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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