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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

G1 Group Lays Two More Bets

There is news that G1 Group has shut Corinthian for a refurbishment that is expected to last 6 months. As well as a bar and/or cocktail bar, nightclub, brasserie and the seemingly obligatory conference/function areas, they plan to create a new casino on one of the floors. The refurb will be masterminded by the influential Glasgow-based design company Graven Images who have worked with G1 Group before, and whose recent high-profile jobs include the Blythswood and Missoni hotels.
Gamblers say drink and gambling don’t mix but leaving aside the actual technicalities of betting, a good-looking bar can surely make the difference between rival casinos and attract those just coming to watch.
Alea Casino on the Clyde is the most recent addition to Glasgow’s handful of casinos. Its sheer size has changed the game really, dwarfing the other establishments. The massive floor space allows for 21 gaming tables, and could hold even more, the areas of unused space actually a design mistake. However, it has gone down the whole entertainment route, concentrating as much on its 3 bars, restaurant and events schedule as on the gambling. The three bars are disappointing though. Both the Long Bar (first prize for unimaginative name) and the Red Leaf overplay the use of colour – pink and deep red respectively – and lack any sort of subtlety. The other, Isobar, feels like just a stick on, only there because there is room for it.
Despite this, the intention seems to be to create sophistication, a quality that was missing from the old Chevalier casino at the bottom end of Hope Street where they took the idea of free soft drinks and snacks a little too far. One elderly lady was served her cheese and ham toastie at the roulette table allowing the rest of us the pleasure of placing our bets amongst her crumbs.
Other experiences of mine were similar in their outcome. A pal and I returned one evening, after a lengthy hiatus, to the Princes in Sauchiehall Street (now a Gala casino) with our respective partners assuring them that dressing up was the order of the evening, the surroundings deserved it, we told them. On went their best frocks, and we may have even worn ties. The ladies weren’t too pleased then to be confronted with the largest collection of shellsuits since an Adidas trade fair. That and some barely disguised spits onto the carpet and old women in their cardigans and slippers made them realise just how far they were from Monaco.
Another disappointing time was had a few years earlier when the same friend and I took ourselves to the Berkeley casino on the street of the same name. It was early afternoon and we were the first to enter, forcing us to play on a three-hand blackjack table. Within fifteen minutes our limited funds had vanished. Trying to hide our embarrassment we turned to head swiftly to the bar on the upper floor, only to be told by the croupier that it wasn’t yet open. High roller status denied once again.
Let’s hope the new Corinthian delivers on all levels. G1 have a history of providing reasonable venues that while never revolutionary, are a dependable option for many different types of nights out. Their strong point has been the restoration and preservation of historic buildings. Keep that up and we may have, at last, an elegant place in which to drink and gamble.

PS G1 press on in their attempt to dominate Scotland’s nightlife by announcing the March opening of Ghillie Dhu, described as a “traditional Scottish pub and live entertainment venue." There are hopes it will be a big draw during the Festival. Situated in Rutland Place, at the west end of Princes Street, it will be licensed till 3am. Any resemblance to Glasgow’s Oran Mor is entirely coincidental.

Friday, 22 January 2010

A Toast Across the Water

The Republic of Ireland has a great reputation for its pubs. People from all over the world regard them as being some of the most welcoming and enjoyable places in which to drink.
This applies even to people who haven’t visited the country, and helps to explain the preponderance of Irish theme bars all over the world. Such is their number, that I have a friend based in New Zealand who has a full-time job playing in a covers band that are hired out exclusively by Irish bars across the globe.
My experience of the Republic is limited to a wedding in Donegal and a stag in Dublin in the 90’s. The bars we hit in Dublin were largely confined to the Temple Bar area, but I do remember one great little place – and I mean little – slightly further away from the Liffey. It was indeed the size of your front room, making a place like the Halfway House in Edinburgh seem cavernous. Our party filled the place and in the toilets you could see the feet of passers by in the street above through the glass pavement cover. The rest of the weekend was a blur.
Family connections have taken me to Northern Ireland on many more occasions, at first mostly to Belfast. It’s a good city for bar sampling. It’s also the place where I re-discovered Harp lager. Trying it again for the first time in years, I soon was glad it’s been largely phased out over here. On a better-tasting note, I was also introduced to Bushmills Irish Whiskey. Heresy this may be, but it is a smoother drink than many of our popular blends.
The Duke of York holds the record for me as the most packed pub I’ve ever been in, suck in your stomach to move busy. In Glasgow the doors would have been shut at 9.30pm, but in they kept coming. Café Vaudeville, also in the city centre is good for bling and dressing up, also packed every weekend.
The Morning Star tops my list, though; a historic pub with antecedents two centuries old but very much a place for today. Aware of its past but not constrained or obsessed enough with it to become just a tourist attraction. You reach it as if by accident down a narrow close, or entry as its called in Belfast, and walk in to a place that bustles all hours. A varied hot buffet – not just limited to the ubiquitous roast with champ - is available from lunch till tea and you can even get your caricature done by a famous regular.
More recently I’ve been to the country beyond the main city. Small town you might call it. Moyra, Lurgan, Lisburn, Glenavy, Crumlin. Names perhaps only known to most people from news reports but all good places to stop for refreshment. The pubs there sit on the towns’ main streets, semi-traditional places, some hosting folk music and some playing Premiership football wall-to-wall. They all serve food in big portions. You get used to that.
The town I’ve seen most of is Dungannon, in County Tyrone. Forty miles west of Belfast it sits on a hill at the end of the M1 motorway, the beautifully restored St. Patrick’s church catching a keen eye. Streets branch off down from the town square, these linked by smaller roads and alleys.
On my first visits The Fort, probably the largest pub in the town, was our place of choice. Busy at lunchtimes and weekend evenings, serving reasonable pub grub, fair-priced drink, with a quieter back bar and large upstairs function room, it ticked a lot of boxes. It also had a side alley, easy to access for a quick smoke on a small cigar. Probably its best attribute was as a venue for a late lunch followed by an afternoon watching sport on the well placed but discreet TVs.
One evening a local mentioned another bar worth a visit, the recently refurbished Hagan’s Bar. It was just along the alley at the back of The Fort and down the road. Hagan’s had been the archetypal old mans’ bar – good at what it had done but lacking wider appeal.
It had been a quiet night in The Fort so the contrast in Hagan’s was marked. Packed with people from the door to the far end of the room. The space is narrow as you enter, the first bar near at hand, then the area widens at the second bar before narrowing again down to where there is a mini dance floor.
A door from there leads to one of the best smoking areas I’ve experienced. A clever use of existing walls, a fire escape, added beams and the alley at the back of the building has created an indoor feeling and a focal point for easy chat.
Upstairs is another bar with a pool table that is probably extraneous, but this area lends the pub another mood, the clientele up here tending to be younger than the average downstairs. Here as in the rest of the bar there is a judicious mix of light and dark woods creating a further welcoming feeling.
The atmosphere in the whole place never flagged during the entire evening, punters of literally all ages living it up, enjoying the mingle, the chat and the music which united rather than divided us.
On our next visit to Dungannon we did pop in to The Fort, intending to stay as long as the place held our interest. The flaws that had been creeping in had surfaced properly. It was Saturday night and the average age was very low. This was not unusual but there were no older or even slightly older drinkers. Not one. If eclecticism of drinkers makes a pub great, The Fort was struggling.
If the atmosphere was good then all this could be forgiven but it seemed to be sucked right out of the place. The square shape of the pub’s main area wasn’t helping to hold any party ambience that might have existed. This wasn’t the management’s fault short of a complete structural refit but their door policy was letting the place down. A sign of eyes being taken off the ball, direction being lost.
We were out of there quick and off to Hagan’s. Once again there was a great mix of ages, styles and attitudes. The division of space to create atmosphere working to full effect. This is partly luck for bar owners, depending on the type of building they inherit, but also some shaping had gone on here, intelligent, sympathetic design to help create a great venue. Needless to say the rest of the night was a good one.
For a city boy, drinking in provincial towns like these was new experience, before you even factor in the cultural differences across the Irish Sea. Comparisons can perhaps be made to pubs in Fife and Ayrshire, similarly rural areas without any cities. Maybe, but the only way to find out is to travel.
Small town bars may lack the cutting-edge trendiness of cities and they may suffer from the over-familiarity of faces seen too often and too regularly, but the one moment I remember most vividly from my drinking times in Northern Ireland is half-an-hour from closing in Hagan’s, at the busy middle bar, being bumped all over the place but not caring. The drinks were on their way, that track was playing, and I was there.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


Brass Monkey, 1004 Argyle Street

They’ve been saying it for two decades; “Finnieston is on the up”. For that read: “…soon to be gentrified”. It isn’t, yet.
The area’s changing, but then so is the climate. It remains set apart from the rest of the west end. For drinkers it also offers something different. The Finnieston/Sandyford/Kelvingrove axis has an independent spirit only possessed by areas just off the radar.
It was the same when I lived in the vicinity for 5 years from the mid-90s. Pubs have come and gone along with the tenement refurbishments and the new flat developments, but now as then,there are a double figure of joints well worth visiting.
I had the inestimable Grove opposite my flat, with 54 Below and Air Organic also within stumbling distance but I never visited the Two Ways just along the road. No excuses apart from my youth.
Always primed nowadays for news on my old neighbourhood I heard late summer about the pub’s refurb.
Since then, during the renovation an old sign was uncovered bearing the name “Finnieston Station Bar and Lounge”. This referred to a station on the old Glasgow City and District Railway line that sat near the junction of Argyle Street and Finnieston Street.
The premises became the Two Ways in the early 1960s having traded as Finnieston Station Bar and Lounge under the ownership of Buchanan Scott & Company – a multiple operator of the time – for at least 80 years.
With half an hour to kill before a recent office do, I stopped my taxi as it passed what I recognised as the former Two Ways, now Brass Monkey.
I entered on the Argyle Street side of the building and exited via the Kent Road door, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. From this you can gather that the bar sits on the triangular corner of the two streets, reminding travellers and moviegoers of the Flatiron building in Manhattan – in miniature.
Its shape and location make you feel right at the hub of things, whether that means the elements – that evening it was the beginning of an icy blizzard – or the flow of people and traffic on both sides. The massive top-to-toe windows add to this feeling. They are also an echo, perhaps intentional, of previous days. The 1888 edition of the Scottish Wine, Spirit and Beer Trades Review (an evocative title surely) comments on the interior of the Finnieston Station Bar as being lighted by a large window. Today’s windows draw you in to the interior, but without the drinkers being gawped at like goldfish. At nighttime the building and its interior are at their best, daylight seems to dilute this effect.
The interior walls are exposed sandstone, with the wall behind the bar rendered white by clever lighting. The seating is minimal and situated round the outside of the room, plum-coloured upholstery an unusual but effective choice. The prime seating area is the low booth at the apex of the triangle, definitely the spot to see and be seen.
A large standing space has been left in the remainder of the bar. This gives a good, uncluttered appearance and the suggestion that the management are optimistic about the joint’s potential for sociability.
Draught beers include Japan’s favourite, Kirin Ichiban, and a first for this country, Budvar Half and Half. This dispenser allows the barperson to combine Budvar Original and Budvar Dark in the one glass. Unfortunately on this visit this unique offering was not displayed prominently and I missed out on the experience. A pity.
The drinks menu displays beer specials in the same way as food specials in a restaurant. On this occasion Modelo Especial and Pacifico Clara, both from Mexico. These complement the regular choice of bottled beers, Chang from Thailand (minus the polystyrene holder) being a notable inclusion.
As far as spirits go, the emphasis is upon premium vodkas, rums and gins. Looking at the list I was drawn to the Caorunn Gin, its name revealing its homegrown origin even to my un-tutored eye. I’ve since learned it is distilled by Inver House at Balmenach in the Spey Valley, and was the recipient of the Gold Award in the Super Premium category of the Gin Masters 2009 competition. It has been described as tasting dry and crisp. Its crispness within a G&T wasn’t in doubt that evening. I wished I’d picked something warmer, though, maybe from the pleasing list of whiskies.
One of those whiskies, Monkey Shoulder, is the main ingredient in the pub’s signature cocktail, Monkey Orchard, along with Xanta pear brandy and apple juice. My companion on my second visit enjoyed that one immensely. On that occasion I took the Vir-Gin Mary cocktail, a variation on the classic, using the Caorunn Gin instead of vodka. This was less of a success, the pub’s secret blend of spices not proving strong enough to balance the piquant spirit.
Back to my first visit, I was standing alongside a group of blokes whose differing ages, and slightly awkward joking marked them out as colleagues enjoying their Xmas bash. Some were young and trendy, others older and frayed. I wondered if any of the older guys had been regulars at the Two Ways or the Exhibition Bar or other similar traditional boozer round here. And would the new, smoother bars welcome them as gladly as the old. I hoped so.
The toilets have an interesting design feature being panelled as if another wall. Discrete D, F and M are the only sign you are pushing open the correct door. The trough sink reminded me of the Tunnel circa 1990. I don’t know why, maybe the sentimental time of year. Certainly, I do remember talking rather a lot about bygone days at our office party that night.
Brass Monkey has been privately leased to the husband and wife team of Russell Buchanan and Caroline Smith, Buchanan having extensive experience in the wine trade.
Any connection with the Brass Monkey on Drummond Street, Edinburgh is unknown, but perhaps they are following the trend set by the nearby Lebowski’s, of sister establishments in Scotland’s two largest cities.
Talking of Lebowski’s, Brass Monkey will be keen to garner the acclaim given to that bar, along with The Ivy, Ben Nevis, Gazelle and other relative newcomers to the district.
My subsequent visit confirmed the Brass Monkey is on the right track. A pleasing heterogeneous mix of customers, punters being welcomed as friends, DJs at the weekend, open mic competitions on a Monday. All good. Might even achieve that elusive goal of being both a pre-club joint and a genuine community pub.
To do so, it and its young-gun neighbours will need to push on in parallel with Finnieston itself, mixing the best of the old and the new, the rough and the smooth.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


How was it for you? No, not your presents. Your nightlife over Xmas. Not the greatest? Well, there are reasons for that…
The festive period offers the drinker a wide range of possibilities. But it helps if you have a plan, because this time of year, the crowds, the prices, the weather, or any combination of the above can ruin the rewards of spontaneity. And that’s before you even consider the stramashes which are unique to this time of year and which can occur any night, especially ‘Black-Eyed Friday’ the notorious evening when it seems that every office is having its Xmas bash.
What I tend to do – a plan formulated over many good and bad experiences – is to head to drinkerys I know will provide at least a reasonable night, and avoid clubs and cover-charging events unless politeness insists.
Sticking to the devil you know ensures a base line below which your night will not plunge. And if it does, your plan will ensure you have a fallback. Clubs are mostly better and cheaper away from the holiday period and why would you pay money to enter somewhere that is normally free. For example, Hogmanay in Ashton Lane is inferior to many other times of the year such as during the West End Festival or any good early summer evening.
I spent my Hogmanay in Chinaski’s. It was busy but not mobbed. We got a sprinkling of 80’s tunes, easy service, snacks at the bar, heated cigar smoking and a fairly priced Prosecco to toast the bells. It consolidated its consistent status as amongst the top ten bars in the city.
That’s what this time of year does; confirms your thoughts. So for me, Cottiers remains a smug, complacent venue, too full of knowing locals. Its fallen far from the perch it occupied in the 90s. The Common on Byres Road has made no discernible progress since it replaced Russell’s. This is surprising for a venture fronted by the Universal team. The Ivy continues to draw in a consistently large pre-club throng, its move from North Street not halting its momentum. It also offers the best mini-range of foreign beers I’ve seen recently. I will return to this in the New Year. And The Caernarvon remains one of the best for dropping in unannounced, as it were, for a cheap pint out of the bitterly cold weather. The welcome is genuine whether you stand at the bar or rest in one of its famous snugs.
Elsewhere, things continue in December as if it were an ordinary month. The Vroni’s/ All Bar One/ Rogano/ One Up/29 weekend circuit revolves as usual. Spot someone in any of the three former establishments and it’s a fair bet you’ll see them later, upstairs in Royal Exchange Square. They’re still down with the program up there, no matter what the disparagers say. On the Saturday we were there the new theme tune was Black Eyed Peas’ “Tonight’s gonna be…” Not quite cutting edge House but respectable. Some would say.
Christmas Eve remains a quiet night. A far cry from only last century when it was rivalling Hogmanay as a particular night of revelry. The best buzz we got was in the Lismore as we waited to head for a quick bite in Two Figs round the corner. This early evening anticipation grew as a mixed bag of folk began filling the place. Quickly though, it got quiet again, and we were happy to make our exit.
Up Byres Road it was, the evening ending naturally enough in Oranmor upstairs. There was a sufficient lack of numbers for the usual harsh cacophony of conversation – unmediated by background music – to be absent.
However, the Oranmor staff still manage to serve you soda water instead of tonic with your gin. This has happened on a few documented occasions both upstairs and downstairs. On these occasions our complaints were not favourably received either. Those perceived as half-cut invariably experience this reaction.
Downstairs at The Venue Oranmor, they seem to have relaxed their door policy, whilst down the road, its main rival Boho, was strengthening its dress code during the Xmas period. Yes, I did break from my careful plan, but hey, it was Christmas.
And this was an excuse I also heard on my only recent visit to the Ubiquitous Chip. A friend from overseas asked for a cocktail from the downstairs bar. They were met with the response that because of Xmas there were no suppliers thus no berries and other cocktail ingredients. It made me wonder that the new Waitrose just up the road was perhaps a mirage.
This example, and that of Oranmor shows that bars here are still well short of where they could be in adding tourist value to Glasgow and serving the locals properly.
So, for me, none of the rammies often associated with this time of the year but that’s not to say that those unfamiliar with the city at night were not all around me.
And whenever that thought occurs I recall an article from some years ago – possibly from the early days of M8 magazine – in which the writer gave some advice on where to go out at Christmas. They finished by saying that you had to bear in mind, above all else, that this time of year was for amateurs. A good thing to remember as you look back on what may have been a disappointing couple of weeks.