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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Underwater Karaoke

Cyan Bar & Rest, 14 Stewart Street, Milngavie, G62 6BW
Maryhill Tavern, 1850 Maryhill Road, G20 0HD

In my office we replace the scanner/printer cartridges every fortnight or so. Every time it’s my turn (messy job you see) I always seem to have the cyan colour. But I’d never really taken notice of the exact tone that the name signified until a new place opened in the suburbs.

Milngavie to be exact; “Down in the village” as the locals describe it, in the back square, Stewart Street. I know the town from teenage years, the wee circuit starting in Illusions, ending in the Cross Keys or The Black Bull. This site, near the taxi office and the chippy was not in drinking-use back then, but in the years since a Mexican bar and eatery named Sals Famous did well for a time, providing a slightly more sophisticated experience.

Cyan Bar & Rest may be attempting similar. Futuristic white-moulded furniture occupies both areas, the restaurant and the bar. The bar area comes first, the floor also white with large square tiling. The bar counter itself continues the white theme and with the white walls also, there is a uniformity bordering on the bland, the monochrome needing a contrast somewhere. This may come with the blue-cyan by any chance?- Absolut bottles sitting in two regular rows in an Ikea-ish unit on the wall behind the bar. Nothing else catches the eye on this back bar counter.

We take our drinks to the low sofa seating at coffee tables in the corner, passing a stack of home interior design magazines, not reading material you would expect in a traditional bar, but in keeping here. The colour cyan, I am told, is one of a spectrum of colours such as teal, turquoise and aquamarine. The remainder of the place’s name, Bar & Rest (deliberately shortened) reveals the intent. This is a place of repose, recuperation and relaxation, a spa in a bar. The Muse confirms this with her analysis of the lemon hand cream in the Ladies, definitely the kind of product found in restorative institutions.

I can get the sanctuary idea, a place to retreat from the stresses of outside, but can’t quite go with the association of alcohol with massages, facials and bodily rejuvenations. And the smooth luxury effect is undermined by a decimated bunch of lilies and missing tea lights on the coffee tables. The abstract art on the walls of both the bar and restaurant areas signed Roscal provokes some interest, making the observer feel somewhat foolish on discovering later that the canvases are merely the doodle work of the owner, David Cowan.

In the ceiling blue halogen lights are designed to continue the cyan theme but they are sore on the eyes and do not soothe. But they do get us talking about colour again, and I say I initially thought of sea green as the closest to cyan. “And you could be under the sea in here” I say to The Muse. And that gets her thinking, bringing in Jules Verne to the conversation. Maybe that’s the future suggested by the predominant furniture. Sci-fi novels. This could be how living-quarter pods set deep beneath the waves or floating in the ultimate darkness of outer space will look.

The restaurant area, apart from the furniture, is more of this century, warmer with reds, wooden floor and roses on the tables. The menu, incidentally, is rather simple bistro-style, with emphasis upon finger food and family-friendly favourites. But I’m sure it is presented in an up-to-the-minute fashion. And from what I’ve heard since, it is steadily prospering, and satisfying the locals, a prerequisite in the ‘burbs.

At least four of the tables are occupied through there on this Saturday night. Quiet certainly, but not alarmingly so, as it is in here. The high bar-stools remain empty for the hour we remain, apart from a staff member finished for the evening. Two couples sit round the corner from us and that’s it apart from the young blood of four late teens early twenties who arrive late-on, looking like it’s their first time here too.

Part of the problem is that the standing space between the tables and the bar isn’t properly defined, discouraging that option. It’s like a big white canvas that everyone’s afraid to spoil with their dirty feet. Maybe the large space will be filled when it gets busy, but when will that be?

And what will the drinkers be listening to? We had jazz for the first half hour of our visit but it’s been replaced by some unremarkable soul/R&B. The soundtracks here are supposed to be customised for this venue by one of the companies that do this nowadays. Whoever is compiling or operating the sounds has had a failure of nerve, thinking the clientele couldn’t handle jazz all night.

The owner appears, fresh from a stint in the restaurant. I’m sure Mr. Cowan is a nice guy but tonight, dressed all in black, his presence is doleful. Maybe takings are down or he is unimpressed with the turnout in the bar. But I’m afraid his presence isn’t going to get any more punters in the door. The staff member is still sitting on the stool, he’s not helping either. There’s reasons why establishments ban their staff from drinking in their own place of work. One of them is that their presence in a quiet bar just emphasises the lack of paying customers.

Overall, Cyan may be the shape of things to come. It certainly looks different from most bars around today, but its overt smoothness is a little too much, like a face botoxed too often, sometimes ‘lived-in’ looks so much better, makes everyone feel more comfortable.

For the bar component of Cyan to be a success it will have to attract a good mix of drinkers young and old, and encourage diners to come through for a nightcap. This isn’t yet happening, as we find out. We have moved on to the Talbot Arms round the corner in the pedestrian precinct, a traditional boozer with wooden floors, dart board, club noticeboard and old furniture. Old-time’s sake even though it wasn’t officially on the old pub trail being a little out of the way and seen as completely old-school. Fifteen minutes into our drink and we see two couples from the restaurant at Cyan walk in and settle down to finish their night in the Talbot. More work is required at Cyan.

Our night is not over though. The Muse mentioned earlier that she was feeling peckish but we were put off asking for a wee nibble in Cyan by the owner’s countenance. So it is a detour from the straightforward route home to Glasgow’s unluckiest postcode. It will be Maryhill, round here you won’t get something this late.

Chinese it is, one of a variety of choices at the north end of Maryhill Road. While we wait we cross to the Maryhill Tavern. Even by local standards this is a modest-looking pub, under a two-storey house rather than a tenement. Next door is Jumping Jack’s – not related to the Sauchiehall Street club – which goes in and out of business and now seems totally extinct.There’s hardly a fraction of the pubs there used to be on this main thoroughfare, sign of the change in ways people, ahem, relax.

The Muse is a little nervous as we sip our beverages. “What’s the problem?” I ask, “this is a community pub.” She chokes on her G&T. And in some ways it is, in that it’s peopled by locals who all seem to know each other. I point this out but it’s not reassuring my partner, who brings in the cliché about contempt and familiarity.

Undeterred I’m getting into the karaoke that’s going on, unusual for me. After a couple of songs I tell The Muse I’m impressed with the standard of the singing, and the seriousness with which each participant is applying themselves. “You know we were talking about undersea worlds earlier,” she replies. I nod. “Well, I wish some of these folk were singing underwater.”

In the Chinese, our order is not quite ready, must be a backlog. Suddenly the karaoke rivalry I’d detected earlier spills into the takeaway, inter-spousal rivalry at that. The worst kind. Threats are being issued, countered, then increased in volume and tone. Now the mobiles are out and the woman is bringing other people into the argument, her in-laws it appears. Her man had, one way or the other, removed her from the karaoke stage and now there is hell to pay.

The Muse moves away from the trouble, but it quickly disperses into the street and out of earshot. The little serving lady, who is dwarfed by the high takeaway counter, has seen my lady’s discomfort, and tells her, “We don’t often have that kind of thing in here.” A likely story.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Bar & Grillzzzz

It has become the description they all want place behind their new bar name. One Ten Bar & Grill, Leo’s Bar & Grill, Butchershop Bar & Grill, The Restaurant Bar & Grill – What a preposterous name! Make up your mind! Truly tautology in action- and most recently The Goat & Grill…you get the picture, or rather the association. The fashion used to be to add on ‘Bar & Diner’ but now they all want a grill appendage.

Nick’s (Italian Grill) was, I think, the first of the new wave of bars opening or re-branding within the last year to bring to our attention as drinkers and eaters that they possess a counter from which to serve alcoholic beverages and a grown-up grill thingy in that part of the establishment that, until open-hatches became the vogue, we never got to see, the kitchen.

Others have followed suit, and with each one the unimaginative nature of their branding increases. And unfortunate timing can add an owner’s discomfort. Butchershop Bar & Grill opposite the Art Gallery ( the most notable earlier incarnation being The Brewery Tap) was a long-time in refurbing and consequently opened not only after other bars had gone with the B&G branding but Butchershop’s emphasis upon the meat, or more specifically beef, that it serves loses impact when you consider that Velvet Elvis (see my earlier blog) along at the far end of Partick has already gone down the butcher motif path.

Butchershop’s use of cow-hide furniture covering and a wall diagram of a cow to show the various cuts available from the carcass completes an impressively cool and unfussy interior but upon viewing it thoughts may stray to Bo’ Vine restaurant and bar at the top of Byres Road which has similarly stressed its indebtedness to the humble cow. And according to my humble notes Bo’ Vine opened early April while Butchershop completed its makeover in March. Punters won’t have necessarily noticed this detail, and may not give Butchershop the benefit of those few weeks, but they do appreciate originality, or the lack of it.

B B&G’s owner has mentioned the influence of New York’s Balthazar restaurant in his shaping of the bar/restaurant and revealingly Nick’s owner also cites a Manhattan –albeit NY Italian- inspiration behind his venture. While not criticising the culinary ambitions or standards of either bar – I’ve eaten in both and the food was fine and fresh – nor their NY inspirations, I feel that the trend signified by the bar & grill branding brings with it our North American cousins general attitude to food.

Whatever you have in the kitchen, be it red meat, chicken, fish, bung it on the grill and there’s your meal. High quality cuts, surf and turf, T-Bone steaks. Never mind subtle tastes or delicate sauces or precise preparation, just look at the price of the raw materials. Unlike most Europeans , Yanks just don’t seem to like food. It’s mere fuel, an accompaniment to television, a commodity to be traded and or coveted like gold or oil.

But bars are looking for any possible ways to attract customers, from cocktails to quiz or poker nights. Food is probably the principal method, but this in itself is no excuse for blandness and uniformity even in an establishment’s name.

Pubs have noted the example of the pasta/ pizza, and coffee shop chains and they are attracting women in the same way, realising that their share of income and inherited wealth is only going to increase. Bars are targeting women who go out to meet their friends in a comfortable environment that provides them with food, coffee and alcohol. And often it doesn’t even matter if the quality isn’t top drawer; the café, restaurant, bar or grill (!) just a meeting place.

And this fact reveals a truth amongst the debate on the demon drink that our legislators, healthcare lobbyists, prohibitionists and other people who don’t frequent pubs need to realise: pubs, and indeed this blog, are all about company and experiences, drink is just one part of the whole.

Friday, 11 June 2010

How Was Your Night?

Chinaski's, 239 North Street, G3 7DL
The Avalon, 25 Kent Road, G3 7EH
Brass Monkey, 1004 Argyle Street, G3 8LZ
Lebowski's, 1008 Argyle Street, G3 8LX
Oranmor, 731 Great Western Road, G12 8QX

The first thing you notice about Black Sparrow is the folk outside on North Street pavement. Smokers of course. Kettled by branded barriers and warmed by the latest in outdoor heating. Reminds me of the early days of the smoking ban when driving along a main thoroughfare such as Dumbarton Road or Maryhill Road, and experiencing some sort of reverie noticed people standing on the pavement outside buildings, groups all along the streets, and wondered why. Then I would remember the reason. It wasn’t a fire drill.

I think the owners would like to have an area out back just like the neighbouring Chinaski’s. On a recent Friday night visit to that bar I noticed heavy wooden picnic tables set out behind Black Sparrow. They were unused, possibly due to licensing problems. If so, a pity for the proprietors, because Chinaski’s smoking provision gives it a distinct advantage. Set on two levels the area comes into its own on balmy evenings, becoming almost a bar on its own. But this night was far from mild and the apparent removal of part of the roof and windbreak – again maybe licensing issues – increased the chill factor. We retreated indoors faster than anticipated, cigar only half-finished.

Why do I like Chinaski’s? Begin at the door. It’s a very discreet, seemingly narrow entrance redolent of a continental or American back-street bar. The service is quick and knowledgeable, the food above average for a bar and you can eat at the bar itself without being made to feel awkward. The aforementioned smoking area is in the top five for the city, a perfect use of space. Clientele-wise the mix is good, a non-threatening crowd of different ages, safe but interesting; urban professionals, creatives, students and ageing loungers who’ve been tossed like flotsam by the ebb and flow of Glasgow’s nightlife for too many years.

Chinaski’s may have been the first bar in the city to go with the cushioned bar counter and full glass gantry. It certainly was one of the pioneering bars to prove that a credible joint could exist outside the town centre and the traditional west end. And it did so inheriting a site that had seen the failure of Bar Jedi and The Halcyon Bar. On the downside the toilets could be revamped, they’re too small and a bit untidy. And although I’ve praised the crowd here, sometimes familiarity can breed a cliquey feeling. Also, it can on occasions be slow to get going but that’s maybe a reflection on me, running out on the place before it gets the chance to warm-up, and when it has, I’m somewhere else.

On this occasion I’d gone round the corner to The Avalon. A far more traditional-looking place and been in existence a fair few years longer. Last time I visited, some three to four years back it had been busy with locals, regulars and middle-aged shoppers who had lingered longer than intended. That biz had disappeared tonight. Only three other blokes in the main bar and about the same number of couples through in the lounge. They were listening to a stout crooner with a witty introduction to each song in his repertoire that ranged from Michael Buble to Judy Garland.

Apart from that it was all pretty depressing, this quiet on a Friday. Still, the bar staff were good and chatty, wasted on a dead pub. Just like the singer. He should try for the next BGT, if that’s the acronym for the programme watched by those who don’t go out on a Saturday. I promised my companions for the night – who included LJ – a pick-up in pace so we headed west.

It was their first time in Brass Monkey, Argyle Street. My review was enthusiastic some months back so they expected quite a lot. They peered in the big windows before entering the busy space inside. The party had started before us it seemed. Plenty of folk inside and a DJ at the corner of the bar playing 80s indie. My pals moved to one side and before I could move after them an acquaintance cornered me. I hadn’t realised he drank here. For almost half an hour he went on about one of his business ventures – importing vintage Volkswagen Beetles I believe - while I was missing the atmosphere and a round I’m sure my mates got squeezed in during my absence. Eventually I prised the guy out of my personal space and sought out my pals to get us moving again. I took some satisfaction that they seemed reluctant to leave.

Lebowski’s was even busier. 80s music again, this time the DJ playing with house music. Jingo, Ride a White Horse and one track we couldn’t name were the stand-outs. This place continues to thrive and deserves it for being one of the forerunners in design over the last five years – exposed stone, designer wallpaper et al – and for helping the resurgence of G3, just like Chinaski’s. And it too is named after a drop-out character from popular American fiction.

I picked up a flyer for Boho. The re-launch supposedly. That may mean it has got back its 3am licence. The last time I was there it was a pedestrian 2 o’clock when we were ushered out. Talking of flyers, Gazelle nearby is advertising club passes available behind its bar. It and the other bars close by, Neighbourhood, The Ivy etc are competing strongly for the Finnieston pound, offers abounding. Food and drink offers all week, booth hire, free WiFi. Neighbourhood even puts its inside furniture outside on good days. Leather(ish) couches sit on the Berkeley Street pavement in a move that at first glance, in certain areas, would look like flitters or irresponsible tenants had dumped their unwanted settee.

Just as we were deciding on what was next I got a text from The Muse. She was up in Oranmor with work colleagues. A swift taxi followed my companions’ agreement. We missed the pre-midnight queues outside Oranmor upstairs to get in quickly but no sign of The Muse or her friends. Some time later I discovered they were next door in the Cocktail Bar. To get there you have to go outside to the separate Great Western Road entrance to the Brasserie. It caused me some confusion at the time but is a sensible move to avoid the small cocktail bar being flooded by numbers coming through from the big main bar.

In there it was busy enough anyway. I compared notes for the night with The Muse and her women. Evidently they had been talking to Jim McDonald from Coronation Street – sorry but he is better known as the character than the actor – and had got photos and autographs. I couldn’t contain myself. There might even have been some other thespians lying around the bar somewhere, what with Oranmor’s theatrical connections but I didn’t look, nor inspect the place closely enough for a decent review, that will come anon, when things are less blurry. What is memorable is the five floors you have to travel up in the lift to get to the toilets, a strange thing to do in a restored church. And the toilets themselves are a bit dishevelled, as if after a certain time of night the staff stop checking them.

After a lift to the main road near our home The Muse and I walking the couple of hundred yards to our door came upon a staggering guy in his twenties, Fila tracksuit on his top but only boxer shorts as company for his legs. My partner had her eyes on the guy more than me; I was probably searching for my notebook to jot down his observations upon the evening. “Give me your phone and everything you’ve got,” he demanded in a not too convincing tone. I must have paused at that, but then we were past him and onward again. He took a swing at me I’m told by The Muse but he was that far wide with it I didn’t notice.

Anyway, home safe and fit enough to write again.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

An Out-of-Towner

The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, W1D 5BG
Crown and Two Chairmen, 31 Dean Street, Soho, W1D 3SB
The Edge, 11 Soho Square, Soho, W1D 3QE

Soho attracts outsiders. The first stop for youngsters arriving in London on the bus with little money to spare, hustlers looking for easy money, stag dos from the provinces hunting for thrills. Times may have changed in W1 – on the surface at least – but it remains a major area of drinking entertainment, despite the rival claims of new contenders such as Hoxton.

I’ve been coming to London since well into last century but I’m easily still an outsider. It takes time to re-acquaint yourself, and once you’ve done that you search for what is new. Then the adventures can begin.

I remember the ritual walk from Euston or King’s Cross after an early arrival. Along the main road then down Tottenham Court Road and then plunging into the square mile of Soho. Stopping at an Italian café for a reviving coffee then wandering down to the Embankment, perhaps, for a kip on a bench or meeting with pals at a central rendezvous point. Who knows? I remember the bars and clubs though.

The Wag Club (nothing to do with footballers) near Ronnie Scott’s on Wardour Street let us in twice – it had by then obviously lost its eighties hipness. That alone made us happy: drinks till late without any more stress. It has since been turned into a massive O’Neill’s pub, a sign seen by many of the Disneyfication of the area. Another time, my frequent companion on London trips had bucked the unsuccessful trend and met a woman, a rock-chick with music connections who took us to a tiny, sweaty rock club somewhere in the north end of Soho. They had a good night. And weekend.

Alphabet Bar on Beak Street is still trading. A middle-of-the road, tad too comfortable joint where a group of us met a more sophisticated friend after we had drunk our way from The City all the way west. His business acquaintances looked askance at our attire but they did include is in a trip to a local Sushi bar, my first taste of the Far East and of conveyor-belted cuisine.

Another acquaintance arranged to meet-up on later trip to the metropolis. His venue was the White Horse on Rupert Street. I’d been used to a certain amount of dinginess and mild sleaze in pubs back home but this place took it to another level. Not only did every single surface seem to be sticky but we were surrounded by the neighbourhood’s contingent of clip joint and sex shop owners. Possibly the rudest bunch of folk in London and that’s some accolade.

My uncomfortable feeling rose higher when my acquaintance’s acquaintance arrived with a big holdall. The business transaction today was to be ‘high class erotica’ I was informed just as the guy sat down beside us. When they started talking about ‘monkeys’ and ‘bottles’ I thought a new form of perversion was being discussed and I looked for the nearest exit. Thankfully they were only money terms and without any more fuss the cash was exchanged for a huge bundle of VHS tapes. Recent reviews of the White Horse bear no similarity to the one I experienced that day so maybe it has changed or my opinion was a reflection on my safe middle-class sensibilities.

Safety issues also featured during another trip. A girlfriend and I had been out and about from our hotel all day so still had our bags with us. We reached Soho and entered the first bar we came to the famous gay bar, The Admiral Duncan on Old Compton. As soon as we were in the door we were ushered to the side and asked to open our bags. Was this the treatment all straight customers I received I was about to ask? Then I remembered the recent bomb outrage when a homophobe killed a number of pub-goers.

It was another gay bar that provided the highlight of the evening on a visit last year. The Edge on Soho Square was The Muse’s choice to begin our night. The relaxed vibe of diverse punters encompassing all four floors of this venue put us in the mood for our night ahead. Each level brought a slightly different feel and by the time we had to leave to go for our meal we wished for a clock rewind. Neither the meal in the premises of a well-known TV chef on Greek Street nor the club, Club 49, also on Greek Street, could live up to the promise of our evening’s beginning.

On the same trip last year, one of The Muse’s friends back home had a family connection with The Kingly Club on the street of the same name. Toying with the idea of chancing our arm there that night we decided to reconnoitre the surroundings during the day. Up and down the street we went for fifteen minutes. Couldn’t even find a sign let alone a door, let alone a feel for the place. That’s the thing about Soho, part of its allure. The delights seem to be hidden, for those in the know only. The many private clubs and drinking joints that populate the area just heighten the mystique.

In April this year I was back again, this time a family holiday. After a meal in Chinatown I steered the party towards Soho for a wee drink. Dean Street was as good a choice as any. Past LVPO which looked like a promising venue for a slightly different night than with the parents. The French House had been on my rough itinerary but I came upon it here by mistake. It’s open sash windows were all the welcome we required. Inside it’s as small, dark and charming as the reviews had suggested. On the wall various sketches, behind the bar various mementoes such as a police helmet, a bust of some eminent man and a fur hat. Most bars these days cram their premises with such items to create character for the place, The French House, you feel, has picked up these bits and pieces effortlessly, by accident.

As I was about to order I noticed the comedian and columnist Mark Steele by my side. I could only have been more happy had it been Will Self instead. He had on a pork-pie hat and seemed to be enjoying the place as much as me. Two pints of lager and two G&Ts was my order and I placed it. Back came the shorts and two half-pints. Nonchalantly I told the barman it was two pints I had ordered. “We don’t serve pints in here” came the reply. What's this southern affectation, I thought. A pause. Steele looked round at me. Eventually I shrugged, “Sorry, I’m an out-of towner” I replied and I’m sure Mr. Steele smiled. The half-pint thing is, I gather, to discourage beer-guzzling and promote the savouring of one's alocaohol, a la France.

We stayed for at least an hour, with me unintentionally breaking another house rule, using a mobile. I was using it to make notes but rules is rules. Photos of various artists such as Francis Bacon, a famous patron here, and the actor George Baker fill the wall space. French House’s history as a meeting place for the Resistance during the war and an informal Gallic haunt ever since adds to the atmosphere. All that was missing were the Gitanes. My father and I went outside for a smoke.

Looking back in to the pub I noticed a grey-haired chap talking to Steele. He too was a celebrity – how both of them would baulk at such a description – or a member of the fourth estate. I couldn’t remember his name and it has bugged me ever since. We left The French House after I had tried the esteemed Breton cider, and just behind Mr. Steele who sauntered off probably towards one of those afore-mentioned private clubs.

Just up the road we popped in to the Crown and Two Chairmen for the last of the night. This is a far more generic experience than The French House, despite the wide range of beers. The crowd was traditional after-work, tending to the leery. The floor is flagged and various offers appear on fair number of chalkboards. There’s a dining room upstairs, just as at The French House. This is common in Soho, almost as regular a feature as it is in Belfast drinking establishments.

So that was the night over. We had promised the parents an easy Friday night to prepare for a early Saturday morning start to the tourist thing, so a Tube from Leicester Square back to the hotel was reluctantly planned. Dodging our way along the buzzing streets and through thronged lanes of revellers I wondered if I should change my outsider status, if only for the night.