Friday, 18 December 2009
Malmaison, 278 West George Street
Hotel bars? Who uses them? I do. But I’m in the minority.
I know it’s different in London and other big cities but in smaller places like our humble home town, there is something that makes us reluctant to see them as a place for a casual drink, we don’t view them the same as we do bars located elsewhere. People don’t just walk into them and, gulp, order a drink as they would anywhere else.
A quick survey in the place where I am forced to spend my days revealed that people see them as venues for a special occasion only, places which cater mostly for couples and bars that are not welcoming and require you to dress up.
Not wholly negative responses but enough to suggest that hotel bars need an image change. When even broadsheet reviewers use words such as ‘venture’ in describing a visit to a hotel bar you know there is an issue.
All this is before you talk about price. I had forgotten the horror stories on overcharging until a recent afternoon in Edinburgh after the rugby. The Roseburn and Ryries were too mobbed so we went for the bland looking but quieter Hilton hotel on Grosvener Street. All was fine in the soft-furnished interior until the order was placed. Two pints of lager and two small house red wines. I handed over £15. “I don’t think that will be enough,” said the red-jacketed manager, “but I’ll just check.” The till confirmed her fears and mine. £18.60. I made my ire known, to the embarrassment of those around me. Perhaps they could afford the prices or were too proud to admit they couldn’t or are in personal debt to the hilt. It doesn’t matter. You forget circumstances. You don’t forget the price.
With that still fresh in our minds we parked just off Blythswood Square on a Friday evening. Walking towards the new 5* Blythswood Square Hotel we couldn’t help noticing each and every window was illuminated in red light. I had read that this motif had been employed to evoke the spirit of the square’s chequered past as a prostitute pick-up zone. But this was over-playing it. Hardly the subtle touch you would expect from a £25m refurbishment of the famous Royal Scottish Automobile Club, employing renowned designers and funded by the well-established Country House Hotels group.
As always when approaching hotels I felt a little nervous here, perhaps the knowledge of my limited means giving me a touch of inferiority. The doorman greeting us would not have been out of place in a top London equivalent; both in his appearance, complete with top hat, and his hard-to-place Southern accent.
On our right, as we entered, an unassuming reception desk, under our feet the original marble floor from the RSAC days. I know this because I spent a few late evenings in my youth waiting for my father to emerge from some do or other here. On occasion, in my impatience, I even crossed the club’s threshold and remember the black rectangles on grey background. The designers of the hotel have, it is reported, found a new way of polishing the floor to restore it almost completely.
I had no time to admire it though; we needed to find the bar quickly, because staff members from all around were descending on us rapidly. The first one reached us before we could decide which way to go. I blurted out “cocktail bar?” and to be fair the reaction was good. A smile and we were shown to our left, and down a few steps towards what appears to be the present hub of the hotel action. Not before we past another two staff members standing guard.
This whole room – the former ballroom- is named The Restaurant at the Blythswood (wow), but it is the bar area you reach. Our feet clicked on the matt wooden floor as we made our way through the suits. Scores of them. The after-work crowd reflecting on the week, no doubt. A pretty up-market lot. Probably not from the call centres down the hill, more likely professionals from nearby offices. Yes, there was Jock Brown, football commentator, lawyer and former Celtic chairman - during one of the more controversial periods in their history. Renaissance man, Glasgow-style.
The bar itself divides the room lengthways; north to south put another way. A black rectangular arch encloses the steel-topped counter, behind which is a glass panel rendering the kitchen visible. Inlayed are small tiles that would be more at home in a bathroom.
This was definitely a bar. But which one? Originally, some weeks back, I’d read the Rally Bar was the first bar opening. Then, as the hotel opening neared, after a number of delays, the Cocktail Bar was mooted as being first. The Salon was another bar name mentioned.
If in doubt ask a barman. I had already ordered two drinks but the response to that request had been unimpressive and slightly strange. The guy who had taken the order duly prepared the lager but as for the gin and tonic: we were given no options as to the brand of gin we preferred, this being taken as read in most high-end establishments. He then spoke to another barman who began assembling the G&T and then spoke to another guy who went to the till to presumably tot up our little bill. A division of labour or delegation? Whatever it was, it was neither efficient nor smooth. Undeterred I asked the question about bar names to one of them, I think it was either barman number 1 or barman number 3. He seemed less than sure, but I think we established that this was the Cocktail Bar, upstairs was the unready Salon, and downstairs the Rally Bar, which is available for hire only.
We settled for a booth table in the southwest corner, negotiating the crowds and smaller high round tables, which sit in the middle. Away to our far left we could see diners in the restaurant, the border between them and the drinkers blurred.
The low rosewood table are also hard to manoeuvre around to get to your seat. Now, the use of Harris Tweed in the hotel has been much extolled; the employment of over 50 different types, the fabric’s sustainability and the way it looks. Used here, in black, it does look stunning. But it is dreadfully uncomfortable. Ask my partner. Even through her tights she could feel the fibres itching at her legs. This hasn’t been mentioned anywhere, maybe because all the reviewers have been male.
The red lighting so visible from outside is split into two different features. At the windows small unadorned red shades, and larger black shades with red tassels hanging in the middle of the room. The insides of these show prints of rallying from yesteryear.
The place was looking good but somehow we felt out of it in our booth. What’s more we didn’t feel like joining the crowd, even though the preponderance of business-people talking shop was now broken a little by more casually dressed probable residents and a group of rather alternatively dressed forty-something women in the adjoining booth who definitely seemed here to party.
Up at the bar for round two I sat and waited on a barstool. These, finished in a heather-coloured Harris rather than the black, have a flap hanging down behind them as it were. This represents, I am told, coat tails, another reference to the grand past of this building and the square.
But this, like the red lighting, is probably a nod too far, associations that don’t quite fit and are lost on customers.
On the plus side, this order was like the first one; prices while not cheap are certainly conscionable.
We remained for another wee while, enjoying the subtle sounds, controlled it is rumoured, by the manager via a remote in his well-upholstered jacket.
His staff were waiting for us out in the reception when we were leaving. Running the gauntlet once more was how it felt. They were polite however in directing us to the toilets. The Gents was upstairs and I was escorted up the stairs, not sure whether to be flattered or not.
This is the Salon area, which looked ready for use. It follows some themes from downstairs, such as the lighting, but is meant for more private usage, less a place to be seen, more a place for patrons to relax in softer surroundings.
The bathrooms are as well appointed as you would expect. For the bathroom fetishists among you the hardware is by Vitra and the soap is from the organic Purdies of Argyll.
The doorman was as professional as when we arrived, even though he seemed to have forgotten us from earlier. He made some complimentary remarks to my companion also, and that was fine too, I was in a good mood and I’m not the jealous type.
On our stroll across the square I talked about the history of Blythswood Square, from its position as being a premier residence for the merchant and professional classes in Victorian and Edwardian Glasgow through to its red light notoriety. I also mentioned the famous case of Madeline Smith, a resident here, on I believe the north side of the square, who was acquitted of the poisoning of her lower- class French lover in the 1850s, despite being widely believed to be guilty of the charge.
On the west side of the square, the Malmaison Hotel has been serving the city and its guests since the 1990s. We went there to finish off our evening.
When it opened it was seen as the cutting edge in hotel design and service and part of a successful, trendy chain across the UK. Indeed, a good friend of mine often talks of a particularly wild night here spent with the band The Prodigy around a decade ago.
Malmaison the chain is still, as far as I’m aware, doing well but nowadays this particular hotel feels its age. This is despite the mini atrium and the spiral staircase that leads from the main entrance to the bar, two features which remain attractive no matter how many times I visit.
In the main bar area dark wood predominates, along with empty bottles and more empty bottles that line the shelves all around the walls. Now, I like dark wood, in the right place it works. But here it is a little too cosy, more like a country hotel than a city establishment.
Cutting edge now is, for better or worse, glass and bling and shininess. Features on show, right now, in The Blythswood.
Not to say we didn’t enjoy our time in Malmaison. Service and drinks were good, but the restaurant is too close and the food smells were disconcerting, as was the speaker at our ear level that seemed to be connected to a receiver beside a nearby table. I’m as nosy as the next man but to hear the minutiae of someone else’s conversation like that was a bit too much. Though it did provide us with talking points on the way home.
That and hotel bars of course. If they are up-to-the minute and designer driven, they seem too showy, less interested in offering the customer a good time than displaying their wares and smart cultural references. If they are behind the times, the criticism is that they are jaded and complacent.
Normal bars should be open to the self-same analysis, but somehow they avoid the negativity surrounding hotel bars. If they work, they work, seems to be the attitude. And for hotel bars it seems that, in Glasgow at least, they just don’t yet.
Sunday, 6 December 2009
An appropriately quiet beginning for the slumbering end of Bath Street. A desolate trek for the unacquainted. At the end of our journey you may find The Pony. It’s at no.207, not number 25 as some might expect.
Past tenants – including Brick, Over the Road and Tom Tom Bar & Diner – have found this to be a lonely vigil, tending bar.
Perhaps it is refreshing, this lack of marketing, a reliance on word of mouth alone. But it won’t be easy. None of the above were bad bars. But they have come and gone. Likewise Elliot’s – once my favourite spot for the first drink on a Saturday night and until recently the best use of red in any bar in Glasgow – and Tao from the adjacent site. Maggie Murphy’s, the similarly new occupier of that site, will face the same challenges as The Pony.
There is hope, however. Nearby Moskito is picking up various awards, introducing new features and generally thriving. All this despite (or because of) what can only be described as a middle-of-the road-appeal.
Word is The Pony has already started comedy nights in its impressive downstairs venue. Grabbing the initiative like this gives the bar its best chance of avoiding obscurity.
Saturday, 5 December 2009
News that the Bier Halle empire is morphing once again. The Republic Bier Halle on Great Western Road near Kelvinbridge has closed.
The new occupiers are Bar Gambrino. This is a venture from the owners of the Gambrino restaurant just over the road, an eatery remarkable only for its mainstream Italian fare and refusal to allow pre-bookings. It will be a surprise if the bar produces any more than a ripple.
The end of Bier Halle West is not surprising, the conventional setting worked against it, lacking the subterranean nature of the other two venues.
Readers of my earlier blog on Colin Barr and the reign of Bier Halle, will know that the group’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the decade and time will tell if this is re-alignment, regression, or the pause before regeneration.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
100 Bath Street, Glasgow
Once a major part of the pre-club circuit in central Glasgow, it is now trying to regain its position as one of the places to be seen in town. Well-placed in a basement-site on the lower end of Bath Street its interior has been revamped somewhat, the major change being an extension through to Bath Lane.
In the mid to late nineties the Monkey Bar, along with places like Candy Bar (now Bar Kandi), Bloc, Spy Bar (now Butterfly & Pig) and various other stylish joints congregated around the Sauchiehall, Bath and Hope Street axis, were the focus of action in that vicinity before folk moved on to the clubs.
Things have changed. The emergence of bar/club hybrids that open early and stay open until club closing times, and the habit now of drinking at home before going straight to nightclubs has reduced the demand for top quality pre-club venues. And that is before you even consider the creeping domination of chain bars - of which more to come in later blogs.
In the meantime Monkey Bar has gone – via an interregnum as Rust – and come again – with another branch opened in Kilmarnock- hoping to cut a slice of the market that remains. Whether the owners are the same as before the name change, only a dip into the murky world of Glasgow pub ownership would reveal, but what matters to punters is its return.
They have a DJ for weekend evenings and the prices to attract clubbers. All day every day it’s £2 for Vodka, Gin, Morgans or Bulleit Bourbon with a free dash, or a can of Rush Energy. At the same price they offer Corona, VK, a pint of Fosters or glass of house red. For a more discerning drinker they have Moretti on draught at a standard price.
The basic structure of the front interior is as before, the raised area on your right as you enter remaining the focal point of the whole bar, with the dead space behind the bar still a wasted quiet area. Red predominates- as so often in bar design recently – with back lighting in this colour beneath the bar and the elevated section.
The main change and improvement though is the extension up a level through to the back, which connects to Sauchiehall Lane. You pass the kitchen serving- hatch on the way, another relatively new feature. Taking a peak out through the back door you see the adjoining bar, Universal, which has used the lane as its front for a few years now. Not only is the lane a better smoking area than the basement at the front, but also it lends a raffish air to the place that adds to its attraction.
Inside there are pieces of contemporary Glasgow art on the wall and not entirely convincing brickwork beneath the back bar. The toilets feature much shiny chrome, frosted glass and burgundy tiling. That’s the ladies’. The gents’ seems to have had less of a refurbishment but can’t be faulted for cleanliness. The disabled convenience is up on the back level, a seeming mistake but perhaps intended to be easily accessible from the lane entrance.
Monkey Bar is equipped to return to prominence, maybe at the heart of a resurgent independent scene. It will be enough though, just to be the kind of place that you are happy to be as the night darkens, the clubs beckon, and anticipation grows…
Friday, 20 November 2009
Glasgow has long had an association with Indian food. Well, perhaps it is Bangladeshi cuisine really but the association exists for the patrons of these eateries. Consequently, the city has a reputation for a fine range of restaurants from the sub-continent and Glaswegians love their Indian food. Can this affection be transferred to establishments where drink rather than food is the focal point of their offerings?
Two new bars are trying to achieve just this; creating the link between India and drinking. Folk have taken to Chicken Tikka Masala and Lamb Bhoona but will they flock to joints where the drink served is more ambitious than a lager to go with the curry?
Slumdog Bar & Kitchen on Sauchiehall Street(no.410) is Charan Gill’s re-entry into the bar/restaurant scene. Leaving aside the slightly exploitative name of his venture, the former Harlequin Curry King of his hometown has chosen a difficult site for his new concept in Indian drink and food; previously occupied by Sauchiehaugh, Edwards, Maxaluna, Pythagoras and Amphora to name but five in the last forty-eight years. Amongst that you have a couple of bland chain pubs, a style bar and two more traditional pubs from yesteryear. Quite a turnover but nothing too extraordinary. However, this part of Sauchiehall Street near Charing Cross has crystallised into the cheap student strip of the city, an area which over 25s have now largely boycotted. An over-reaction on their part certainly, but still a part of town where inexpensive emporiums ply young drinkers pre-club, and similarly cheap non-descript noodle bars fill their faces afterwards (Last time I looked Canton Express was still going strong - this is the exception).
Gill has spent a large chunk of his Harlequin-sale fortune furnishing his new dream. Spending such an amount of money you know the aim will be a fresh, innovative look, suggestive of the latest, greatest place to be. If greatness is luxury, then the first impressions here speak of success. The interior of light greens, yellows and turquoises with soft furnishings and warming wall coverings gives you ease and repose as soon as you arrive. I had a bathroom visit to attend to almost immediately, and thus noticed that the lavishness continues downstairs. The toilet entrance doors have elegant portholes, the sinks are pristine white with gold taps, and they have installed one of the first Dyson Airblades in Glasgow (I first came across this revolutionary piece of sanitary ware in John Turrode’s joint in Smithfield, London last year).
I intended to walk up the steps from our place near the window to inspect the bar area itself but an eager waiter in a waistcoat matching the colour scheme of the establishment itself came upon us before I had the chance. He was quick to explain the way things worked here: the menu is designed to offer the drinker/diner casual grazing through choices that are predominantly tapas size, or desi to use the proper Indian term. This fitted with some blurb I remember coming from Mr. Gill himself regarding his vision of replicating that home feel of friends together enjoying a bit of this dish, a bit of that dish and drinks to go with the food and the flow of conversation through the night. Sounds good. As it was around lunchtime small dishes suited our requirements. For the record we chose the Lamb Kati Roll (we were served chicken but let the mistake ride), Chicken Wings in Ginger, Bombay Potato and a Chickpea and Pomegranate Salad, the latter being the most memorable.
As I said, we were sitting in the front section near the window, the main restaurant area being up one mini-level past the bar. We had thought that the menu there would differ from the one presented to us but we were told it is one and the same. The House Curries make up the remainder of the food choice, but they too can be mini- or medium-sized to suit your wallet, stomach or mood.
Beverage-wise we were encouraged to go for the Slumdog Premium lager, a brew specially commissioned for this opening, and produced by West Brewery on the other side of the city centre and an establishment mentioned in this blog only last week. While we waited, I looked at the drinks menu, thinking of another of Gill’s much-trailed ideas behind the opening of Slumdog. He wanted to re-create the drinking scene of Mumbai, from the top-end bars and hotels to back street and alleyway joints that appear everywhere, almost by magic.
Before he mentioned this idea, I had never thought of India or indeed Asia in general as a place where a substantial drinking culture exists. My only direct experience is in Hong Kong, the bar districts there being in the westernised areas. I believed India to be the same. And, I have to confess, Mumbai’s bars only came to my attention via the recent terrorist atrocities there, during which scenes from swanky hotel bars were flashed across our TV screens.
This place could have easily doubled for those bars, but not for a casual street bar, it has none of the freewheeling nature of such joints in India or anywhere else in the world. So the atmosphere is lacking in authenticity, but does the range of drinks get the concept back on track? Our beers from West disappointed, rather bland and not as refreshing as say a Kingfisher. There is Cobra on draught but it is one of only four draughts available, along with only three bottled beers. Wines are better represented but the real concentration is upon cocktails. They seem to be original recipes, thirteen of them on the menu, and many with names derived from the eponymous movie: Jai Ho, Slumdog Diva, Final Answer, Gangsta Blues, all at £4.75. Predominantly lime or lemon based they exude a freshness that is repeated in the line-up of Mocktails, alcohol-free concoctions of which the most interesting is a Bonnie Bonnie Lassie, a mixture of yoghurt and cream, seasoned with black pepper and spices.
To get a better feel of the place I would have liked to have gone up for a closer look at the striking bar, from our table it looked like a nice combination of cream and chrome counter with a black cabinet behind custom-designed to showcase their premium wines and spirits. However, I was deterred by the staff standing there, the guy in the garish waistcoat and his over-eager colleagues who had been a little too keen with directions when I had sought out the toilets earlier, shepherding me away from the restaurant it had seemed. Still, it was a quiet Saturday afternoon, so they can be excused, but maybe Charan Gill will be worried about just how quiet it was.
Our food arrived promptly and was a step beyond usual fair but the Kati Roll disappointed somewhat. Word is that there are more, subtle and distinctive flavours along the street, towards the Art Galleries, at Bukharah (923 Sauchiehall Street), our second Indian-themed opening.
It is part of the redevelopment of the Kelvin Lorne Hotel, which has lain unoccupied for at least five years, and under-utilised for the past fifteen. And having stayed nearby I can personally testify to the backcourt chaos this neglect caused. Situated in the most unprepossessing part of Sauchiehall Street, the hotel was earmarked for housing but Archie Sharif, an entrepreneur with a background in Indian restaurants and takeaways stepped in with £11m to transform its fortunes. Halfway through the project – the historic listed section untouched so far – the hotel boasts the Bukharah eatery and the adjoining Bilberry cocktail bar.
Very different names obviously but the same in-house operation. And walking in from the hotel’s reception area on a Friday evening it was hard to tell where the bar ended and the restaurant began and vice versa. They are barely separated by an incomplete lattice partition allowing you a view of the brickwork on the restaurant wall that reminds you more of a ranch house in New Mexico than the East.
As I said, the food in Bukharah has been well received, a reward perhaps for the bravery of setting up a restaurant serving ‘healthy’ Indian cuisine in an area- geographical as well as cuisine style- already very well served by Mother India’s various outlets and Balbir’s.
But, as always in this blog, we have to leave the food behind and concentrate on the booze. Once we had settled our confusion of where the bar area was we sat in the strip by the main street window and admired the interior of the Bilberry. It possesses a quiet opulence, but a less specific version than that of Slumdog. A fuchsia pink backlight leads from the entrance to the back panel of the island bar, with premium champagnes, vodkas and tequilas prominently displayed. Elegant couches – perhaps more suited for the reception area – and high-armed crocodile-skinned chairs are sprinkled round the room. In our section by the large window the chairs are lime, a nice tone we agree, but the overly bright lighting here distracts from your comfort and does make you feel exposed, as if you are being watched. The waiting staff are smart in their waistcoats, crisp white shirts and aprons, but they, like their more ostentatious counterparts in Slumdog, looked over a little too much, but perhaps my notebook didn’t help. The camera wasn’t coming out, that was for sure. Yes, just like in Slumdog, it was a quiet time- early to mid evening – and a miserable night too, but the wet weather added to our comfort inside and the darkness probably shows the subtlety of the interior at its best.
This level of décor would not be out of place in the London hotel scene, and Sharif has expressed a wish to encourage drinkers in Glasgow to become more willing to see hotel bars as places to drink regularly, perhaps emulating behaviour the UK’s capital.
I have touched on before our reluctance in Scotland to frequent hotel bars as non-residents, and will return to this in more depth in future blogs, but one reason for this may be price, or rather, the perception of price. Sharif sees this as an obstacle and to counter it he has stated that they will offer premium spirits, for example, at ‘entry-level’ prices. We had a couple of gin and tonics, and not being offered a choice of the gin I believe it was Beefeater, this being one of the spirits on offer at the base of £2.95. Add in mixers at over a pound each and suddenly you are near £8.50 for the round. Not extortionate but not prices that encourage passers-by either, nor enough to change people’s drinking habits.
Better is their cocktail offerings, an exciting range that will appeal to blingers maybe heading to local club Boho later or just those out to impress. An eclectic mix of old and new, cleanly sub-divided into: Martini, Mary (Bloody & Virgin), Margarita, Daiquiri, Mojito, Sparkling and Classics. An interesting page on the menu devoted to rum- the Plantation range being one of the premium brands stocked – details the Good Neighbour Policy (or Pan American Program) of the 40s, a radical new US policy of cultural and trade engagement with Latin America that transformed the image of rum from being the preserve of sailors and winos to the most fashionable drink on the block. I do like some history with my drink, so much better than crisps or even olives.
The only let down amongst this fine presentation of drinks was the listing of Grahams and Dows Tawny under Brandy & Vermouth instead of Ports but I’m sure they will tidy this up.
Innovation is the only way to break through pre-conceived notions. Good pricing and range of drinks can help to achieve this, and maybe these two newcomers’ wine, spirits and cocktail lists will overcome their limited beer ranges and lack of bargains. Aiming towards the high end of the market their interiors though quite different, share a no-expense-spared ethos that has largely succeeded, though Slumdog could introduce stronger colours to move it away from a generic feel that can remind you of chain outlets.
The concept of Indian dining and drinking can be broken but it will have to be shattered alongside that of the bar/restaurant conundrum in Glasgow. Much money has been spent over the years in large-scale ventures such as Gong off Byres Road and in Stavka on Sauchiehall Street trying to convince punters that a venue can be a bar and a restaurant together. Both these venues have closed or been re-branded, as, it seems, people still prefer bars and eateries to largely remain separate incarnations.
Slumdog and Bilberry/Bukharah at the Lorne, may however mange to achieve the hitherto impossible and also be the first to create a fusion of drinking culture with the East here in our humble city, to mirror, in a small way, the rise of Fusion cuisine across the world.
Sunday, 8 November 2009
The Republic Bier Halle in Gordon Street, last week celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Unusually for such birthdays it does seem as if this famous venue has been around for longer than the advertised timespan but we’ll take their word for it.
Since revealing its subterranean minimalism to Glasgow in the last year of the last millennium the Bier Halle has been a firm favourite on the city centre bar circuit. While its basic look and image may not be quite as cutting edge as when it opened, the bar and its spin-offs have given one great legacy to drinking in this country, being the first venue to offer a large range of beers under one roof.
The owner, Colin Barr had been a well-kent face on the Glasgow nightclub and bar scene since the early to mid-eighties. His previous ventures had included nightclubs such as Volcano, and The Tunnel and he had been involved in the beginnings of the realisation of the style bar as a concept in this city. By the late nineties he was looking for a different direction, the antithesis in fact. The inspiration came from Barr’s visits to middle- Europe, specifically the vast Bier Halles that part of the world is famed for. Rows and rows of wooden benches; punters served by attentive, ever-busy serving staff bearing foaming Steins; no-nonsense venues geared only for the appreciation of beer.
Barr transplanted and translated this concept to a moderate-sized basement site in the city centre. He brought the wooden tables and benches, and added neo-industrial touches like rocks on the walls caged with wire mesh. A utilitarian look to contrast with what had come before in Glasgow. But it was, of course, a style in itself, anti-style if you like.
From the beginning though, the main attraction was the huge range of schnapps and, more prominently, beers. Over 130 from across the world was the original offering. It was fun to close the massive beer menu, think of a country, any country, and then open the menu to find, yes, that they were selling at least two beers from that country. It was a chance to see a Jeroboam of beer sitting on the end of the bar; an opportunity to enjoy beer as you would wine, comparing regions and subtle flavours, savouring not guzzling your drink; and an introduction, personally, to the delightful fruit beers of Belgium.
Maybe it differed from the large, bright, raucous halls from the Germanic part of Europe I myself had experienced while on holiday, but it was our version and it worked.
Riding on the success of the Bier Halle, Barr introduced another outlet, this time on the south side of the city, Bier Halle Stube on Kilmarnock Road. In the meantime other outlets had arrived offering the same wide range of beers. The Beer Café on Candleriggs boasted eleven draught beers and over 50 bottled. Pivo Pivo (Beer Beer!) on Waterloo Street went further with over 90 beers on offer. Both suffered though from rather uninspiring, generic interior design and the latter was diminished rather than enhanced by being part of the office after-work circuit.
Despite being at the vanguard of a new type of drinking in the west of Scotland, by 2002, a combination of wider market conditions and the expansion of the G1 group, Barr was forced to re-appraise his portfolio. Stube was sold off, along with a number of other interests.
For a time in Glasgow then the only bar openings seemed to be either the G1 Group or even larger chains such as Wetherspoons. However, independent operators have since returned to the development game, with new concepts or re-imaginings of old-ones. Barr himself opened his first real restaurant venture with Salty Dog, a seafood and cocktail bar. Despite this, itself, being a forerunner in the emergence of cocktails across the city, this was sold on too. But ever the resilient operator, Barr has returned, in recent years, to adding to his Bier Halle mini-chain. Republic Bier Halle West took over the old Oblomov premises on Great Western Road, Kelvinbridge, and Republic Bier Hof opened in the student drag of Sauchiehall Street. Both are rather constrained by their environments. Hof by its student area, where discounting and volumes seem to be more important than discernment, and Halle West, in which the mahogany interior speaks more of its past incarnation rather than the Bier Halle project.
Despite these shortcomings it is good to have at least couple more pubs where you can enjoy a decent range of beers. And that is probably the living legacy of the Bier Halle decade. Bars where fad is not the thing, an aping of previously successful styles neither. No, places where service and range and quality of product are the key.
Now this message is finally getting across in Glasgow, with the last 3 to 4 years with new ventures such as Chinaskis, Black Sparrow and Citation being notable examples.
The one outlet that does though seem to spring directly from the Hoffe example is West at the Templeton Building near Glasgow Green. This restaurant, bar and in-house brewery produces its own range in accordance with the German beer purity law, brewing light golden lagers to dark wheat beers. This place’s authenticity is such that Mr. Barr himself can be seen endorsing it on YouTube.
Ten years of Republic Beer Halle has brought us much fun and beers. Okay, the slow table service sometimes lets down the concept, the range of drinks is not what it once was, and the unisex sinks in the WCs can be confusing – but maybe that was because I’d had one too many Tuskers from Kenya or Crocodiles from Sweden. But anywhere that has introduced me to Raspberry Frambozen well merits a birthday celebration.
Wednesday, 28 October 2009
5 – 7 Dundas Street, Glasgow
Pubs or inns have since their beginnings offered travellers a place of refreshment whether they have reached their destination or are stopping off before the next leg of their journey. Horse-drawn coaches would rumble into town and deposit wearisome wayfarers at a welcoming hostelry complete with a roaring fire, buxom serving wenches and foaming tankards of ale. That’s the fantasy downloaded from film, TV and literature but there is reality in there somewhere.
Nowadays we have sparkling cocktail bars within transport hubs such as Heathrow Terminal 5 and the re-conditioned St. Pancras railway station. That particular bar – a champagne bar reputed to be the longest in Europe- aims to rival the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar but it will need many years behind it before claiming such status. There will be other grand examples throughout the world of travel, establishments both inside and adjacent to major stations, ports and other disembarkation points. In Glasgow, just opposite the western exit from Queen Street Station we have The Vale, and our city is none the worse for it.
It took me over a decade of drinking to finally sample The Vale and largely it was its location what put me off. It wasn’t my point of arrival so why would I wish to use its services when my experiences of pubs near stations was, strangely enough, far from the glamour described above. At best they had been dank, uninspiring places where no one with any sense or taste would remain for longer than their bus or train. Genuine travellers would be up at the bar, in the light, while in the darker corners lurked various characters sitting waiting and watching but probably not for their connection. You can see these places all over Britain not just in the obvious denizen haunt spots like Kings Cross. Places that somehow manage to be both bland and dodgy.
Whether Dows the pub adjacent to The Vale possesses any or both of these attributes I can’t say but it certainly exhibits way too much cheap wood and carpet for any self-respecting Glasgow pub, along with incongruous hanging baskets. Its proximity to The Vale affected this semi-seasoned but opinionated traveller.
One Friday afternoon or early evening a friend suggested meeting in The Vale. I was about to suggest an alternative such as Waxy O’Connors – not a radical choice but the nooks can be interesting – or somewhere not too far down West Nile Street. But for once I decided to let things happen instead of directing them.
I arrived first, coming round the corner past the bookies in Dundas Lane meaning to turn right and straight into the pub. Instead I crossed the road to see it as others see it. As if for the first time. From there in the kind of light that must have been early winter I was not impressed by the marble frontage and the vivid green lettering. It didn’t go with the fine stone of Dundas House of which The Vale occupies the ground floor, and didn’t encourage you to contemplate it for too long. So in I went.
A porch- like entrance greeted me. Inside an old guy stood propped against the glass. He was smoking – this being before the ban I hasten to add to any inspectors reading – gazing out on the taxi-filled street. And probably showing his companions for the day some consideration by smoking on his tod. When I returned recently I could have sworn it was the same guy standing there again, gazing out too, but this time with no fag in hand, thinking of the old days. Wishing, perhaps, that our legislators had given him the same regard he gave to his friends. Leaving aside the politics, the porch an unusual feature that brings the pub closer to the street and vice versa.
Inside the ceiling was a warm green and the floor the same marble-effect as the frontage, however it didn’t seem to jar as much as that had, even though it was cheap, aged vinyl. Around the walls old, but comfortable red leather couches provided most of the seats, along with four or five small tables and chairs. On the walls themselves a number of framed newspapers – historic editions such the Munich Air Disaster – vied for space alongside traditional branded mirrors, and a mounted, multi-coloured collection of old beer pump discs. I turned on my heel towards the bar thinking that the only places I’d seen such embellishment before was in a few old men’s bars across this and other British cities. Okay in their place, I thought, but not really for this time of the weekend.
Two bar staff looked at me as I finished turning to the bar. “What you having?” one of them asked, while she poured someone else’s tipple. On me like a flash, you could have said. Impressive though, in a bar already fairly busy. The third staff member was bustling about in an area enclosed by the aforementioned porch but separated from the punters’ entrance. Rustling up some dinner, probably, but there would be no such luck for the customers, only Sahara Nuts (Trademark) in there own little heated pod. Another minus mark for the traditional pub. Nae grub.
And there didn’t seem to be much of a choice of whisky either. Apart from the optic blends, all I noticed was Scottish Leader and only a handful of malts. Hardly a great advert for the nation, disappointed tourists deprived of a decent selection of our national drink.
I had answered by this time. While I waited, looking behind the bar for any drink out of the ordinary – some obscure brand of vodka or rum say – the relatively small space behind the bar became apparent. Yet the barfolk worked easily around each other. Busy with the present drink and with the next order lined up in their head. And you could see everything was geared for the efficient transition to the next order. Clean glasses and other accoutrements to hand, the preparation for busy times had been done and that process would repeat itself over and over until the night was through. Whatever happened no customer would be denied service because of lack of organisation. And looking more closely, I could see nothing on the shelves behind the bar that wasn’t related to the serving of drinks, and every bit of space was used. No fancy stereo, CDs, bottles for display only, no colour co-ordination. In fact no styling at all. Just basic utility.
Once I had my lager and looked closer at my fellows round me, I was indeed of the younger age range but the average was probably not much over 45. It was difficult to tell whether most of them were at the start or the end of their day/evening out. And we were still getting the drift to and from the bookies you would expect from a pub in close proximity, even though the larger race-cards were finishing off for the day.
Over in the far left corner four or five people were chatting round a table, they being the only discernible group in the pub. Maybe regulars. However among the rest of the punters there were acknowledgements; nods, names used, quick references to recent results and happenings. I got the impression you didn’t have to come accompanied to get a conversation. And if you didn’t want one there was the three TVs. That night it was Spanish football but if the occasion was major they had a pull-down screen too.
I learned later that The Vale is an unofficial Tartan Army meeting point this explaining the various pieces of memorabilia hanging around. Amongst this was also a Mike Tyson caricature. I can’t remember if this was before or after the Holyfield ear-biting debacle but it was certainly after his first incarceration. A controversial inclusion on your wall certainly, but one less self-conscious than, for instance, the Confederate flags that appear all over the beer-selling world.
My pal arrived soon after. Running late, he was expecting a mild rebuke, I’m sure, but none coming he pressed home his luck.
“Fancy a wee chaser?” he asked, needing a catch-up.
“What you offering?”
“Take your pick,” he pointed at an unnoticed board, a stock board, in fact, of 60 or so malts. So there again we had nothing done for show. The range was there, but without a song and dance. I ordered an Ardbeg.
And with the whisky came a warmth, not just caused by the rush of alcohol, but of our surroundings. The chatter around about, the streetlights, the increasing animation of the group in the corner, the occasional tinkle from the two puggies, the wallpaper – velvety to the touch – and even the marble-effect floor. I couldn’t explain any of it. These things just come upon you.
It had been his idea to come here but he was the first to suggest we moved on, sometime around 9. I nodded even though I didn’t agree, but my resolution of earlier held sway: I would follow. We headed off then, southeast across George Square, away into the night. I’m sure it was to some bars filled with more talent or more style but I remember nothing else of that night, apart from our first pub.
I’ve been back to The Vale and added a few experiences since. On one occasion my partner and I popped in after watching the rugby elsewhere. Again only expecting to stay for just the one before a bite somewhere, we were taken by the anytime rate of £1.50 a bottle of Heineken, Stella, Carlsberg and, rather unusually, Tuborg. Malt of the Month at the same price helped too.
Managing to get a table in what I had perceived as the regulars corner we got into conversation with a middle-aged couple who were waiting for their train - To Linlithgow in fact, and after our conversation we resolved to one day check out that town’s interesting hostelries. Anyway, our companions made a habit of daytrips into Glasgow and invariably ended up for at least a couple in The Vale before heading home.
Both had purchased some books and were eager to discuss their choices, especially when they learned of my background. Unfortunately, amongst their purchases were a couple of crime thrillers, of which my opinions are widely-known elsewhere. I was, however, unwilling on this occasion to alienate our newly acquired friends, so I hummed and hawed and tried to move the discussion onto a biography I had spotted in their bag. They were having none of it though, and wanted, specifically, my opinion on the detective fiction.
At this, my partner excused herself, with a smile, as she knew what was coming. Having been put well and truly into a corner I began loudly to explain my position (I don’t know why I was so loud; perhaps annoyance at getting pressed like this, or perhaps I thought it would put off any reply).
Now, having gone through the limitations of genre, the ridiculousness of plot and the paucity of decent characterisation, I was just beginning to expound on my belief that life does not conform to a pattern or plan that such thrillers lay out in their plots when a big voice came from the bar.
“You got a clue what you’re talking about, pal?”
I looked up at a big guy who certainly matched the voice. He was looking over at me with an expression I couldn’t quite fathom.
“Yeah, I think I do,” I replied, hoping my voice was steady. He kept looking over at me, over the shoulder of our new friends, who suddenly seemed less inclined to talk about fiction, literary or otherwise.
Then, in the pause, thinking he hadn’t heard me – or just filling in the awkward silences I’ve always hated in conversations – I continued: “Do you know what you’re talking about?”
The old guy from Linlithgow hunched his shoulders even lower and turned in towards his wife, further isolating me in the corner.
The big chap was over to the table in a moment, that enigmatic expression still there. But I was watching his hands not his face. The pint in them came slamming down onto the table.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked.
His expression hadn’t changed but the middle-aged couple sagged in relief and that settled me. The guy started talking, all about his passion and justification for crime thrillers. His spiel was well rehearsed; I reckoned then that his expression was him thinking, planning his response to my challenge. One of the things he mentioned was an American author/lawyer whose name I was unaware of. This guy, supposedly, wrote crime in his spare time, the proceeds funding his crusading work in the field of child protection. All very laudable, I thought, but not an argument that advanced the literary value of crime in any way.
Still, at that, my partner returned from The Ladies upstairs for which she had had to obtain a key from behind the bar. Upstairs is the The Vale’s function area, which I learned later hosts an open mike night for bands. The only requirement is that they play their own music. Very good, in my opinion. Goes some way to countering the ubiquity of cover-version outfits.
After a round or so of drinks and a conversation that although fruitless in conclusion was heartening in itself, the Linlithgow couple made to go for their train and the big guy returned to his pals at the bar. We were set for the off too and headed for the door.
On the way I spotted a framed photo on the wall. It was an old one of the pub. Blackened exterior, the full original name The Vale of Leven, and underneath it Aitken’s Falkirk Beer. This was an independent brewery – James Aitken - that operated from the 1740s right up until the 1960’s when it was amalgamated with Caledonian United Breweries that eventually became Tennents.
Examining it, I guessed the photo was taken sometime between the 30s and 50s. I tried picturing the scene in and around the pub pre-war, and it was possible even for me with my limited imagination. And that is The Vale’s strength, you can trace its history as you stand today with your pint. From its early days when life in and out the pub was so different, to the 70s when, I guess the, marble frontage and the flooring were added, and then on until present times.
The bar has change as its city has changed. It has evolved rather than being changed by an owner’s misguided conception of how a pub should be, or had incongruous features stapled on at the behest of some chain.
It is this quality that will encourage you – without or without a train to catch- to return and add to The Vale’s history.
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
Weekend Wanderings 9- 10 October 2009
After work on Friday I headed down towards a pal's flat near Charing Cross. The heavy rain gave me an excuse to stop off on the way. Often the first drink of the night is best sampled on your own, giving you the time and quiet to properly contemplate the night ahead. The Carnarvon on St.George's Road was my shelter from the elements. It seems to have carried on as it was before the name change to Oscar Slater's. This had been an admirable attempt to link with this area's past, Slater being the victim of a famous miscarriage of justice in Edwardian Glasgow. Whether such links are best preserved with this kind of reference or the continued use of one name over many years is a point I will probably return to in the future, but leaving that unresolved for now, the pub still retains the snugs that helped to create a fair amount of repute for the place, and its welcoming atmosphere. However at 6.30pm it was quiet and it appears it has lost its after work office crowd. Where that crowd has gone to I expected to discover later.
After reaching my friend's home we picked up another mate and made our way in search of some food. We also enjoyed a third of a bottle of champagne each. Not a usual occurrence I assure you, but this bottle of Louis Roederer was a gift from my pal's work and unlikely to be drunk soon, unless we partook that evening. Oh well.
Anyway, we reached the Bon Accord just in time for the 7.45 deadline for food orders. A table was found well within the cavernous interior, which despite its size was impressively busy. Maybe this was where all the after-work folk were.
Here or in Chinaski's probably. That was next. We were there for a good two hours, two of us being smokers and enjoying the great triple-levelled outside area and the top deck is even more efficiently covered by an awning now increasing our comfort level. Chinaski's remains of Glasgow's best new bars of the last five years or so. Why? Because when you are inside you do feel there is nowhere else within at least five blocks of urban real estate you would rather be on a dark night. That and the faces that are vaguely familiar from your bar-hopping past. This is a bittersweet feeling, hard to explain, but somehow it sets out your place in the scheme of things. This is another topic I will return to in the future.
Black Sparrow finished the evening off. The darker twin of Chinaski's it attracts a more suited and booted clientele than next door, is squarer in shape- despite the raised seating area – and is yet to acquire a decent smoking space. It's still good though, and provides a refined finish to the evening. Nothing adventurous for later, not even fast food, we can't be bothered to cross the motorway into Sauchiehall Street proper. No, its taxis for two of us while our mate crows about not needing one as he strolls away to his nearby flat.
Saturday was a longer session but of different pace. Two couples, one from Edinburgh, food being the focus of the early part of the evening. Velvet Elvis hosted our afternoon drink. Not much more needs said at the moment about this place, but it continues to attract big numbers, so much so that it has added- rather clumsily unfortunately – extra tables in the back area.
Intending to show our east coast guests an area away from their comfort zone we picked Saltmarket for a meal- St. Andrews in the Square to be exact. Culinary criticism is largely beyond the scope of this column but Café Source impressed as usual with its simplicity, authenticity and value.
We reached The Tolbooth bar around 8, opposite the aforementioned. Quiet for that time on a weekend, and a straight rebuttal to those who think the bar scene hasn't declined. Great service as always though. You get it here whether it is deathly or whether it is a World Cup qualifying night. Old Glasgow certainly, but is it dying? For another day…
Metropolitan is ten minutes walk but miles away from Gallowgate/Saltmarket/Trongate/High Street. It too though is quieter than in its heyday. Or perhaps more people now use the back area in the courtyard of Merchant Square. Our guests hadn't been here either but I felt they needed one more new joint before the evening was out. Around to Brunswick Street it was, Art Decaf was eschewed for being too sweaty (!) and the bar in Brunswick Hotel was overlooked because of an ignorance some people have of the special atmosphere in hotel bars. So Citation Taverne it had to be. This place is around two to three years old, and although it is often busy it has yet to grow on me. Perhaps because it feels like someone's living room- a very grand living room I agree- but of the home nevertheless, and I still feel that I want to feel that I'm out when I'm out, if you know what I mean. Also the balcony is only for use of the diners, drinkers who smoke have to make do with the steps beside the bouncer. Still, the drinks selection is one of the best in the city, the bottled beers especially. And quite reasonable. Kasteel Cru Rose at £3.50 almost made up for my feeling of disappointment when I was informed that our night would be ending at midnight, our mission not quite accomplished. Then again I often feel like that, the curse, perhaps, of the restless bar reviewer.
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Tuesday, 6 October 2009
566 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow
What's your opinion on stuffed animals? Are they in bad taste? Are they macabre, anachronistic objects with no place in private homes let alone public meeting places? Or are they fitting tributes to either well-remembered pets or magnificent wild beasts?
Certainly, in Glasgow their presence is rare, the above questions probably irrelevant with the nearest hunting lodge being at least forty miles away. The only place I know hosting stuffed beasts is Uisge Bheate on Woodlands Road, the majestic deer heads embedded in its walls in keeping with the pub's raison d'etre. Come to think of it though, the back room of Sauchiehall Street's The Gate used to possess a deliberate baronial feel but I don't believe the owners went as far as taxidermy.
So it was surprising recently, on a balmy summer evening pub visit, to be greeted by a dead dog. He/She was small and black, sitting by an ice cream carton filled with water guarding the entrance to our latest venue for mid-week refreshment – Velvet Elvis on the Thornwood section of Dumbarton Road. He/It was unanimated without doubt but still with an aura. Charisma never dies completely. Not being the squeamish types we were comfortable in his presence, pleased even, because eccentricity is never a bad thing, especially not in a pub. Anyway, we reckoned he was a working dog rather than a mere pet.
This new bar only has outdoor space for three or four small tables in the half-width of the pavement graciously granted to it by the cooncil, and the rare quality of the evening in this dismal summer made us eager to grab one to enjoy the lingering warmth and light of the day just ending. But no such luck because as we instinctively paused to take in our surroundings, a couple with similar intentions to our own – a celebrating duo from Northern Ireland and Lanarkshire respectively, we learned later – shimmied in to bag the last posting. Good for them. We went inside to the bar itself for a better inspection of the premises.
On our way to the substantial brick-clad bar we were impressed by the Edwardian-tiling on either side of us. On both the tiled walls the wine list was marked in pen just like a butcher advertising his wares…wait a minute, we thought- our slow mental processes excused by the messy previous evening and then an even more chaotic nine hours at the day job – that's it… a butcher…Yes we were correct, a working dog, a butcher's dog. And looking around, more evidence flung itself at us, the meat hooks high in the ceiling above the bar, and the old re-conditioned freezer door round the corner in the back area of the premises, which may enclose a wine-storage area. To complete the effect, on the bar counter a reprise of the wine list, this time in CD cover format with an invoice for James Burrows & Co.Ltd, Wholesale & Retail Butchers crossed out and Velvet Elvis written in its place.
I must confess that my renowned urban geography had let me down here; I don't remember the butchers, even though I lived up the road only a few years ago, so have to take the proprietors word for the antecedence of the place- a 1910 vintage supposedly. But it is appropriate, from the raw material to the end product. Going from manufacturing to service industry. Excusing the contradiction in terms, it is Glasgow's change in a nutshell.
All this falls into place when next door is considered. Pintxo is an acclaimed – winner of this year's Healthiest Restaurant in Scotland award from Men's Health, amongst other accolades – but relatively unknown Spanish purveyor of authentic Basque-influenced tapas. The way the two premises are designed it seems they share use of the kitchen and are sister operations. We could have enquired at the time if this was indeed the case but our role is to be disinterested in the inner workings of a bar. We concern ourselves with the front-end experience, so to speak, no more, no less.
A seat at the bar itself would have allowed us to view this experience properly but there are no stools. Not only were our intentions thwarted again but the intention was undoubtedly to discourage any sitting at the bar. This does make you think whether this is a bar or a licensed café/restaurant, a subtle distinction this, but a distinction nevertheless. However, we'd started, so we would finish.
Two drinks ordered – just a thought, but how about butcher's aprons for the staff? – we wandered over in hope towards the open doors. Then our first bit of luck! Amongst the busy scene, partially hidden, was a small, unoccupied metal table. We squeezed in to the table and two small chairs and with a little manoeuvring we positioned the table right on the threshold of the building, my chair outside the door, my partner facing me from inside. I was able to get my cigar out, and no one nearby seemed to mind, which was a bonus. The tables and chair were rather flimsy though and stopping the table from tipping out the building was proving an inconvenience, heavier furniture would have helped. The biz was impressive but we wondered if it was the lovely evening rather than the impression the pub had made in its short time operating. Regarding the weather, we ruminated on how good a bar scene this city could have with plentiful nights like this complemented by cosy winter nights in the pub while the elements did their worst outside. A serious exercise in wishful thinking.
The wine list made us wish we had got a bottle. It's broken down into sections: Whites, Reds, Pink, Fizz, pretty standard definitions but the last section: Treats; catches the eye, three extra-sumptuous choices in White, Red and Champagne, the Syrah from the Eberle Winery, California would have given us a particularly rich round-off to the evening. With a maximum of six selections per section the list has a nice compactness, a feeling that each has been diligently sourced. And the short list of classic cocktails at £5.75 shows a similar focus.
The people around us now early evening was fading to nine o'clock were for example: a pretty sophisticated bunch of 30-something friends in a group of six, two pairs of female pals sharing a bottle and some slightly older folk with coffees. I did detect a slight self-satisfied air about proceedings, locals proud that they at last have a decent bar nearby. And I daresay this number included some from the new riverside flats from the optimistically named Glasgow Harbour development who had used the pedestrian underpass to get here. Their relief was evident, finally a place of leisure within walking-distance, they are no longer stranded between expressway and water.
Of course, The Thornwood, isn't too far west of here, and it has been serving Thornwood (appropriately enough) for many years, but Velvet Elvis does fill a gap that, for instance, Mickey Blues further along at Broomhill roundabout seems to have failed to fill. (Further west is the desert that is Whiteinch, but the less said about dry areas the better). That gap is decent food, wine, and coffee in a contemporary setting.
This place provides all of the above but we hold judgement on its Saturday night atmosphere. Perhaps a neighbourhood bar neither wishes nor is able to match the revelry of a city centre joint but we have our means of judging a bar's good-time factor nevertheless. It had passed the cigar tolerance test earlier and to judge another we searched for a likely group. It happened to be the couple mentioned earlier, a woman originally from Belfast and her partner for the night a bloke from Lanarkshire somewhere. Although not living nearby they had happened on the place and were celebrating something; her nursing exam results, his compensation package, her new flat, or something other that I forget. On to their fourth or fifth round give or take a shot but they were still able to pass judgement on their environment without too much prompting. "We feel a little out of place," they declared, not because of the amount they were consuming, rather because they were a little bit louder, less restrained than everyone else around them. Perhaps they were correct, but they certainly weren't impinging on any of the other patrons' space. And we hope that any slight chilling they may have felt was not down to the cliqueness that locals can exhibit, most notable of these being Yorkhill's Firebird. Hopefully Velvet Elvis can avoid this pitfall and attract a heterogeneous mix of punters, a sure sign of a good bar.
We have visited Velvet Elvis since that evening, enjoying Pintxo- provided bar bites of salt cod croquettes and baby squid. Very enjoyable but maybe one day we can enjoy decent free nibbles in a UK bar rather like the chamber of commerce-approved tour of bars providing such that has appeared in Milan recently (But that's another story). Also, unfortunately, we were sat in one of the wooden booths in the bland rear section of the bar, far from the alfresco delights of the pavement. And on the way to the toilets I came across our wee dog. He had been relegated to the back shop. No matter what his actual status, pet or ex-working dog, we do hope his removal is not down to complaints from some PC customer. That would be sad, and a retreat from the quirkiness that could still make this place a great Glasgow destination.
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Thursday, 17 September 2009
The Blind Pig
116- 122 Byres Road, Glasgow
The Blind Pig enters the bar scene of west-end Glasgow with a fair bit of chutzpah. There is no trace of the previous tenancy, Whistler's Mother, gone 18 months now. Before that the pub was named Oblomov (believed to be the same operator) a name previously applied to the site in Kelvinbridge now occupied by one of Colin Barr's Bier Halles, but that is another story.
This new incarnation will need all that bravado because, as has been alluded to above, times have been hard in mid –to – lower Byres Road. Bars isolated from the money-spinning maelstrom that is Ashton Lane have struggled to attract custom as credit-starved punters head for the mainstream, bypassing the solitary pubs further south. Otto has replaced the long-serving Rubaiyat and is surviving, and there is renewed activity at the foot of the street but can The Blind Pig thrive?
The thoughtful proprietors have provided an explanation of the providence of the bar's name, saving this reviewer some work. It comes from prohibition time in the US, and was one of the names used to describe back-street illegal drinking dens. Of course we have no real way of knowing how authentic this joint may be, aside from phoning the world's longest serving barman, an American gent in his nineties recently made redundant, who served in the same bar since the 1930s. He would know, probably. That's if his memory still holds out.
As a side topic it would be nice if someone decided to open a Glasgow drinkery that had echoes of an old shebeen from the city's own history. There would be plenty to choose from, there were literally hundreds on and around Trongate, for example, a hundred years ago.
Anyway, the interior here is grander, far more polished than you would have expected of premises constantly ear-cocked for passing officers of the law, literally fly-by-night.
Or perhaps what we have here is a bar that is inspired by the past but not intended to replicate it?
We order as soon as we arrive, noticing a fine selection of bottled beers chilling. A step away from the norm, chosen for taste rather than popularity. Moretti, Corona, Budvar and Michelob feature. And on draught a similarly Euro-centric list comprising Amstel, Heineken, 1664 and Bulmers.
Our corner seat allows us a good view in comfort. The back- rest is wall length black padded vinyl, serving one side of four tables. Above the shared couch is black exposed brick, and overall the colouring is predominantly black with splashes of red. A boudoir-feel that doesn't quite fulfil, perhaps because the layout is too square to be decadent. That is despite the deconstructed, crystal-like gantry that suspends glasses and decanters as if from a child's mobile; the chandeliers, the Charleston dancers wallpaper on the opposite wall; the sparkling white cornices; the high gloss chairs; and the pretty prints on the seat cushions. It is, as its website describes, 'laid-back luxury', but over- ordered.
A quick peek through to the dining area reveals a similar look, tables arranged in very regular rows. Certainly not the cosiness many diners find comfortable but maybe that softness comes with the evening light. The menu, incidentally, features a good amount of seafood, there are specialised Sunday brunch and roast menus, and the use of local produce goes admirably beyond the usual call of duty.
Constraints of size and shape may be the reason why the luxury theme is not quite carried through here, and trips to the respective bathrooms confirm this. The ladies', I learn from my companion, feature substantial mini- Belfast sinks, old-fashioned white tiling, expensive bottled soap and hand cream, and ornate mirrors. But these are tiny, necessitated by lack of wall space. The gents' make no attempt to continue the retro theme: ordinary black tiling with white mirrors, and the fittings plastic rather than porcelain. The feel and shape of the bathrooms recall exactly those of the previous tenancies, so much so that the tight squeeze between the cubicle door is instantly familiar.
And it is this unimaginative use of space that characterises the whole joint, open-plan without a proper division of space, an element that contributes greatly to bar atmosphere.
Of course, atmosphere is hard to judge on a Saturday afternoon but at least the barman in his braces behaves as if it is evening already with his exuberant juggling of fruit whilst conversing with colleagues. We feel he is a tad too exuberant for this early hour and sparsely populated bar, but maybe his skills match his enthusiasm; so on to the cocktails…
The cocktail list comes within a large presentation menu and is divided into ten classic cocktails and five summer specials. Prices range from £4.95 to £6.75, which is fairly reasonable, and the lists contain some easily recognisable concoctions: Sidecar, Watermelon Margarita, Flip and some names new to me: French 75, Mary Pickford, Weeping Tiger, Alexander Aviation. More than being nicely obscure and examples of mixology originality they reflect the American early twentieth century. We are back on message.
The barman prepares our cocktails with a surprising minimum of fuss, the Cognac- based Sidecar and French 75. Both are delicious and the zing of lemon juice in the latter is a great pick-me-up for the afternoon blues.
While waiting I pick up the bar food list, and perusing its grazing menu including hog roast crusty rolls, barley and mushroom risotto and kipper pate, I reflect upon my surprise at the contents of the cocktail list. Perhaps my scepticism over the authenticity of this place is unfair, coming from someone best aware of the prohibition era through movies such as Once Upon a Time in America. Come to think of it was that film a United Artists production, the very same company that was co-founded by the aforementioned Mary Pickford? And more relevantly, that film featured an illicit bar that was an extravagant affair with much the same appearance as this place after all.
If The Blind Pig can overcome those little inconsistencies and veer back towards the decadent rather than the utilitarian, it can realise its ambitious conception, giving itself the best chance of prospering in this tricky part of town.
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