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Friday, 12 November 2010

People Will Wander - Stravaigin

Stravaigin, 26 Gibson Street, Glasgow G12 8NX

Well over a decade ago, Colin Clydesdale, son of the late-lamented Ronnie (chef-patron of The Ubiquitous Chip) went traipsing around the globe in the way that carefree youngsters unburdened by issues of student debts, quantitive easing and perpetual structural deficits used to do. Oh, it does seem so last century.

He returned with new ideas and techniques that were soon applied to his creation, Stravaigin on Gibson Street, down the hill from the university. This bar/café/restaurant soon acquired a reputation up near his Clydesdale’s father’s place for innovative cooking, local sourcing and honest hospitality. Stravaigin 2, off Byres Road, and The Liquid Ship near St. Georges Cross have since been added to Clydesdale Junior’s portfolio across the west end without a dilution in standards at any of the venues.

I’ve always liked the original best, partly because of the location – Gibson Street is perched above the River Kelvin and the area reminds me of somewhere in Middle Europe– but mostly because of the straightforward quality of the joint, consistently applied. The fine-dining area downstairs has accommodated me and my entourage on special occasions only, but upstairs has been a fairly frequent haunt for years – I don’t do the ‘ bar-regular’ thing – whether for brunch, lunch or drink to start the evening (it’s never been a place to finish the night).

The bar area was small and even more cosy than the place as a whole, and the use of dark wood throughout welcoming without being dated. It fitted with the soft (as in how some folk used to be called politically soft left) bohemianism of this part of town, leaving you at ease with your pint, coffee, red-wine, cocktail or imported beer, watching lucky diners tuck in around you and upstairs in the cramped mezzanine. It didn’t matter who was drinking and who was eating, everyone got on.

I liked it as it was, slightly too small for purpose and operating on its own terms in its own space. But maybe the customer is not omnipotent. If there’s money to be made… Our own Adam, JM Keynes, Milton Friedman and the rest have all written about demand outstripping supply and the perils of lack of capacity. It gets all rather complex, this economics business, but in our simple terms, if you can’t accommodate the punters they will go somewhere else.

Stravaigin’s extension was well trailed and the opening day likewise but I waited a relatively long time before visiting the enhanced premises. Perhaps it was an unconscious reluctance to find out whether a favourite had been spoiled, but whatever the reason I did walk past the large new windows on quite a few occasions before eventually thinking the time was right for a visit.

A Saturday night was the evening in question. For mid-evening there was quite a throng in the bar part of the premises. This building was bought over by Stravaigin and the separating wall knocked through to double the previous size of the ground-floor. Yes, a busy-ness about the place more intense than the previous laid-back nature of next door. Maybe fresh blood coming in to the area for the night, attracted by news of the changes.

The interior has that unfinished chic fashionable the now, with walls and ceiling looking as if stripped and ready for decorating but the actual wallpapering never to take place. This roughness is tempered by the smoother appearance of the bar counter, with its metal hanging gantry; cool and minimalist, if a little two years ago. Then there’s another tone introduced with the variety of lighting; from basic spots, old lanterns, factory salvage and a basket gibbeted with rope.

Some of the furniture has a reclaimed nature too, the table at the window, for example, appearing to be two farmhouse tables bolted together out of necessity, with the effect, conversely, one of pleasing quaintness.

As for the booze, they have Tuborg lager on draught, an instant pleaser for me with my soft spot for all things Danish. Economic considerations prevented us sampling Stravaigin’s cocktails that evening – Blogspot’s expenses budget is pretty limited – but it is to be hoped they have continued their organic approach to cocktail making here, free-range if you get my drift, but with none of the expense. Particular favourites from the past included their famous Bloody Mary and the Bry Thai, a local variation on Thai Martini. Their basic G&T was satisfying enough on most occasions, Stravaigin being one of the first I can remember to offer you a choice of gins.

And the choice and local sourcing never came with a price premium so beloved of other inferior west end venues. Our couple of rounds that evening confirmed that the prices haven’t gone up to pay for the extension, the extra traffic maybe doing that job.

With our drinks we moved away from the bar to find somewhere to stand. But the room gives you no indication of where it’s best to loiter. There is plenty of space, especially between the corner of the bar and the fireplace, almost too much. We shuffled around trying to work out if anyone else was having the same feeling.

Talking of the hearth, by the wonders of modern technology we have a fireplace with no chimney that still manages to look fully functioning. The wee stove looks good though, and will give off warmth and probably mean that like the old Stravaigin, this place will be at its best in the winter.

We wandered through to the old section, noticing that the previous bar area has become what you could describe, if you were constipated with jargon, as being a service coordination point. Through here things were as before, with a few more tables taking up the space previously set aside for standing drinkers. But now this is a eating-only area reserved for those casual dining as opposed to the more formal stuff downstairs, which is as before.

There were no signs of disapproval at our presence in the eating area but we headed back to our imbibing fellows where the room had grown even busier in our short absence and those with tables and spare chairs for coming friends guarded the seats jealously.

We were content to admire the curios strewn around the pub including a number of signs and testaments to the value of food and drink, the most notable a sign pinned to the bottom corner of a painting of a highland cow. It is a conduct rule from Chattels Workhouse, Rope Street, London, 1883: FOOD REFUSAL WILL BE PUNISHED, an order that many chefs may agree with.

Since then we have returned for an afternoon session. Busy again. In the daylight it was noticeable that despite the doubling of space tables do appear to be closer together than before, and the cramming-in of punters extends to the mezzanine where a tiny counter in the corner is available for diners, serviced by two stools. But no one else seemed to notice or mind, as they continued to flock in all day.

So economics are nakedly at play here, as in everything else these days. But perhaps the new Stravaigin owes less to the macroeconomics already mentioned than to Kevin Costner. “Eh?” you say. Yes, you remember Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come…”

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