Any comments on the blog, propositions (legal, of course), ideas for places for me to go see, please get in touch at and don't forget to follow me on Twitter

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Run For The Border - Station Bar, The Lovat, The Boundary

Station Bar, 2493 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow G14 0PR
The Lovat, 2562 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow G14 0PT
The Boundary, 596 Glasgow Road, Clydebank G81 1JA

There have been a number of books recently published commemorating the Clydebank Blitz of March 1941, two nights of bombing which killed hundreds, made 35,000 homeless and saw the heaviest concentration of bombing experienced in the British Isles.

Nicknamed “The Holy City” Clydebank’s tenements on the hill above the modern Clyde Shopping Centre and cinema were decimated in the bombardment whose target was the Singer armaments factory as well as the naval dockyards. Some believe the Luftwaffe mistook the A82 Boulevard for the River Clyde, a blow for the notion of German wartime efficiency.

Glasgow’s westernmost district, Yoker, adjoins Clydebank and this, in stricter licensing times, made for some desperate attempts to secure more drink on a Sunday, when normal hometown residents were prohibited from imbibing. Under the bona-fide traveller’s dispensation, if a Glaswegian could convince a Clydebank, or any other neighbouring town, landlord of his genuine travelling status then the demon liquor was allowed to pass his grateful lips. So for Yoker folk the trip over the city boundary became quite a ritual.

Today, Yoker has fewer public houses than for many years and even the ones that remain standing have their troubles. Smugglers Inn has recently been boarded-up, The Anchorage continues to look for a buyer and The Dry Dock has changed its name to The Gulf of Corryvreckan in an attempt to re-charge interest. And The Wharf, a relative newcomer to the district, was burnt to the ground, but that’s another story.

These troubles reflect the difficult times felt in Yoker as a whole. Forget blue-ribbon companies as being the pioneers of re-branding, Yoker had done it years before, re-naming notorious streets, so bad was their reputation for lawlessness.

With less business from the shipyards, changing drinking cultures and draconian legislation the area’s nightlife has altered dramatically from the times my own great- grandfather was a regular in The Anchorage. Still, if you can stop yourself from drowning in your pint from despair at our brave new world, there are some good wee places around, especially around the Glasgow/Clydebank boundary.

One such is The Station Bar, a pub of quite some longevity and run for a large proportion of that time by the Scott family. It presents a reasonably smart exterior; its nameplate resembling that seen in older railway stations.

Inside there’s the customary split between public and lounge bars, and as usual the public bit is the more inviting, despite the ugly false ceiling. Having been in on a number of midweek occasions it is busier than you might expect, with a crowd mostly in their forties and above.

A friendly bunch it appears. On my first visit I was sizing up my options at the bar – drink options that is – when a punter nudged me to recommend I go for one of the bottled beers. A good choice as it happened: £1.10 for Stella, Peroni etc. Yes, you read it correctly. Prices to rival off-licences for a change.

The Lovat (Arms) is a few hundred yards further west, on the other side of the main road. Unlike The Station, it sits on its own; a wedge shaped one-level building framed by the high rises to its north.

The depth of the building is surprising, the interior stretching away improbably into hidden, secret corners, for those of fanciful minds. Quieter than The Station, on my visits, inside it is predominantly dark green to match the paint-job outside. Notable is the high shelving and ornate fans.

It is owned by Punch, and an indication of the difficulties faced by wet-led pubs such as these is the new sign outside. To paraphrase, it goes: “Want to help your local community? Want an excellent business opportunity and help create a great local service and attraction? Contact Punch at _____ and begin your new life!” Prospective tenancies beware, never has so much been hidden between the lines.

The actual border between Glasgow and Clydebank sits between The Lovat and The Boundary Bar – as aptly named as you can get. The Boundary occupies the ground floor of two buildings and adjoins a tanning salon and a filling station. Two businesses, at least, that you can see will remain in demand for the foreseeable future.

There’s nothing much else about other than the high flats I mentioned earlier, much space has been created presumably by those bombings, so-called urban improvement plans and wider economic forces. The kind of area tourists don’t exactly flock to, and a camera pointed at solitary buildings viewed with suspicion, a DSS snoop more likely than a bar chronicler seeking illustration to accompany his words.

So The Boundary is a good refuge from harsh late autumn winds and the fiscal realities expressed in the countenance of the surroundings. On my first visit the few afternoon customers in the pub seemed to have the same wish as me, to get out of the cold and enjoy a pint and a bit of contemplation. As good a reason as any for visiting a tavern. Though any warmth they might have gained is lost as they huddle outside the door (there is a beer garden out back beside various small business premises, but if you are only out for a couple of minutes with a roll-up, the front door is handier).

I got talking to an old bloke and he commented on how quiet things were in here, though I couldn’t work out whether he meant five or forty-five years ago. But next time I came in, on a midweek lunchtime, the place was busy with two score customers of different ages with both genders equally represented, and I thought this place was bucking the trend, turning back the clock. What’s more the clientele were smartly dressed, as if for an occasion, raising the tone of the place.

And it was an occasion all right. A wake, to be precise. So no real upturn in trade, and a sign that for some landlords even good news is bad news if you see what I mean. Anyway, two of the threes sections of the pub the public and lounge bar - were lively, with Suspicious Minds on the juke. The third section, The Boundary Late, was empty. I’ve yet to find out how late is late with regard to that section.

Added together you have a spacious pub, that’s made very few changes in décor and fittings recently, red leather seating of a 60’s/70’s vintage and a fairly old-fashioned projector screen set-up for the big games.
Despite the party beginning to hit its stride, I decided to limit my lunchtime imbibing to one drink and headed off, though not before toasting the dearly departed. And raising my glass for these three brave frontier pubs, hoping they and their like remain in the land of the living for many years to come.

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…”

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.