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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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