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Friday, 31 December 2010

Castaway - Tiki Bar

Tiki Bar, 214 Bath Street, Glasgow G2 4HW

You wonder what Thor Heyaddral would have made of one of these, arriving on Kon Tiki, his balsa wood raft. He was demonstrating that South American natives had travelled to the Polynesian Islands on similar crafts before Europeans discovered The Americas.

His probable feeling of incongruity would have been nothing on our thoughts approaching Tiki Bar in the depths of this extreme winter. In a basement on the quieter stretch of Bath Street, opposite Bath St. Pony, Tiki Bar is Glasgow’s first version of a theme, or indeed franchise, that has spread across the world’s bar scene.

The theme here is an imagined beach bar on an island in the South Pacific or the Hawaiian archipelago. Kitsch tropical is the template, that and extravagant fruit cocktails. The Tiki venue most famous in the UK is probably Mahiki in Mayfair, one of those clubs that features heavily in the paparazzi snaps of minor celebs making choreographed spectacles of themselves in the early hours.

Those Z-listers mostly appear with the minimum of clothing, unlike the Muse and I on our first visit. We wore basically our entire winter wardrobe bar the balaclavas. And instead of sand surrounding the place, it was under a prolonged snow-siege.
So the bright lights and warmth of the bar were welcome if a little absurd given the context. Maybe they should offer swimwear and garlands to hire for the duration of your stay.

The bar was empty when we arrived. Not that surprising mid-week, when the only action about town seemed to be on Sauchiehall Street’s student drag. But not a re-assuring sign for Tiki’s backers.

Inside doesn’t spring too many surprises. Island paraphernalia like bamboo fringes, hurricane lanterns and ships’ wheels. Staff are kitted out safari-style – not entirely out of place – but not quite right either- and they appear comfortable in their uniform. Our Australian barman was accommodating and chatty, enquiring about our Xmas shopping, a question we had to bat away, unfortunately, having been embarrassingly well organised enough to have completed that weeks ago.

There’s a popcorn dispenser at the counter and we got a complimentary pouch. Very grateful for that, obviously, but don’t know where it fits with the theme. Our first drink, a G&T, was well prepared. Likewise the Rum Bongo, a mix of rum, apricot liqueur and exotic juices; served in one of their Tiki mugs.

These mugs are one of the joint’s motifs, decorative figures based upon the greenstone carvings of the Pacific islands. You can have some of the cocktails in these mugs for one, or share them in what is called a Scorpion Bowl. We did share the next drink, but only in a mug. Two straws. It was a Zombie, a potent mix of five different rums, absinthe, various juices, bitters and grenadine. They ration this combustible concoction to two per customer per night. It is strong, but also remarkably tasty.

As you will have noticed, Tiki doesn’t do subtle cocktails. Rum(bustious) mixes and big flavours to suit the student crowd. Not to say there aren’t the expensive options; for £110 you can go large with a Blingin’ Berry Champagne Punch served in a ‘swell shell bowl’. A premium selection featuring Perrier Jouet champers, Stolichnoya vodka and rich berries. On the right occasion, and with prosperous friends, that could go down very well.

Halfway through our Zombie I was feeling the need to approach the barman and ask him about the décor. Whether they had overdone the peacock chairs, the flotsam on the walls was a little too well selected, and the totem pole from the wrong part of the world.

Further down the Tika mug and I was ready to question the other staff member on tonight about the big grey guy on the outside wall. Was he not a copy of the Easter Island statues? Did she know that Heyaddral’s raft, Kon Tiki, was named after the Inca sun god? And why is the attached upstairs restaurant, Kitsch Inn, a Thai eatery?
But the Muse shut me up by giving me the last slurp of the Zombie.

There is certainly a mish-mash of symbols, mixed metaphors (and not just in this article) highlighting the problems with theme bars. One wrong note and the effect falls flat.

But this is partly explained by the fact that present-day tiki bars are as much about reviving the beachcomber bars of mid-twentieth century America as representing anything authentic from the South Pacific. Thus you have Elvis’s Hawaiian movie pictures on the wall and an atmosphere as redolent of the Florida Keys as the Pacific.

These issues had vanished from my mind as my partner shepherded me upstairs past the lonely leather couch sitting in the outer basement ready for next year’s summer.
We were heading for somewhere where our Arctic clothing would be more appropriate, and I was dreaming of all the bars ahead of me in 2011.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Half of Maryhill - Harvey's Bar, The Botany, Elephant & Bugle, The Strathmore Bar

Harvey's Bar, 1482-1488 Maryhill Road, G20 9AD
The Botany, 1512 Maryhill Road, G20
Elephant & Bugle, 1397 Maryhill Road, G20 9AA
The Strathmore Bar, 795 Maryhill Road, G20 7TL

The Anniesland to Maryhill line was one of the casualties. The bus connections were convoluted and meant the counter-intuitive method of taking a bus going away from my destination in order to half double back to reach the target.

Initially that target had been the outer rim of north-west Glasgow, or the far end of Maryhill Road. A full traverse along the length of the road – something like 4 miles long – was the plan, taking in the double-figure of establishments on the way, before meeting some friends in the evening in the city centre.

But the snow and ice and the awkwardness of the travel meant I had to begin my pub journey near the Forth and Clyde canal viaduct. Harvey’s Bar was the first pub, sitting on the corner of Lochburn Road and the main street, this some mile or so away from my intended beginning at The Rams Head.

Harvey’s is one of the better-looking bars around here, the smart black and red frontage a notable local landmark. The taxi driver on the second leg of my journey, after an aborted ride on the 44 bus, had mistaken my reason for coming to Harvey’s. He thought I said a surprise party for a mate. I left his mistake uncorrected.

If I’d said I was here for an office party or similar, then he’d have known I was lying. Because there are no workplaces round here, apart from the benefit offices, a few mechanics and scrap dealers, and the massive new Tesco.

One of the new supermarket recruits was in Harvey’s when I entered. Along with a number of other folk at the bar who appeared to be regulars. The island bar here is said to have been altered from its original state but is still quite impressive in solid wood, the vertical bars on the far side from the door an interesting feature. It also serves to bring all the punters away from the edges of the room, into the centre beside each other. Things like that improve atmospheres, but are often forgotten by accountants talking about the efficient use of space as they persuade bar owners to demolish island bars during refurbs.

The Tesco employee and his mates were finding me quite interesting, not something I find entirely displeasing, just depends on the circumstances. Maybe it was the formal coat and black shirt. It’s happened before, being mistaken for CID. Tricky situation in certain establishments. Though not as tricky as being mistaken for a rival to the local man of influence, which happened in a pub on this same street about five years back.

Anyway, I just got on with my pint of Guiness and the attention died away, leaving me to look around in peace. There’s a raised area beyond the bar with tables and seating, which is probably the plushest area, where the pub’s striped upholstery is at its most pleasing. However, the whole interior has a slight air of neglect about it, having deteriorated in condition from my last visit, when the fittings gleamed with attention, and from photos I viewed recently.

During my short walk to the next pub, The Botany, I noticed of course the same neglect outside on the street. No work, no money, no interest. (Not that some people aren’t doing okay, as my photo of Harvey’s above, shows). That was partly what this trip was about, to see how bars in a less-fashionable district- out with the city centre, the west end and pockets of the south side – are trading in general, and specifically on this, supposedly the second busiest Friday of the year.

The Botany I suspect would be quiet in even the best of modern times. It’s a shell of a place. Just a large rectangular room with carpet that must have faded a decade ago. A few cheap tables and chairs and that’s it. I hope it’s seen better days because if this is as good as it gets then it never deserved any custom. But there are a few punters tonight; about five of them, two of those huddled outside smoking. No disrespect to them or the amiable barman but after a quick, cheap bottle I was away.

On the march through the bitterly cold evening towards my next stop I didn’t even slow to light a small cigar, but did notice the odious nature of the strip of shops I was walking by. A bookies, post office, a few takeaways and a chemist. The dirty slush everywhere added to the depression and decay of the drag. Down a gap between two of the shops was an overflowing wheelie bin, discarded takeaway containers and a shopping trolley. The only thing missing from this scene of urban malaise was a stray dog scrabbling around for scraps.

No fancy shops here, no well-stocked cheesemonger or vintage clothing store such as those available less than a mile away to the west. And I knew there would be neither cask ales nor tapas in the Elephant & Bugle up ahead. A pub that used to have a fearsome reputation, mainly because of rumours about the dodgy nature of the punters.

It looks just like one of the pubs at the centre of Nick Davies’ seminal investigative book on the deprivations and crime in inner city Britain, Dark Heart. A concrete block that resembles an exhumed bomb shelter. But in I breezed.

It was deathly. The night was getting worse. No, it’s okay, I don’t mean I was in any danger. There was no threat in the air here. Hardly enough of a collection of pulses for that. No, the theme of virtually empty premises continued. Just a few guys stuck at one end of the bar, back right as you enter.

Talking of death, I wouldn’t say the clientele of the Bugle in particular were knocking on heaven’s door but here was another pub lacking in youthful customers. Where were they? Perhaps they’d be coming out later, or maybe they were entertaining at home, using alternative types of intoxicating substances.

I got my drug of choice, a TL or other session lager, and retreated to a well-placed stand-at table. No problem seeing what was going on from here because it was so damned bright. One of my pet-hates, over-illumination.

One of the guys chatting near the bar I recognised from my varsity days, I’m sure. He and the rest were watching a chap in a wheelchair taking on all-comers at pool. He was effing and blinding and properly pissed, but still doing the business.

I was scanning the room for the door leading to the upstairs lounge I’d heard about. Couldn’t see it. Did notice the large picture tribute to the Highland Light Infantry, whose barracks were situated near here. This pub takes its name from the regiment’s cap badge.

Oops, missed someone else joining us. You would remember this guy. Normal enough haircut – apart from the black dye – but shaved round the edges so as to leave at least an inch between it and his ears. Wild. I wasn’t the only amused at the guy’s appearance, so much so that you could feel the jokes brewing at his expense for later on.

And later in here might well have been fun, but the road was still to be trod. The last thing I heard as I left was the disabled buy bellowing for his next victim, “Whose next, ya c***s ye?”

Waiting in the bus stop across the way, I recalled car journeys along Maryhill years ago. Then there was double the amount of pubs as now. Pubs like the White House and The Redan – where friends of mine enjoyed a coming of age experience one evening involving whipped cream and several types of soft fruit – are gone, while others such as The Royalty, The Thistle and, indeed, The Botany are up for sale/let.

You could hang the same sign over Maryhill as a whole. In the days of those car journeys, the area was hardly booming, but the area held a sort of mystique for me, there seemed to be a vast hinterland of housing either side of the main road, and people came from Maryhill, the area had that definable quality.

Today Maryhill Road is much diminished, a far quieter place. Now little seems to occur along its length and the large groups of homes in the roads off the main road have been thinned considerably. A dislocation in the district is apparent, a malady, ironically, that could perhaps be alleviated by thriving local pubs and clubs if social trends weren’t heading in the opposite direction.

About a mile or so further along the road, past the top of Queen Margaret Drive, The Strathmore stands alone. It has for as long as I can remember, the adjoining tenements long demolished. It was one of the jokes about Glasgow, that no matter what buildings round about vanished, the pub would remain. No more.

The Strathmore is a one- storey block building, proudly flying two Saltires. No beer garden, though there is plenty of space out back. From the outside with its two doors it looks as if there are separate areas but there is no internal division.

So it’s a basic layout, bar facing you as you enter, seating on both wings of the interior, and two unimpressive pillars framing the counter. The barman had trouble hearing my order for a half and a half (house staple, Grouse), either that or he was being discourteous. Perish the thought. He lightened up a bit when I paid him.

To my right three regulars were engrossed in their game of dominoes. What made this unusual was that they were playing it on the bar itself. The barman didn’t mind so maybe he isn’t such a bad fellow after all.

As before only a handful of people were inside out the bitter cold. A couple of them were wearing Glasgow Warriors rugby shirts, obviously preparing to go to Firhill to watch their team play Toulouse that evening. Some time later a couple of other guys were moaning about the effort that had been spent getting the nearby streets gritted and clear enough for spectators going to the match.

Now, I like rugby and have been to a number of Glasgow fixtures and think the council was right to invest in ensuring the game went ahead. But I could see the blokes’ point, money only being put in when there’s a glamorous ‘outside’ event being staged.

On the occasions I have been to Firhill for the rugby I have, as you would expect, popped in to a couple of nearby pubs, the nearest being Munn’s Vaults. There were very little rugby fans in any of the pubs. I got the feeling they were happy to come in to Maryhill for the game, but nothing else. Soon they would be back off to the west end and their usual haunts.

People and their money not staying long enough to help the area or any of its assets. Yeah. The irony of that thought wasn’t lost on me as I finished my half pint and headed off to the bright lights of the city. But I will be back, of course.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The 925 - Kudos Bar & Restaurant, Grill on the Corner

Kudos Bar & Restaurant, 29 Waterloo Street, Glasgow G2 6BZ
The Grill on the Corner, 21-25 Bothwell Street, Glasgow G2 6NL

Who knows the proportion of office workers in Glasgow city centre who are employed in call centres, rather than, let us say, more traditional and more profitable professions. In the 90s a flat-mate of mine was employed in one of the first call centres to locate here. They weren’t the most sympathetic of employers, with employee intimidation and timed toilet breaks the norm. So bad in fact that we had Channel 4 News round at our Finnieston flat to film an interview with my pal and other call-centre workers. Things, I’m told, have improved since then but the image remains.

Many call-centres are still situated in the main office district that is bounded between Broomielaw and Bath Street, and between Hope Street and Pitt Street. From some angles it looks like Scotland’s answer to midtown Manhattan. Whatever income bracket, from corporate lawyers to the folk manning those phones, come 5pm they have money to spend. And where do they go to unwind?

Options nearby are not as extensive as you might expect. There’s the indie Admiral Bar, host of gigs and club nights in its basement; the incredibly tacky Madness (Theatre of Fun!) Bar & Restaurant on Bothwell Street; the Glasgow outlet of the Living Room chain on St. Vincent Street, an elegant bar and restaurant, smooth but still a chain. An interesting mix but containing no stand-out venue.

Also in the area is the downmarket strip of pubs at the bottom end of Hope Street, the shady part of the street darkened by the massive Central Hotel and Station building. Cheap and basic they may be but the collection of establishments that includes The Alpen Lodge, Denholm’s and McGinn’s probably reveals more about this city than any amount of chain bars. As did the late-lamented Bonkers Show Bar/Buffalo Joe’s with its dancing bar staff seven nights a week.

A completely different nearby joint is the recently re-launched Grill on the Corner. Aiming - according to the manager- to establish the bar as a destination for drinks rather than just a warm-up for dinner. The circular bar has been replaced with a counter at one side of the room, opening up the space, and giving it a more grown-up feel enhanced by the solid furniture, the black and red colouring and the low booth-like seating by the large windows.

However, those windows are still decorated with an over-abundance of fairy lights and the bar gantry is an unimaginative shape similar to a bespoke wall-unit you might find in a large living room. Thus it’s not an area that will retain drinkers and create an all-important focal point.

The drinks menu is heavy on the champagne, giving a clue as to the clientele they have in mind. A nice touch is their monthly choice of wines and beers complementing the steak of the month. The Blackhouse chain of bar/restaurants – of which this is one - have built a reputation on their steaks. Devoted readers will recall my opinions about bar and grills/steakhouses. But despite my reservations, the dining area, with its darker tones and more formal air, does look the part. (However, if I was going to comment more on this section of the venue, the blog would have a different name, and I would be just another food critic).

So, time will tell if GOC’s bar achieves its ambitions but another outlet has opened nearby with sights similarly set upon the night-time market as well as lunch and dinner. Kudos Bar & Restaurant of 29 Waterloo Street, which was launched last month, sits beside premises previously occupied by The Alhambra, a bar with its heyday in the 1980’s, a popular choice for work parties of that decade. In the 90’s it became a far less desirable place. As a taxi driver at the time I can remember the prevalent atmosphere of that corner of Waterloo and Wellington Streets, due to its proximity to the red light district. The pub had then become The Rabbie Burns and many of the male drinkers seemed to be in residence there as well as probably profiting from what is quaintly described as immoral earnings.

Talking of Wellington Street, Kudos actually has another entrance on that street as well as Waterloo, handy for sharp, subtle exits from boring business acquaintances or disappointing dates, I suppose. But that design has allowed the bar to create a Unique Selling Point that, for instance, Grill on the Corner has failed to achieve with its new bar and gantry. Sandwiched between the two halves of the building is what the press blurb has described as a “glass atrium external courtyard” which sums it up pretty well. The atrium’s sides have very high walls reminiscent of those out back of The Courtyard bar on West Nile Street. The cladding on the walls appears like ultra smooth cold steel, and looking up your mind strays to thoughts of falling icicles during this arctic winter.

The creams, oranges and browns that predominate inside Kudos do bring some warmth but also remind me of a cafeteria, rather like another new-ish opening, Mediterraneo on Ingram Street. Added to this, the chef’s hatch and serving counter is a little too obtrusive. Most drinkers/diners will probably enter via the Waterloo Street and they will be greeted by and walk through a rectangular wooden arch, which looks fine, but is placed in a rather arbitrary place, twenty feet or so inside the entrance. As if: you have entered, but now you are really entering. Strange.

On my first visit, a cold afternoon, the place was quiet. A few, casually dressed middle-aged blokes walked around sizing things up, talking to the manager. Tradesmen maybe, but they seemed more involved than that, as if they formed a mini-consortium financially backing this venture. Call it intuition.

Service was fine, apart from the paper serviette on which my pint was placed. The condensation soon reduced the paper to a sodden mess. We need a re-introduction of beer mats, 21st century trendy versions. The toilets are accessed down stairs, above which a massive mirror allows you to survey your appearance halfway through a heavy evening. The toilets are impressively appointed, with the latest mesh hardware installed within the urinals to avoid the dreaded splashback.

On return I headed outside (or inside as it seems) to the atrium for a closer look, and a think about a possible business producing the new generation of beer mats. The glass-encased space is really impressive. The feeling of being indoors, while technically outside for smoking legislation, is a winner, in much the same way as at One Up. And the awnings and mini-hedges recall that bar’s smoking area.

The advantage that Kudos’ atrium does have over One Up’s equivalent is its proximity to the bar itself. Only glass separates one side of the bar from a ledge in the atrium complete with stools allowing you to look into what is happening inside the main room. And it appears that the glass may have a sliding hatch to allow actual bar service when the climate allows.

From my own experience and from the general word, Kudos has made a decent start at attracting a party crowd of an evening, a place for after hours fun in the heart of the business district. Whether it becomes an outstanding bar depends on whether it can appeal to an eclectic mix of people. From the rich to those of more modest means, from management to staff, call centre workers or not.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Hot on the Trail - The Golden Heart, The Samuel Pepys, The Banker

The Golden Heart, 110 Commercial Street, London E1 6LZ
Bar Music Hall, 134 Road, London EC2A 3AR
The Banker, Cousin Lane, London EC4r 3TE
The Samuel Pepys, 48 Upper Thames Street, London EC4V 3PT

Sometimes you have to establish your priorities. And stick to them. Job or hobby was the issue, and I had chosen the professional option. I ordered another drink to toast my dedication. The location for this celebration was The Golden Heart on the corner of Commercial Street and Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. A honest-to-goodness pub so I’d heard.

Quite standard inside, certainly, and reasonably welcoming in a wood-panelled fashion. But that was almost irrelevant because the weather on this August Saturday afternoon meant drinks were taken outside to the sunshine. But not before I queried the missing ingredient within my G&T with the sour manageress. She’d been tutoring, in a desultory way, a trainee from Eastern Europe at the time but that was still no excuse for missing the G in my drink.

Eventually the drink was reluctantly reconfigured and I could join LJ – minus the jacket – outside. He was talking to a couple from Milton Keynes. The bloke was an ageing ex-casual it seemed, dressed in an expensive but too baggy black leather jacket. His vivacious lady companion rather more fetching in a red corset top and blue jeans.

They spent most free weekends in the city, due to the, apparently, barren cultural nature of their hometown. A North, East, South, West tour was their itinerary, the next stop being south of the Thames under the Vauxhall Arches. Sounded interesting but we had our own plans.

Those plans were to continue my exploration of Thames-side bars, begun some months previously. But to do that I had to forego indulging one of my interests, namely the Whitechapel murders of 1888. This interest is a combination of Victoriana, whodunitry, and a lifelong fascination with the labyrinthian nature of the fog-bound, dark heart of the then greatest city on earth.

The day today was far from foggy and the tight east-end streets and alleys have long-since been eviscerated – 60s planners more to blame than the Blitz - but on the train in I even toyed with the idea of joining one of those tourist rip-off Ripper tours to pit my wits in person against the thousands of theories that have surfaced in the last century.

But no, despite being amidst evocative names such as the afore-mentioned Hanbury Street, Brick Lane, Goulston Street, Whitechapel Road, booze, sorry work, had to take precedence. Hence the G&T in The Golden Heart.

It wasn’t the second of the day, that had been up in the Bar Music Hall on Curtain Street, a large, airy live music bar that only comes into its own at night when the amps are on. The pint of Vedett there was a little too strong and a little too similar to Stella for us after the previous heavy night in the towns of Essex, but at least it made the decision for us as to the kind of day it would be.

From there we crossed Old Street into the rest of Hoxton, looking to find the hype within this area of great nightlife repute. We entered the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, a minimalist joint with a slightly subterranean look. Again it was too early in the day to properly judge the place, but I have since learned that the staff are unhelpful and too self-absorbed to be an asset.
Halfway through our drinks we faced a dilemma. Stay around this area sampling its ambience on into the evening in order to do the district justice or move along. In the event we headed south, back towards the City, popping in to the Rainbow Sports Bar and The White Horse on Shoreditch High Street, pubs we had sampled some years ago on a different kind of weekend entirely. Only the latter came anywhere near our memories, it being the more traditional, indigenous of the two with a battle-scarred semi-island bar. Both were quiet, lacking the presence of City gents – sorry we don’t call them gents anymore – it being the weekend.

Thence to The Golden Heart and an enjoyable hour spent outside on the corner watching East End locals and market shoppers go by. We were off before our Milton Keynes friends, along Hanbury Street then down Brick Lane, stopping off in a Bangladeshi fried chicken café that put KFC to shame.

Aldgate East tube was just round the corner. Cannon Street was my planned destination but weekend closures meant it had to be Mansion House. During our underground interregnum the weather had turned to heavy rain so LJ and I had to scurry along Upper Thames Street peering down the adjoining lanes looking for The Banker, a riverside pub situated under Cannon Street bridge.

Eventually we located it and hurried inside, eschewing use of the patio and its superb close-up of the river. The low-lit interior and scattering of leather couches across the wide floor was welcoming us as we crossed the threshold. But that was as far as we got. A staff member was upon us in a flash. Private function. “No problem, mate,” I said, “We don’t mind sharing the space.”

Walking away in the even heavier rain LJ was laughing. Next time it would be his turn to persuade entry, I told him. “Next time?” he replied. The next place on my list was The Samuel Pepys, just along the Thames walkway from The Banker.

The Samuel Pepys has a reputation as a gastropub as well as for its riverside location. A re-conditioned former warehouse that sits down an even narrower lane than that of The Banker. This time no barperson was on hand to give us bad news and LJ had no need to use his silken tongue. A sign at the door was enough. Another private hire was excluding us from our investigations.

The London waterfront does seem to be an exclusive place, as I had found out on my previous riverside expeditions, of which more on a future blog. Also, this being in The City, and on a weekend, footfall is scarcer for bar owners and they are pleased to hire out to parties and guarantee some income.

It was time to cut our losses and head for a rendezvous with a pal in the West End, exact time and location as yet unknown. So it was up to Fleet Street, the link between The City and The West End.

I directed our route via Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese tavern on the north side of the street. This famous pub dates back to the 17th century and was a Dickens’ haunt gaining it much repute ever since. Its dusty, dark nooks and alcoves fit with our modern conception of an old tavern, and this and its seemingly untouched nature draws in the tourists.

Too many of them, in fact for LJ, he took one look round its doorway and decided we should continue along Fleet Street. Fair enough. But his eventual choice, on The Strand, The George was even more touristy. It too, claimed a centuries old history but this only applies to the site not the actual premises.

Inside there’s an overdose on wood and little atmosphere, with those tourists looking underwhelmed by their English pub experience. Still, we were out of the rain. And the night lay ahead. I took the time over my pint to reflect on our riverside ramble. Our quarry hadn’t been run to ground, that was true, but the fun is in the hunt itself. A bit like Jack the Ripper theorising really.