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Friday, 30 December 2011

...and this is not the Hogmanay one either

Last time it was the small, intimate, low-key places so this post will feature the opposite: Big, bold, brash and beloved of show-offs. But as everyone knows, underneath the exterior of any show-off is someone worth getting to know.

There is more luxury elsewhere but here I will only consider the large joints. This is for the rest of the festive period. Okay, Hogmanay is mostly booked out already and/or is prohibitively expensive but there are other nights left and some folk are lucky enough to be off work until the 9th of January.

This non-exhaustive list only includes places where you can walk in without payment (at least before a certain time) and drink till late without any more expense than your tipple.

I have picked 5 each from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Sorry to the other Scottish towns and cities, but, on the whole, only decent-sized cities have these sort of places. So, root out your best suits and LBDs and powder your noses, here comes all that glitters…

Metropolitan in the stylish heart of Glasgow’s Merchant City has been the leading the line for almost a decade. Main ground-floor bar, back area within Merchant Square (pity this can’t be used for a smoking zone), upstairs a restaurant and new piano and cocktail bar. The refurb downstairs has increased the standing and seating square- footage but lost some style in the process. Nevertheless, Metropolitan now has a 3am licence at weekends and a nice duality of atmosphere going on between upstairs and downstairs.

Previously known as Opus, The Living Room on St. Vincent Street has a few things not going for it. It is housed in an office building, it is part of a nationwide chain and the windows are too big. But it overcomes these issues with a judicious use of wood furnishings and fittings and an interesting crowd. Eclectic you could say. It used to be described as WAG paradise but it has probably matured since then. Open until 2am on Friday and Saturday nights.

Tusk (it’s mammoth!) is one of Stefan King’s G1 stable. Not nearly as busy as it used to be but still virtually without rival in this sphere of socialising on the south side. Rather cruelly nicknamed The Pond (old trout and all that) at one time or other, but this gives you an idea of the disdain some feel for the place. This not helped by its own marketing describing it as the place to go for Hen and Stag nights. Tusk has probably benefited from the creation of the adjacent Waverley Tea Rooms. 2am licence.

Another part of the G1 group, The Social sits comfortably amidst the sound and fury of Royal Exchange Square. A dominating island bar (it’s more like a Continent) and a pleasingly dark interior contrast with the light of the outside seating area, roped-off from innocent passers-by. Pre-club certainly, but many planning such an adventure just stay here all night (well at least until 3am) instead.

Once upon a time, pub and club entrepreneur James Mortimer looked upon this building just above The Social and had a dream. Okay, it was only 2006, but his dream had a happy ending. One Up is just part of it, but probably the best-known part. Ostentatious: check. Over the top: check. Lecherous: check. Lacking manners: check. But who cares? Still good fun and with the ability to make you have just one more drink, and it has the best inside-out smoking terrace in the country. You would never get One Up in Edinburgh, not even on George Street…

Talking of George Street, Tigerlilly is the queen of the west end of that famous street. A relative newcomer, coming in on the third or even fourth phase of style bars in the last twenty years, TL attracts the beautiful people like nowhere else nearby. A little bit too pink and fluffy and the anterooms are cold and bland but the place catches the eye, just as one hopes to catch the barman’s on the frequent busy evenings here.

Near the other end of the same street, The Opal Lounge remains the king of late night bar/clubs. Why? Because it does it better and with more oomph than rivals such as the Candy Bar, Le Monde etc Labyrinthian, enticingly lit, character that changes round every corner, and a sensibly proportioned dance floor. New areas such as The Sunken Lounge and The Den Bar seem like moneymaking add-ons rather than part of the whole but show the management are still trying to evolve the place.

There’s less evolving going on in Espionage just up the hill from the Grassmarket, but none of the punters compalin. This slightly notorious multi-levelled playground built into the side of the hill is still bringing in the hordes, who themselves are still trying their luck on each floor. Either that or getting lost at one of the many bars or dancefloors. Some dance to remember, some dance to forget… Walk in from after 7pm and stay as long as your heart, wallet or gut can take it.

Bringing a little modernity to just off the Royal Mile is Hotel Missoni. It and its bar have won a number of design awards already in only a couple of years. Drinking is allowed here from 10am until 2am, 365 times a year. Very civilised. As is the starkly designed bar complete with turquoise walls and high blood red stools. I’ve only been in twice and both times it was rather quiet but it can cope and indeed excel with large numbers. I can tell these things. The website blurb describes the experience here as a promenading living theatre and invites patrons to “take centre stage.” That could have been a title for this blog post.

Lastly, I have a soft spot for Indigo (yard) on Charlotte Lane, west end. The scene of the beginning of one relationship, and the effective ending of one far shorter liaison. Thus I can overlook its relatively early closing time (1am but extended during Festival and other celebrations). Less of a destination, more run-of-the-mill, than before but still worth the effort. One of the first to do the exposed-brick thing and with a notable gallery and lofty ceiling. Not to mention the outside area making use of the courtyard, something less of an asset at this time of year, no matter how intent you are on partying.

Friday, 23 December 2011

This is not the Xmas issue...

Though not for PC reasons . Rather it is to celebrate an older tradition, the Midwinter festival. At this dark time of year folk living in northern Europe, and probably anywhere else far from the equator, have for millennia needed a knees-up to help them through the winter. The pagans were doing it long before anyone else, and I’ve a soft spot for them, we hedonists should stick together.

In this spirit I’m looking to recommend the best bars and other drinking holes for this time of year. This can mean the cosiest, the warmest, the most comfortable, or just those that have an appropriate atmosphere for when it’s cold, wet, icy and generally vicious outside. It’s obvious to think of country pubs and wayside inns in this way but city hostelries also have charm this time of year.


In either town or country big windows are out. Sorry all you modern pub designers following this trend. Big windows are for summer. For letting in light. In winter they are largely useless. Condensation makes them even worse. For example, Uisge Beatha although never a huge favourite of mine, had a winter refuge feel with tiny windows, fireplaces, old paintings and stag heads. Now it’s The Dram, a tasteful refurb with little character and floor to ceiling windows.

There are plenty of good alternatives in the Woodlands Road area that do deliver in the winter. The Caernarvon on St. Georges Road with its two rare snugs is a esteemed traditional howff, whereas newcomer The Drake in a corner basement nearby is a modern hybrid with food as important as drink. It has the feel of a large front room though, complete with fireplace.

Further west, The Belle (previously The Western) on Great Western Road is a new-fashioned local, which is small and warm and stocks a varied beer selection. It’s a casual joint, in contrast to Oran Mor’s Wine/Cocktail Bar just up the road. A fairly recent addition to the mega-venue’s repertoire it packs a better atmosphere than the jaded main bar, mainly due to its small size, curved bar and creative winter cocktails.

Down in Partick, the Liosmore (one of Colin Beattie’s earlier works) continues to show the newer Highland-derived bars in Glasgow the way. Traditional materials shaped into a contemporary, non-faddy interior. And a good mix of old and new Partick. Christmas (there, I said it) is a good time to re-acquaint oneself with old faces and old stories.

The Victoria, a few hundred yards along Dumbarton Road, may seem an odd choice. But its small, smart front bar and interior colouring just somehow fit with the sights, smells and tone of this time of year.

In town itself, the Renfield Bar is the ‘genuine’ article re. the Highland look. I’ve stayed in a few bothies in my time and this place replicates them as closely as is possible in a city centre. But perhaps it is just too couthy (and dusty) for most punters even though, or perhaps because, it is well appointed with fireplaces.

The Tolbooth at Glasgow Cross has one of the best-preserved Edwardian gantries in the city, and at the right time and the right night you may get a glimpse of how Glasgow used to drink and be merry. Once again, for some reason of conviviality, a corner site somehow fits with the theme I’m endeavouring to explore.

The Old Smiddy in deepest Cathcart, has more obvious claims to be included. Looking for all the world like a coaching inn, if you ignore the cluster of housing adjacent, it could (at a stretch) be straight off a Christmas card, if you add snow, a full-to-bursting horse-drawn coach and period costume. Inside, the timbered ceiling and window seats are good but the rest of the design is a little disappointing.

Up North

The Moulin Inn in Perthshire actually is, or rather was, a real old coaching inn. Claiming origin of 1695 it is at the heart of the village of Moulin just beside Pitlochry. It has many great features, see my earlier blog post, and worthy of visit for food, drink and fireplace.

Remaining out of town and city, I also recommend the Cluanie Inn. At least fifteen miles from any population it proclaims the virtue of isolation. A comfortable wee bar on two levels has provided walkers, motorists, cyclists, and all-round adventurers with sustenance and cheer for many years. And it sits at the side of the best long road in Scotland.


Moving to the Capital (one day I might if I get desperate) I will ignore The Royal Mile and environs. Principally because almost all the pubs round there are good in winter. It’s the history you see. But I will mention the Bow Bar. Mainly because it is on Victoria Street, the curved street with a number of little shops straight out of Dickens (think of The Old Curiosity Shop). And Dickens means Xmas, surely?

No, the New Town is where I’ll look. The Star Bar is a hard to find tiny wee place with a compact beer garden. Outdoor areas might seem redundant this season, but still worth a mention. Kay’s is, like The Star Bar, situated by a mews, but it is a more sophisticated bar, specialising in speciality(!) drinks particularly real ale. Another tiny space, warmth is guaranteed. The barrels bear testament to its previous incarnation as a wine importing premises. If I hadn’t picked these two I could have picked any number of other little boltholes in this part of Edinburgh.

Over the other side of the mountain sits Duddingston’s finest, The Sheep Heid Inn. The capital’s oldest hostelry will get a blog post all of its own some time soon, but suffice to say it has a special atmosphere, only enhanced by snowy weather.

Down in Leith, Carrier’s Quarters qualifies because of its quirky shape, snug and back room. And along to the west on Commercial Street past the Michelin-starred eateries, Bond No.9 is one of the places I would teleport myself to if I needed a festive drink right that minute.

But it doesn’t really fit with the understated and traditional nature of most of the bars above, so it may appear in my next blog, which will feature a bit more glitz and celebration in the run up to Hogmanay. That is, time and BT permitting…

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Jackson's Drinkmonger

Jackson's Drinkmonger/Dog House, 95-101 Cambridge Street, Glasgow G3 6RU

I like provocative names: Chesty Morgan, Dita von Teese, Gloria Globes...oops, sorry, wrong blog...

But I am thinking about names that irritate the powers that be, or the people that tut-tut at anything they don’t deem healthy. “Drinkmonger” sounds just like the kind of badge those folk would stick on to publicans, in a similar way to how they would apply other labels of notoriety like “drug peddler!” or “womaniser!” or even “loan shark!”

It takes what the Americans call big ‘cajones’ to name your new place this, either that or blissful ignorance. Whether Walter Smith and his business partner, Paul Burns, in Pub Enterprises Co. possess the former is unknown, but I’m reminded that Mr Smith never did like bad publicity in his more famous occupation as manager of Glasgow Rangers FC.

Its other name is Jackson’s Doghouse, a reminder of an old pub that used to sit on Dundas Street and reputed for its stylish interior including mock dungeon!

Jackson’s used to be Mackintosh’s. A wee place I liked, as you can tell from the tone of my blog from last year. A mock-Tudor curio really but healthy for it, and a good spot of welcome for local imbibers, many of them regulars for countless years.

The main difference from before is the visibility factor. Mackintosh’s had small, stained-glass windows, whereas Jackson’s has huge ones, windows that is (see above).

This is the vogue right now. Transparency. Apparently. People are no longer ashamed of being seen in a pub, as they are reputed to have been in the past. But the allure and the mystery are lost with these huge panes. The place is disrobed before one even enters its chamber.

The interior also follows present mores with a quasi-industrial look, metal ceiling struts that have no function, exposed bits here and there, a look I’ve seen everywhere recently, from Epicures in Hyndland to Brewdog. But they have exposed back far enough to uncover the original ceiling (thanks Borrachneilda for first noticing this), the ceilings in Mackintosh’s presumably having been false.

Another wee thread is the juxtaposition of the old and the new. So the stained-glass partitions remain and a Benny Lynch tribute-night poster and the grey pillars (although they are probably a structural necessity). Beside all that are the new couchettes and stools, and chic transparent chairs. Flock wallpaper and fish tank (a la Variety Bar, Berkeley Suite) also.

And the clientele mix reflects this too. Faces from before are here and there, alongside newcomers. Couples in attracted by the food, mostly served in the left half of the place, a phenomenon not really seen in here before, neither the menu boards on the pavement.

Attracting probably two different types of punters side by side. Just as the two TV screens were showing the football alongside Sky News one of the occasions I popped in on a Saturday afternoon. Two different types of visitors catered for at once. And again with the line-up of traditional brand optic spirits behind, just as traditional, long counters, while a suspended blackboard lists wine recommendations.

One slightly strange thing that seems outwith planned themes or conscious selling points are the toilets. These have a false ceiling and are tiny. Everything, urinals, basins, dryers even, scaled down. And the cubicle, in the Gents at least, is long and thin. So long that it reminded me slightly of the cubicles in the Dragon I uber-style bar in Hong Kong, minus the mirrors, personal washbasins, fancy lighting and sparkly tiling.

Returning from the conveniences, as we all must eventually, I felt that Jackson’s hasn’t yet established its own style. Everything is a little too planned, demographically and in fashion terms. And it has no real controversy either, nothing to get passionate about either way. Maybe the only thing that is risky or edgy in here is the name. And that’s not enough.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Parkhead Shuffle

O'Kanes, 174 Westmuir Street, Parkhead, Glasgow G31 5BS 0141 550 3154
The Prince Charlie, 89 Westmuir Street, Parkhead, Glasgow G31 5EU 0141 554 0420
The Old Black Bull, 1318 Gallowgate, Glasgow, G31 4DR 0141 551 0400

I was halfway through my journey. From one train station, Shettleston, to another. The trip had had its interest already, some new places surveyed, and some old re-visited. They had been on and around Shettleston Road, now I was on Westmuir Street approaching Parkhead Cross. It was late afternoon and the light was going. A decent half-mile walk had got me here and now it was time for my next stop.


O’Kane’s the name of the pub. Punter power got this pub returned to its original title after a name-change to the Two Bells. A plain exterior and the first pub I’ve entered through a front fire-door, the actual main door seemingly out of use.

As in most East End bars there’s not a huge range of trendy drinks like craft beers, obscure malts or exotic spirits but there tends to be a good selection of draught beers, lager to heavy to special to light and with a Sassenach like John Smith’s thrown in.

I went for a half of 60 shillings or light. Lighter in colour and strength and very smooth and drinkable. A drink hard to get in the city centre. The half got a raised eyebrow from the lady host and I almost took out my medical diagnosis to explain my wimpery. But what was the point? I just admired the extra shiny beer pumps instead. Quite remarkable they were, “like fucking mirrors,” as Billy Batts from Goodfellas said before he got stamped to a pulp.

The interior in O’Kane’s is a square room roughly sectioned, with a few tables mostly against walls. Over to my left as I stood at the bar were tables near to a wall. Seven or eight folk sat at them. They looked like an extended family, because there wasn’t much chat but they were comfortable and content with each other.

What was strange though was the way they all sat with their backs to the wall, all of them in a row together, not facing each other, but all facing out towards the rest of the room, the bar and me. I retired to the toilets and here I discovered a business opportunity. Supplying U-bends to Glasgow pubs. This was the third pub today with a leaking U-bend, the dirty drips ending up in a old bucket underneath. Not very nice, but where there’s muck there’s brass…

The Prince Charlie

I left the happy family to it and crossed the road to the next beckoning lights. The Prince Charlie. Significantly with no Bonnie. A wider frontage to this one with a deep lounge-bar half to it that was deserted as lounges often are. The other half was reasonably busy for the time of day, demographics mostly in the 54-63 grouping (honestly, I’m not looking to get in to marketing).

Another long counter here, on the left as you look from the door. Long, because I reckon in a traditional bar like this and most of the rest in the east end, quick customer service is the priority over any ideas of style or maximising floor space. The longer the counter the quicker the service, as long as your staffing is adequate.

At this time of day, 5ish on a weekday, speed of service isn’t an issue, the drink in my hand within 30 seconds. Vivid green seating grabs one’s attention in here, a sheen off the leather. This mainly because of the harsh strip lighting that’s been a common denominator in pubs all day. Pub operators should know by now that bright lights and imbibing don’t go together. A far cry from around 100 years ago when bar designers actively factored in the effect of lighting on their interior and elegant fittings.

This wasn’t going to be a long stop. A welcoming enough place but things were happening elsewhere, I was sure.

Parkhead Cross

Out on the street again, walking up towards Parkhead Cross. I paused, thinking about turning left onto Tollcross Road, an area with a couple of unvisited joints. Instead, though, I kept going west. Parkhead Cross like many old meetings of the way in the East End has seen better days, the tenements frayed a little and shops mainly consisting of take-aways, beauty salons, solicitors, bookies etc The pubs, so far, the handful there are, are also well past their heydays.

Round onto Gallowgate I peeked into the Anchor (very quiet) & The Five Ways ( a reference to the amount of roads that meet here), whose claim to fame is that John Gorevan, Glasgow’s pub historian, describes it as “still the clattiest pub in Parkhead”. Quite an accolade.

The Old Black Bull

I crossed to the other side of Gallowgate and entered the famous Old Black Bull. A pub of this name has been here since 1760, but despite this it does not qualify as Glasgow’s oldest because the original was demolished.

Most pubs, no matter how ‘traditional’ will have had refurbs of sorts at some point in the last 30-40 years but in here, even though this is the ‘new’ Old Black Bull, I don’t think so. The red beams seem to have been here from the start, and the layout is completely unaffected by any recent trends, just a long counter on one side of the room.

Quite a few locals were in, including an older chap with three Asda bags clinking together unmistakeably. Probably getting in a draught drink before the real session later with the contents of his bags.

Off to my left, sitting at a table, a younger guy, rather dishevelled, was holding this big blue board. It looked like a wibbly, bendy thing you could play tunes with a la Rolf Harris. But to make sure, I whispered a question to a guy on my right, asking what the board was. “A dominoes’ board” was the answer. This showed up my lack of knowledge on pub games, a gap certainly. My guess, apart from the musical one, might have been shuffle, sorry, shove ha’penny.

A few minutes later and I was down to the dregs on another of my half pints. I Needed to check out the toilets, for the U Bend survey, and a review isn’t complete without this aspect.

Walking past the cubicle I nudged its door, I have to check out every inch you see. It gave a little, obviously unoccupied.

I did my business at the trough, washed my hands, observing an intact U Bend and moved back towards the toilet exit. This time I pushed open the cubicle door fully, to check on the plumbing and cleanliness.

There was the guy, the board fellow. Trousers at ankles. With maybe another kind of shuffling going on. He didn’t seem to register my presence, me probably getting more of a shock than him.

I was out of there like a flash, mortified. Because I hadn’t even apologised to the guy. No stopping either for the last of my drink, out the door and into the night. I had more work to do, you see. Bridgeton Cross was next. The walk ahead a long dark mile. I would spend the time thinking of a business plan and a name. How does BBUB Plumbing Services sound?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Finnieston

The Finnieston, 1125 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8ND


A journalist acquaintance of mine first used that word in the Finnieston context about 15 years ago. He said it was one of the only areas in the West End that hadn’t yet succumbed to the G word. Has it now, eventually, with Crabshak, Brass Monkey et al?

Pondering that question I entered the newest arrival, The Finnieston (why hasn’t someone though of that name before?), and almost tripped on the down steps- a dangerous thing for someone in my condition. I stumbled because, unusually, it is set a couple of feet below the level of the street, Argyle St, facing Kelvingrove St, in the incongruous cottage that used to house a café. I believe the owners of this new venture are the folk behind another of the (relatively) new wave round here Lebowskis.

Quite enjoyable this lowered perspective, feels more cosy. And the low ceiling, at least in the front part of the establishment, enhances this feeling. This wooden ceiling is how one could imagine a galleon’s to have been, and the nautical theme is writ large in here. An anchor etching on the window by the door and images of the seashore and landed catch on the wall in the back area complete this.

The white walls and higher ceiling there create quite a different atmosphere from the bar area. This is a strictly foodie zone, which although clean and fresh lacks the welcoming nature of the front.

Out the back there is an attractive smoking/al fresco eating area with smart white furniture and a Moet Chandon umbrella but so far I haven’t been out. Twice because it was just too cold, and the last time because the bar staff informed me it was too messy for patrons to use. Strange. Unless there had been a mad party the night before, a lame excuse.

That disappointment aside, most of the fittings feel right, with a few unexpected bonuses. Stained-glass insert partitions – normally only seen in traditional booze palaces – for one, and pew seating around two of the tables, for another. The rest of the seating is bluey turquoise within booths, the accompanying wooden tables are very well varnished and black wall tiles are equally well-sheened.

As I said, everything fits. Apart from the books on a shelve. What’s the problem with that, goes with a ship’s cabin feel doesn’t it? Not if they are Readers Digest condensed books they don’t.

Clientele-wise, as is the nature of this corner of the West End, there’s a fair mix of ages, something The Muse appreciated. Maybe my lectures on the benefits of eclecticism are getting through.

At the bar itself they have a decent wee range of beers, early teething problems with pouring nozzles seem to have been overcome. First time I tried to order the Samuel Smith’s stout but they couldn’t supply it so had to go for a West Red instead. Now the stout is up and pouring, there’s the West Brewery offerings and some Blue Moon, as well as various session ales. And their Finnieston Lager which a barman informed me is brewed in Germany, maybe he meant the aforementioned West, with its German connection.

They concentrate, though, on spirits, quite expensive ones, and cocktails. As to be expected in this a seafood joint, have I mentioned this already? I’ve had the soup. Enjoyable. (That shouldn’t go beyond my brief as a pub reviewer). Along with the soap (of the day) I had water in a jug with brandy glass. Nice touch. As are the test-tube-thin ½ pint glasses. As are the head-high till screens.

But returning to the food (am I allowed?), it creates a problem in here. For the drinkers, that is. Their space gets squeezed. I’ve noticed it on a Saturday evening, the only real standing area is by the bar, and stools are a premium. You could sit at a table but the feeling is that these are sequestered for the eaters.

This feeling is confirmed by a Yelp entry I saw recently. I don’t normally pay any attention to these pseudo reviews partly because most of them are rubbish and partly because I know how Yelp works, removing unfavourable comments once a pub or restaurant pays advertising. But this one was worth noting. A group enjoying drinks for a number of hours at table were moved on from their seats because diners had arrived. No reservations had been made and no proper explanation was given by management. Result: justifiably disgruntled drinkers. Profit was obviously the motive but goodwill and reputation have suffered.

I suppose the perpetual jazz and the numerous wine buckets had given the game away already, the money to be made from fine food and wine is the priority. Not unusual, but what matters is how this affects all the other patrons.

Still, The Finnieston does have a drawing power just because of its cosy appearance. On a recent visit of mine, two ordinary passers-by stopped and peered in, and one said: “Looks like a good wee pub”. The other nodded. They moved on but will surely return.

If that’s not recommendation enough I’ll leave the last word to the ‘hardest man in Finnieston’ aka (after my departure) ‘the new man about Kelvingrove’ aka @sundancemckid, who summed up the place’s attraction with the tweet: smart enough to feel fancy, but still relaxed enough…

That’s good enough for me.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Dry Spell

In no time I was wondering about licensing issues downstairs in the foyer. Other independent businesses were operating freely in the public space frequented by hundreds of passing customers every hour from early morning till late evening. But if the concession were up for grabs who would have the nerve to bid for iti

The drugs must have been more powerful than I realised. Making me operate in some sort of parallel world where the authorities would even countenance the existence of a bar in a hospital.

Because that’s where I was. In Gartnavel General. Good view though. Out the back, looking over the grounds surrounding the old Gartnavel Royal. Panning left to the virtually dry Broomhill I knew I be unable to spot any bars through the thicket of respectable tenements, so I looked further, to the Clyde and beyond.

Partick and Thornwood sit too low for sight even from the sixth floor of the hospital but over the river I thought I glimpsed Govan landmarks. In and around are the unreconstructed pubs of the old parish and neighbouring Linthouse, places worth an afternoon’s sojourn and longer if you’re feeling optimistic and/or bullet-proof.

Further south becomes indistinguishable, Pollok running into Barrhead seamlessly. Neither are particularly blessed with attractive licensed premises but probably better off than peripheral estates like Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Drumchapel.

Paisley, sheltering beneath Gleniffer Braes, is well provided, and is home of the Bull Inn, an Art Nouveau delight, complete with original back snugs. However, I think Renfrew actually offers a better concentrated drinking experience, the main drag of Hairst and Canal Streets down to the river holding a handful of interesting wee dens, including the enviably placed Ferry Inn. Even the large Glynhill Hotel up near the M8 is a decent option.

That was all I could see south of the Clyde, and the trees and the already crumbling Gartnavel Royal itself obscured any view due west bar the distant hills. But Anniesland, or its college and high flats at least, were there for my eyes. In between those two landmarks lies The Esquire House. Once a house of midnight mayhem as well as housing a Family Department, better known as an Off Sales.

I can remember watching from a friend’s second floor tenement window as the fun spilt out into the car park and the main road, and seeing the action up close inside the pub as a martial arts expert showed his expertise.

Chain operators sanitise pubs, and the biggest operator of them all, Wetherspoons, has done so to The Esquire. In flights of romance, though, I imagine that at least some of the former patrons are still active and are enjoying themselves elsewhere, in places like the nearby innuendo-laden BJ’s Bar and opportunistic mini-club upstairs.

The hospital building prevented me scanning any further to the right and it had begun to rain anyway, so I retreated to my bed. Present condition and a gloomy medium-term prognosis mean bars and their contents will be kept from my lips for a wee while, but they will never be far from my thoughts.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Brewdog Bar (Glasgow)

Brewdog, 1397 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8AN

The self-styled Brewdog craft beer revolution continues with their latest pub opening, this time in Glasgow. Aberdeen and Edinburgh were first – Newcastle, Camden and Manchester in the pipeline - and the word is they are pretty successful. But on this occasion a coup may be harder to come by, the location, opposite the Kelvingrove Art Galleries, being a troublesome one.

Different ventures have come and gone, many in double-quick time, over the last few years. I’ve even mentioned the phenomenon of under-performing venues in this area, which logically should attract punters by the thousand, in a previous blog. But, for whatever reason, at number 1319 Argyle Street, bars as diverse as The Calypso, Blas, Museo and The Lock Inn (among others) have all nose-dived.

After intense (oh yes) speculation amongst Glasgow’s devoted pub scene followers as to where Brewdog would site their first foray as publicans into Scotland’s biggest city, I, for one was surprised by this choice. But Brewdog know better, either that or their location scout has let them down.

A few months on from the July opening and business seems to be okay in craftbeerland, judging by the word on the street and my two visits – daytime and evening. Like the other two Scottish premises the look of the place is post-industrial, bare brick, girders, pipes, wipe- down tiled walls, reclaimed furniture and vast expanses of glass.

But for all the supposed practicality of the interior there is an impractical looking high storage area from which stock would be hard to retrieve. Large windows are all the rage, but this amount of glass with two single doors will probably mean a draughty, cold winter. Either that or massive amounts of the dreaded condensation. This kind of warehouse interior was cutting edge five years ago, now it is merely generic.

School-lab science stools add to the spartan feel. ‘Utilitarian’ the management call it. Now, I like a bit of utilitarianism in political theory - I’m more a John Stuart Mill man than for the zealot Jeremy Bentham - but the utilitarian goal applied to interior design is fine for offices, factories and other work spaces but not for places of leisure. In a bar you need comfort. From the furnishings as well as from the alcohol itself.

Talking about the alcohol, pride of range is of course Brewdog’s own home brew, so to speak. On draught they have Trashy Blonde, Zeitgeist, 5am Saint, Punk and Hardcore Ipas, Alice Porter Stout, and Imperial Wheat. Also they feature beers from affiliate or collaborative brewers who supposedly share BD’s tastes and ethos.

The Meantime Brewery, London, features with its London Stout. The innovative and prolific Danish brewers Mikkeller contribute their Texas Ranger, a Big Worse edition, and the confusingly named Black Hole White Wine. The San Diego-based Stone Brewing Co. are also included with their Arrogant Bastard Ale and the amusingly titled Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. Every one with a high ABV.

During my first visit the barman was very helpful, with background on each beer and his own recommendations. And there’s plenty of literature on the brewing process, BD’s expansion plans, opportunities to buy BD equity and, more interestingly, tips on what food to pair with what beer. Good to see beer being elevated in the epicurean league to alongside wine.

There’s a very limited selection of wine and spirits which is unsurprising, but heed needs to be paid to the Glasgow practise of pairing a spirit with a beer, the traditional hauf and a hauf updated. The ultra strong beers have taken the place of malt whisky in the small treat, small measure department and for a beer showcase like this that’s fine, but perhaps more notable whisky should be on offer other than just a Auchentoshan single malt.

And food offerings should be broader than the presently offered burgers, mixed platters and pizzas. It kind of negates the afore-mentioned guide to beer and food. And they only seem able at the moment to serve two food orders at a time for whatever kitchen reasons. Not good for medium or large parties.

Is this Brewdog a place where groups would go for a whole riotous night, or for a couple blokes obsessed with real ale, sorry, craft beer, out for quiet drink comparing tasting notes? On the occasions I’ve been in, and looking at the promo photos, it seems the clientele is at least 70-30 male.

Yes, almost all pubs are mostly male, but for a joint with marketing and promotion aimed at the under 35 age group, this lack of women will eventually put off customers. Pub-goers like the flirting frisson. Without it the atmosphere lacks. And leaving aside gender, will students make up the pub’s customer base or the local professionals who frequent places like Firebird? If it is the student crowd they may eventually baulk at the premium prices and go to cheaper options west in Partick or east towards the city centre.

While some slivers of summer remaining the fixed bench outside is useful but apparently no drink is allowed outside. But at least you can admire – if you happen to be a marketing professional - the blue-gray livery of the exterior, the colour matching that used in other Brewdog promotional material, menus, magazines etc

“Beer for Punks” is the predominant Brewdog slogan in their alternative manifesto behind the craft beer revolution. But maybe that’s all it is, just an empty slogan. The BD boys, co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie, constantly proclaim their difference from conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch Inbev and SABMiller but if you consider the aggressive marketing, rapid expansion, universal branding, and interiors more uniform even than Wetherspoons their baby is just a corporate embryo, differing from its bigger rivals only in size.

So not really a revolution at all. As someone once sang: ‘Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.’

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

1901 Bar & Grill

The 1901 Bar & Grill, 1534 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow, G43 1RF

One of the challenges facing a bar investigator is to unravel the complex strands that constitute the pattern of pub ownership in Glasgow. Who owns where? who has shares in that place? which is a Free House, which is a tenancy, which is managed? Etc

Working in Nico’s, one of the early style bars, in the 90s, first alerted me to this opaque world. The main man there, who was also involved with the Cul De Sac in Ashton Lane, ran the show, paid the wages and marshalled staff and stock. But he didn’t own the joint, no. The mysterious guy who lived upstairs did, Walter. So I learned, eventually. If you asked questions, they asked you why. And I can’t even get close to remembering the obscurely named ‘leisure’ company that appeared on my pay cheques.

I won’t say that ownership can come and go depending on a good or bad night at the casino, as is the case with some Chinese restaurants, but you would never find out if it did.

Today’s pub scene, now dominated by the chain operators, differs from those simpler times, but it is no less labyrinthine. Take Graham Sutherland for example. He was employed as a consultant by pubcos such as Punch for a number of West of Scotland pubs, his family used to own the Drum & Monkey in the city centre, and he owns the Urban Pub Co, whose portfolio of leased pubs includes The Wise Monkey at Kelvinbridge and the south side’s 1901, both acquired last year. He also launched El Sabor, the tapas joint, and is now seeking investment to move back into Freehold pubs.

A busy man evidently, but maybe spreading himself too thin, if The Wise Monkey is anything to go by. I reviewed it last year and I wasn’t too impressed. Even now the signage is still temporary and the interior generic and uninspired.

The 1901 Bar & Grill could be different. On my first visit I was struck immediately by how established it looks, a total contrast with Wise Monkey. On a corner site on one of the south side’s main arteries, Pollokshaws Road, it is a rare licensed outpost in this relatively dry area. The Old Stag Inn is the only other pub nearby.

Ironically enough, the tenement in which 1901 resides (and has done for eleven decades now) was a fine example of the tenement builder’s art, called The Old Swan. The Art Nouveau interior was one of Glasgow’s best but is deceased. However the building lives on, like many other Glasgow tenements, after rehabilitation in the 70s. The original name for the pub was The Old Swan Inn, named not after the tenement but the old hostelry that had sat here in the days before trams and other mechanised transport. For all I know the Old Stag has similar antecedents.

The Old Swan pub was re-christened, firstly The Stout & Ferret, then the 1901, but despite the new-ish name the air of Edwardian stateliness remains. This gentility extends to the present interior of black, dark browns, cream and white, in which an umbrella holder, a proper wine rack and broadsheet newspapers laid out for customer perusal show a definite intention to create a substantial, almost elegant, presence.

The back bar area, has attractive little recesses, housing the till and other necessaries, this feature probably a longer fixture than the other Sutherland inspired improvements such as stripped back wooden floors and the division between the bar and the dining area. In some ways this partition is old-fashioned but it is a brave one. As was the decision to set a demarcation in food prices between the two areas, allowing customers to feel spoiled in the dining room, with a better, more expensive menu to fit special occasions.

The Chargrill menu is said to be a favourite and a concentration upon decent fare is continued in the bar, which has been awarded a Cask Marque. On my visit I noted Bitter & Twisted and the Timothy Taylor brewed Landlord. Prices are reasonable too, Belhaven Best, for example, at £2.60.

Even on the quiet afternoon I passed through, you could almost tell that the previous evening had been busy; it just gives off the air of somewhere maintained by regular custom. A popular local spot with a bit of class, further confirmed by the smart banquettes and the green, leather sofas in the overflow area.

After a pleasant service from an attractive young lady – no sniggering please – I moved to the enclosed outside area, a feature also instigated by Mr. Sutherland, to further enhance the feeling of quality. Decent barriers, and reasonably comfortable tables and chairs create a relaxing spot on this wide pavement, ideal to watch life pass by in this particular corner of Glasgow.

Only problem was that some tradesmen were putting up boards to extend the black signage round the whole exterior. And they were making quite a din with their exuberant sawing, without actually achieving too much.The signage lettering, though, is pleasingly retro, and the 0 in the 1901 appears as a glass half-full with red wine.

Suddenly their scaffolding was gone. Round the corner. I followed them to take some more photos for this very piece. But the two workies didn’t take too kindly to this attention, even though it was the building I was interested in. So I took my shots and was away pronto. Perhaps they thought I was a DSS snooper. Oh well, just another challenge that faces an intrepid bar reviewer.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Central Bar, Leith

The Central Bar and the old Central Station, image by LHOON

The Central Bar, 7-9 Leith Walk, Edinburgh EH6 8LN

Leith has undergone a famous transformation over the last fifteen years or so. Post-Trainspotting you could call it. The redevelopment has been mainly around the sea/ firthfront and such has been the change that many locals will have almost forgotten what it was like before. Of course the wealthy incomers won’t have a clue, and wouldn’t care either.

The Shore’s row of bars and restaurants, which includes such prestigious residents as Martin Wishart’s place, is the hub of the area’s hostelries. I took a few minutes there to reflect, in the aftermath of what was, ultimately, another bruising encounter with the machinations of the corporate world.

Nae money and an empty stomach

The main focus of that rumination was just how much of a dent in the ungenerous prospective salary would be caused by even a prix fixe lunch in any one of the restaurants here, let alone a Fruits De Mer platter at The Ship on The Shore.

I was, unsurprisingly, soon feeling hungry but needed to get to the other, cheaper parts of Leith. So hungry that I bypassed a pint in Carriers Quarters and the inestimable Port o’ Leith – a rare remnant at this end of town – and even a first visit to The Pond along Salamander Street.

Constitution Street, my route, is grim and grey looking as only Edinburgh thoroughfares can be. Its countenance is brightened by pubs such as the Port o’ and to a lesser extent places such as Nobles.

My pangs were that bad I reluctantly eschewed the well-loved Alan Breck (I wonder how many pubs in Edinburgh have RLS associations?) It was easier walking past the depressingly large Foot of the Walk Wetherspoon outlet. But once onto Leith Walk things brightened up somehow and I couldn’t walk past The Central Bar.

A modest gem of a pub

Situated back-to-back with the old railway station, even once having a direct exit/entrance door connecting the two, The Central is dated from the last year of the 19th century. Its modest frontage belies its cultural importance round here. A mainstay of night and day for over a century and counting, and with a celebrated interior.

The ceiling-to-floor tiling is the first thing that grabs when you enter the large square room. Red, brick-like tiles punctuated by colourful sporting scenes: golfing, hunting and sailing. Long mirrors also break-up the delightful monotony, as does the black plasterwork ceiling, and the excellent leaded glass.

Instantly you feel the old-fashioned nature in here. From the great examples of Victoriana to the mostly elderly clientele, to the way in which the punters regard each other - interact would be too active a verb. Acquaintances are greeted with a nod and a shift of the seat to allow them space at the bar, and strangers are watched subtly for a few moments before being allowed to get on with their own thing.

Getting a pint gives you the view of the famously ornate gantry. It, like the horseshoe counter, is a relatively small thing in this big, high-ceilinged room but it holds your attention. I noted down “mythical winged creatures” for the carved figures, which is correct, but the specific term is “Griffin”. The body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Something I should have known outright, knowing well the pub of the same name near Charing Cross, G2.

The counter has two short modesty screens or dividers or lean-againsts. They are primarily decorative, which is no bad thing.

As hinted at earlier, my budget was tight. So I ordered a half Carling. The Polish barman, however, misheard me, handing me a full one instead. But coming in at roughly £2.50 I felt unable to correct him.

Toilets are ok, but I wasn’t able to find the old door to the old rail platform. On the way I went past the superfluous Over 25s only sign, beside other notices such as No Dogs and No Illicit Substances. Perhaps these are more necessary to keep in line any recalcitrant locals. Bampots, many would call them.

But no such mayhem was anywhere near this afternoon, nor the various bands that liven the evenings. No, just a seat in one of the surprisingly comfortable low-booths. The perfect spot to watch the old guys at the bar, some TV sport, the passing tops of buses and the leaves fluttering up Leith Walk.

Have hip flask will sit

I left reluctantly. Time and empty stomach forcing me onwards. Soon I passed the Spey Lounge on the next corner of the Walk and was tempted to enter this notorious haven of hardened habitués. But no, I continued walking, and by a little barbershop I stopped in a little Polish-run café for a roll and tuna.

It seems that the barber’s is owned by the café lady’s partner. It would be good marketing to have one helping the custom of the other but I couldn’t think of any link. Sitting outside, feeling satisfied by the roll, I topped up my glass of coke with a few measures of whisky from my hip flask. It felt wrong though. It should really have been vodka.

Another great viewpoint, though, to watch the masses going about their days far from the Shore and its fancy restaurants. Mothers with prams, OAPs, groups of kids, Eastern Europeans, other economic migrants, not many suits, the incapacitated. Come to think of it, how badly would pubs be doing if it weren’t for Incapacity Benefit? There would be even more going the way of the boarded up Balfours Bar a little further up the street.

All around, lives planned from day-to-day, giro-to-giro, payment to next payment from the Cheque Centre. No expenses-lunches, or afternoon teas with the girls, or easy breaks between lucrative contracts, nor enough money to engage an advisor for financial planning.

Suddenly I was up and off to meet somebody within the maelstrom of the Festival, but nobody round here seemed affected by what was happening up in the city centre. They hurried by in all directions, eventually heading home today or tonight or tomorrow morning, to homes that would definitely be somewhere other than the expensive pads by the water in new Leith.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Audley

The Audley, 41-43 Mount Street, Mayfair, London W1K 2RP Walking through Mayfair recently (as you do) it suddenly occurred to me why this district has always held such prestige. There are many other wealthy areas in a city that’s one of the world’s largest money pots: Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Chelsea etc but none of them quite carry the same mystique as Mayfair. And the reason has more to do with just its position on the Monopoly board. Mayfair’s name was made before the Mayfair Set of the 60’s but those ruthless tycoons cemented the area’s position as the most fashionable and indeed clubbable London district. Clubs like Annabel’s and Tramp (lavish new smoking terrace recently unveiled) were the byword for celebrity hangouts in the 60’s and 70’s. Those names are now seen as old old school but in recent years Mayfair has poached much of today’s top celebrity scene from neighbouring Soho, pulling in the A to Z listers with clubs like The Embassy, Mahiki and Whisky Mist. I wasn’t looking for anything as bling or booming as these haunts. Just a wee pub to sit in for around half an hour. And I wasn’t interested in finding something mockney owned by Guy Ritchie and similarly over-exposed and under-talented associates. So, something humble then, or at least as humble as is possible in these environs. I had gone past the best-looking hotel in London, Claridges, but had lacked the nerve to go past the doormen to sneak a peek at the art deco fumoir and rest my tired feet that had taken me from Euston at the same time, so I resolved to enter the next place that looked welcoming. On Audley Street, which runs roughly north to south, I spied a pub of the same name at the corner with Mount Street. In I went. It was reasonably busy already even though it was still late morning. Nicely darkened interior with chandeliers that wouldn’t have been out of place in an expensive restaurant or hotel. Looked like plenty of staff but there was a pause before service, which I only tolerate because it gives me more time to look around without anyone suspecting I’m a tax officer or other such snoop. I did notice the red ceiling, the lustrous red ornate kind with elaborate plasterwork that feature in so many London pubs. The deep red above goes well with the black and white chequer board strip of flooring in front of the immaculately polished bar. When I was served I took a Tribute ale from the St. Austell brewery. Quite an enjoyable beer it was too, sitting outside in the double enclosure they have going; the original railings and their own demarcation of the wide pavement getting as close to a beer garden feel as the surroundings allow. Customised troughs for cigarette butts, powerful burners, and plenty of foliage complete the thoughtful outdoor provisions. So comfortable it was that I was nursing my half pint (I had a business appointment in Hammersmith so had to stay reasonably compus. It proved to be another dead-end appointment, but I wasn’t to know that then). The lunchtime rush hadn’t begun so I was left undisturbed by other patrons or staff so could peruse the food menu at ease. Taylor Walker the pub owners seem to go big on British classics, such as fish and chips. They even detail on their website how many they sell across their string of London pubs. 10,000 a week! I picked up a few more details from their website such as Michelle Obama’s impromptu visit a couple of years ago and the Audley’s other celebrity patrons. The only other thing I noticed on site was the neighbouring Cellar 41 Pool Club, something a little out of place round here. A little further along Mount Street is Scott’s seafood restaurant, a distinguished place reputed to be Ian Fleming’s favourite. He’s the sort of fellow you associate with Mayfair. I left for my appointment that I hoped, vainly, would furnish me with a few more pennies, not a problem for most Mayfair residents. And that’s one of the points about it. In Mayfair you feel detached, protected from the rest of the world. Partly because it’s cosily enclosed by Park Lane, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Piccadilly. And partly because the shops, banks, restaurants, clubs, businesses and embassies here inhabit somewhere other than the real world elsewhere. But that’s what you think once you leave Mayfair and look in. From within, looking out, it’s quite the opposite. Merely a matter of perspective.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Where's My Bloody Invite!? - The Dram Awards 2011

The recent Dram Magazine’s Scottish Licensed Trade Awards were, I am told, a good old shindig for all invited. A musical welcome outside the newish (Grand) Central Hotel and plush surroundings inside were only some of the delights waiting for those lucky enough to be included. The hotel itself has an interesting bar, Champagne Central, the grand but unimaginative name. It didn’t feature in any of the award nominee lists, perhaps because its teething problems remain (see my earlier blog). Anyway, as I mentioned in my Tweet on the awards I wasn’t invited to the jamboree. Evidently they wanted it kept to those in the ‘trade’ not including humble punters or critics. I will, however, try to keep my disappointment hidden within the following comments on the winners and runners-up. Moskito on Bath Street has been a thriving operation for over a decade, somehow managing to feature in the bar scene with barely a ripple of punter recognition. Its confines are best for a low-key night or after work drinks. However, it and its owners must be well-regarded by their peers and competitors, judging by their winning of the Benromach Award for Success in the owner/operator category. The Oak Tree, in Balmaha was runner-up. A good place by the bonnie banks in sunshine, but it needs to do something about its toilets, they get overwhelmed when the crowds appear. In the multiple operator category The Ubiquitous Chip group were victorious, a fair reward for their consistency and subtle innovation, which has continued despite the death of Ronnie Clydesdale last year. Part of the group, Stravaigin on Gibson Street, was unlucky to be just a runner-up, along with the Roseleaf, Edinburgh, in the Gastro Pub Award. Stravaigin’s extension and refurb has been a great success and they must have more than doubled their takings since, the drinking and eating side of the pub now given equal space. The winner, the Birds & The Bees in Stirling must be providing a great service to its customers to have beaten suchcontenders. Whiski in Edinburgh, on North Bridge Street, won the Glenmorangie Whisky Bar prize. I haven’t yet visited this bar but I like the 3 in 1 concept; a whisky shop, bistro and bar in the same location. This kind of business, combining retail with licensed premises is the way of the future for drinking establishments, following the lead of coffee shop/delicatessens that are proving popular everywhere. Kraken Rum sponsored the Cocktail Bar of the Year. The winner, Bath Street Pony, occupies a site that has housed many different bar ventures, The Brick and Tom Tom come to mind, of differing success. Pony seems to be on the right track and has obviously established itself as a cocktail or premium destination, something that none of the previous bars had done. To have beaten such contenders as Bond No. 9 in Leith – absinthe experts amongst other attributes – and Booly Mardy’s – which has probably the best team of bar staff in the city – in the cocktail category, shows impressive development. Staying with great bar/cocktail staff, the winner of the Apprentice of the Year was Niall Webster of Bramble. He is part of an outstanding team. My first visit saw me impressed by the mixing skill and retentive memory of the barman – not sure if he was head honcho Mikey – undiminished by the departure of my brother for being tired/emotional/drunk. You get used to these things. Two Glasgow bars were nominated as New Bar of the Year. Boudoir on Candleriggs is trying to re-invent the wine bar, with luxurious drapes and a connoisseur’s attitude to fine wines, and fine imported beers that go beyond your Tiger and Moretti beers. I remember a 750ml Duchessa from Italy at £16. Expensive yes, but good to see beer being treated with the same respect as wine. Limelight at Hotel Indigo, the other nominee, must be getting good press to have reached such dizzy heights already but it needs to buck the trend of unsuccessful hotel bars and a vicinity that dies after 6pm and at the weekends. It actually won the best design award as well as this other nomination but it may well be a look that is lost on everyone bar hotel guests. In some ways its not surprising that Oran Mor won the Sunday Mail readers Bar of the Year. Its sheer size and location mean plenty of punters who will then vote in greater numbers than most other places. However, it has lost what it once had, the feeling that it was at the centre of things. Six or seven years after its opening there’s still no background music to dampen the harsh cacophony of hundreds of conversations and the smell of stale beer round the bar area is a big problem. For late-night drinking I much prefer the small bar next door – it even has a DJ – or downstairs. The switch of the brasserie into an after-dark bar shows though that owner Colin Beattie is still innovating and listening to what his customers want. Something he’s been doing for countless years across the city, from Jarvies and Granny Gibbs in Yoker and Scotstoun, to the Liosmor, Ben Nevis and many more in the heart of the west end. He was rewarded with the Lifetime Achievement gong. For that longevity, contemporary bar design that doesn’t compromise locality, and his support for the arts as well as the hospitality sector, Mr Beattie was probably the most deserving winner of the evening

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Star Bar

The Star Bar, 537-539 Eglinton Street, Glasgow G5 9RN

They used to be just about as legendary as The Horseshoe’s lunches. Three courses for £1.99!!! I remember seeing the amazing signs outside the place in the days before I was entitled to walk through its doors. Even then, without any conception of cost of living, bills and other financial burdens, I was taken aback. Another thing that was noticeable about The Star Bar back then was the amount of local workers coming and going from the premises, a real hive it seemed to my impressionable eyes.

Never having been a resident of the South Side my visits as a bona fide drinker have been irregular but on my occasional visits I have seen that, like many pubs, less and less working people were popping in. This is partly explained by how little business seems to be going on round this part of Eglinton Street.

Even the bus drivers after finishing their shifts at the depot on Butterbiggins Road are largely absent, a change in culture or maybe more are using the uninspiring Depot Bar on Victoria Street.

The Star’s location is eye-catching though, sitting at what is locally called a gushet, where two roads meet as in a V. I’ve commented before on certain bars that sit at gushets, The Brass Monkey in Finnieston being one. In that piece I likened it to New York’s Flatiron Building, but the Star’s building resembles that landmark even more than The Brass Monkey’s.

I recently re-visited the Star Bar on a warm day where the door on the Eglinton Street side was open (the Victoria Road side door not) to allow in a bit of breeze. It somehow added to the easy feeling inside, having the street sounds and smells brought closer. It almost made you forget how much this part of the city has declined since the days of the Plaza Ballroom. So much so that the other local bar, called the Maxwell Road Bar at the moment, seems to have irregular hours and may be near to closing for good.

The public bar of The Star preserves some of the atmosphere of the 60s, when the Plaza was at its zenith. The small tables, brown check lino, old curtains over the tile-paned windows and the suspended canopy over the bar counter all speak of that time.

Because of this it does remind you of The Laurieston a mile or so back down the street towards town. The Star isn’t as well maintained though. It’s clean enough but it seems the money hasn’t been there over the years to preserve the place fully.

Not that the owners since 1984, Giovanna and Paul, haven’t done their utmost to keep the pub at the heart of what community remains round here. Friday and Saturday nights see the live bands KT and Faberge, and Kaviar perform respectively and The Star hosts many regulars’ birthday parties and other celebrations.

There’s also board games and domino sets lying around, props to get people talking to each other as much as anything else. The bar staff keep the friendly vibe going too, chatty without being nosy. Many will like the Barrs bottles used for mixers too, a nice touch in these days of strict branding.

In here everything gravitates towards the corner of the room, the wedge-end where the TV sits. So much more interesting than a square room, it seems like the corner is somehow the centre of the space.

And what of the lunches? Inflation seems to have affected even these. Lunches from £2.50 say the signs. For that you get homemade soup or fruit juice; main course of things like Roast Beef, Scotch Pie, Roast Turkey, Sausage Hotpot, all with the trimmings of your choice; pudding of creamed rice or jelly with fruit (tinned). If you want breaded fish or ashet pie there’s a 50p supplement. I call it profiteering.

But wait! Those signs I remember of £1.99 lunches were contemporary with pints priced around £1. So if my memories are actually correct (readers, please correct me if £1.99 is wrong) in that time the lunches have increased by 25% when alcohol prices have gone up threefold. Says something about the various Chancellors of the Exchequer over that period of time.

I went through next door to the Lounge Bar, this extension provided by the progressive 1940s proprietor James Haxton who realised that women needed a comfortable area in which to enjoy their drink and chat. (Thanks to John Gorevan, the Glasgow pub historian, for this fact. He also notes that The Star was called Ye Olde Quadrivium and The Eglinton Bar in the era before WW11).

The Lounge has more comfortable seating than the Public Bar, dark leather booths featuring. It’s darker and warmer in here, just what you would expect in a lounge I suppose. But also more generic, less singular than the room next door.

More folk were having the £2.50 lunches in here. Most of them pensioners. It seems they can afford them. Perhaps they have index-linked pensions or other such complicated financial arrangements I care not to understand.

Either that or they are following the saying “to eat, and to drink, and to be merry, for tomorrow they will die,” – my apologies for amending Ecclesiasties. Whatever our age, it’s a good motto to live by.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Browns Bar & Brasserie - 1 George Square

Browns Bar & Brasserie, 1 George Square, Glasgow G2 1DY

George Square needed a place like this, something befitting Glasgow’s official centre and grandest landmark. Up until Browns, all we had were another bland Wetherspoons (Counting House) the shifty pubs under Queen Street station, the Millennium Hotel, and the modest The Edge on the corner with Cochrane Street.

Admittedly Jamie Oliver has arrived, but it is just a name and any place that forbids reservations just to create the buzz of queues at its door, doesn’t feature on my radar. I also doubt whether you can just enter for an imbibe-only visit.

Browns bills itself as a Bar & Brasserie and first impressions are well, impressive. There’s a large area greeting you inside the single glass door – should really be a double door to block cold north breezes – I’d say around 3,000 square feet, with a dais on the far right of the room.

Colour scheme is an elegant union of creams and browns and the seating eclectic, my favourite being the high chairs that have their own personal bar; the tables resembling a counter. The management seem to prefer having you wait to get seated judging by the way a waitress intercepted our path to a nice table with curved couch seating. My impatience, nay abruptness, causing me trouble again.

We were graciously allowed to stay where we were though and watched as others waited for a staff member to lead them to their table. At least half seemed to have booked and were led to the dais, joined soon by a group of ladies to our left who had been enjoying birthday celebration drinks at the aforementioned high-chairs. I like that: no, not ladies, well yes of course I do…oh forget it… I mean pre-dinner drinks. Gets you in the mood, so most people say.

The food is brasserie-style, no surprises there, and reasonable for such a central location. The grill options look particularly well-priced and does the Prix Fixe. This is the kind of place you would meet an old friend from out of town, fresh off the train, an easy rendezvous in an establishment that won’t embarrass the city.

A place also for taking mum for afternoon tea. That’s what me and The Muse did, even though respective mothers were missing. There had been a wee wait before we received any sort of menu, but we disguised our slight annoyance and took to observing the interior more closely. The distinctive small barrel-shaped chandeliers caught our attention, unusual. The large central bar – wood-slatted with a metal top - is quite stately but could do with being a slightly darker wood to give it real presence. And perhaps they could do without the branding on the large clocks, but overall there is a pleasing old-fashioned salon feel to this joint.

That extends to the nicely formal service and to the high tea we received. Cucumber, and salmon sandwiches minus the crust, cream scones, selection of four cakes, and loose tea with a strainer each. This and a choice of the particular tea blend. All for £10.95 for two. Great value.

I know a lot of places are doing high-tea now, but it can be done badly, as a recent visit to The Blind Pig on Byres Road demonstrated, their effort, including chipped crockery and lukewarm tea, was abysmal. Here, I had all the tea my pot could provide and the food was light and without obvious flaw.

A few groups of gents had now arrived around the bar seeking mere session-beers, and service was a little slow for them as the barman struggled with a few orders especially with cocktails. We decide to add to his troubles. The cocktail list is just one part of varied selections in all aspects of booze, from the often-neglected dessert wines & ports, to gins – 9 choices – to beers, which include one of my personal favourites, Cusquena. I don’t need, though, to be told the units of alcohol in each beer, as they have decided to inform you at the bottom of the page.

The offer of one of their Signature Cocktails, a selection of around 15, for £4.95 from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday close was too good to pass. The Muse went for a Bramble, while I headed east for a Sherbet Caiprovska.

After placing our order I went downstairs where there are more tables in an area that looks like an overflow or for private-hire. But it also features a really imaginative seating layout. A select few tables sit out under the glass pavement above, an outside-in feel to be enjoyed whether it’s sunny or when, more commonly, the raindrops gather then slide along and down the glass, making you glad to be indoors.

I returned to enjoy my cocktail and The Muse and I, reflected, as is our wont on these occasions that the city has gained something here. This is despite the fact that Browns is part of a London-based chain that has now spread into double figures across the country, we do like to see home-grown ventures.

Browns is likely to compete with establishments like Urban Brasserie in the middle-income-elegance stakes, and Glasgow has an inhabitant worthy of its most prestigious address.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Highland Hospitality? Kinloch Hourn Farmhouse B&B, The Real Food Cafe, The Cluanie Inn, The Bothy, The Ballachulish Hotel

Kinloch Hourn Farmhouse B&B and Tea Room The Real Food Cafe, Tyndrum The Cluanie Inn The Bothy, Fort Augustus The Ballachulish Hotel Despite the inclement weather forecast we pressed ahead with our mini-Highland break, sampling as much hospitality as we could stomach, and including a wee stroll or two amidst the sedentary nature of the whole. A warning though: This recent holiday from the confines of Glasgow included very little imbibing, so it breaks from my habitual brief but hopefully it will be as worth reading as the rest. Tyndrum & Spean Bridge I’ve been in the Real Food Café in Tyndrum before, for fish and chips on that occasion, about two years ago. As I recall things didn’t run quite as smooth back then, the operation callow and finding its way. Its reputation was good though even then, and the slight untidiness of the place and mediocre service disappointed. Now, the place is well established, their systems tried and tested, reputation still growing, and the service excellent. They even have an adjoining porch with wood-burning stove. We enjoyed a mid-morning coffee at the sociable high bench seating along with the best flapjack I’ve eaten since school play pieces. Sweet, great texture and remarkably light. The coffees weren’t bad either. All the cakes are freshly home-baked – we exalted in the sight of a new batch of scones appearing – and the hot meals including pies, chicken, sausages, burgers and curries use locally sourced and referenced meat. And the speciality of fish and chips, which continues to win admiration and awards, features sustainable options such as coley. The place, which invariably has a real buzz, is everything a modern café should be. At least six wet walkers had entered and were enjoying their break from the elements before we left. Little did we know that we were to get even more sodden than them before the weekend was done. The Real Food has brought another dimension to Tyndrum, a village blessed with being an ideal stop-off point on the way to Glencoe, Fort William and further north. The café does rival its near neighbour The Green Welly Stop, but having talked with its owners I know they see this competition as a good thing, knowing that it will bring more footfall and benefit to the village as a whole. We moved onward through the rain, only stopping at the Spean Bridge Woollen Mill cafeteria. Not very cool, I know, but the only other place we could find was the next door hotel’s chippie whose fatty smells warded us off very quickly. The mill’s cafeteria laid on baked potatoes, chilli, lasagne, basic salads, paninis etc. Uninspiring but necessary in this natural stage point in many journeys north. Kinloch Hourn & Cluanie Inn Luckily the rain ended around Invergarry near the southern tip of Loch Ness, as we turned off the main A82, heading west on the country’s longest dead end road. 22 miles later we reached Kinloch Hourn. This is as remote a settlement as you can get. Two farmhouses with three residents in total. One offers a small B&B –more of which later. Car parked, we trekked for two days – first night in a bothy, sadly without a recognised bar, so no review for that – and the second was back at the aforementioned farmhouse after a 13 ½ hour tramp through the best and worst that the Highlands can offer. High passes, secluded lochans, sea vistas, isolated lochs, raging torrents and treacherous mud flats. The last of these almost sucked me to somewhere cold and dark and the mud covering made it hard for me to look respectable when we arrived back at Kinloch Hourn desperately looking for a bed for the night. Luckily Mary and Joe, the folk who run the wee B&B took pity on us despite there being no official rooms left. Joe took us up the steep stairs in the overflow building across the yard. Basic accommodation but very welcome. We returned to the living room for hot soup, cups of tea and a bath each in their own bathroom, their little diesel generator re-booted just for our benefit. In the morning a massive cooked breakfast was laid in front of us. Over the beautifully cooked eggs, bacon and sausage we talked to Joe about life in such a remote spot and his experiences helping walkers in trouble. On leaving he handed us the bill. A ridiculously tiny amount for the hospitality we had received. We added something to the bill and drove back along the B road, pausing halfway to allow a procession of MGs past on their way for tea and scones at Joe’s place. The rest of our weekend was spent in Skye where unfortunately we were unable to sample any of the interesting pubs and hotel bars in and around Portree. Next time I will include the Isles Inn and Portree Hotel on Somerled Square at least. We did mange to visit the Cluanie Inn on the way there. A habitual favourite of mine, situated fifteen to twenty miles from any other hostelry, on the edge of Loch Claunie on the A87. It’s been tweeked over the years, different owners I think. The open- fire in the bar area down steps to the right of the main room still remains, but some of the cosy charm has gone. I need to return on a cold winter night to find out if I’m correct. Fort Augustus & Ballachulish On the leisurely drive south we detoured via Fort Augustus to see what has changed there since a night spent in the The Lovat hotel four years ago. The Lovat offers features such as bio-mass underfloor heating and other trendy boutique hotel bits and pieces alongside more traditional highland-lodge-style fittings. The open-plan bar area lacks a little atmosphere though so imbibers need some alternatives. There’s 2 or 3 places by the impressive locks that join the Caledonian Canal with Loch Ness. The Lock Inn is a basic little pub but not without interest, cosy little corners and community feel to it. Its closest neighbour is The Bothy, a far more ambitious and spacious establishment. I remember watching the Rugby World Cup 2007, an Ireland match I think, and the atmosphere was nice and raucous. I also remember the tiny toilets up in the rafters. This time we wanted some edibles and asked for a table in the front bar area. Sadly they shipped us through into the characterless back extension conservatory. Thus the specials board was out of sight, and not one of the waiting staff informed us what was on it. The menu was a dreadful affair, nothing fresh nor local in sight. The experience not helped by us seeing the kitchen staff going back and forward through the courtyard to retrieve the next frozen thing to be cooked. Two of those things were a carpet, sorry veggie, burger and the worst venison burger in history delivered to yours truly. Even our request for a baked potato instead of a burger-roll was swiftly refused. Neighbouring tables weren’t doing any better, four German tourists nearby had asked for local whiskies, but were left to choose for themselves as the waiter didn’t have a clue. But he did shout out their order for all to hear once they had picked. Nice touch. I don’t know if The Bothy is owned by a local or is part of a national chain but whoever is in charge is complacently counting their money – the place was busy – while offering sub standard fare and service. I left the Muse to deal with the bill while I went upstairs, thinking that I had seen better food served in a real bothy in the middle of the wilds of Knoydart three days previously and that was freeze-dried pasta carried in on backpacks. The toilets were how I remembered them: cramped. But now there was a shower cubicle, with no curtain. Good for any exhibitionists passing through, needing to freshen-up. One more stop before our return to Glasgow. The Ballachulish Hotel sits under the bridge of the same name. Once you have crossed from the north instead of going left to Glencoe and beyond, take the Oban road. The hotel sits by the confluence of Loch Linnhe and Loch Leven, alongside the Dragon’s Tooth golf course whose use is free for residents. Its baronial appearance impresses, rather more so than the anodyne Isles of Glencoe Hotel just along the road. The Isles, also owned by Akkeron Hotels, is a modern building housing accommodation and leisure facilities available for use by residents of both establishments. The Ballachulish’s appeal grows as you enter the Bulas Bar & Bistro, contemporary luxury as the blurb says, alongside the traditional wood panelling of the main reception and hall. Comfortable and chic, with decent leather seating, exposed stone and all the latest features you would expect in a city wine bar. Perhaps, then, not wholly appropriate for the setting, but perfectly acceptable. The menu offers hot basic meals, as well as, a selection of cakes and muffins and warm scones with cream and jam, from 12-6pm. Then the more extensive night-time brasserie fare comes in. So at mid-afternoon we expected no problems ordering some fresh coffee and scones. We waited for a good 5 minutes for anyone to appear at the bar. Eventually a young eastern-European lady appeared and took our order. We’d been settled for a wee while when she returned to say there were no scones but she could offer us shortbread instead, as if scones and shortbread were one and the same thing. Shortbread! No money-back was offered but we insisted we would only pay for the coffees. The Muse then went looking for the manager while I began scribbling this blog, nothing like frustration to get the juices flowing. The manager was unhelpful, stating that he should have been told that they couldn’t provide the food advertised, and nothing more. No apologies, no explanation. A very disappointing end to our little sojourn and survey of Highland hospitality. Ironic that the most humble of our hosts, at Kinloch Hourn, provided the best welcome and dedication to service. But the bad points remain in Scotland, continuing to drop the holidaymaker experience below expectations, squandering the chance that our landscape provides and making it less likely we will ever reach our potential as a thriving tourist destination.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Double Bank Holiday - Part 2 - Oran Mor to Oran Mor via the Southside

That was the first night of eight. And already it seems like a real while ago. And it is. Things move on but those weekends are still worth reflecting on because they show where the city is at in nightlife terms.

Saturday the 23rd and we surveyed the West End. Sedate was the word. Middling to low numbers and plenty of space in most joints. Add to that, my cigars that had dried out after too long in my drawers and even Ashton Lane’s outdoor benefits were looking unappealing with an early ending in store.

Up and down Byres Road, owners reporting the state of business. Thursday night was ok, Friday busier than usual, tonight quiet but good takings expected for Sunday. People picking and choosing their nights. We finished at the top end, Oran Mor wine bar sucking in what was left of the night.

Kelvingrove stramash

The next Friday was the extra holiday, even for republicans. There might have been some of those sorts in Kelvingrove Park that afternoon, celebrating in the impromptu, unofficial, Glaswegian way. Hordes of them toasting posh Kate and even posher Wills. The weather was ok too, so the flanks of the mound in the park were covered with people, whisper it, drinking.

What happened next has been the subject of some argument. Our boys in blue claimed that people were “behaving in an unacceptable fashion,” while revellers countered that the polis were heavy-handed. What is undeniable is that the city’s draconian anti public drinking laws made confrontation inevitable. The place was cleared anyway, and later, after sequestering a vehicle, we observed hundreds of folk straggling through the city from Kelvingrove to as far as away Broomhill. Most looked finished for the day, and seemed to be declining the chance to pop into any of the pubs on their way home.

Going south

Our car journey continued straight through town and across the river. I wanted to stop at the Star Bar, situated at the gushet of Eglinton Street and Victoria Road. Its long heritage, proximity to the old Plaza ballroom and legendarily cheap 3 course lunches make it a steady draw round this quiet stretch. But the vehicle was moving too fast for my request to be observed.

Across the road is The Maxwell Road pub, address self-explanatory. Has been Logues, and for far longer period the Maxwell Arms. I remember watching one of Scotland’s Euro qualifiers in 2007 in the place when it was Logues. Nice wee atmosphere for the game, spoiled a little by a regular who was trying desperately for eye contact with anybody as a precursor to some fisticuffs, I’m sure. Thankfully, the attentive bar staff eventually persuaded him to desist. Now, it often shuts during the day, another bar rationing its hours.

Passed a few other possibilities for our first stop, especially the wee group around the junction with Allison Street, the Allison Arms, Heraghty’s, Kelly’s (previously the well-named Elcho Bar – he was a general in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army I believe) and Mulberry Street all possibilities.

But The Muse wanted some fresh air and as I had some new cigars, I agreed. The only place nearby for alfresco is The Waverley Tea Rooms. The narrow interior was warm, unlike the terrace, even out of the April wind. So cold we didn’t stay long amidst the south side’s young professional classes.

Instead we continued south along Kilmarnock Road, before turning off at Coustonholm Road. On its left The Quaich sat in the dark near a stairway access to Pollokshaws East railway station, the line overshadowing the modest hostelry.
We pulled in a little further along, where the road becomes Greenview Street, opposite the small Old Stag Inn.

Customers outside were having a good time when we pulled-up, more royalists obviously, and they weren’t deterred by our arrival. The pub’s semi-isolated position reminded me of The Pinkston between Possil and Springburn, and this too is small inside. Cosy, even, and with good prices, but the atmosphere promised outside didn’t quite appear, perhaps the locals were keeping their secrets for a good night to themselves.

Thornliebank and back

Our route onward was southeast, rejoining Pollokshaws Road then onto Thornliebank Road, passing the Rowallan Bar, somewhere in the news recently for trouble during an Old Firm game, and The Arden. On into Thornliebank, no more drinking holes visible, before taking the Rouken Glen road along the southern periphery of the city proper.

From there into Clarkston we passed no bars, only a sports club with plenty of cars parked outside. Heading back into town, The Bank on the Clarkston Road was busy, but we stopped in at The Beechings, a little further along, under the railway bridge. A castellated building whose appearance and location inspire romantic notions of secret assignations and passionate encounters as the trains shudder overhead.

Inside, however, despite its welcoming nature with friendly enough staff and punters, the uninspired refurb of a couple of years back has robbed the place of identity, sense of place and any sort of traceable heritage. You drink its beer, sit at its unremarkable tables and move on with less of a bump than a train over a point in the line.

Is that Alea there is?

The Beechings was our last for that night, but the next evening we were south of the river again, revisiting the Alea Casino, Springfield Quay, for the first time in over a year, looking to sample its bars and restaurants as well as its tables. On our way up the interior escalator the fire alarm sounded. It took ten minutes for the fire brigade to arrive but by that time we had tired of waiting and were away in a fast black, back over the bridge into the city centre.

The Horseshoe and Vroni’s were only moderately busy, just like the rest of the city all around. We headed back west where on a whim around midnight we joined the queue for the Oran Mor club, itself like the Alea, a place we haven’t visited recently, invariably staying overground in the wine bar.

Bobby Bluebell is still there, as he has been for seven years now. Many of his staple tunes from the middle of last decade still appear too. They still fill the massive dance floor, but even to me, they seem mainstream. Or you could call them inclusive, because as clubs go, Oran Mor is hardly avant garde. After a fallow couple of years, Saturday nights here, at least, are back to being pretty busy.

Not as mobbed as five or six years ago, and it’s ironic that there is plenty of bar space now, as opposed to then, when the side area was a walkway rather than serving area.

The bottleneck by the main stretch of counter still occurs, people waiting to buy. But this is a positive feature, because every joint needs a focal point, the mixing pot where people meet and talk. The rest of this area at the top of the main steps is filled by guys gawping at the ladies on the floor. One reason why this place remains popular.

The extended couple of weekends were over. Ok, not quite. Over a couple of Spanish beers at La Bodega, South Street, on the Sunday afternoon, friends offered me an invite to the music festival Get a Room at the Brunswick Hotel. But the funds were gone, so I had to decline. As it turned out, the licence for that event only lasted until midnight rather than the 3am from previous years. When I heard, however, that the after party was in Chambre 69, Colin Barr’s newish underground club off Nelson Mandela Place, I wished I’d gone.

But it only goes to prove; you can’t be everywhere. Though some of us almost manage it.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Double Bank Holiday - Part 1 - Lost Souls

Lost Souls, 150 West Campbell Street, Glasgow

Two bank holiday weekends in a row mean decisions. Eight non-school nights in very quick succession, and one can’t do every one of them, can they? Some will pace themselves, others go out to enjoy drinks in the sunshine and retire well before the nights get interesting. The Bar Biographer was out on a few occasions to survey the wreckage, sorry, scene…

The first Thursday (22nd April) saw a fair amount of bodies about around the Charing Cross area, The Drake, Black Sparrow, Chinaskis popular but not heaving, their sheltered smoking areas giving some protection from the biting evening wind that followed the warm afternoon.

LJ and I headed up Bath Street after a few snifters, looking for the after work crowds. Moskito continues to surprise with its immense popularity. A mainstream joint, certainly, but it achieves its simple aims, providing reasonable drinks in a pleasant enough atmosphere, in the proximity of the late-night Bath Street venues to which many punters will head later. Though, quite a few, dressed in their office attire, looked like this drink would be their last.

I do believe I spotted the back of Heather Suttie DJ as we made our exit, a backless dress and pink bra straps catching my eye, fashion rules notwithstanding. But the exit was beckoning.

Lost Souls

Lost Souls may become the kind of place to beckon passing travellers whether they need rest and refreshment or not. An upstairs bar on West Campbell Street between Sauchiehall and Bath streets, the old Caskies bar. Billed as a late lounge with nights till 3am Thursday to Sunday, it seems to have not yet attracted enough attention to make extended hours viable.

The grim doorman at the street entrance may lessen the place’s chances even more, though his forbidding demeanour does lend a certain atmosphere, making you think what the hell kind of sinister place is upstairs. But that’s a bit of a disappointment. A semi-industrial look with massive grey pillars, eclectic furniture and a pink glass backdrop to the bar. There is a good window view over Sauchiehall Street but at night the light isn’t right for the vantage point to be fully appreciated.

Lacklustre bar tending and only a smattering of guests hardly gave us an incentive to stay longer than the one drink but the vintage 80s house music did make us pause slightly – White Horse (1983) was always a favourite of mine – but the sounds seemed lost on the youngish clientele. Lost Souls has some work ahead of it.

Rejoining the street scene we found it diminished in size, less and less folk as we walked towards the Merchant City. Corinthian seemed busy at the door but inside the main room far less so. Downstairs was shut, and the other smaller bars at the front and upstairs as quiet as a normal midweek evening. The question arises again, can Glasgow sustain a place of this size and overheads?

We retreated for a couple of nightcaps to One Up, which was also relatively quiet, but its modest size means atmosphere can be retained with smaller numbers. Just as well on this night.

So, a night that started promisingly and petered out. Maybe a pointer for the rest of the double-header?