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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...

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