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Monday, 10 December 2012

Linthouse - The Vital Spark & The Gazelle

The Vital Spark, 1155 Govan Road, Glasgow G51
The Gazelle, 1213 Govan Road, Glasgow G51

This is what I love to do. Forget the pubs everyone knows about and hunt the bars that rarely feature in any guide, online or otherwise. All pubs need custom, some more than others and I’m always in favour of redistribution.

Linthouse is at the dark end of Govan; most non-locals will only know it as the area into which they emerge after driving southbound through the Clyde Tunnel. By dark end I don’t mean the grimmer end, because you can’t get much grimmer than Govan these days, but at the obscure end, G’s little brother.

As such you would expect some dark little boozers hidden in the back streets but secretive bars hardly exist any more, even here. So both these places sit on the main street, Govan Road. They are only one hundred yards apart but are taking very different routes into the possible future of pubbing for non-city centre urban joints.

The Vital Spark succeeded Fairfield’s a few years ago. The former place was quite well known and its presence is still apparent on Google Maps. The new(ish) name may be a nod to the famous shipbuilding tradition round here. Incidentally, that tradition, fragile as it is now may even be broken entirely if BAE Systems choose their Govan yard as the one of three to close.

Just how many shipworkers use the Vital Spark is unknown but it is a welcoming place despite having only one window. I would guess the original interior is long gone and in its place is a slice of suburban clubland. Plenty of cream, sofas, fairy lights, mirrors and soft furnishings scattered throughout.

It’s as if a whole street of neighbours got together and placed their various pieces of cut-price bling into one big room. Sounds rather naff but it isn’t. It has a genuine warmth and inclusiveness and accompanying the pooling of furniture and fittings are the neighbours themselves.

Couples – young, middle-aged and older – along with singles of both gender come in every day of the week to support the place. And the way they chat to each other and the bar staff it appears like this is a community effort, a venue they all have a stake in.

Fanciful? Perhaps just an over-optimistic appraisal but when one sits there at 6pm on a winter Wednesday and the music throbs out one could believe anything.

West along the main road to The Gazelle and things appear very different. The small high windows only reveal a harsh light similar to the kind of lighting you get in gent’s conveniences. Not a good start. But this forbidding frontage is worth penetrating.

Inside, is one of the cleanest pubs I have sat in (forgive the pun). Every surface shines and that includes the wooden floor which would be an envy of any home. The only rival to this level of cleanliness is the District Bar on Paisley Road West at the other end of Govan Road.

And underneath the impressive glass and dark wood gantry, mixer bottles are arranged in incredibly neat rows, this reminiscent of the tidy bar work you find at The Laurieston. The striped two-tone banquettes make for comfortable and stylish seating and even those windows are complimented with high quality roller blinds.

You can sit and enjoy The Govan Press on those banquettes or at the bar on a high stool while other single drinkers accompany their dog while it sips from its own shiny bowl. The Gazelle nods towards other aspects of pub life with karaoke and quiz nights, and satellite football but this kind of conviviality is its speciality.

To the left of the main bar is a lounge decorated in scarlet and cream (looks better than it sounds) and this could be a great wee place for more private chats or modest functions.

The Gazelle was previously the well-renowned Stuart’s restaurant of 1960s vintage. Back then, the rage wasn’t for floor-to-ceiling windows, so you can get misunderstandings today about joints and their true nature when so little of the interior can be seen from the street.

This is a leased tenancy – the present occupant only there a couple of months – and this leaves it at a further disadvantage from free houses like The Vital Spark, in terms of flexibility, breathing space and a sustainable profit. But, regardless of type of ownership both these bars will struggle for at least the next decade.

You don’t have to think about any of these things to visit either of these bars. Just do it. And help those less fortunate. After all, it is the season for it.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


Panevino, 1075 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8LZ
The Finnieston, 1125 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3

I’ve said it before and I’ll do so again; Finnieston’s stretch of Argyle Street is the area setting the pace in Glasgow bar nightlife. Every few months something new appears. Not just new premises but a fresh concept. A recent outing for The Muse and I confirmed this.

The latest joint, Panevino, was one of our planned destinations. But before that we returned again to The Finnieston, a place I reviewed last year. It continues to trade well and for all the right reasons. Pleasing ambience, serious bartending and fresh seafood all impress. And, I believe, one of their staff, Dean Evans received a commendation for mixology at the recent SLTN Awards.

Any bar that deploys decanters and serves absinthe will sit high on my top list and shows commitment to decent booze and correct serving of liquor. They hand you a large esoteric menu of their latest cocktail specialities and I picked an Abisette (absinthe etc etc etc) while The Muse opted for the litmus test that is a Bloody Mary. Mine reminded me of a Vodka Martini for sheer alcoholic potency. Enjoyable but portentous. The BM, meanwhile, was spicy and tangy, the boxes that need ticking.

Panevino is just a hundred yards along Argyle Street and sits in a small unit beneath flats built on the site of the massive Crème de la Crème Indian restaurant - itself having inhabited an old cinema. The original intention was, I think, to take the larger corner unit but for some reason this was changed.

The man who would know why is Remo Crolla, owner of the Little Italy pizzeria on Byres Road. Panevino has been his pet project for a few years and present-day Finnieston seemingly the ideal locale in which to realise the plans.

More sophisticated, smoother, sultrier and minimalist than its sister venue this is a place for evening drinks rather than morning or afternoon coffees. It is an enoteca a wine library, and browsing is certainly allowed. There are over 50 available by the glass, dispensed from their very expensive glass gantry. Nice for those who enjoy variety above all else but can’t afford a new bottle to match every whim.

For even more choice, wine flytes are planned, allowing 50ml samples of wines from areas, grape types, bouquet etc A bit like the whisky flytes available at, amongst other places, Corinthian’s Bootleg bar. Panevino are also stressing their cocktail provision and it’s a place where you can sup on hard to find Italian beers like Ichnusa, Tipopils and Gradisca at least one of which is new to me. I had an Ichnusa which was a bit too weak for me but The Muse was happy with her particular choice of digestif an Italian brandy.

The joint has two levels, the small upstairs more suited for groups of four to six but for couples or singles downstairs round the U-shaped bar is best. A marbled split-level counter from which to enjoy prosciutto, marinated asparagus, slices of Italian cheese, salami, salsiccella and many other nibbles accompanied by wafer-thin biscuit, beer preserves and honeycomb.

It sounds harmonious and it was. Food and drink complimenting instead of conflicting, as they often do in the UK. Unnecessary distinctions between pubs and restaurants don’t help. What would you call Panevino, for instance? Café/Bar/Restaurant/Wine Bar/Bistro? Maybe enoteca is the closest description, anyway, coming from abroad.

Unfortunately, due to its location Panevino is unable to match the grotto-like beauty of Divino Enotoca’s courtyard setting in the Edinburgh Old Town but then Glasgow venues often suffer in comparison to those of the rival city just because of architectural history. However, a lack of any outdoor component may tell against Panevino come warmer days.

In the meantime there are few more civilised places to sit and enjoy the dual delights of food and drink than at Panevino’s bar. And, pleasantly, this sophistication doesn’t come at a premium because pricing has followed the reasonable rates of Little Italy.

After our modest repast The Muse and I headed out of the district completely because Finnieston still lacks any post midnight joints but despite this gap it remains an area that attracts epicurean, if not yet bacchanalian, followers keen to find the next great thing.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The North Yorkshire Coast - Staithes to Robin Hood's Bay

The Cod & Lobster, High Street, Staithes, North Yorkshire
The Hart Inn, East Row, Sandsend
The Laurel Inn, Bay Bank, Robin Hood's Bay
The Bay Hotel, The Dock, Robin Hood's Bay

When folk are in need we should all do what we can to help. And many people in the North East of England are indeed in need after the recent extreme floods. So, the entire proceeds of this blog, and it may run into hundreds of pennies, will go to whatever disaster fund has the highest profile.

Enough of the munificence, let’s get down to the pubs on this rather famous stretch of cliffs, bays and sand. The village of Staithes appears to have been hewn out of the sandstone cliffs that enclose it. Down a narrow defile, open only to residents’ vehicles, tiny streets branch off into even narrower lanes between modest dwellings.

So compact is the village that you would think the locals are of a smaller breed suited to life here and on the sea. And the harsh, ragged charm of a place long past its seagoing prime would suggest to uninformed but romantic visitors an association with some legendary maritime figure. Guess what, that notion would be correct. Captain James Cook had his first apprenticeship here.

The Cod and Lobster is right on the harbour walls, these boundaries recently re-built, augmenting the already superb natural inlet. The pub’s name promises a better range of seafood than is offered but there are some fish specials to increase the choice. The beer range is better. This is a pub that doesn’t wantonly raise its prices beyond reasonableness. Mainly because of the lack of money in the village and surrounding districts.

The interior is more contemporary than expected with cream walls, leather furniture and blackboards. Despite the nod to modern trends comfort is the aim rather than style. Thus it may well be cosy in winter but in summer the outdoor benches are the place to be round two sides of the building. Great spot even allowing for the strange flies that annoy drinkers. Fishermen amongst you may know if these are fish parasites.

Between Staithes and, the more famous, Whitby is a pleasant coastal journey that can include a stop at Sandsend. This stretch is open in contrast to the coves north and south. Many people enjoy these sands and also, perhaps, the noted high-end restaurant Estbek House and the pub, the Hart Inn.

Both add to the reasons to linger round here by the pretty wooded stream that idles into the North Sea. The pub is welcoming with a decent range of booze and a great beer garden.

Whitby is just down the coast and needs a blog all of its own, that – when I write it – will include Gothic references and ripping sea yarns along with bar experiences, of course.

A smaller place that can be included in this piece is Robin Hood’s Bay. The associations with the renowned outlaw are very dubious but this village doesn’t need them. It is the eastern end of the 192-mile Coast to Coast walk and is a fitting end to this major trek.

A very steep cobbled road is the main artery with many branches leading to all corners of the village. Similar to Staithes, everything is packed tight here. This may have helped during the smuggling heydays of the 17th and 18th centuries. Secret passages and hidey-holes are rife. These, along with the partially subterranean local stream explain why it is believed possible that contraband such as a barrel of rum could be transported from one end of the town to the other without it ever emerging outside.

Nowadays, handling booze isn’t quite so risky or surreptitious - if you ignore the health fascists - and there’s a couple of fascinating wee pubs tucked away, including the Laurel Inn. A tiny hostelry with a bench outside that allows you a prime view of those going up and down the hill to the sea.

At the bottom of the hill the road becomes a slipway into the perpetually cold waters of the North Sea. Happily, there’s a bar down there – the Bay Hotel - to afford a full appreciation of the setting. The actual bar interior is a tad disappointing; too much faded carpet that seems to date from the last refurb in the 1980s.

It’s normally busy though so maybe the owners don’t feel more investment in the place is worth it. A pity but with a terrace like this one, less important than it might have been. Wrap up if you have to, to enjoy it or the other outdoor area to the side by the road. Either spot is good to watch the waves pound the bay whether at low or high tide. Sit, or stand, and observe the wild power of nature. North Easterners fully appreciate that power this week.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Tranquil Banks

Inn Deep, 445 Great Western Road, Kelvinbridge, Glasgow
The Ferry, 25 Anderston Quay, Glasgow G3 8BX
Lock 27, 1100 Crow Road, Glasgow G13 1XX
The Ferry Inn, 1 Clyde Street, Renfrew PA4 8SL
The Glen Lusset, 67 Dumbarton Road, Old Kilpatrick, G60 5DA

The imminent opening of Inn Beer – 07/09 – in the former Big Blue pushed me into thinking about Glasgow’s provision of watering holes by the, err, water.

Inn Beer will be joining a limited selection of bars that not only are situated near river or canal but actually allow you to appreciate your lucky location. The new bar is to offer craft beer, great cocktails, good grub and fun times. Let’s hope it can make this formula work where others, such as Bruadar, have recently failed.

Its location is certainly a winner. Built into an old railway arch under Kelvinbridge with glass doors opening on to the Kelvin walkway, tables are as close to the river as is legal. Other nearby arches have been utilised for raves and other subterranean shenanigans but that was some years back when this space attracted more custom.

Maybe it was greater competition from pubs and cafes up on street level either on Great Western Road or Gibson Street that led to Big Blue’s demise, a lack of marketing presence to help draw folk down the two levels to the bar – a sandwich board on the street isn’t enough these days – or the fact that on sunny days there was never enough outside seats to keep everyone happy.

If we have a successful newcomer here perhaps other sites will become available by water to add to the small number of licensed premises at present. I know it is the council’s intention to utilise Clydeside further, drawing the city centre in that direction, so they should put their planning where their mouth is.

Just now, the only place for a casual drink Clydeside central is the City Café near the SECC, part of the Hilton Garden Inn, whose management have imaginatively deployed an elegant pontoon.

Going east, The Ferry – the actual old Yoker to Renfrew ferry boat – continues to provide various eclectic club nights, maintaining a tradition dating from the 80s and 90s with stalwarts such as Panama Jacks and the floating fun palace - complete with hundreds of pairs of white stilettos and rejects from Miami Vice - that was Tuxedo Princess.

Six miles downstream there was a straightforward boozer on the riverbank. The Wharf in Yoker sat adjacent to the jetty of the aforementioned ferry. Attracting a devoted clientele, strangers got their fair share of local wit but all in the best taste. The Wharf had limited space but this mostly added to the jocularity.

One of the regular fixtures around the island bar added to the fun with his stoic insistence that he was a member of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. This despite the fact he lived around 80 miles from their base and was drunk 16 hours out of every 24. His fantasy was truly burst one evening when another punter arranged a call to come in from an actual member of the team. On speaker phone to a packed pub he confirmed he nor anyone other team member knew of our delusional friend.

Sometime around the Millennium the dreaded box of matches struck (allegedly) and the place succumbed to fierce flames. Whoever benefited from the conflagration it wasn’t Yoker socialisers.

Directly cross-river and now only joined by a basic passenger ferry is the aptly named Ferry Inn of Renfrew.

The building reputedly dates from the early 18th century and unsurprisingly the interior is a little rough around the margins but details such as window seats and extensive use of dark wood mean the place gains more from its age and tradition than it loses.

The inn is a good enough destination all on its own but it can also serve as either the beginning or end of a crawl through the old town of Renfrew.

As for canals there is also limited choice inside the Glasgow environs. I’ve spoken about Lock 27 before but it is the only Glasgow bar that sits by a towpath. It continues to do respectable business especially during hot summers – if those ever return in this lifetime.

Stables, near Kirkintilloch gets even busier in the heat but is well beyond the city boundary. Another, lesser-known place, that is close to Glasgow is the Glen Lusset in Old Kilpatrick.

Fairly anonymous it may be but it has many features that eclipse the efforts of plenty of places in the city centre. An extensive food counter, raised pool table, conservatory and large beer garden with different levels and nooks all look to have been recent additions.

As well as being right beside the canal, a little stream passes the west side of the garden, the Glasgow to Helensburgh railway line is also close and if that wasn’t enough the huge span of the Erskine Bridge looms above outside drinkers. Quite a spot and made more special by its rarity.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Messy Night in Barcelona

A recent holiday has only reinforced my fondness for the Catalan capital. Day or night, the natives of this famous city know how to enjoy life. And unlike some southern European cities drink and the places it is imbibed are, almost, as important as food and restaurants.

Daytime was covered in my earlier blog. This time it’s nightime and a journey from La Ribera across the Barri Gotic to a finish in El Raval.

The Muse and my brother accompanied, both patient in the face of my bar-hopping compulsion which, in this kind of environment, can get quite out of hand. But it does produce a longer list of bars visited than a ‘normal’ night would produce.

La Ribera, even less than a decade ago, used to be a quite different place. When one crossed the busy Via Laietana, the artery down which vehicles hurtle to the port, one entered a relatively impenetrable part of the city, an area even some locals looked on with disdain. It was perceived to have no tourist draws and many only passed through it to reach the Parc de la Ciutadella.

It has changed. Boutiques, galleries – including the Picasso - restaurants and bars proliferate. But not all of it has been gentrified. We began our night in the top half of the district, Sant Pere, through narrow streets of older housing and concrete newcomers, most of which accommodate poorer families and immigrants.

Carrer d’Allada Vermell is itself a rather ugly concrete street with a few trees to lighten the look, but home to a number of cafes and bars. We chose the Casa Paco, a well regarded small bar that attracts the local cognoscenti. Basic metal tables and chairs fit the environment and it was pleasant to be out in the square, sampling an experience well away from the tourist centres, with an easy breeze that would have played with my hair had I more of the stuff.

Our next stop, El Born bar, is named after the short, leafy, street that is the centre of tourist activity in La Ribera. This bar was one of the new arrivals around 20 years ago that were the vanguard of the area’s transformation.

This bar has two small rooms downstairs and a little more space above via a spiral staircase. Its cramped nature, including the cellar accessed by a trapdoor amidst the tables doesn’t get in the way of a good time. The cheerful staff help too and offer good drink advice, such as recommending their best bourbon for me.

After a couple of swift ones on ice we were out and past the Santia Maria del Mar, Barcelona’s largest example of a Gothic church. The street behind, Carrer de L’Argenteria is full of good tapas bars but we eschewed their charms to press on to the aforementioned Via Laietana and across it into the Barri Gotic proper.

The promenading Carrer de Ferran was still populous as we hunted our next booze hole. We were thus distracted when a shout went up the street. Two quite well dressed guys in their early 20s sped past us a second or so after the cry. Being a Glaswegian, my initial thought was that this was a fight being escaped, but in another instant a middle-aged German came steaming past also.

He had been robbed. He wouldn’t be able to maintain that pace so we knew his valuables were gone. Even if he were to catch them, his money would probably have been passed to an associate of the thieves already. We cursed our slow reactions, wishing we had realised quicker and stuck out our legs, or employed even stronger means, to bring down the muggers.

Especially so as The Muse had herself been dipped by an English woman the day before, while browsing scarf stalls at the bottom of La Ramblas. So despite my enthusiasm for all things Barcelona I won’t yet be employed by the city’s tourist board. Mugging remains a problem and economic woes may make it worse.

But onward to more positive things. Such as the delight in turning off a busy street into a narrow byway down which mystery lies. In the old town this can happen hundreds of times and it gives me, at least, a delicious frisson.

One of these lanes is the Carrer d’En Rauric and at a bend in its course there are two bars only open at night. Both easy to miss, they are that tiny. Sugar and Club Rosa are their names. I liked the spot so much we sampled both.

Both do what you good joints do in the confines of the inner city; they make lack of space not only surmountable but a charm. Curtains, red lights, candles, cheap old paintings, cushions in window alcoves all somehow work. The second of the two also manages to be something unheard of in Britain, a trendy Gothic bar.

Even the fact that Brewdog’s 5am Saint was off in the first joint, didn’t harm the good impression. Partly because Brewdog products are becoming as ubiquitous as Carling back in the UK.

Placa Reial is the main entertainment square in the Barri Gotic. I’ve enjoyed a couple of great nights in Jamboree and other clubs there but on this night we made the wrong choice and picked a corner bar, Roma Reial. Too many virtually abstemious tourists filled the outside tables and chairs and even the novelty of urinals you needed to balance on your toes to access didn’t save the place.

Bored bar service didn’t help. They’d seen it all before. Good for them. They just hastened our exit towards an area that contrasts markedly from Placa Reial.

El Raval was even more notorious than La Ribera. OK, now the parts adjacent to Placa de Catalunya and the top end of Las Ramblas have been softened and plumped. Designer shops are dotted about, along with some notable restaurants and Almirall, the oldest bar in town. But pockets of the lower end, the Barri Xines, retain their hard edge. This is the part nearest the port and I’m sure there are a few unhygienic tattoo parlours nearby too.

That seafaring trade has mostly gone but the drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes remain, even if they don’t always oblige by appearing. But, or rather because of its colourful history, some of the best bars are here.

We tried London Bar, a very modestly furnished joint with a small counter and a 1930s feel. Picasso and Orwell have been among the notable visitors. The front area was quiet but through the back it was livelier. Especially after a few absinthes.

There were some backpackers, but don’t hold that against the place, because there is a genuine mix of all sorts who bar-go round here. And don’t let the name of our last bar, Kentucky, put you off either. Although originally designed for US sailors it is no more Yank-centric than London Bar is full of expats.

Kentucky is like all the best wild bars, narrow, dark and hallucinogenic after midnight. Some folk complain about the service and the crush and its populist edge but they are over-picky. Just enjoy.

The time and favourable times were flowing so well that I forgot my original intended final destination, Marsella, a place renowned for its absinthe and for being the closest to the old Barri Xines atmosphere.

So it was an incomplete survey, but still a tour close to my favourite way of spending an evening in Barcelona. That would be watching Messi score a hat-trick to break the European scoring record. And that was the next night.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Wintersgill's - No One Will Suspect

Wintersgill's - 226 Great Western Road, Glasgow G4 9EJ

Many Glasgow bars operate under the radar. Wintersgill’s is one. Sitting on the quietest stretch of Great Western Road, near St George’s Cross, for a few decades does that to a bar and means it doesn’t feel the need to shout about itself.

The name has an old-fashioned ring to it but is not the original. That was Andros, back in the 70s, and at that time it was a fashionable hang-out under the celebrated ownership of the Dows. A place where champagne glasses were assembled into that fountain effect we’ve all seen in the movies but probably never in real life.

Since then a more modest existence, apart from being an unofficial Partick Thistle fan meeting point. Most people will pass by thinking it’s just a local for aging, hardened imbibers and leave it to the regulars. This is a view of the place that suits some who have used it, as I will explain.

Picture an evening a few years ago. I had visited ‘Gill’s a few times as I worked nearby, so chose it as the starting point for a Friday night. I even phoned ahead and booked a meal in the side bar. Judging from the reaction over the phone this was unusual. But in there I sat – now there is a posher back area for food – until I tired of the solitude and took my plate next doors into the busy public bar.

The stately brown banquettes that make up most of the seating were half-full and eager eyes followed my dinner to its seat. To discourage them I ate quickly, before starting to admire the large interior. It is surprisingly elegant, with fittings that have a pleasing permanence. Elaborate cornicing, cream pillars, globe lamps and shapely panelling all impress.

Pleasing to look at and also functional. Space to move around in and an environment to make you linger. Details such as the facing of the bar counter sloping away from your legs to give you extra room – pointed out to me by Borrochneldia – were missed by me at the time, but I did appreciate the overall ambience. It was going to be a good night, I felt, both here and in later venues.

Most of the rest of the people seemed to share my optimism but two young blokes near me did not. They looked uptight, on edge, uncomfortable. The smaller of the two was doing the only talking. And patting his mate on the arm every so often. None of it got any reaction.

I gravitate towards tension, so once I’d finished my dinner, I edged into a seat nearer the two. There was still little chat and the mood unchanged. I went for pee, down the enclosed narrow stairs.

I was mid-stream when other people entered the toilet. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed it was the nervy blokes. I turned away again quickly. I could then sense a pause, before there was the sound of a door closing. Aye, aye, I said – inwardly.

Washing my hands I noticed the cubicle door didn’t seem to have a proper snib on it. I took a step closer.

Their voices were clear. “What’s the problem?” said the smaller guy – his volume was in inverse proportion to his size.
“Nothing,” said his pal.
“Aye there is, I can tell. Look, shut up” (superfluous comment surely) “ and keep your back to that door.”

Then came some tap, tapping, and scraping on porcelain. I was about to leave them to it when out came the immortal line, again from the wee man: “This is an old man’s bar, no one will ever suspect.”

I chuckled going back up the stairs but never quite realised I would be using that line some years in the future in a wildly successful blog.

Anyway, they returned soon after me and soon began to be a lot freer in their conversation. Passing by their table a number of times I heard phrases like “big consignment coming in” and “the Gleneagles deal”.

Now this was before the G8 summit and the successful Ryder Cup bid but even then the hotel carried a luxurious reputation, so I was sceptical about what I’d heard, thinking that the closest these guys would get to Gleneagles and cash negotiations was the bookies on Auchterarder High Street.

My horse didn’t come in either because my pal called to cancel and so I had to head-off to pursue my chemical highs (CH3-CH2-OH) alone.

Nowadays Wintersgill’s boasts some natty wicker outside-furniture and a slightly more sophisticated air than before. Go there and enjoy yourself.

Note: Author cannot accept any responsibility for any trouble you get yourself in through your drug of choice. Though, if reports on a certain type’s purity these days are true, you will get a better hit with a couple of quick, strong cups of black followed by a brandy chaser.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Do you know a wee place in Barcelona? Hundreds, actually...

I’m recently returned from Barcelona and I know you are clamouring for my opinions on the place and its drinking. This my third time in the Catalan capital and again I have to largely ignore the overtly high-class drinking experience you can get in any number of elegant hotels and swish bars especially on and around the broad avenues of Eixample and Passeig de Gracia or up in the rarefied heights of the Zona Alta.

Not because there is anything wrong with these places, I like champagne cocktails and impeccable service as much as the next man (but if he’s an ordinary man those times belong to before 2008 and The Disgrace) but experiences like this are generic especially with the high incidence of hotel and bar chains across the major cities of the world. And that’s without the considering the ubiquitous awfulness of the Hard Rock Café which sits at the main square Placa De Catalunya.

No, what stands out for me is the kind of small place you find all over Barcelona, from the tourist areas to quieter neighbourhoods, and from Barceloneta to Les Corts. These can be little more than off-licences that allow you stay and drink your purchases; formica-countered bars serving cheap pintxos and sherry; hole in the wall no-table-jobs; or even bodegas with no bar counter, just barrels on the walls and a few rickety tables.

Most days can be spent in Barcelona just wandering through the narrow streets off Las Ramblas in areas like El Raval and La Ribera as well as the Barri Gotic itself. Around here form has benefited from function with the small spaces creating tremendously entertaining mini-hostelries.

Sure, out in the sunshine of the numerous squares is fun too, but if you are sitting at an outside table there is little difference between one bar or restaurant to the next, they become interchangeable, as generic as the chain bars already mentioned.

There will be more on Barcelona in later blogs, one at least will look at the particular experiences of night time imbibing in this great city.

But for now I will describe one of the best wee places I came across during the trip. Bar Bodega Montse sits quietly on the Carrer De L’Arc De Sant Agusti, by the church of the same name, in the middle of the once notorious El Raval district. Tourists would have feared to tread around here but things have gradually changed, a Spanish gentrification perhaps.

Many of the old residents appear to be still around though as well as the habitués of this traditional, basic bar.. They came and went during our couple of hours spent there, mostly old chaps, some derelict, some compos mentis, all regulars.

Our bottled beers and wines came without a fuss. No bar counter, just straight from the fridge or barrel stuck to the wall. Back to basics indeed. Great.

The only problem my female companions encountered – including The Muse, not slow to come forward normally – was enquiring about conveniences. They had to go to next door restaurant.

I used the open sesame “servicio, por favor” and was led to the place by the owner. It turned out to be a cupboard, basically, with a shower base, a hole, two taps - one for hands and one for excrement - and two foot-plates.

Rudimentary, yes, but it gave the feeling one had found somewhere quite hidden, forgotten almost, amidst this bustling, modern, international, seemingly completely-charted city.

My friends might have found this rather scatological but nevertheless we all continued to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in the shadow of the walls of the ancient church.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Deoch an Dorus

Deoch an Dorus, 427-429 Dumbarton Road, Partick, Glasgow G11 6DD

It takes a bit of nerve to change a local son. The Hayburn Vaults had its faults, like a slightly recalcitrant member of the family who refuses to toe the line or move with the times. Sometimes that is part of the attraction of a person/place. And why you get loyal regulars. It might be grimy, it might be a strange shape, it might not welcome every stranger over its door but it’s ours…so would speak the regulars. That group of folk who made it a harsh school of drinkers. Fun, but harsh…

It was, I think, a fairly early Saturday evening there around a decade ago. The mostly male inhabitants were enjoying a mostly quiet drink when the doors were flung open and in walked a loud group of women. One of them wasn’t so loud though. More sheepish. A hen, in fact.

She was following the rest of them, but before any one could even order a drink, the chant went up: “Who let the dogs out…!?” I’ve never been sure whether the song came as a reaction to their overconfidence or the clientele could sense an underlying fear. Whatever real reason, the women were out in an instant, the very existence of the rest of their night in doubt.

The pub was named after the Hay Burn, one of the many forgotten streams that run into the Clyde. Founded in 1904 it was a prominent member of the Partick drag of pubs that attract folk from everywhere further west along Dumbarton Road from Old Kilpatrick to Whiteinch, as well as more local residents.

Oh, and I’ve been informed that the Hayburn was a ‘bluenose’ bar. Doesn’t mean that much to a fan uninterested in football below the top level, and all the Scottish stuff unfortunately falls into that category now.

Perhaps, though, the above fact is a reason why the new owners insist on the edict: NO FOOTBALL COLOURS. Now, being a man of taste, I think such sartorial instructions are like the notice: NO SPITTING; you really shouldn’t have to say it.

Those new owners had taken a sabbatical from pub-running after a successful stint in charge of the Rhoderick Dhu, Waterloo Street (in a period after it was a hang-out of pimps and associated lowlife) and only re-entered the scene when spotting a prime opportunity.

Many months of work followed, the chief fruit of the man-hours being the re-emergence of original exterior features such as the number plate. This may be their attempt to connect with the past, as are contents of the website detailing the history of this spot as a refreshment stop for cattle drovers. But no mention of The Hayburn Vaults, a pity that. As if re-writing history.

Anyway, the refurb: the bar is of the island variety, in much the same place as the previous counter. The old one was battered and bruised (innumerable heads and other items hitting it at speed over many years) but it was a big solid hunk of timber with a look of permanence. The new one looks insubstantial with an unimpressive gantry, you can’t see it still being here in decades time. Other woodwork is similarly flimsy, MDF in appearance if not reality. None of this is helped by the smell of varnish that was everywhere on the opening weekend.

There used to be a back section to this interior but now it’s a very large single bar area with plenty of tables. On these tables is served what was described in a local free rag as “tasty and great value” this verdict countered by a friend of mine who recently experienced D&D’s fare. But these newspaper reviews are basically adverts. I should know. I’ve tried to cajole various of them to take me on as a reviewer but the replies were of the nature: “It is not parent group policy to hire reviewers or similar. We prefer to feature advertorials.” Great.

So, neither outstanding food nor a massive range of beers. Looking at the long counter space there appears to be a noticeably small number of taps. Not promising for the craft beer lovers, or anybody with a need for variety.

The large interior could also do with something to break its regularity. A large square like this needs a hub, a focal point. I was thinking just these thoughts on a visit to D&D when I started noticing some faces from Partick of a few years back. Not friends or even acquaintances but just recognisable people from places like the Liosmore and The Partick Tavern when Dumbarton Road was an actual pre-club zone.

So the place is attracting a decent smattering of folk out for a good time, rather than just the football fans gorging themselves on the numerous big screens before leaving for home early evening. I haven’t yet myself stayed right on here until the end of the night but I hope the lights get dimmed later, because they’re too bright to create a proper late-night atmosphere.

But my 70-year-old downstairs neighbour, a glamorous granny who attracts many admiring glances, is also a Hayburn Friday afternoon regular for years, is now attending D&D regularly, a measure of recommendation, someone, at least has accepted the changes. She no longer smokes, but her earlier self would have liked the ingenious use of the building-well out back; half-covered, smartly-paved, and with branded barrels to rest drinks and ashtrays.

Perhaps, then, a pub greater than the sum of its parts, able to live up to its name and become a social meeting point for old and new visitors, whether they’ve heard of the Hayburn or not.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Dunure Inn

Dunure Inn, 17 Harbour View, Dunure, Ayrshire KA7 4LN

This is Bruce country. The ruins of Turnberry Castle are just down the road, Robert the Bruce’s probable birthplace. Dunure Castle, another ruin, sitting high on a small headland has indefinite origins but may have been used in the early 14th century as one of the lookouts for the rumoured return of the future king from his forced exile in Kintyre and the far north of Ireland.

I’m no Royalist or believer in feudal hierarchies – quite the opposite – but having recently read a couple of books on Robert the 1st and his military captains, their sacrifices, privations and resolution through almost 25 years of struggles for independence, do put Wee Eck, Nicola et al in the shadow, especially with the Referendum compromises now being placed on the table.

On the way further down the coast, to Galloway, for other incognito business even more prosaic than bar reviewing, I had taken the chance to finally visit the Dunure Inn, some 4 or 5 years since I’d heard of its existence.

I had thought the inn was situated high up on the road near the castle and the adjacent public ground, which incidentally would make a good picnic spot if conditions were untypical for wild Ayrshire.

But turning off the main road the signposted route to the inn dropped steeply to the wee harbour, and there it was, sitting right on the quayside beside the aptly named Harbour View Coffee Shop.

The parking area is quite tight, so making sure I didn’t end up in the drink, I carefully positioned the vehicle before deciding to recce round the back of the premises first. This is usual for me, wanting the whole picture, and the rear of a pub – as with many other things – often tells you more than the front.

It isn’t a straightforward layout, you can’t tell the outhouses from the actual inn and after trying a few locked doors – and taking a photo of some palm trees - I came upon French doors that looked promising. This was the courtyard, I learned later. No chairs out there this time of year. But even this entrance held no joy until a figure opened the door from inside.

He was the resident drunk, I think. The clue being the way, after a greeting, he returned swiftly to his stool at the bar, looking as relaxed as he would at his own hearth. Unfair of me, perhaps, but when a barperson eventually arrived he ordered a half and a half as quick as you like, and was halfway through that half and half before I was halfway through placing my modest order.

I wasn’t having lunch so had spent those ten minutes before the barperson appeared not perusing one of the menus but looking round the interior. Plus ca change. This the main bar/lounge area, looked like it had been furnished and decorated around half a decade ago. Low leather couches and some pouffes scattered round and mini tables built round and into pillars and walls provide the seating, and prints of paddle steamers and the castle from local artists such as John Damari and William Morgan-Kerr provide some colour and context. All fairly comfortable and of the mainstream trend but lacking – the prints aside – any representation of place, and more of a coffee arena than of alcohol.

A large, extended family group then entered, apparently from Glasgow. I watched as they began to study the menus, and soon they embarrassed me, a fellow of the same city, with their ignorance of food and refusal to try anything new. The adults were as bad as the kids. Forgive my food snobbery, but I almost tried to disguise my own accent when saying my goodbye to the barperson.

Eventually, I think they decided to go down the interior steps to the Anchorage Restaurant, which is at the front of the building. A little aside here: why name the restaurant within an inn/hotel? Why not just leave it as The Restaurant within the establishment? This name within a name just confuses, especially people like me.

While they were humming and hawing I moved on to the smaller bar along a narrow corridor. This would have been accessed via one of the doors I’d unsuccessfully tried earlier. It is more of a standing kind of area, barrels for tables and no couches. Sport will be watched in here, but pleasingly, the TVs are medium-sized and unobtrusive. The drinks range is ordinary, Guinness, 1664, Tennents Lager, Belhaven Best the draught, the latter two coming in at a reasonable £2.80.

I continued round towards the front of the inn, where the Anchorage is accessed down another set of steps. On this lower split-level, the restaurant has a darker, slightly more sophisticated appearance. The main menu is supplemented by seafood specials, a must for this kind of location.

Upstairs there are 14 rooms, of perfectly reasonable accommodation. No luxury, but with a front-facing room, the wee harbour and rocky coast will provide hours of contemplation.

Before I drove off I sat at the handy picnic tables overlooking the water, exchanging for may have passed as pleasantries to a large, bearded bloke just emerged from the café. This harbour was built in 1927 but my thoughts were occupied by far earlier times.

This stretch of Carrick coast was where Robert the Bruce landed in 1307 as he began the fightback from his early defeats. A resurgence that eventually brought he and confederates like James Douglas the prize of full Scottish independence. I wonder what they would have thought of Devo Max?

Tuesday, 31 January 2012


Bruadar, 2 Partickbridge Street, Partick, Glasgow G11 6PL

What do bar reviewers do on their time off? What do they do over Christmas? What do they do to celebrate the festive period?

The answer is the same for all these questions; they visit a pub. Preferably a new one.

Bruadar is probably the newest in pub in this small city, opening early to mid December. Taking the licence of a troubled site at the foot of Byres Road. Troubled, because the licence and the ideas have passed between various owners’ hands over the last decade with no one yet making a sustained success of it. The Millhouse, The Byre and The 500 Club have all occupied the two floors beneath the main complex of flats built around the turn of the century.

This residential development sits where there was a patch of open ground and the locally famous nightclub, Volcano. Used for a scene in Trainspotting, doubling as an Edinburgh venue (just like Crosslands pub a mile and a half up the road), and the reason why I and many of my peers can’t stand Becks bottled beer. In Volcano they sold it cheap in stocks so large they didn’t bother to chill it. Now, Becks needs chilled for it to be at all palatable, but we had tight budgets so swallowed, as it were, the serving mistake. The stuff probably did the trick, as far as I remember, but the trauma remains.

Closer to today, The 500 Club was my favourite of a mediocre bunch of pubs. It also was the closest to being a pre-club type of bar, the emergence of nightclub Boho opposite the Western Infirmary seemingly a godsend. But the link didn’t stick, people arrived at the club straight from home or from bars further away.

And no succeeding bar has got any nearer to thriving. These things exercise bar chroniclers like me and @Borrachoeneldia, as they did on this visit in the Xmas run-up. Bruadar’s interior also took up some of our discussion.

The hidden beer taps placed at the back of the bar area are as confusing as they are unusual. They even had me – seasoned bar-goer in anybody’s lingua franca – enquiring about their bottle range as I assumed their draught wasn’t on yet.

But the recessed taps show the intended theme here: stylish and contemporary, chromes and smooth surfaces. But not a unified theme. The seating is mostly bench-like, basic and hard and wooden, along with picnic tables. The kind of seating you inhabit in a Bier Keller in Germany as you gulp from a Stein. Probably the expected setting for the main draw in Bruadar, craft beer.

(Pic: BeerMonkey)

The owners, Thomson Fuller, have tasted success with pub operations in Dundee and Edinburgh. Their first foray west has pinpointed the sourcing of cask beer from small and local breweries as being the key to success. Perhaps it is unfortunate that they have located this attempt adjacent to The Three Judges, and only a few hundred yards from Brewdog, arguably the two bars in Glasgow who concentrate the most heavily on craft beer.

The local is good, wholesome is best, authentic is King are the maxims behind this pub. Indeed one its tag lines is “Heartfelt Beer & Burgers” which although gives their message is way too earnest.
Maybe it’s a prejudice of mine to think that craft beer and a slick interior don’t go together but it is only the Belgians who have yet successfully married beer headlining the show in a sophisticated, elegant interior. Bruadar’s pool tables upstairs don’t do anything to change that feeling of mine.

So an uninspiring refurb and one that missed a wow feature that would have been the talk of Partick if not further afield. How about a raised area of seating with one chair facing right up the length of Byres Road? This was Borrachoeneldia’s idea and the best of the afternoon. It would be the ultimate in VIP seating.

Another good idea was sharing a bottle of Lovibonds Dark Reserve despite the £15 tag. I have mislaid my tasting notes from that afternoon but do remember the caramels that lingered on the tongue. I logged extensive detail on the notable fragrances, colours and tastes from the beers we sampled in my wee red book but it was lost somewhere between the pub and home. Anyone who finds it should place it in an envelope and address it as follows: FREEPOST, THE BAR BIOGRAPHER, THE NEW WEST END, GLASGOW. It will get to its rightful destination.

Anyway, the other beers, bottled and regular or rotating draught selections, included Black Isle Dark Porter, Profanity Stout and Goldeneye Pale Ale. But the winner was the Tempest Red Eye, brewed in Kelso. It took the promise of the Lovibonds and delivered on it. A fully rounded flavour with no discordant notes (there, that’s not bad for an off-the-cuff description) meant we had to repeat the pleasure at least twice.

Around that time we called an end to the Bruadar experience, made our final pronouncements on its future and shuffled out the door. Our verdict was that it will have to work hard to last long; location, niche and market conditions all against it. But hopefully it trades well because the Scottish scene needs quality of product put at the forefront, and hopefully they don’t expect too generous deals from all these smaller breweries.

Word since Xmas is that Bruadar has experienced some busy evenings amidst the quietest period of the year, but observers noticed that the Tennents was proving more popular than the craft offerings.

As for our afternoon, Borrachoeneldia headed to his favourite Friday bolthole (even though it was a Wednesday) and I began walking up Byres Road looking for even more adventure. Somewhere on that journey, as mentioned earlier, the wee red book was lost. Remember please to return it, if it resurfaces, to the address above. You will be rewarded. Maybe not in this life…

Thursday, 12 January 2012


Many of my best memories come from times spent in alleys. In my youth I would often walk home via as many alleyways or lanes as possible, seeing how much of the main roads and bright lights I could avoid. I even raked some back-of-premises bins in desperate times in the mid 90s.

These were the days, or rather the evenings, before the Bar Biographer was born. As was the night running into the early morning in the lane behind Oran Mor when, behaving contrary to my usual predilections, and amidst pouring rain, a sodden mattress, various other bits of broken furniture, toxic waste and kitchen slops, I met a gorgeous, passionate brunette and we damn near consummated our never-to-be relationship. I refuse to say any more about it, other than state the fact that bar reviewers can have their hearts broken by more than just a beautiful pub interior.

Adding to the list of alley adventures there was the time in Barcelona, once again after a nightclub’s chucking out time, near the Placa Reial in the Barre Gotic. This escapade involved a prostitute pestering me for sex for a full thirty-five minutes while I waited for friends to emerge from the underground club premises. It soon escalated into a stramash that unfolded down several dark alleys and included her pimp, a large stick, local residents emptying buckets of unidentified liquid down three storeys and officers from the Policia Nacional, when I realised she had somehow extricated a 20 Euro note from my front jeans’ pocket.

The situation was resolved but not to my satisfaction. Still out of pocket, as it were. However, on returning to my hotel, I did have a faint recollection that I had, in fact, spent that last note buying a round for a group of impressionable – I’d hoped - women.

At present only a handful of establishments in Glasgow utilise this superb brand of location by placing themselves in the streets behind the streets. Universal, in Bath Street Lane; Stereo on Renfield Lane; the famous Horseshoe, Drury Lane, along with the bar formerly known as O’Henry’s; and of course, the bars that make up Ashton Lane.

But these are almost exclusively old developments on lanes that have become regular thoroughfares, no real mystery to them and hence not much romance or atmosphere either.

Edinburgh has a few notable pubs in its Old Town closes, The Jolly Judge, Jinglin Geordie and The Halfway House. The New Town has its counterparts hiding in various mews. An eclectic bunch featuring Kay’s, The Star Bar, The Outhouse and others. These too, though, are places of long-standing.

What I would like to see is the use of some narrow, ancient, decrepit, forgotten alleys like you get in the aforementioned capital of Catalonia. There, you walk down one narrow street into a narrower alley then into an even narrower back alley, and just when you are thinking of turning around you find the best wee cocktail bar in the world or a 3 Michelin-starred restaurant.

I know there is a problem of city architecture here, old streets and wynds having been cleared by the City Improvement (!) Trust over the years, but I don’t care. I’d send in the bulldozers and the excavators to reverse these changes if thats what it takes.

Failing that there are interesting little ways off Trongate, and other central areas that could be ripe for little joints. Free houses with just a hatch or single door and room enough for just a handful of punters.

Clubs have been leading the way, opening up in unlikely back street settings: Buff Club, SWG3, The Glue Factory and The Flying Duck are notable venues.

In the meantime, while I plan my approach to our city planners, how about some bars opening in Anchor Lane between West George Street and St. Vincent Place? Take a look down it next time you’re near Queen Street Station. You can picture the scene, a new city-centre oasis of attractive bars, a wellspring coursing with people of all ages having a good time; because I’m not the only one that enjoys hanging-out in alleys.