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Friday, 18 December 2009

Charge Them To The Room Please

Blythswood Square Hotel, 11 Blythswood Square
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

BIER HALLE : An Update

BIER HALLE : An Update

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

Monkey Bar

Monkey Bar

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…