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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Dennistoun Duke Street - Old v New - Part Two

Redmond's, 304 Duke Street, Glasgow G31
The Duchess of Duke Street,380 Duke Street, Glasgow G31
The Vintage at Drygate, 85 Drygate, Glasgow G4

“Eh, I haven’t been that far along the street,” said the barman in Redmond’s, the newest bar on Duke Street, Dennistoun. I had recognised him from Bo Bar and a number of other West End joints, but now he had headed east, and judging from the general thrust of his conversation he felt that he was now part of where it was “at”, the new place to be.

He had mentioned the Duchess Of Duke Street and Bar-B-Que - and The Vintage at Drygate back towards town beside the Tennent’s brewery. But as soon as I told him my pals and I had, that evening, been in the Alexandra and The Crown Creighton, he suddenly became reticent. As if an iron curtain was in place halfway along the Dennistoun stretch of Duke Street, and a corresponding division in his mind between one half of the area and the other.

Redmond’s is clearly in the incomers’ camp, the large variety of craft beers on draught and in bottle, and the emphasis upon food the obvious clues. Its interior is simple, verging on basic, with a low ceiling, cheap-looking booth partitions, and a bluey grey colour scheme. The statement seems to be, “Forget the interior, it’s all about the beer.”

But more could have been done in here, rather than just mimicking Brewdog. There is a recessed den-like area decorated with a mosaic wallpaper – the owners were conducting a family meeting in it the first afternoon I visited Redmond’s – but it needs more, it needs a striking feature or a creative deployment of seating to make it a true focal point. And the toilets need more than just the partial refurb they have been given.

On that same afternoon, a guy walked in looking slightly bewildered, seemingly unaware of the new premises and the changes from when this was Isa’s Bar or Molly’s Bar or the New Variety. He went up to the bar, nonetheless, and ordered…a Smirnoff Ice. I sucked my teeth in anticipation. Others –drinking snobs – would have laughed inwardly at the unsophistication of the guy. But that was what he wanted to drink. No comment required.
Of course, Redmond’s don’t stock alcopops. The barman did his best to sound apologetic but the bloke was out the door in less than five seconds, not waiting to hear of any alternatives if such an attempt was going to be made to suggest them. As a new bar it’s all very being “true to your ethos” as innumerable ad slogans declare, but you still have to offer things to punters who’ve experienced the old place.

The Duchess of Duke Street, just along the street (but not too far), seems to fit in with area’s history a little better, even allowing for the name being borrowed from a ‘70s TV series set in Edwardian London. Inhabiting the premises of Mills Bar, it is painted black with decent hanging baskets giving the place a substantial, refined appearance, this added to by a pleasant use of dark wood inside.

I also like the full-length glass retractable doors that allow a wide panel opening to enjoy some sun and air, prevailing wind allowing. Other things that work include the slashes of green in the lightshades, the velvet corner of the room, and the boxed whiskies in the gantry. Less impressive elements include the incongruous table top on a barrel, the cut-price toilet refurb and the tearoom look of the main eating area.

Not that this last bit seemed to bother the fair number of folk eating well as I drank. Most of their number were women, perhaps some of the growing number of “ladies who lunch” in Dennistoun. There is a standard list of cocktails in the Duchess at £5.50 – a reasonable price. And the draught beer comes in at the low 3s, with the ‘craft’ beer bottles at a price slightly below what you would pay in the City Centre or West End.

A bearded one had walked in during my more intense observations. His more regular venue was probably The Vintage - that flagbearer of change east of High Street. I recently met a founder member of that enterprise – he now helps drive the development of the Spit/Fire Bar in Edinburgh. Both these joints are interesting spaces with innovative marketing and drink creations/selections. But for some unexplainable reason the two of them are as sterile as the brewing vessels in The Vintage.

And the same tag can be applied to many incoming bars – a severe lack of revelry contained within their walls. I could demonstrate it across the world, if the day (or night) ever comes when I am paid handsomely to tour and review.

They are riding a wave called “gentrification” that mostly destroys more than it creates. OK, bars are just one small component of the whole phenomenon, but they demonstrate the vacuum that the process can bring to an area or a community.

At their worst, these pubs possess no edge, no warmth, no excitement, no welcome, no frisson, no communality. They provide no reference to place or past and render their target area as just another offshoot amongst countless offshoots of the area deemed to be the most fashionable in present existence.

I went on record around a year ago in forecasting Dennistoun as being the “next Finnieston.” Often, being right is no comfort.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Dennistoun Duke Street - Old v New - Part One

Alexandra Bar, 468 Duke Street, Glasgow G31
The Crown Creighton, 480 Duke Street
The Duke, 631 Duke Street
The Snug, 402 Duke Street
Garvale Inn, 187 Reidvale Street, Glasgow G31

Duke Street is a famous thoroughfare, as far as Scottish thoroughfares fare in popular consciousness. Thanks to a number of articles and documentaries – most notably the excellent The History of Our Streets – it is now widely known to be the longest street in the UK. But a few other, more interesting, facts emerged, too.

For instance, Britain’s first housing association was formed in the Dennistoun area around Duke Street in the 1960s, and Duke Street and its environs were originally designed – in Victorian times - as a bucolic overflow from the overcrowding and squalor of areas nearer the centre of Glasgow such as High Street and Saltmarket.

Gardens and squares surrounded by large houses and substantial terraces characterise the area north of the street, while more standard “working class” tenements fill in on the south between Duke Street and the railway line. This dichotomy defines Dennistoun, and perhaps explains why all the pubs are on the south side of Duke Street and any cafes and restaurants to the north.

Ever since house prices the west end of the city really began to rocket, north Dennistoun has increasingly become an overflow from that part of town. But that is only one way of looking at it. Perhaps that class of people were there from the very origins of the district and it’s only now that the microscope of 21st-century social inquiry has been employed we outsiders can observe and comment fully.

Whatever the truth, Dennistoun is now, as before, at the front end of urban change. And the fortunes of its pubs, of course, reflect that.

Bars such as the The Alexandra, The Duke and the Crown Creighton have been watering Dennsitoun’s citizens since at least the late 1800’s, as old as the tenements housing them.

In the heyday of Glasgow pubs, local demand and travelling workers would have kept these bars buzzing and thriving. The slow decline since then means they are much quieter, especially midweek. And the area lacks the kind of passing trade only enjoyed by the city centre and west end.

On the occasions that I have been that passing trade, the impression is that these are definitely ‘locals’ much as I hate using that term. Punters know each other and the staff. But not to the exclusion of everyone else. A pretty good state of things.

Of the well-established Dennistoun joints The Alexandra is the largest and most notable. Trading since 1891 under the same name, it shares its title with the main road running parallel to Duke Street – Alexandra Parade.

Inside its walls there are two rooms, one with relatively modern décor and a blue-baize pool table, the other larger area with a large island bar and more traditional fittings and appearance. Elements that make up a decent-looking pub of this era – a tidy gantry, red ceilings with gold cornicing, red leather banquettes and elegant booths – are all present. And I am reminded of another bar in another city, The Central Bar in Leith. Both places that are perhaps past their best days but which still present excellent examples of pub architecture.

Prices are good - £2.70 a pint of basic draught lagers and beers and signs let you know that “All bottled beers = 50 bob”. A downside is, however, the very limited whisky selection. Very poor for one’s national drink.

From my knowledge, the Alexandra is the busiest bar in the area, and its numerous TVs allow it to cater for the big-match demand. Saturdays can still get pretty busy around here, with or without football.

The Duke and the Crown Creighton have more modest interiors, and share an understated clientele. Of the two – The Duke, with its rapidly crumbling exterior looks the one most likely to be at risk of closure.

These three are located at the eastern end of the Dennistoun stretch of Duke Street. The Snug is a little further west. It shares the more upbeat atmosphere of The Alexandra, condensed into a far smaller interior. For some years the property lay empty, after the demise of the original – Ramsay’s – a mainstay of the area, owned firstly by the eponymous John Ramsay, a well-regarded publican who blended his own whisky in the cellars.

Traditionalists might think that was that for Dennistoun, but they could delve a little more and find one more example of an unfashionable bar. Down a side street – Garfield Street – is the Garvale Inn, an obscure place that even the most comprehensive of bar guides seem to have forgotten.

We’ve all heard of the apocryphal “one man and his dog” in the context of pubs. This place is so tiny that such a couple would take up around 20% of the available space.
Not that that is an issue for me, most of the best bars are on the small side, but the Garvale’s modest dimensions are accompanied by an air of limited resources, too.

There is room for a TV and a dart board, but these feel like an extravagance in here. Even more sorry is the small, ill-composed photo montage of “good times” like one sees in many holiday bars, along with the paper currency of innumerable countries pinned to the ceiling.

No notes are on display here, however, again it would feel like an affront to the parlous state of the place and its punters. Approaching the counter, I couldn’t see any pumps – “Perhaps this place can’t even afford draught beer,” I thought. But they were there, a guy sitting at the bar had obscured my view. As it happened, the Best was off, no matter, I took a cheap lager instead.

This joint appears like a community initiative, a venture to give locals a place to go to during long afternoons – with no thought to profit and loss. Who knows how much the Garvale makes or loses, but pubs like this used to do OK, and there were hundreds like it all across the city.

But the bar business isn’t like it used to be, as I will show when I look at the newcomers to Duke Street in my next blog.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Free Strathbungo

The Rum Shack, 657-659 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow G41 2AB
The Allison Arms, 720 Pollokshaws Road, G41 2AD
Heraghty's Bar, 708 Pollokshaws Road, G41 2AD
Kelly's Bar, 686-688 Pollokshaws Road, G41 2QB
The Salisbury Bar, 72 Nithsdale Road, G41 2AN

I neglect the Southside. Just like some people neglect an unassuming cousin or an earnest columnist. Every so often – of course – a new bar opens and my interest is piqued – for an hour or two. Sometimes longer, if there is a concerted development in an area.

The last time this occurred was over a decade ago around Shawlands Cross, the Southside’s only real nightlife hub. Since then, things have quietened in that particular zone, partly due to the recession.

The most recent scene of activity is further up Pollokshaws Road, at Strathbungo. The Bungo, for instance, on Nithsdale Road is at the forefront of a number of bars, restaurants and innumerable coffee shops opening here in the last three to four years.

Being part of a mini-empire including The Left Bank (Gibson Street) and The Two Figs (lower Byres Road), it has a relatively high profile, a large flexible interior and a downstairs space that has been utilised for a variety of arts events. Add to that the fact that I ate one of the best curries of my life (Goan fish) in The Left Bank and I should like The Bungo.

But it lacks the edge you feel in the best bars, it’s a little too respectable. And it does feel like a West End import. Also, I had an unpleasant confrontation with one of the co-owners when she was a humble barperson at Oran Mor. She took great exception to me exploring the about-to-open brasserie/wine bar. Thus, I am reluctant to ever add another penny to her fortune by imbibing in any of her establishments.

Over Nithsdale Road is The Salisbury. Previously a coffee shop called Cookie, this re-invention is notable for its large selection of gins. Despite the offsetting of the more traditional Titwood and Samuel Dow bars in the same street, some locals regard the area as being under attack by gentrification – more on this later.

If you return to Pollokshaws Road, you look right and see Mulberry, a place that still regards itself as “the Southside’s coolest bar/bistro.” It isn’t. And I’m afraid, even a decade a go, it wasn’t. All-round media man Dominik Diamond was a frequenter in those days – that tells one all one needs.

To your left, are a number of more “authentic” locals, including Kelly’s. It also has a Diamond connection. He claimed in his autobiography that he experienced his nadir when he found himself consuming vast amounts cocaine in Kelly’s toilets, either before or after a Celtic game. Not quite the same as an epiphany in Groucho’s but he has since “found himself” again, this time as a decent God-fearing fellow, I believe.
So bully for him.

The nearest bar to Kelly’s is Heraghty’s. I believe it shares its neighbour’s footballing allegiance but surpasses it in terms of interior. It is well-preserved and has an interesting nook by the door.

A nice wee place, but the most rewarding joint on this side of the street is the Allison Arms. The stone-clad frontage reminds me of the Doublet and the now-defunct Mackintoshes. The use of brick is continued indoors with varied effect, looking scrappy in places. In fact, at first look the whole interior is slightly ramshackle, and it looks like a very basic knock-through extension has taken place sometime in the last 30 years or so, without much effort to smooth the marriage, so to speak.

However, there are a couple of details that made me warm to the place. The wooden gantry is beautifully bowed with age. OK, so there are lots more impressive-looking gantries in this city, but not many that speak of their longevity and of witnessing years of good times quite so vividly.

And there is an original spittoon! It makes my day seeing one of these. There are only a handful left in Glasgow, their presence very welcome despite their present-day redundancy. Spitting in a bar?! It’s almost as heinous as getting drunk.

But if you do want to at least approach that state, you can take your pick from a healthy variety of unusual bottled beers from around the globe – three fridges-full of them. This kind of offering is the best price-efficient way of bars offering a wide range without the cost of putting on draught – showing that the craft-beer revolution has spread its influence very far.

In this kind of bar you can thus have the best of both worlds – a good choice of tasty beers in an environment free of bearded nerds blethering on about cask-conditioning. Did I mention Brewdog?

If I did it is as a contrast to the free house over the road from the Allison Arms – The Rum Shack. This is very much a one-off, especially round here. The name gives it away – a Caribbean experience. And before you groan about yet another themed joint, this place isn’t just another chain tiki bar, it is run by people with a genuine feel for that part of the world and its culture.

In this site used to be Strathie’s and, more famously, The Kind Man’s, and housed a snooker hall downstairs. That same space now holds regular music nights; reggae, soul, blues and ragtime the constituent parts of a body of sounds that rivals that of many dedicated musical venues.

Five minutes into The Rum Shack and I notice the presence of Ford Kiernan. Ho-hum. Five minutes after that, and in comes Bruce Morton, a comedian I’ve always found more interesting than the former chap. They began talking. I tried to eavesdrop. Not ethical but good if you want an edge to your piece with some insider information.

But I couldn’t get close enough, so used my imagination instead. It came up with a new sitcom. Or an agitprop radio series of which you used to hear pretty regularly on public broadcasting. Or just a coming night at The Stand.

I left with my questions unanswered, but with a free magazine in my hand – Art Village Voice – Arts and Culture in the Southside. Later, I read a piece within by Mr. Morton. The article was part of his ongoing satire – the Greater Shawlands Republic, in which he campaigns for Southside autonomy from the market-driven claws of GCC and its encouragement of gentrification.

A funny wee read, from a man passionate about this area – not bad for a guy from Paisley. And his aim is to create what could be described as a funky republic, of which The Rum Shack could be a mini version.

The magazine also features a number of local artists, the most interesting of which, if I can tender my second artistic opinion of this piece, is Brian W McFie – look out for his work.

On the back of the magazine, restaurateur Domenico Crolla showcases his pizzas which feature likenesses of celebs such as Gino D’Acampo, Tom Ford and Jay Z. He describes these things as works of art. I’m sorry, Mr Crolla, volunteering my third artistic judgement - this blog is closer to that definition than your pieces of dough, tomato and cheese.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Yards of Belfast

The Pavilion, 269 Ormeau Road, Belfast
The National Grande Cafe, 62-68 High Street, Belfast
The Dirty Onion, 3 Hill Street, Belfast
The Spaniard, 3 Skipper Street, Belfast
The Hudson, 10-12 Gresham Street, Belfast

It is now a tradition. We spend Christmas in Northern Ireland. With The Muse’s family. That means rural living for a few days. It makes a nice change from the city, the WiFi blackspots notwithstanding.

But if Belfast calls I don’t take long to answer. I’ve been drinking in its scene for over a decade and I’m always keen on a re-acquaintance. The most recent of these was Boxing Day night with a companion who is a resident of the city. The Muse and BB Junior were heading back further west leaving me with some exploring time.

Our first stop was The Pavilion, nicknamed The Big House, on Ormeau Road. Situated about two miles east of the city centre it can be considered a ‘local’ but it gathers custom from further afield. Part of its fame is its big brother, Lavery’s. That too might have been on our agenda but as things turned out we decided against giving that place or any its relations a glimpse of our greenbacks.

The Pavilion/Big House is housed a red-brick Victorian/Edwardian building of the kind found in the more prosperous areas of the city; an architectural feature that has more in common with England than with Scotland.

The place boasts a public bar, boutique bar, loft bar, pool room and roof terrace. An impressive list. The public bar, on the ground floor, is traditional in appearance with some decent features worth a second look. I was doing just that – having left my friend to order while talking to a fellow he appeared to know at the counter – when a harsh noise made me turn.

A woman was slapping my companion about the head and screaming. Yeah, you read it right. My eyes were thinking they were seeing things, too. And it got crazier. I step in and pull her away only to be told by the fellow at the bar, “If you touch her I’ll kill you.”

Who knows where things would have gone because here the action was brought to halt by the cavalry, sorry, the bouncers. They proceeded to escort US out the premises. But we weren’t worried; the male and female stewards were very reasonable and told us they would check the CCTV before doing anything. Then the head steward arrived – a big, bald chap with an unfeasibly high voice. More reasonableness will follow, I thought.

“You have to get out,” he said. “They’ve been here for hours and you’ve only just arrived.” My mouth must have fallen open. Or if it didn’t, I should have prised it into that position. How else can you respond to such a perversion of logic? The guy would brook no argument. Eventually, we just shrugged our shoulders. I did consider asking him when, exactly, his balls were gonna drop, but decided against it. Within two minutes we had a taxi, and within ten we were over the river and into Belfast city centre proper.

We visited four more bars/clubs that night and three of the four had massive outdoor areas, all well used despite the biting cold. I believe the locals call these “yards”. Even if they don’t, they should. It’s an evocative word that harks back to older drinking days.

But these bars - The National Grand Cafe, Dirty Onion and The Hudson – aren’t old-fashioned drinking dens, they are modern places that attract a predominantly youngish crowd. Maybe a bit too homogeneous on a normal weekend night but on Boxing Day night you get more of a mix.

The latter two bars have yards that are so extensive they merge almost seamlessly with the indoor parts. In The Hudson you walk around the labyrinthine collection of upstairs and downstairs; side room and back room; and yard without really realising where you are, only the slight change in temperature providing a clue.

Amongst these visits we also managed to sneak a quick G&T in The Spaniard, a small bar with no outside provision that, because of its size and warming interior, always has a decent atmosphere. It could just as easily sit in a port in the eponymous country or by a canal in Amsterdam; such is its Europhile nature.

A couple more observations will suffice – Dirty Onion has a section of its yard that is non-smoking. For no reason. Silly enough in itself but even more so the punters standing in this section in the chilly conditions. Why would you?

The Hudson was our last stop. Unusually for Belfast it is open until 2am, the extra hour something we appreciated as we compared whisky with whiskey until last orders.

An hour and a half earlier we had queued for 5-10 minutes as the bouncers regulated the intake. We, and those around us, were patient, knowing that it was only a matter of brief time. A dark-haired woman arrived and immediately walked to the front of the queue and began talking to the door people. She was wearing one of those ridiculous, full-length puffa coats and – admittedly – quite elegant high heels.

She said she was on the guest list and she needed to get in right away. At first the staff seemed amenable but then realised she was on no list on any clipboard they could find. She wasn’t happy and her tone changed accordingly. Very reasonably, the main bouncer told her all she had to do was queue, like everyone else, and she would get in. But if she insisted on being a pain they would have to insist on barring her entry altogether.

Of course, the head doorperson didn’t quite have that turn of phrase, but that was the gist of it. The moral is – don’t try to convince people of your glamour and connections when you look like a penguin in stilettos.

For those of you interested in exactly why my mate was set upon in our first pub of the night – it was to do with ongoing fallout from an ex. No need to say more.