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Friday, 25 March 2011

Nestling Up To The Jack

Victoria Park Bowling Club, 1284 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow G14 9EU

People used to scoff at bowling clubs and their elderly clientele. But whether it’s a growing awareness of the latest ‘ism, ageism, or the widespread constraints on entertainment spending, things may be changing down on the green.

I watched bowls on TV when a youngster. Even then, my grandfather would be telling us that it was becoming a young man’s sport. My brother and I would nod dutifully, while watching David Bryant - the master bowler with a hint of devil in him- puff on his pipe, looking anything but youthful. But it didn’t put us off taking out the carpet bowls later in the evening to bash the hell out of the skirting boards.

I knew my grandparents spent at least half of their evenings out at the bowling club, that and the Yarrow Shipbuilders social club. Even I enjoyed, if that’s the word, a night at the former club, a kid’s night when each child did a ‘turn’ to get a prize. Excruciating for a non-exhibitionist like myself, but I got through it. I forget my party piece, but do recall a fat boy’s rendition of a Sydney Devine classic.

On TV I was also exposed to the Crown Green version of the sport, mostly practised in the NW of England. Huge Blackpool crowds thronged round the lawn, people going in and out of the clubhouses. Even in my young days the scene was exciting, not for the sport, but for the speculation at what was going on in the hostelries, what mysterious concoctions were the spectators ordering, what was the buzz going in inside, away from the cameras.

But these distant memories were far from the front of my mind, walking head down in the rain to Victoria Park Bowling Club on a windy, wet, recent winter evening. It was a close neighbour’s birthday surprise party so The Muse and I were happy to enjoy the celebration and I was also keen to investigate whether clubs such as these are proving to be an alternative nightlife for the wider population in the recession.

High hedges shield the clubhouse and its green from the noise and fumes of Dumbarton Road at the border between Scotstoun and Whiteinch. In the spring and summer it becomes a natural haven from the dirt outside but in the middle of a harsh winter when everything is dank and dripping and the lawns are sodden, covered in muddy leaves and out of use, there is nowhere to linger but in the clubhouse, despite the mini-marquee that sits just outside, a leftover, no doubt, from an earlier celebration.

The clubhouse is a low, roughcast building. Not particularly inviting but functional, just like buildings housing social and sports clubs across the country. Looks like it was a fifties/sixties build. Inside is similar, designed to do a job, hosting a variety of functions from christenings to diamond anniversaries, race nights to children’s ice cream and jelly parties, if those things still take place.

So you have the practical half laminate, half carpet flooring and the DJ inlet. Our DJ for the night wasn’t too brilliant, but he did manufacture himself the chance to go through his gamut of local rivalry jokes, e.g. How can you tell when a Yoker girl has an orgasm? She drops her chips. Ok, so he didn’t actually use that one, but I like it. The jokes he did tell got laughs from the Scotstoun and Knightswood clientele and vice versa. His music mix was fine, keeping the generations happy.

The bar area is functional too. Depending on requirements and numbers, the full counter can be utilised or just the hatch at the side, allowing the room to be partitioned for different functions or meetings.

The prices are, of course, cheap but not perhaps as good as I’d expected, just about on a par with a reasonable pub like The Grove in Finnieston. Neat spirits are the best value, mixers and pints less so. They give you the ice bucket and water jug to add as you see fit, a difference from most public houses.

With all these fittings in place and a good crowd, the evening’s celebrations went well. Strangers could have walked in and joined the party and no one would have been the wiser. But none would arrive. So both the venue and the potential customers lose out, on an income stream and another option for drinking respectively.

At the back of ten o’clock the average age of the party told – it was a 70th after all – and the urns of tea began to appear. My cue for an exit. Initially, just for a cigar, but the absence of anyone outside willing to discuss my theories on clubs and pubs, and the proximity of Granny Gibbs, made me leave the club’s grounds and cross the main road.

I’ve reviewed Granny’s before, and despite its limitations, I have a soft spot for the place, even though its large interior is antithetical to encouraging a decent atmosphere. On this Saturday night there was a buzz inside, but perhaps this was more to do with the stomach-full of whisky chasers swirling within me. There were a couple of groups sat at tables, which could be described as middle-aged girls’ nights out. All were enjoying the sounds from the singer, Neil Diamond his speciality. A pity there weren’t more people in to enjoy his renditions.

Taking my time over this drink I pondered. Maybe I should invite those in here over to the bowling club, so at least one place was full. But the folk in here would have looked at me just as funny as those in the club had I marched in with my new friends behind me.

At the end of the evening, shivering in the adjacent bus stop waiting for a taxi or the alleged last bus (No. 9), I thought quickly (before other issues crowded out logic) about sports clubs. They aren’t yet stepping in to take the market lost by pubs. Maybe they don’t want to. Or maybe it just isn’t there, it’s sitting at home.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Pelican Crossing

The Pelican Cafe, 1377 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8AF

It appears to be the dream location.Opposite Scotland’s third most popular tourist attraction, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Around a million people come to this area just to visit the gallery. Sacrilegious it may be, but I think the exhibits are a bit disappointing after the magnificence of the Spanish Baroque exterior, but leaving that aside, these visitors must need to eat and drink when they are here? Right?

There’s an eatery inside (unlicensed so beyond my scope), beside the gift shop but it is a very ordinary affair, not up to the sophisticated restaurants at Tate Modern or even the Baltic in Gateshead. But it is family-friendly and must be satisfying the huge majority of visitors because none of them seem to be going outside for refreshment.

Even before the vigorous re-marketing of the Art Galleries a few years back, bars and restaurants had struggled in this small stretch of Kelvingrove. Lack of adjacent parking may be part of the problem, along with its isolation from more recognised bar drags, but whatever the reasons no one’s hopping across the road from the Art Galleries.

In the last month or so, the latest attempt at setting up a standard pub, The Lock-Inn (very boring name), has failed, the fourth or fifth such closure in as many years. And even the local chippy, Café Orlando, is up for let. Along a bit, Mother India Café continues to prosper with its Indian take on tapas, but curry houses follow different rules, a good one will attract customers despite its location.

Situated in-between these two differing degrees of success The Pelican Café arrived in the second half of 2010 at an address previously occupied by such diverse pub operations as The Regent Moray, The Kelvin and the odious Spud Mulligans. When the Pelican first opened, with a simple, bold, green signage, I thought it was the kind of café selling knickerbockers glories, nougats and 99ers. But no, the café appendage refers to the continental approach: good food and drink in a casual yet sophisticated setting. A bar/bistro in other words, as it does actually say on the sign.

And the word is, the food is good, with a heavy accent on seafood and Scottish fare. Here we go again, you might be saying, locally sourced, seasonal, bla bla bla… but here I think they mean it, the reference to Robbie Galbraith the fisherman – and rumoured to be fishmonger in Glasgow soon – is particularly telling and indicative of commitment to the actuality rather than just the idea. Instead of the usual starter, main etc the menu features small plates, then large plates, another continental touch which is interesting in that… but hey, no more food talk, my self-imposed parameters and present budgetary constraints mean I must concentrate upon the drinks side of things and the look and feel of the place.

For somewhere now open a good few months the interior still looks unfinished. On both visits of mine boxes have been left lying around in corners of the room, easily visible to customers. Bottles of wine in the high wall rack have price tags attached, intentional I presume, but still untidy. Along with the very loud banging door, these are small details gone wrong, leading to a less comfortable experience.

The wine rack brings me to Pelican’s main marketing device. They offer two ways of enjoying their wide range of wines, spirits and beers. Retail ie take-away (carry-oot) or sit-in with corkage: £5 for a bottle of wine, £1 per beer bottle. Value and choice are the intended attractions here, I think. But I call it a device because they could just as practically have operated with an off-licence, as some pubs have done over the years, instead of this confusing price structure i.e. do you take off or add on £5 to the drinks list you are handed, which differs from the online list, by the way. And where do the draught lagers, spirit measures and glasses of vino fit into this system?

However, they are offering some definite bargains here, such as Chimay Red for £3.10 (sit in), Kasteel Cru at £2.85 and Samuel Adams Boston Lager at £2.95. Draught beer prices are reasonable too but it is the range that grabs the attention. Anchor Steam Beer is an unusual and welcome feature, Sierra Nevada too. And the Menebrea from Sicily is completely new to me. As it happens, a clean taste but rather bland on the palate. The wine selection is similarly wide, imaginative and comprehensive.

Despite the drawbacks I’ve mentioned, this type of off-licence selling may set a trend, allowing customers extra choice and giving proprietors a new income stream. I highlighted this very opportunity a few weeks back, tweeting about how, if legislators are flexible, bars could follow the example of coffee shops that double as delicatessens.

On the afternoons I’ve visited, Pelican has been quite busy, the atmosphere helped by the open hatch to the bustling, lively kitchen, a feature overdone nowadays, but in here you see why it was such good idea in the first place. At night, it still has some way to go to attract a decent amount of customers, even with its attractive backlit blue lettering offering a beacon of hope and grog for thirsty passers-by.

In the meantime it has to preserve the clientele it has gathered so far, through good service and surroundings. I’ve mentioned the unfinished look already but the problems don’t end there. Much of the interior is finished in a wood that looks like teak, and that includes the bar counter which despite the leftover baubles, a fancy lamp and, in fact, any amount of bling, is cheap looking. Not helped by the dead flowers either. A pet hate of The Muse, that one.

The service been ok on my visits, lacking some finesse perhaps but fairly forthcoming. It isn’t easy for the staff though, moving around in the confined space between tables packed too close to each other. And recently, Kid N, who ordered tap water to go with his chips, was given a refill without having to ask for it. A first for a Glasgow pub ever since I’ve been taking notes.

However, some people don’t have the countenance for front of house. Their expression speaks of disapproval, suspicion even, of their customers. It may not reflect their thoughts, maybe they’re just concentrating, but it isn’t good to see. The person in question here is one of the owners, Jason Harvie. A wine merchant to trade – which explains the wide-ranged list - perhaps he should remain in the background applying his undoubted expertise anonymously. His name had been mentioned during an earlier visit of mine, a noisy sales rep enquiring as to his presence. As a customer sipping a drink, trying to relax between , it was another unwanted glimpse of the machinery of this bar. The distinction between front and back of house is there for a reason.

Parallels can be drawn between the Pelican Café and other relatively recent ventures such as Nick’s and Epicures in Hyndland, and the late Alan Mawn’s Velvet Elvis and Criterion Café in Thornwood. All food-based, ambitious bar/diners aiming to sell premium drinks to accompany their organic fare, in sophisticated settings. The Thornwood and Hyndland operations have transformed two previously quiet stretches and Pelican’s aim may be to do the same. To do so it has to acquire the settled, assured look of its contemporaries.