Any comments on the blog, propositions (legal, of course), ideas for places for me to go see, please get in touch at and don't forget to follow me on Twitter

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...

1 comment: