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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