chairs, logs and rug – doesn’t fit in at all.

There are a couple of booths but even these have an open aspect and all this space and clear vision of couples and small groups of friends sipping on drinks and nibbling on plain fare made me hanker for the nefarious obscure corners of The Captain’s Rest. This is not the place for uproarious times and gallons of booze, one and half pints here would be my limit.

A bar has to be something more than just the length its beer list and the most interesting joints are peopled by folk wearing everything from tux to grunge not identikit urbanwear that is more conformist than cutting edge.









Saturday, 6 April 2013

5 Top Tips for The Grand National



Don't be expecting any insider racing knowledge here - just five places in Glasgow to enjoy the most famous horse race,
The Grand National from Aintree.

Unlike other occasions, when watching sport big is often best. Large screens and lots of people add to the experience.
Perhaps surprisingly, Glasgow isn't blessed with a great amount of good sports bars but here are some worth visiting today.

1) The Old Schoolhouse, 311 Woodlands Road
With coverage ranging from personal TVs by your own table to hanging mammoths there are almost too many
options where to direct your eyes. But once you've decided, settle in for the duration.
The West End's only real sports bar of any size and with a enviable covered outdoor area.

2) Lock 27, 1100 Crow Road, Anniesland
Watching big events by the riverside has always meant something to me, perhaps to others too.
In the absence of any such sporting joints you can make do with canal-side.
The Lock may no longer pull in huge crowds but is still a good option on a sunny day like this
where you can console yourself with a waterside drink after losing your shirt.

3) Waxy O'Connor's, 44 West George Street
There's no escape outside if things go wrong here but you can just delve further into the
subterranean possibilities of this gargantuan boozer. Many screens, many seats, many bars.
What else do you need?

4) Drop, 17 Waterloo Street
Has changed its name a few times and while it now markets itself as a 'late' bar its chief draw is
still sport (football really) and 14 50-inch screens. Those kind of dimensions give most other bars
an inferiority complex.

5) Clockwork Beer Company, 1153-55 Cathcart Road
The southside deserves a mention and here it is. With almost as many own-brewed beers as there are
runners in The National, the Clockwork keeps building a pedigree as good as a top steeplechaser.
And plenty of screens too.

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Old College Bar - Glasgow's Oldest Bar to be Demolished


The Old College Bar, 221 High Street, Glasgow G1 1PP

I mentioned The Old College Bar in a recent blog. That post was about new hopes and beginnings – ironic, then, that I included Glasgow’s oldest bar.

The reason for its mention is its impending destruction. A proposal for its demolition has been submitted to the council and it seems that it will be granted. Very little opposition seems to be forthcoming to Bishop Loch Homes plans for, presumably, shiny homes and offices, that include the knocking down of the bar.

This lack of support for a unique historical item is strange but less so when you examine the Glasgow scene. The two other bars laying claim to be the city’s oldest – The Scotia and Sloans – have plenty of noisy supporters and an online presence and many of those people haven’t even heard of the Old College Bar.

But it wins this three pub race for posterity when you apply the rules of the race. For a bar to be the oldest it merely has to have traded as a bar in the same name, in the same building and with a continuous licence from its birth until today. The Old College has been around – without a break – since 1812. The Scotia dates from 1815 at the earliest and Sloans from 1797 – but that only as a restaurant, its bar days only began long after. And Sloans has a sizeable gap when the whole place was shut.

However, despite the Old College’s legitimacy and unsurpassed longevity its voice and its cause is quiet largely because it is not – like The Scotia - frequented by artists, writers, folk singers and a myriad of hangers-on. Neither does it have the central location of Sloans.

No, it sits on the edge of east end oblivion from the perspective of most influence-makers and its regulars are just ordinary guys out for a cheap-ish pint. And the lack of craft beers or expensive brands means there’s no support from our CAMRA comrades either, many of whose members would rather support Wetherspoons than historically important free houses.



I’ve been in the Old College only around ten times and its interior is unremarkable but I’ve felt privileged every time. It is one of the handful of Glasgow bars in which you can readily feel you are standing where your ancestors have stood, sharing an experience down the decades, even the centuries.

In 2007, after the sweet agony of yet another Scottish footballing near miss – defeat to Italy in Euro 2008 qualifying – the bar was packed with revellers despite the result, when a lone piper entered unannounced and proceeded to play a celebration/lament. The performance was about the day – not the result – in which the whole city had been out and about, filling every corner of every establishment where the game was showing.

And the theme of celebration in adversity was very Glasgow and very this kind of pub. And places like The Old College retain that in their bricks and stone and timber.


Admittedly, that structure is crumbling as this photo from a recent visit shows. It’s a product of owner neglect over many years but this neglect could and should have been prevented by the council. They have the power to do so, but like many earlier administrations their attitude towards built heritage is itself neglectful and unenlightened. There is far more municipal appetite for business developments such as that in the large site bounded by High, Duke, Ingram and Albion streets and the demolition of the bar compliments this venture.

The University of Strathclyde is one of the development partners and I’m sure they and GCC will point to the economic benefits but it will be interesting to see just how many local jobs are created and how much money will be circulated through Glasgow’s economy as a result.

Some sources say that the Old College Bar’s building dates from 1510. True or not, it has seen Glasgow’s fortunes rise and fall many times. As the city’s only double-centurion it has survived the decimation of various City Improvement Trusts and the cultural vandalism of post-war planning, to name but a few civic attacks on Glasgow’s heritage.

And it sits on one of Glasgow’s ancient thoroughfares that - apart from what remains of the Tolbooth, the cathedral and Provand’s Lordship - has virtually nothing of any real age left. When you consider the equivalent street in Edinburgh – The Royal Mile – and its preservation the comparison does not flatter the larger city.

The demolition of The Old College Bar will cut a rare link with our civic and cultural past. More than that it would sever another fragile connection we all have with our forefathers; drinkers and non-drinkers alike.








Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Richmond





The Richmond, 144 Park Road, Glasgow G4 9HB



It’s not often The Muse and I get out together these days. She’s in; I’m out. I’m in; she’s out. But enough about our marital relations let’s get down to the real hard stuff – bars.

As mentioned in my last blog, some old addresses have recently re-emerged with new names and faces. The Richmond on Park Road, Kelvinbridge is one of the new pubs. Bar Bola, its predecessor lay boarded and empty for around a decade.

An unremarkable, mid-market bar situated in the then quiet area between Byres Road and Charing Cross, I had to think hard about anything of note occurring to me or to anyone I knew or, indeed, to anyone they knew. Nothing. Then I remembered Craig Armstrong.

Probably Scotland’s most under-recognised musician/composer he wrote the scores for films including Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Ray. For this work he’s received Grammys, BAFTAs and Golden Globes. He is also the composer for the eagerly awaited The Great Gatsby.

Frequent collaborations with artists including Madonna, Nellie Hooper, U2  and Pavarotti further illustrate his influence across popular culture. His solo work – both classical and contemporary - has also garnered a great deal of critical credit. Yet, for all this, he has received very little domestic attention. A great shame when you consider the many mediocre talents we celebrate.

Armstrong was in Bar Bola one early evening when I spotted him sitting waiting. I’ve never carried an autograph book and even if I did I would never deign to actually bring it out but I did think about approaching the guy to tell him, that I, for one knew who he was. 

 
A companion soon arrived anyway and this chap also appeared familiar. For a moment I believed it was Steven Lindsay, singer from The Big Dish. It wasn’t but it may have been another band member from one of Glasgow’s 1980s bands like Texas, Love and Money and my personal favourite, Hipsway. Armstrong played keyboards for a few of them so connection was plausible.

I left them to their chat and – fast-forwarding through the intervening years – can now look at the bar as it is now. If it wasn’t for the same address (important detail) you wouldn’t recognise the place. For instance the bar, previously a sideshow, is now the centre-point, an impressive mixture of glass and wood that stands out in today’s bar world of each and every bar having a, frankly, impressive counter and gantry. And it manages to carry off a matt white counter.

Seating in the street-side half of the joint is low but comfy grey chair/stools that fit nicely with the harmony of form and function on view. A lovely panelled ceiling and mullioned mirror further enhance the elegant flow of the place. 


The ¾-length front windows can slide open giving the alfresco option absent from the earlier bar in those pre-smoking-ban days. Looking out the back towards the River Kelvin through more large windows there appears to be plans for a terrace extension, which would be a massive attraction.

This side of the bar offers a more spacious, relaxed hangout better lent to enjoying The Richmond’s menu. Once you’ve done so you can go downstairs to the very modern mixed-gender convenience area. Three or four very large cubicles – reminding this reviewer of the Dragon I toilets in Hong Kong – which either ladies or gents can use. Why differentiate?

The owners have spent a lot of time, thought and money on this place and their ambition deserves at least some success as they seek to prosper in a location that hasn’t yet flourished despite or because of the relative proximity of stalwarts such as Stravaigin and The Doublet.

I wish, though, they had spent more time on the name. It has no connection with the area – if it does, somebody please enlighten me – and is, to put it charitably, uninspired.

They can, perhaps, be excused because they are out-of-towners Rahul and Pravesh Randev who have had considerable success developing relatively elegant restaurants/bars in Lenzie and Bishopbriggs, including The Eagle Lodge and Carriages.

These places are designed with a certain brand of customer in mind. Affluent couples who enjoy their food and drink in tasteful moderation before one drives the other home. The next weekend they reverse roles. They may even have a nibble midweek and they will celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, christenings and even divorces there.  Suburban bliss indeed - and good payers too. But the demographics are different here in the city’s west end.

Sample The Richmond: your custom, or lack of, will determine its future and Kelvinbridge needs a little of the smoothness it brings.

Better still, listen to a little of Mr. Armstrong’s music.

Footnote: Just after finishing this piece’s first draft I was walking along Gibson Street and was passed by the man himself walking east. The last and only time I had seen him had been that occasion mentioned above, sometime late last century. Perhaps he was returning to the very same place? Even if not, it shows happenstance is still around.





Friday, 11 January 2013

Onwards



It could hardly have been a worse year for the bar business than 2012 (though I daresay the future may prove me far wrong) so I’d like to look ahead as opposed to reversing time. In contrast to what has gone before maybe 2013 will see more pubs opening than closing; proper government support for the local; bars at last seen as the solution to not the cause of social problems and a trade in general on the rise rather than decline.

But on to specific (and more realistic) wishes –

THE OLD RE-EMERGING
Many Glasgow addresses used to be bars. How good it would be to have even a fraction of these returned to their original uses especially in under-provisioned locales. The East End, for instance, has been stripped bare of its pubs. Will the Commonwealth Games prove to be any sort of catalyst for a bar renewal?

A good sign is the recent openings of The Richmond (formerly Bar Bola and before that The Blythswood Cottage), The Sparkle Horse (The Dowanhill) and The Kelvingrove Café (Kelvingrove Café). I’ll be reviewing these in future blogs.

FOOD AND DRINK IN PERFECT HARMONY
Our tradition in Britain has been to separate these two hospitality elements with rigid distinctions between restaurants and bars. Although these divides have blurred recently it is still unusual for drinkers to enter and use a ‘restaurant’s’ bar without buying any food as it is for bar-goers to expect decent snacks along with their beer.

Flexibility and choice is the key to allow customers to mix and match drinks and food on a casual and cheap basis. That’s why places like Panevino and Edinburgh’s Divino Enoteca are welcome additions to the recent scene with accompanying innovations like an extended range of wines by the glass, whisky flytes and mini-platters of cheese, honey, relishes, hams etc



RIVER CITY
Imaginative designs and locations are as important as food and drink ranges so hopefully some exciting new ventures will be dreamed up, developed and allowed planning. A start could be more venues on the riversides to build on stalled developments and bring to fruition GCC’s aim of shifting the city’s focus to the Clyde.

We also need better outdoor provision so news that the forthcoming bar, Hyde, at the corner of Byres Road and Dumbarton Road is incorporating a south-facing terrace is welcome. And, I hope, interesting ventures such as the transformation of a public convenience at Anniesland Cross into a tapas joint can get the financial backing they need.

GET OUT MORE
With my bar count approaching 500 for Glasgow, and well into three figures for Edinburgh, I intend to experience far more pubs elsewhere in Scotland and beyond.

And just get out more in general because, for me, going out is – aside from The Muse and Logan – what makes life worth living.

LIFELONG AMBITION
Unless I receive an unexpected inheritance it won’t happen this year but some time I do want to set up my own bar in Glasgow’s most atmospheric street, Parnie Street. Some great little den that will last for at least two centuries and its good times be talked about for even longer.

Talking of places 200 years old, the Old College Bar on High Street is under threat of demolition. Glasgow’s oldest (circa 1815) has fallen into serious disrepair but deserves to remain for the sake of the city’s heritage. I intend to oppose its demise strongly.