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Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Couple on Renfield Street

The Maltman,59-61 Renfield Street, Glasgow G2 1LF
The Renfield Bar, 70 Renfield Street, Glasgow G2 1NQ


The liquid lunch is evaporating. The recent recession, puritanical influences and stricter working practices are conspiring against it. Even in France cafes and bars are noticing a culture change, the leisurely feed and drink being replaced by swift snacks and soft drinks.

On a recent lunchtime – around noon but because of my strange hours it was not actually my lunchtime – I found myself on Renfield Street, right at the heart of Glasgow on the last day of the working week. I began thinking of decent joints I could visit round about, purely for research purposes of course. The Pot Still on Hope Street for a half and a half or Stereo in Renfield Lane for something more contemporary were just two of the options.

But why not be contrary – not for the first time – and avoid self-indulgence. Meaning: try some places you normally walk by.

The Maltman was the first obvious candidate; a big place that looks like a chain pub, regardless of its actual status. The flooring half wood and half carpet, one of those hard-wearing ones, red with a white flower/ thistle mock heraldic design. A design no no only matched by the ghastly curtains, which, I suspect, will never be drawn.

Just the kind of things I expected in here, along with the ubiquitous shoddily-varnished wood and etched windows and partitions. I looked through towards the back of the pub and spied what might be a unique feature, something different amongst the blandness. It looked like a skylight of some sort. Immediately I began to think that there might be more to this place. Maybe a second level with a partially-glassed floor with private drinking and dining; another bar; a club? The possibilities were endless.

But I was brought back to earth when I looked at it more closely. It was just a circle cut into the depth of the ceiling with red fringing. Returning to the bar, which runs along the side of the room, I ordered a bottle of Bud. Used to drink this stuff in my youth, but have eschewed it for years because it is gas with no flavour. Why I ordered it here, I don’t know. Perhaps because it went with the surroundings. Perhaps because the barmaid didn’t appear to be inclined to give me a list of their beers. To add to the annoyance factor, it wasn’t even cheap, at £3.10.

I have mentioned the design issues here already but the first thing I had noticed upon my entrance was, in fact, the smell of fish. Haddock I think. Quite overpowering. The last time I remember a similarly strong smell was in Molly Malones one teatime. (That’s another big bar with little to recommend it, but at least it sometimes gets the after-work crowds).

As well as the fish, you can imagine the menu here. Steak pie, burgers, lasagne etc packaged in various ‘meal deals’. To draw in the local workers – didn’t see many of them – and the OAPs in on their free bus rides- plenty of them. The attraction being offers like £1.99 for a scone and a hot drink, I reckon. Roll on my twilight years.

My spirits fell further when I noticed their ‘Xmas Fayre’ menu already on display. Time to go. I went to the toilets first, though. Partly to investiogate for the purposes of this review, partly to see if there actually was more to this place through the back or downstairs.

No, nothing. And the toilets were shoddy too. In one of the sinks, a soap dispenser sat, ready – but not yet, mind - to be fixed to the wall, Rawl- plugs lying loose beside it. Kind of sums the place up. As does the fact that this place was our city’s first non-smoking pub in the 80s. Don’t get me started…

Heading up the street I was initially inclined to call it an afternoon, but this reviewing self-flagellation was beginning to get addictive (some people swear by it, I’m told). I ignored the Bay Horse (that was going too far) because, apologies to its regulars, it just looks like an even poorer version of The Maltman.
It’s too easy to scoff at these joints and just walk on, but bear in mind naïve travellers visiting our dear, green city. Those without any guide, whether personal, anecdotal or virtual could easily stumble into such bars and end up being assaulted by the sheer boredom and stultifying nature of them. Their location almost ensures this. Mores the pity. Even I, as a younger man, went to places like this when I was similarly uninformed. Now there’s a confession for you.

Tourists would probably be less likely to enter The Renfield Bar, on the other side of the road. At first glance it appears there are no windows at all breaking the grey exterior of this pub. A Glasgow windowless pub, they would think aghast, my mother/father/brother etc warned me about these places.

But there are windows. Must be some sort of optical illusion that dissipates as you examine closely. This I did. And then went inside. Like The Maltman it was the smell here that first got me. Smoky. No, not BBQ chicken or any other menu option, smoky like the aftermath of a fire. And there is a fireplace in here, but there was no warmth to indicate it had been on for a while.

I chose a drink at the bar (Tennents £2.55) and looked around. The smell went with the look of the place; like the interior of a bothy up north, the furniture only a little bit less ramshackle than you would find in a mountain hut.

But, even so, this place is kind of welcoming, and you do have a meaningful choice of seating, each table and chairs defined from the next. I sat at a table near the fireplace and adjacent to what looked like the best seats in the house, a stall-like enclosure occupied by an old gent, definitely a regular.

Saying that though, there is also a snug here, on your right as you enter. It is a makeshift affair, not properly enclosed, and with walls that don’t reach the low ceiling. And another old bloke sat even nearer the door, at a table right by the window.

That was it in here, apart from a couple of blokes at the bar, who were making up for the quiet of the rest of the patrons, the barmaid just about tolerating the two of them. Meanwhile, a stooping, decrepit looking guy appeared and shuffled across the floor in front of me heading towards the toilet.

I could feel the smoke at the back of my throat, not an unpleasant experience somehow, as if I’d been inhaling the joint since I’d arrived. Maybe the staff had just brushed the fireplace, or cleaned the hearth or whatever it is you do with real fires?

The shuffling guy hadn’t re-appeared yet, making me wonder if the reputed passageway through to Drummonds on West Regent Street still existed. Okay, it wasn’t bright in here- the lights are definitely needed in here unlike The Maltman with its huge windows – but I would have seen him return.

At the back end of the pub there’s a board advertising DJ Shades hosting karaoke every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Wonder if the clientele will miraculously drop in age come the weekend to make that entertainment appropriate, because at the moment the music playing is Wrong Radio (as opposed to Real and Your and the rest) blaring through the quiet thoughts of the gents in here. I was enjoying the soundtrack ok, but maybe they wanted something more their vintage, or nothing at all.

The boss man was in now, for the takings evidently. From the mutterings it seemed he wasn’t too pleased with one of the drunks at the bar. When the boss had gone, the drunker of the two tried to apologise to the barmaid: “Sorry, Amanda,” he said.
“Nae mair drink for you,” she replied.

He turned to the rest of us for support but none came. Despite the pathetic nature of his gesture I envied the guy, maintaining the great tradition of the lunchtime refreshment. It will continue in places like this, on a small scale yes, but it will still be with us.

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