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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Great Western Regeneration

The Wise Monkey, 508 Great Western Road, G12 8EL
The Belle, 617 Great Western Road, G12 8HX

In February Hubbards became The Wise Monkey. Since the apparent refusal of the owners to sell to G1 Group in 2005, Stefan King’s plan to extend the nightclub previously known as Cleopatra’s to two floors was stymied. King went ahead with the rebirth of the club anyway, turning it into the student-friendly Viper. Hubbards struggled on underneath the club, its reputation diminishing as the months passed, unable to gain much trade from the youngish clientele en route to Viper, and looking past-it in comparison to its upstairs neighbour.

Not that Hubbards has at any time been particularly well regarded. Despite sitting on a busy corner at Kelvinbridge it was more passed-by than sought-out. Its anglicised-frontage and gloomy interior were never attractive to passing trade, contrasting with the more successful operation on the opposite corner – Chimmy Chungas/ Bar Oz/ Coopers. It didn’t manage to be pre-club for Cleopatra’s either its image not quite fitting with Clatino’s regulars. Yes, people I know called it that, not Clatty Pats. Everyone seems to have a story about there, mine involves some bruised testicles and the bouncers. A tale I would only reveal for cash.

But having remained in business – without changing name – for many years it must have been doing something right. Locals and regulars obviously kept it going, if not thriving. Belonging to neither of these groups I had come to the impression the place wasn’t quite authentic, in that it was filled with folk wearing long leather coats, part-time agitators and wannabe crusties – the real crusties using The Halt on Woodlands Road.

So news of Hubbards revamp came of some interest, could it be improved? The new manager, Graham Sutherland, had experience opening other successful ventures in the city, so a visit was in order. A banner served as the, hopefully temporary, signage and we had branded menus in the window displaying pretty standard pub-fare. I had hoped the change might have brought with it new windows but not to be. There are too many sections to them, reducing the glass area contributing to the gloominess previously mentioned. Things are moving on in pub design leaving frontages like this well behind. Perhaps listed building restrictions precluded such a radical facelift, so judgement reserved, we went inside.

The furniture seemed the same as before, wooden and unremarkable. Along with the wooden floor some could see this interior as rustic. For me it’s just dingy. This despite the recent application of a green paint on the walls and pillars, an uninspiring pale colour that does nothing to lift the space. Taking seats at the far end of the room we passed the kitchen door. Mid-afternoon on a Saturday and the two chefs were pretty much redundant.

Going with the prompting from The Muse I went for a coffee rather than alcohol and was rewarded with the thinnest, sourest coffee I’ve drunk since childhood and Mellow Birds. Ok, the price was cheap, but the taste even more so. Needing to get the liquid out of my system I hunted for the toilets. As before, they were downstairs, a labyrinthine journey away. But unlike some pubs where it is fun finding your way to the hidden depths of the establishment, here it is less of a journey, more of an ordeal down stairs that smell vaguely of damp and neglect. The toilets themselves are clean enough, but haven’t been refurbed in any way. And looking closely the treatment seems to have been a wipe-down rather than a scrub.

I have returned since, in the warmer weather. They now have a fenced-off outside area with Corona and Furstenberg branding. Another plus is that large sections of the windows open completely, bringing the outside in and vice versa. The ad banner promotes BANDS COMEDY FOOD BEER and I suppose these things are served here. But more is required. Monday to Thursday two for one main meals is a nice offer but not enough to make culinary waves. Bands are regularly booked weeks ahead here. Good for the bands themselves and for the music scene in general but hardly a radical departure nor a means to thrive. The temporary banner over the old Hubbards signage is still there too, a further sign that this is still a trial period for Mr. Sutherland to prove this place can develop successfully before some real money is invested in a full transformation.

Just up the road from The Wise Monkey is another place to have undergone ‘the change’. Not menopausal mind, but that mythical jump backwards in age towards twenty-something professionals and discerning students. Many have tried it recently- see previous blog on the Captain’s Rest – and maybe The Wise Monkey has attempted the same but its aims are hard to decipher even after a few hundred words. The Western has become The Belle. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of bar-ageism, the test of transformation is not only that you attract and keep the clientele you have targeted but you also bring with you many of the previous customers.

I know The Western had its detractors, many seeing it as a middle-aged karaoke enclave despoiling the sanctity of the West End but I have a very good friend who seduced his future wife with afternoon sessions in The Western. For obvious reasons I didn’t join him in these sessions, nor did I visit the pub much at all. A couple of occasions at most and well before I began taking a definite interest in recording my adventures.

So round about the time I visited The Wise Monkey I also took in The Belle. Its frontage is simple, dark green with a brown strip-signage discreetly lit by tiny spotlights. Hanging baskets – not always a favourite feature of mine – finish the look that achieves nonchalant bohemianism.

Inside the bar counter is on your left, most of the seating on the right. It’s not a large room so there is limited standing space mostly by the bar, where on this occasion a fat, noisy, rambling, elderly bloke with mismatched clothes and a skin complaint was leaning heavily on the counter. The rest of the crowd was youngish and reading papers or chatting quietly, yet the guy merged easily into the scene, having his umpteenth drink and slurring away to the barmaid. I guess because he fitted the pattern of the place, a quirky space inhabited by different styles, the overall effect of which never falls into cliché, unlike the interiors of certain pub chains we could all mention.

A nice discreet distribution of friendly foliage sets the tone – colour and vibe – with olive paint used on space not taken by the exposed stone and the small-square glass tiling. Elsewhere, various old pictures, a sunbeam mirror and a grand stag with red antlers complete the mixed ensemble of decorative features that welcome and provoke interest. And a genuine working fireplace.

They serve the usual beers and spirits along with draught Hoegaarden and Krusovice Original and Dark. Their coffee is pretty good too- but anything would be better than down the road. Small toilets through the back are clean and the gents features a dying amenity, a step-up pisser.

I’d actually expected having to venture further back or up some rickety stairs as you do in a kebab shop nearby, cutting deep into the hillside on which the building sits, stumbling past buckets of unknown liquids and round dark corners to attend to the call of nature. Then I remembered this building was on a different row, beside the steep approach to Hillhead Street. At the outer wall, partly sheltered by the steps, is the smoking area. They could do more here; shelter it more without impinging on the entrance to the adjacent tenement. As it stands you can imagine the drips down your neck on a rainy night.

The Muse had secured seats for us not too distant from the gentle fire and we settled in, as outside March afternoon grew colder. And there’s the catch. Perhaps it’s too cosy, bordering on the complacent. An afternoon joint good for a few hours but as the night comes you could see folk outside heading for the brighter lights and here you would feel things passing you by.

Still, a pub can’t be everything to everyone. This one gets closer to that ideal than The Wise Monkey. Pub refurbs can be costly but should produce more than just a slight variation in the way they serve an area. They can create a distinctive, new presence in the neighbourhood. The Belle’s regeneration, at least, is probably worth the money.

Ps Walking past The Belle earlier today the place was shut at 11.45am, hope the money hasn't run out...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

A Power in the East cont

The Shore Bar & Restaurant, 3 Shore, EH6 6QW
Carriers Quarters, 42 Bernard Street, EH6 6PR
Port O' Leith, 58 Constitution Street, EH6 6RS
The Jinglin' Geordie, 22 Fleshmarket Close, EH1 1QA
Bramble Bar, 16A Queen Street, EH2 1JE

It was only after quite a few visits east that Leith appeared on my itinerary. I think The Waterfront Wine Bar & Grill was my first destination. The main section was modern with large windows for elegant dining with a view of the redeveloping Leith harbour area, but I liked the wood-lined traditional bar at the entrance with its limited space and get-one-quick booths. It’s now gone, replaced by Teuchter’s Landing, part of the A Room in…chain of bistros.

The most popular part of new Leith is of course The Shore. In its earlier days only a couple of establishments sat on the quayside. I remember an evening there about a decade ago. It was certainly a quiet night. Things are busier now, bars and restaurants seem to fill every prime space and Malmaison is around the corner. The King’s Wark is rightly recognised for its great food and landmark status. At its best for lunchtimes and couple-friendly atmosphere. The Shore Bar & Restaurant is of similar vintage to The King’s Wark but a more moody space. On my first visit I was impressed by the dark-weathered wood lining walls and ceiling. Since then many places have attempted the same look but can’t match the effortless authenticity of The Shore. The drinking area is quite narrow but through a door you have a separate dining space.

I could go on about the many other interesting venues but also feel that this part of Leith could become a cliché of a place, a quick shorthand for out-of-towners, nothing but an area people go to without thinking, a la Rose Street twenty years ago or Ashton Lane in Glasgow. The plans to pedestrianize the area will obviously increase trade in this spot but probably to the detriment of other parts of Leith.

People should sometimes delve deeper. Head east into more traditional Leith. Carriers’ Quarters provides a good link between the old and the new on the way to Constitution Street. The front area is quite traditional and small enough to always have a good buzz. A wee surprise is the snug just off this area. I’ve never yet managed to get access to it such is the demand for privacy. Through the back the place opens out a bit to a candlelit space that seems intended for the younger market around here. The clientele has been described as colourful as my earlier mentioned friend will attest. Minding his own business on an early Saturday evening he got a blast of “speccy bastard” for his trouble from an evident regular, who wasn't impressed with my pal's new glasses. He took it in good humour though, my friend that is, not the regular. After all, the night was young.

Port O’ Leith on Constitution Street is nothing if not colourful. Festooned with flags covering the ceiling, accompanied by all other sorts of memorabilia from foreign sailors. There must be less of them nowadays. Leith is far from the principal port it was centuries back. This place may still be included in the Trainspotting tour, but it doesn’t need to trade on past associations, it’s an interesting enough hive of activity today. Mary Moriarty is the famed landlady of the Port and I’ve seen the effect she has on what remaining bampots the pub still attracts. Something mildly nefarious was going on behind us- maybe trading in imported Pokemon cards for all I know – but it stopped as soon as an elderly woman with steel in her gait entered the bar. Smiles at her all round from the offending table and she gave a look like: “Let that be a lesson to you, one more time and you’re out”. From personal experience visits to this pub often last longer than intended and plans to head elsewhere forgotten. There have been worse decisions.

So as you can see, my regard for Edinburgh’s drinking culture is considerable. Not even the Festival stops myexploration. My most recent Festival crawl started in The Abbotsford on Rose Street, its dark hues marking a calm beginning. From there we were on to the Udderbelly open-air hospitality areas on Pleasance and the bottom of Blackfriars Street, stopping off en-route at Jinglin’ Geordie on the steep climb up Fleshmarket Close. Jinglin’ is a good wee place with a remarkably compact smoking area at back. And it is right beside the inestimable Halfway House, my favourite pub in the city.

After the Udderbelly stop-offs, we went alfresco again at the previously mentioned Three Sisters. Then The Black Bull or the Beehive Inn on Grassmarket, tables now hard to find outside in the late-afternoon sun. I had noted down Baccaro under the Hudson Hotel as a possibility for after hours drinking but we got there well ahead of schedule so we made do with the hospitable upstairs bar. Then Bon Vivant, a new entry on Thistle Street, where things got a little too cosy. Cocktails are a speciality here but it smacked too much of a couples’ wine bar from the 90s, ie candles everywhere.

So not long before we moved on, Bramble this time, on Queen Street. More of an edge to this place certainly, a basement joint making imaginative use of the small subterranean space. Just how small became apparent when I headed further into the bowels of the establishment only to realise that it was mirror ten feet in front of me, not another part of the bar. Bar service was impressive, the guy taking my order while he prepared the round three ahead of mine. After he had produced at least 6 cocktails and other drinks he reached my order and got it spot on without any prompting, even down to the brand of gin. He may have been Marco Noe, who recently won the Scottish final of the World Class Vodka Cocktail Contest.

While all this was going on, my brother had fallen asleep in a corner, an early ferry from Belfast the reason, honest. We decided to get him out of there before the staff took matters into their own hands, as we didn’t want to end up as another Unight statistic. So ended the session.

Ah, the memories…but also a demonstration of the wide range of drinking experiences available in the city and the discernible differences in character between the various areas. This is something that has diminished in Glasgow recently, with the West End, for example, lately becoming an extension the city centre rather than retaining a defining personality of its own. And looking along the M8 from the west, Edinburgh seemed to withstand the smoking ban downturn better and is helped by a slightly more sympathetic licensing regime.

Of course Glasgow has an enviable pub and club heritage; an Irish connection which brings a perceived culture of good times; and a frenetic excitement or pandemonium that appears as if from nowhere when you are out and about in any part of the city, this said to be a contrast with the reserve of Edinburgh.

I have much still to do discovering Edinburgh. For example Dragonfly in West Port remains un-sampled as do, properly, areas such as the South Side, Easter Road and Stockbridge. So, my quest goes on to find out if Edinburgh does indeed possess the strength to overpower Glasgow as our entertainment capital.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A Power in the East

The Three Sisters, 139 Cowgate, EH1 1JS
Indigo (Yard), 7 Charlotte Lane, EH2 4QZ
Mathers, 1 Queensferry Road, EH 2 4PA
The Dome, 14 George Street, EH2 2PF
Tigerlily, 125 George Street, EH2 4JN
Hawke & Hunter, 12 Picardy Place, EH1 3JT

It has come to my attention that there is a serious rival to my home city, some 45 miles to the east. If this is so, it is a change of status that will be of concern to Glaswegians, and does, I’m afraid, require some investigation.

Things began to change in Edinburgh during the boom of the mid-90s. Even before the great, supposed, renaissance created by devolution in 1999. Before this, Rose Street was famous as a pub crawl, and the Grassmarket was gaining a similar reputation. The wee howffs on or near the Royal Mile had their many regulars as did parts of Leith Walk. Further north along that thoroughfare was Leith itself, which although beloved by its inhabitants remained pretty impenetrable for drinkers from out of town.

Then, with more disposable monies came the demand for a more varied bar scene. As a young drinker I was unaware of these large socio-economic trends, I just went with the flow and enjoyed the ride whenever I was through in the capital. One area in which I enjoyed some good times was the Cowgate. The scene there developed through openings such as the Three Sisters – in its day an exciting big venue rather than the frantic throw-it-down-cheap barn of 2010.

Grassmarket grew-up a little too, still a hen and stag playground with pubs not really distinguishing themselves from each other but new ventures like The Threequarters bar at the corner of Grassmarket and King’s Stables Road - a joint venture between the Scots rugby players Gregor Townsend and Rowen Shepherd in which I managed to pick a fight with the whole Scottish team after a particularly ignominious defeat in 2000 – although short-lived were steps forward and a prompt for other established venues to up their game. Looking back on that night I do remember that it was the Scotland physio that began the ruckus before calling in his bigger pals. Gabby Logan nee Yorath and her pal Kirsty Gallagher also made an appearance that night – both of them even more striking in the flesh by the way – showing that this was a fashionable joint of the time, despite its ubiquitous pine furniture, and unimaginative layout.

In those days I would only be through in Edinburgh for an international rugby match, or a stag night or similar specific occasion. So, for most of the time drinks began and ended in the west side of Princes Street. Indigo (Yard) on Charlotte Lane became a bit of a favourite. Its cobbled approach, large windows and mezzanine level were almost a novelty for the time. And it was one of Edinburgh’s first style bars. The atmosphere was always good, especially so – goes the reputation - on a Friday after work. What’s more, I can count two occasions when it was the venue for significant events in my relationships with two partners. There may have been more but I can’t remember. It just seems to be the sort of place where things happen.

Since then the West End has remained a viable alternative bar circuit keeping a mix of the traditional such as Mathers of Queensferry Street and the ultra-contemporary with the Rutland Hotel complex – in my opinion a little lacking in subtlety but undoubtedly a landmark development. The most recent arrival of note is Ghillie Dhu, a large pub and entertainment venue that borrows a bit of west of Scotland hospitality and conviviality.

Going back to my discovery of this great city and its hostelries, as I grew more accustomed to its nighttime rhythm I shifted my attention to its new entertainment centre, George Street. Everyone else seemed to be doing the same. The massive Dome probably started it all off. A big floor area and huge island bar greeted drinkers approaching via grand steps and classical pillars, an entrance befitting the pretensions of banks pre-credit crunch. The conversion from one-time RBS headquarters into a depository of booze was a successful one and in its heyday The Dome was the place to be seen. The separate cocktail bar – housed in a side room near the entrance and now re-branded as The Club Room – was an added attraction and unusual for its time. Nearer to the present day The Dome has unfortunately been cloned rather by the inferior Wetherspoon’s Standing Order, diminishing its grand effect and status as the granddaddy of George Street. However it can still dazzle, with an example being what must be the largest indoor Christmas tree ever to appear in this country, that featured in The Dome last festive period.

George Street and its environs have gone from strength to strength. Ambitious developments like Candy Bar, Le Monde and Opal Lounge have set the tone, creating a concentration of high-end destinations not seen in many cities, certainly not Glasgow. Tigerlily and its downstairs operation Lulu is one of the newer openings. Upstairs the interior can be described as exuberant. Some might call it garish but it is undoubtedly eye-catching featuring glitter balls amongst other showy details. On first opening it was the bar to be seen propping up and I ventured there with a pal mentioned previously in this blog. He had set up our angle for the night. Film location specialists it was, airline pilots having been discarded. And you know, we were doing well with a couple of young ladies and even had some of their friends listening in on the sparkling conversation. One of us, though, took it too far, dropping in De Niro’s name. We were promptly laughed out of the joint, giggles of the wrong sort ringing in our ears.

Many of these bars are part of the Montpelier Group, mirroring the hold that the G1 group has over in Glasgow. Montpelier seems, though, to have remained the right side of medium sized, meaning that its places manage to avoid the generic trap and are free of an obvious corporate stamp.

Hawke & Hunter at Picardy Place is not one of Montpelier’s. Like Tigerlilly it is a boutique hotel and restaurant as well as bar, occupying five floors. The décor is sumptuous and recent developments include a downstairs club and the Secret Garden area that provides decadent surroundings seemingly a world away from grey Edinburgh and one of the best smoking areas in the country. Simon Taylor of Scots rugby fame is reportedly still a partner showing that the tradition of sportsmen investing in licensed premises continues. But this is another league – excuse the pun – from old footballers buying over a wee local pub or indeed The Threequarters from Grassmarket. It is probably the venue of the moment.

To be continued...