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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.