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Friday, 5 November 2010

The Drinks Now Arriving... - Grand Central Hotel


Champagne Central - The Grand Central Hotel, 99 Gordon Street, G1 3SF

Glasgow has waited a while for the return of The Central Hotel. Opened in 1881, four years after Central Station itself, its celebrated reputation as host to statesmen, actors and entertainers from across the world took a battering when it became a down-at-heel venue under the ownership of the misnamed Quality Hotels.

During that period I visited the hotel for a demonstration of a hair-brained scheme conceived by a friend of mine; a golf simulator in fact. Ahead of its time, you could say. The dowdy condition of the hotel was a great disappointment to me, having harboured lofty impressions of the place from my boyhood, imagining it to be the most romantic and grandest location for an overnight stay. Picturing myself arriving by train at night before strolling through the concourse towards this hotel, built into the very structure of the station.

Then things went from bad to worse at the Central. It shut. Leaving a shell in the heart of town, a sorry sight for locals and train travellers alike. The architecture was of an English baroque revival but the building nevertheless enjoyed iconic status within the city. But for a time it seemed that in these troubled economic times it would remain empty indefinitely.

Fortunately, the Principal Hayley group filled the developmental void and this autumn the hotel re-opened. They chose to add ‘Grand’ to the original name, something that obviously owes more to Manhattan than to Glasgow’s heritage. Not the greatest start but you can see the reasoning behind the marketing.

On our first visit we deliberately chose to approach via the station concourse, in order to view our destination – the Champagne Central bar – from the travellers POV. It is situated above one of the booking offices in a wood-panelled semi-circular part of the building which extends out from the station’s interior wall.

The doorman was polite but lacking polish but at least we got a reaction from him. The staff on reception gave none, only enquiring as to our business once we reached the stairs. Of course, I knew where the bar was located, so the directions we received were as superfluous as they were rather curt.

The champagne bar lies on the entresol floor but it takes two flights to get there, up the very impressive stairway within the clock tower. An improbably extravagant tubular chandelier gathers attention as you ascend.

The main restaurant, Tempus, along with its bar was in temporary mode until the end of the month, so instead of heading off right along the corridor we went straight on to our principal target, Champagne Central.

Our going was quiet underfoot, along a rather sombre, panelled, passageway reminiscent of the Mitchell Library. The black and cream floor creates that feeling of hushed sobriety and reserve normally found in academia or in the premises of a well-established law firm.





There is not enough artificial light to dispel the relative gloom and even daylight will probably not penetrate sufficiently due to the relatively small sash windows found in this kind of architecture. Suffice to say you are not dazzled by first impressions; the bling present in the boutique resort hotels of today is certainly absent, despite the chandelier.

Things do brighten up in the champagne bar itself. Light from the station positively floods in, supplementing the sparkle of an immense chandelier within a huge dome, the centrepiece of the room. The bar counter itself is curved mirroring the shape of the room with high chairs in black, yellow and cream. There are few other opportunities for seating in here, so we retired to the lounge, off to the left through a modest arch.

In here carpet replaces the tiled flooring, design and colour matching the seating next door. The chairs here are comfortable and high-backed, plum and mustard joining the medley of colours. And burnished gunmetal ceiling, impressive enough, but if I’m not mistaken already applied in One-Up and the Ubiquitous Chip bars.

This area is a haven, quieter colours and a low murmur of voices rather than the relative hubbub in the main bar. In here you don’t have to compete for service, waiters do the tending. We were all couples in here, apart from four middle-aged ladies who arrived around the same time as ourselves.

The competition between those ladies and us began quickly. Who would be the first to receive some service? They had their drinks menu, we hadn’t received ours yet, but a waiter had visited neither group. Ten minutes into the game one arrived with a cocktail menu, explaining that the reason for the delay was confusion over the timing of the end of his shift. The kind of information you nod at when you receive despite realising it is totally irrelevant to you the customer.

The menu we were handed is old fashioned and fussy looking, the decorative bow and the article itself already looking worn. There are around 20 choices built around champagne, vodka, rum and gin, prices from £6.50 to £8. The Muse took a Silver Angel, which consists mainly of Zubrowka vodka, passion fruit and champagne. My choice, the Corpse Reviver No. 2, featured gin, fresh lemon, cointreau and absinthe, differing markedly from Frank Meier’s - of the Ritz, Paris- original classic with Pernod, champagne and lemon juice. Still, this version looked interesting enough to leave tradition behind.

Looking up from our study of the menu we saw the older ladies walking out. Obviously, we had won the contest. But the losers were definitely the hotel management. To their credit though, the women were soon returned, accompanied by a manager, laughs all round. Some financial concession seemed evident from the good moods. Effective trouble-shooting but not something you can do for every customer.

There was time, not surprisingly, to look at the rest of the menu. Inconsistency and strange pricing characterise the list. So, while beers, and spirits are priced fairly for this sort of establishment (eg malts at £3.50) and the champagne pricing seems also to be within the bounds of reason, the prosecco with nothing below £25 is less attractive. But what is unusual is the way in which 125 ml glasses of wine (ie 1/6 of a bottle) are priced at 1/6th of the whole bottle. This unheard of pricing practise does nothing to encourage volume selling.

The marketing strategy (if it is one) is continued in the food menu. Warm oysters come in at £2.50 each whether you order 3 or a dozen, and grazing platters are doubled in price if a couple chooses to share. Food prices in general are not cheap; £22 for a charcuterie shared platter, £5.50 for soup of the day and mushroom and salad focaccia at £7.50 being illustrative.

So our cocktails eventually arrived, both well made, the Corpse Reviver particularly, and appropriately, invigorating. They came without decoration or garnish which disappointed The Muse, bemoaning the continued lack of pzazz. I gave the benefit of the doubt; quiet sophistication may have been the object.

Cocktail in hand, in this environment, you want to sit back and relax but staff problems continued to conflict with our ease. The restful dimmed light in the lounge broken by the constant opening and closing of the staff door near our table; staff coming and going wearing their coats, as if taking their breaks; staff carrying black bags of ice to and fro to supply the bar. But the staff are probably not to blame. A design issue this, exits and entrances should be in place to allow discretion in all these necessary functions. The customer wants it all to be invisible, desn’t want to see the strings.

And neither can the humble waiting-persons be responsible for the brown aprons which jar with the black uniform. Also the gait of most of the staff was a hunched, downtrodden one, as if this was not the place they wanted to be. Morale and motivation seemed in low supply, something the various mangers who had suddenly appeared when the delays hit earlier in the evening should be able to inspire.

Despite all this, our evening continued pleasantly enough and even the raucous, harsh voices amplified by the shape of the main bar room couldn’t disturb our easy mood, nor the shell-suited guy at the bar who proved there’s no dress policy here yet. The interesting music selection, the antithesis of laid-back lounge muzak, softened any disturbances and any place that plays Gimme Shelter is a joint I will hang about for longer than I perhaps should.

We were pleased to see a few elderly couples in to rekindle memories of the hotel from yesteryear, and a well-dressed family of mother, father and teenage children sharing a bottle of bubbly. The continental elegance of this scene was though, rather compromised by the eldest son having to carry in the flutes for themselves as one waitress brought the bucket.

And that was it for our evening, no more mishaps or hospitality errors… if you don’t count the bar running out of rose prosecco; the cold ladies toilets being situated miles from the bar and with a malfunctioning hand towel dispenser; and our final round of drinks going unpaid-for due to the massive delay retrieving a mobile credit-card pay-point.

Yes the sum of, what could charitably be called teething, problems was large, but somehow the experience at The Grand Central was a positive one. Maybe because of the aspiration shown in the venture, even though the execution doesn’t yet match that ambition.

But the future holds great opportunities for this venue; it can become a high-rollers bling hang-out to rival, One Up, 29, Corinthian et al and it can attract drinkers looking for a party rather than just to wind-down the evening. In short it can become a destination. All possible if the details are correct.

As for us, there was no overnight train ready to take us to the Continent, just the No. 9 bus on Hope Street. But at least, unlike the service that evening and in all probability the sleeper, it was on time.

4 comments:

  1. May i ask the source of your Corpse Reviver no. 2 recipe? Fairly confident the one mentioned on the list is accurate. Circa 1930's The Savoy cocktail book states equal parts London Dry Gin, Kina Lillet, Cointreau, Lemon Juice with a dash of Absinthe. Please get your facts right for future reviews as i do enjoy your writing style.

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  2. Hi, thanks for your interest. My source for Corpse Reviver No. 2 is Charles Schumann's American Bar, 1994. He sources his recipe from that of Frank Meier of the Ritz, Paris. Of course as we know cocktail sourcing is not a science, and the origins of drinks are often debated. If it works it works and I enjoyed Grand Central's version. Thanks again.

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  4. Cheers for the encouragement. I will keep writing!

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