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Thursday, 22 April 2010

A Cambridge Punt

Mackintosh's, 101 Cambridge Street, G3 6RU

We were resigned to returning to Ladbrokes to watch the Scottish National. All the pubs we had tried – Drop on Waterloo Street, The Universal and Monkey Bar in Sauchiehall Lane - had the standard Sky feed into all of their many TVs. We required Channel 4 racing.

“At least we’ll get free coffee and soft drinks in the bookies” someone had said. Correct. But I wanted more. Leaving my companions I headed across Cambridge Street telling them I would return if unsuccessful.

Walking past The Cambridge Bar I could see no screens and didn’t bother to investigate further as the last time there I’d been unimpressed. At that time it was The Waldorf and I saw no reason why a name change, precipitated by a gangland shooting at its doorstep, would improve the joint.

All that was left was Mackintosh’s a bit further north along the street. Previously I’d just walked past this pub on my way from the office into town, not particularly attracted by its modest exterior and mock-Elizabethan lettering. I’d even popped in to the Thistle Hotel bar on one occasion and quickly regretted that decision.

I went for the public bar entrance. Bingo. Horse racing on the TV mounted behind the bar. After a brief check with the barmaid to make sure the race was coming on I was o phoning my pals to pass on the good news.

I ordered a lager while I waited. As expected the prices were good, around the £2.50 mark. What’s more there’s an extra feature to prop yourself up against. A standing prop in front of the main counter, perfect for elbows Somebody else was checking the race was actually on, confused by an English racecourse featuring on the screen. They were quickly re-assured by the barmaid that this was the channel she had been told to put on. Then out from somewhere hidden came a man dressed as a chef. “There’s no peas,” he said to a bloke sitting at the bar, then left from where he had come.

Looking around I could see the Tudor theme had continued inside with black wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling. I’ve said before that in general I don’t like the ‘Ye Olde Public House’ look in Glasgow establishments primarily because no pubs here are old enough to be thus authentic. But somehow in here it works. Mainly because the look is not forced, nor overdone, as is shown with the Anaglypta and Artex walls. And because there is continuity with the history of this place in itself. I would put money on the interior looking just like this back in the early 60s when a certain Mrs. Mary Foster was the licensee. And according to research this is the only pub in the street that hasn’t changed name or shape.

Ah, sure enough, the barmaid was correct and the coverage switched to Ayr with five minutes to spare. There was a murmur of relief from the few folk at the bar and tables. The rest of my party then arrived and we all were served in time for the race start.

Some time after it was over I took myself to the toilets expecting, I suppose, the kind of inexorable decay you find in conveniences within pubs perhaps well past their heydays. But nothing of the sort in here; it was sparkling. Many years since a refurb but so what when it is this clean. Indeed, the way it looks it could be a template for the retro look of the future, especially the tiny sinks.

I left by another door that took me in to the lounge bar. The tartan upholstery in the booths there along with the old photos gives Mackintosh’s a good sense of place to go with its idiosyncrasies. I returned to the public bar to see the guy at the bar tucking in to his steak pie and mash, minus the peas. Hope he enjoyed it; we were leaving.

By the way my horse didn’t win. Still made money on it though. You can do the same with Mackintosh’s. Go for it each way as a place to stop by in a quiet part of town. You can’t lose.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Reborn, The Dying and The Stone Cold - A weekend in late March

Nothing much has changed at Ocho at Spiers Wharf since its closure and re-opening. It still looks good. Clean, fresh and uncluttered. The food simple and satisfying; our full Scottish breakfast on Saturday as light and as non-greasy as you could wish for. It could do with tables outside or an extension upstairs to do justice to the location, but that’s probably a council planning/licensing issue.
What remains the same also is the quietness of the place. Even on a pleasant spring morning only another three or four people came in and out during our 45-minute stay. But this lack of business is not unique to Ocho, as the weekend was to show.
The Pinkston Bar is not far away. On the Keppochill Road that takes you from Possil to Springburn. It sits under a lone tenement. Sweeney Todd’s used to sit beside it but that whole building has now been demolished. We enter the public bar via faulty storm doors that offer little shelter. The interior seems to have been refurbed around twenty years ago. An unfinished DIY job using materials hardly more substantial than plywood.
Two old fellows are our companions and one of them flits outside to the bookies while the other shuffles back and forth between his drink and a roll-up. The wind plays with the doors, offering us glimpses of him huddled outside dragging on his fag. The other guy returns from Ladbrokes, which is adjacent to the premises of a foul-tempered mechanic I used to visit for expensive automotive surgery.
There are old paperbacks in the corner and on the far wall hooks for jackets and anoraks, of which there are four hanging. We sit at our table for twenty minutes, half-watching the football and noticing the Guinness hats and t-shirts behind the bar celebrating St Patrick’s Day; 2007. Next door in the lounge area there are probably a couple of folk. We overhear them intermittently.
“Are you eating enough?” the roll-up guy asks the young, thin barmaid.
“Yeah, yeah” she replies, not pausing her wiping down of the counter. “Too much…” she adds under her breath.
Later, as we leave, a kind-looking, silver-haired, neat chap arrives holding a poly bag that he places on the counter. In a soft Irish accent he asks her if she is the girl with the sore throat. They both smile. Then she goes to serve him his usual.
I’ve asked this question before and I will return to it. Who will replace this generation? Publicans ask it too.
That night The Muse had gone off to do her own thing so me and Leather Jacket were out on a tour. LJ hadn’t yet sampled the newish Blythswood Square Hotel so we headed there early evening.
No smart doorman on this occasion but still plenty of advice from various staff as to where to go. We opted for the main downstairs bar, a place I’ve already reviewed. It seemed like the place was full of residents only, not much passing trade. The Glasgow reticence continues. The restaurant area away to our left was the noisiest spot but we had no appetite for food, so having waited fruitlessly for more than two minutes already, we abandoned this bar for the upstairs Salon, which wasn’t yet open the last time.
Tasteful and very now, just as downstairs, but also overdosed on red like everywhere else in the hotel. A tenner in my hand and two G&Ts ordered after the swithering between Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire or Hendricks LJ nudged me and volunteered the fact that it might not be enough, the tenner. He was probably correct but I was too busy listening to an American hotel guest enquiring about gambling nearby. The barmen humoured him as he went on and on about the hundreds of dollars he normally staked. One of them pointed him towards their usual casino on Sauchiehall Street but failed at any point to ask the guy to translate from dollars into home currency so we could all quantify exactly how much bullshit he was talking. Meanwhile the guy serving me informed me ever so quietly that I was forty pence short.
Probably not fully appreciating our drinks we were off and away down West George Street within 15 minutes. We didn’t stop at the Yates/Wetherspoons corner. Who with any sense would? Then down Renfield Street before turning left into Drury Street and The Horse Shoe. A group of Geordies arrived just after us and their banter with some local women also out on the prowl livened up what was quite a reserved atmosphere for the Horse Shoe.
The Lab in Springfield Court off Buchanan Street does well with weekend afternoon shoppers but we’ve had good nights there too. But tonight it’s morbidly quiet. I’ve seen many Sunday nights busier. Even LJ looked shocked at the state of the place and he’s not a man to do turmoil. The manager with the ginger hair- who’s been in charge for at least 4 years- looked even more disturbed and his “What can I get you, guys?” verged on the desperate.
It was too early to partake of the pleasures of Royal Exchange Square so we pressed on round the corner on to Queen Street. Nothing doing there but we had committed ourselves to our route so we continued on to Argyle Street before doubling back up Miller Street.
Soho (previously Fixx 2 and before that Zutz) was recently awarded a prize for Best New Restaurant from the Variety Awards and is reputed to serve authentic Italian food. But I’m put off by the unimaginative and entirely inappropriate name. There’s also supposed to be a cocktail bar inside it. LJ peered down through the basement windows for a look and could see nothing but empty spaces where people should normally be- particularly on a Saturday night. We moved on with hardly a pause.
Ingram Street seems to get another new joint each time you walk along it. Ingram Wynd, Sapporo and Mediterraneo have all opened in recent months. The latter bills itself as a Ristorante and Champagne Bar and a recent critic saw it as being chic and glam, the large windows used as posing looking-glasses by the pleased-with-themselves diners. I found it way too brightly lit, hampered by slow service – there appeared to be real disdain for anybody in for a drink without food – and with décor reminiscent of a cafeteria within an old-fashioned department store.
There was no excuse for the inattentiveness either because here too it was far from busy. We ordered our Birra Morettis and were out of there in ten.
Now LJ has never been in The Old College Bar so I offered to take him there to raise our spirits and broaden his experience. I even began to describe its history apropos its position facing the original site of Glasgow University, its claims to being Glasgow’s oldest drinking venue and I was going on about how in November 2007 after Scotland’s glorious failure versus Italy to qualify for the European Championships the place was still jumping late into the evening.
I was about to finish my wee tale describing how a lone piper entered the bar playing Scots tunes to thunderous applause when LJ opened the door.
Inside there were 5 souls. Including the two bar people, I think. LJ was grinning; happy I’d got this one wrong. I ordered while explaining it was the night, not the venue. 10.30pm Saturday night! And High Street isn’t that far from the town centre. I didn’t even have the will to show LJ why I liked the place, point out its authenticity for example.
A couple entered and the barman said to them “I didn’t know you were coming in tonight, I was about to call last orders”.
“It’s our lucky night,” I whispered to LJ.
The next afternoon The Muse and I were reunited. We were driving around our manor, better known as the Knightswood, Yoker, Scotstoun triangle. LJ and I had headed straight back west after The Old College into the fleshpots around Royal Exchange Square. We stayed out for quite a time.
Sitting in the passenger seat I was hoping last night was just a nightmare. But I soon realised it was the reality for bar owners in Glasgow, and probably the rest of the UK too.
Coming across the Clydebank/Glasgow boundary The Anchorage sits on a corner on your left. Near the Yoker – Renfrew ferry it was, I believe, frequented by my great grandfather a bit of a boozer in his prime. Today it’s shut and up for sale.
Only another half mile along the Dumbarton Road The Dry Dock at the join with Plean Street is in the same boat as The Anchorage, if you excuse the pun. Now only Smugglers Inn remains in the vicinity.
The smoking ban – a law, which impacts most heavily on bars, created by people who don’t frequent bars – punitive taxation and supermarkets have all conspired to hit the pub trade hard. This weekend’s experiences confirmed just how hard.
I settled back into the seat and hoped for good weather and a change in fortunes.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Ronnie Clydesdale R.I.P.

Ronnie Clydesdale, the co-founder of the Ubiquitous Chip died early this week aged 74. He had been ill since a fall eighteen months ago. Next year is the restaurant’s 40th anniversary.
Leaving aside his considerable culinary achievements as chef patron of the first high-end Scottish restaurant in Glasgow, he pushed the same standards as a publican. The ethos is simple: the best food and drink allied to good service.
Ashton Lane was a quieter place when I first sampled the Chip. We tended to head along to The Cul De Sac, then one of the first style bars, and more likely to attract the young women we liked to admire. The Chip was known for its Furstenberg: The German lager with almost mythical strength. Six of that was too much for anyone we were told. It was also the kind of place favoured by lecturers rather than students. Sports jackets with leather elbow patches and all that. We heard there were women in there too but the rumour was they were the groupies of the professors and the other academics.
Of course, being an inquisitive one, I had to try the place eventually. First impressions were that it was a little bit down-at-heel, there was too much wood and too many regulars catching the eye of the bar staff before me. Maybe my slight alienation was because I felt too young for the place- and, yes, I still think that today.
Youth also explains my non-appreciation of the range of beers and wines on offer at the Chip. Mostly continental beers but had the resurgence of Scottish independent brewers happened back then I reckon the Chip would have spearheaded the discovery of Brewdog, Innis & Gunn, Cairngorm and their brethren.
All would have been lost on my palate though. Fizzy and golden was what mattered. An interest in anything else, even IPA, marked you out as a real-ale bore.
Yet there was still an allure in the mysteries of good food and drink that the Chip helped foster. A glimpse of satisfied diners leaving the restaurant or the chatter and aromas coming from the upstairs bistro were enough to make me wish I were richer or just a bit more adventurous. Even to inquire about the origins of a guest-ale would have been progress.
After a few years frequenting other parts of town I began to return more often to the west end. Perhaps it was maturity, perhaps an aim to impress dates, but I began ordering a glass of red occasionally. Fittingly, the first wine I could actually distinguish one from another was sampled in the Chip – the newly founded Wee bar round the corner – a Marques De Riscal, an excellent Rioja by the way.
By this time Ronnie’s son Colin had established the Stravaigin restaurant, the bar in the Gibson Street outlet one of the best straightforward bars in the west, with knowledgeable staff and a refusal – learned from his father no doubt – to charge a west end premium. The Liquid Ship continued the expansion of Clydesdale junior’s mini-empire.
The Chip too has expanded in recent years. The restaurant received a facelift while the wine shop became the aforementioned Wee Pub. Informal cosiness and a great spot to watch the crowds enter Ashton Lane are its attractions.
Round the corner in Ashton Lane proper, a downstairs bar sits where the toilets used to be. This is a slightly more sophisticated space than the original bar, which is still upstairs. Added also is a small well-designed smoking terrace high up to the back the premises giving a fresh view over towards Byres Road. Having the lane outside for smoking would have been enough for most establishments but the Chip chose to develop an extra feature for the benefit of its customers.
And this sums up the attitude that has served the place well for almost forty years. And contrary to my early impressions, the surroundings do work. Not design for its own sake, rather an environment solely designed to complement the fare provided.
As Glasgow continues to tout itself as a city of high quality drink and food it owes a great debt to one of its pioneers in hospitality, Ronnie Clydesdale.