Bringing you all the latest news about restaurants, cafes, bistros and pubs in Glasgow West End – and beyond. Nobody has quite so much lowdown on Glasgow pubs and restaurants as Roy Beers:
Oran Mor at the top of the road has enough reasons for celebration these days, having notched up an astonishing 300 performances in the groundbreaking A Play, A Pie and a Pint series – which is just one of the more prominent and far-reaching successes established in the super-ambitious venture launched by Colin Beattie.
Recent press coverage of Oran Mor centres on the plays, and also on the mural work carried in the magnificent upper hall by local artist-author Alasdair Gray, who is now apparently about to enlarge the geographical range of places depicted in his colossal endeavour by going as far east, artistically speaking, as …. Edinburgh.
However wander a little farther down Byres Road from this unqualified West End success story and – if you were a visitor – you might wonder if the place was being gradually demolished.
There’s the former sites of Heart Buchanan and Blockbuster lying conspicuously empty, also the large former Clinton Cards branch, while on a lengthy stretch of road outside the Curlers a major building site is in full swing – a visual atrocity which, however, doesn’t seem to have deterred weekend revellers in the least.
Passing by the now-closed fruit and veg shop there’s what must now be the ugliest shut-down business in the West End, the scandalous and derelict former Otto bar-diner, which has been a shocking architectural sore thumb for far too many months now.
We’ve reminded readers previously that this site (immediately opposite The Aragon) once played host to The Rubaiyat, arguably one of the finest pubs ever to grace the circuit back in its 70’s and 80’s heyday.
Now it is an abomination, adorned by a forlorn “This pub is for lease” sign – which so far does not appear to have attracted any obvious interest.
The licensed property game can move very slowly indeed, and if a new leaseholder does come forward – and is convinced that he or she can make a success of a business on that site – it could take time to get all of the legalistic p’s and q’s in order.
There’s also the fact the place (refurbishment apparently planned) needs – we’re reliably informed – major interior work.
A bit farther down the hill there are some more encouraging signs. The former PJ’s basement venue appears to be trading well as Faktory, and if you want to find out more about what’s going on there you should check out the venue’s Facebook site.
Meanwhile just beyond Partick Cross the former Bruadar pub, which resurfaced briefly over the festive period, has now been relaunched as The Inn at the Cross by a new operator, and will clearly be out to make an impression from the start.
But as things stand you couldn’t possible advise anyone from out of town that Byres Road was in any sense a fun place to be – even with off-street attractions like Hanoi Bike Shop in Ruthven Lane to look forward to (this particular restaurant has been “hit-listed” in one of Scotland’s main food guides as being one of the places diners really need to visit in Glasgow).
Until now attractions ranging from Oran Mor to Booly Mardi’s to the Bike Shop, Bar Soba and other quality outlets have had to put up with a general trading environment which seemed to be distintegrating visibly by the week.
But at last, along with some paltry rays of weak late spring sunshine, comes good news.
The West End Festival is back … as in back in Byres Road where (many local people argue) it really belongs.
We’re talking of course about the return of the Mardi Gras parade, which will see the whole of Byres Road transformed into one huge family party occasion all the way from the Botanics to Partick Cross on Sunday, June 9. It’s possible 50,000 may attend – perhaps more.
For local traders it is fantastic news. I remember the chagrin which met the decision – forced on the organisers – to shunt what had become one of Scotland’s most successful urban festival highlights to Kelvingrove Park, where a lightweight assortment of stalls practically disappeared beneath tens of thousands of bemused visitors.
There are hundreds of events large and small in the Festival, and the Parade was never intended as more than an eyecatching entertainment to open the festivities, but in the year it left Byres Road it was exactly as if the circus had packed up and left town – of festival “buzz” around Byres Road there was little to be found, with the notable exception of events in Oran Mor, Brel in Ashton Lane and one or two other active West End trade players.
Last year some enterprising young musicians (sorry, forget name) even took to staging small “guerrilla parades” down Byres Road at quietish times on a Sunday, bringing back a spark of the old magic – but this time around we can look forward to a full scale extravaganza, rain or shine.
Meanwhile the Gibson Street Party and the Glasgow Mela, in Kelvingrove Park, will be on my personal list of favourite events – so it’s not as if there isn’t anything happening away from Byres Road.
The return of the parade is excellent news for the Festival and for the whole area, however, since while it is after all just one day of restrained bohemian fun it sends a strong signal far and wide that Byres Road and Partick Cross really are the heart of the West End – worth visiting at any time of year.
That roadworks atrocity outside Curlers (which has nevertheless produced a nice new slab-concrete pavement extension) will, thankfully, be gone on May 31, in nice time to see the area transformed, if only briefly, into something like the lively and cosmopolitan hub the newspapers keep assuring us it is.
Meanwhile, as ever, there is plenty happening on the dining and quality food shopping scene in other areas of the West End.
With absolutely no publicity, what had been the Quel Vin wine shop operated by the owners of Paperino’s and La Parmigiana has been sold to brewing enterprise the Williams Brothers – who for good measure have also taken over their near-adjacent pub (the one that offers a railings-side view of the river), formerly the Deep Blue, beside the Kelvin.
It is a remarkable realignment of local assets for the Italo-Scottish former owners, and sees the arrival on that prime Kelvinbridge stretch of a completely “new” operator (whose sterling cask ale products, however, are familiar to customers at The Three Judges at Partick Cross).
In place of Quel Vin would-be customers will be faced with the highly unusual new name for the venue, Valhalla’s Goat – which sounds a bit like some long-lost prog rock brand of the distant 70’s.
In fact, as the lady behind the counter wearily but cheerfully informed me (it is going to get through to the staff having to explain the name, endlessly) it derives from Norse legend, and the super-enormous goat that was able to supply huge amounts of beer to Odin’s ferocious Viking heroes.
The Norse influence taps into the ancestral Hebridean brewing recipes used by the Williams Brothers in some of their highly-respected beers – of which the best known in probably Fraoch heather ale.
The new incarnation of this site will now offer, unsurprisingly, a vast and eclectic range of speciality beers, besides wines, premium spirits, quality cigars, fancy chocolates and all sorts of other goodies – not least the William Brothers’ own ales.
Meanwhile the pub has been renamed “Inn Deep”, and – somewhat in synch with the wine and beer shop – is offering no less than 121 different beers (last time we checked) to tempt ever-curious customers.
As a joint proposition it’s a major move away from the previous offers, and brings something refreshingly different to an area where there’s a large and potentially very appreciative local clientele, just waiting for the “right” place to come along.
So-called “craft beer” is in, in a big way, and the made-in-Scotland, hard-won street cred of the Williams Brothers will make both the pub and the shop a major draw for connoisseurs of fine ales – neatly complementing, perhaps, the brilliant job The Cave has been doing on the other side of Kelvin Bridge for many years.
If anyone asked me to guess what international food offer would be next to move into Kelvinbridge I’d probably hazard a guess at something Asian – but I’d be dead wrong.
The premises on the corner of Great Western Road and Park Road which was most recently a children’s clothes shop, and which before that was a North African cafe, is now back in African territory – but at the other end of the continent.
Called Veldt, this outlet has been transformed into one very airy and attractive cafe-deli, with an extraordinary range of Afrikaner produce most of us have probably never heard of before (including a Malay-derived curry called Bobotie, which came to what was then the land of the Boers from the Dutch East India colonies in Batavia).
With native African as well as European and Asian influences, Afrikaner cuisine is a culinary adventure story, with plenty of “new” things to try – and a very promising newcomer to the increasingly lively Kelvinbridge food shopping and dining selection. Much more on this interesting arrival in future.
We don’t generally do “reviews” as such on this blog, preferring simply to note things that seem particularly interesting – now and then adding an honest opinion about something we thought really good.
However we’ve got to make an exception for Byblos, the Lebanese bistro practically next door to Veldt, on Park Road, a family enterprise which has pulled out all the stops to bring us that most elusive of commodities, the “authentic Lebanese shawarma”.
We mentioned the fabulous, vigour-inducing Lebanese coffee on offer here just after it opened last year, but while the menu certainly looks interesting enough – a tight but carefully-chosen selection of Lebanese cafe favourites – its entrees are just superb, and clearly produced to order.
There’s a choice of snack options, like the lamb and chicken shawarmas Pat Byrne and I ordered, or what amount to full meals, and we’re left in no doubt that accomplished traditional Lebanese cookery, involving subtle use of spices (as in the neighbouring cuisine of Persia), is the main offer here.
Byblos, it is obvious, is more than just a theme. It is the fascinating home town of owner Joseph and his family, a place with a history that was already deeply ancient during the days of Richard Coeur de Lion and Salah-ad-Din – it’s generally reckoned the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world.
Once the thriving territory of ancient Phoenicia, it would be all too easy to gaze out on the Mediterranean from Byblos Port and imagine Masefield’s “quinquiremes of Nineveh” putting into harbour.
It is certainly one of the world’s most beautiful and beguiling cities, replete with unforgettable historic sites – such as the stunning St John the Baptist church beside the old Crusader fortress – set in a balmy cityscape of lush gardens and palm groves.
The family behind Byblos, Park Road, grew up around this and other living monuments to an illustrious tradition, and are quietly and jovially very proud of their native cuisine, which – along with the family – is obviously central to their rich Lebanese culture.
That, in my humble opinion, is the ingredient you don’t always catch in a fleeting visit – or a clinical if generally accurate review of the food.
Like all good family bistros, it’s a one-off and, crucially, a nice place to be.
We do not yet operate a “hit list” along the lines of the guide referred to earlier (although we are working on something similar), but in an area never short of exotic delights from overseas cuisines Byblos is nevertheless something special – recommended.
The moribund former Arnold Clark garage in Vinicombe Street is reckoned set to become the latest Scottish branch of American supermarket firm Whole Foods Market – in a dramatic move which would draw hundreds of new luxury goods shoppers to the West End.
The story was exclusively broken in The Herald, and appears based on solid information, although following usual practice neither Whole Foods nor Arnold Clark are commenting for the time being.
This exactly follows the way Whole Foods prepared the ground for its new branch in Giffnock three years ago, in what was the first venture for the firm outside London.
Months of speculation that it was set to move into a former Morrison’s store in Fenwick Road finally ended when East Renfrewshire’s since-closed local newspaper found details of the opening in a schedule listing on the company’s American website.
The opening – the only Whole Foods branch in Scotland so far – is reckoned to have transformed Giffnock, thanks to the volume of customers now using what was previously a backwater suburban shopping thoroughfare. Local projects have also benefited from “planning gain” cash from Whole Foods – which makes a policy of heavily supporting local community initiatives.
Now, according to The Herald, the firm is gearing up to move into the West End, and in a site just yards from the Waitrose branch on Byres Road that’s said to have exceeded all trading expectations.
Coming just days after the news that fine dining venture Heart Buchanan had closed, and with other trading casualties littered along the length of Byres Road, Whole Foods’ potential move could draw a major new seam of shoppers to the area – while solving the problem of what to do with the eyesore Edwardian era former garage.
This building has been an architectural bone of contention for years, with local community activists claiming it should be preserved as a motoring museum, or even used as an annexe of the Museum of Transport.
However the oil-sodden shell – whose distinctive facade is its only real attraction – is unlikely to find backing for such a scheme. A previous attempt to put the building to good use, by turning it into a mixed offices and retail complex, was scrapped after significant local objections.
According to The Herald there remain concerns that a Whole Foods branch on this site would bring an unacceptable overload of traffic to an area already swamped with vehicles, but – as with controversial recent housing plans in the West End – that could become a minor detail in the clamour to bring one of the world’s most prestigious stores to Glasgow.
Whole Foods Market is massive in its home country, the USA, where it grew exponentially from a pilot venture founded by a entrepreneur convinced that a supermarket approach to organic products could win success at the wealthy end of the mass market.
Until recently the company’s UK presence was confined to London, where it operates a clutch of stores in well-heeled areas such as Knightsbridge.
Since moving into Giffnock it has signalled it aims to continue careful expansion into selected sites as and when the opportunity arises, but the apparent interest in the West End will still come as a surprise to many local people – given the effects of the recession and the cut-throat trading conditions on Byres Road.
However Whole Foods Market has a unique selling point (“incredible quality from credible sources”) that could virtually guarantee success in an area where quality food is already a main draw.
Its range of products is super-deluxe, featuring many unique lines and an unrivalled assortment of organic products (not every line is organic, but it’s the mainstay of the firm’s food offer).
There are no standard household lines to be found alongside the other fare, as for example in Waitrose, and anyone visiting will be looking purely for the best food money can buy.
Many would argue that with the solitary exception of its existing branch in Giffnock there is no operator able to offer premium quality fare on the same scale as Whole Foods anywhere in Scotland.
The Giffnock branch has a diner where you can sample some of the merchandise during a shopping trip, so if the scheme goes ahead the West End could also acquire yet another new cafe outlet.
However it’s the produce – everything from the firm’s own beer to the finest craft cheeses – that will draw the cash-happy crowds, not least at Christmas time when spending on deluxe goods (recession or no recession) accelerates.
If the move does go ahead it’s fair to say it will amount to the most significant retail opening in West Glasgow since the launch of Oran Mor, and will make the West End a destination venue for north-side customers (for example from the bungalow belt suburbia around Bearsden) eager to source “Harrods-style” produce within minutes of home.
Demand for luxury shopping in Milngavie has already led to demand for a local branch of Waitrose, currently awaiting council permission.
However for some West Enders the surprise Whole Foods venture in Vinicombe Street would still be “a supermarket”, in an area where – as most recently with Heart Buchanan -some independent traders are finding it hard or impossible to stay afloat.
Waitrose was blamed by some for the demise of nearby, La Cucina, and the former Roots and Fruits – immediately beside Waitrose – also shut up shop.
Meanwhile plans by Tesco for Partick have sparked major public and political opposition, amid fears the area could become a “Tesco Town” in which struggling local shops would find it impossible to compete.
The recession has already led to a rash of closures, and the opening of a large new pawnshop on Dumbarton Road.
On the other hand Waitrose and Whole Foods could argue that they operate at the upper end of the market, and that small local shops could actually benefit from the increased custom they bring.
If the scheme outlined in The Herald does go ahead, it could have major implications for community endeavours in the area.
Whole Foods positively seeks out local projects, which have a strong association with, for example, green endeavour, good food, and community wellbeing. It has been strongly involved – often with significant cash support – at a variety of schemes in East Renfrewshire, for example providing a major presence and support for the area’s September Food Festival.
There seems no reason why Whole Foods might not team up with some of the area’s leading restaurants – for example Mother India, The Ubiquitous Chip – to create a West End Food Festival.
The firm would be almost certain to lend some sort of corporate backing to the under-pressure Festival, which last year lost key sponsorship, and it could easily become involved with nearby licensed trade players – Booly Mardis and Hillhead Book Club – to run food-specific events in a Vinicombe Street “piazza” environment.
Booly’s management has already been quoted as predicting the arrival of Whole Foods literally next door would bring a lucrative new seam of custom to the area.
Many other possibilities are open to a company, which always – on previous form – sets out to seize the high ground from the outset when it comes to generous support for community projects.
For example it could be help with the fabric of the North Kelvin Community Meadow. Campaigners there are waiting to find whether the council aims to approve the West End’s latest controversial flats proposal – that is, for the site they redeemed from being a derelict waste ground and drugs den, and which is now a prime resource for local families.
However many other local schemes – particularly with an educational or environmental focus – could also benefit.
Much more on Whole Foods Market – and the planning hoops it may have to jump through – if and when the apparent plan leaked by the Herald comes closer to fruition.
Glasgow West End, along with the city centre, is a regular test bed for new drinks products of every kind – and in the past it has certainly not been unusual to see parties of jolly and brightly-attired young women dishing out free drink samples to customers in late bars and nightclubs.
But that is a very different kind of promotion to the ones carried out by beer firms determined to capture a big, appreciative market for a major new product involving a “household name” ale brand.
Long before the ads go on TV and appear at football grounds, a new beer will be seeded into “key bars” for people to try, possibly just out of curiosity – Glaswegians generally like anything “new”.
This way a beer firm about to invest vast sums of money can try to make sure that average customers will actually want to drink the stuff when it goes on sale across the country.
So that is why Oran Mor has recently been operating not one but three beer fonts for the new 3.6% abv beer McEwan’s Red. It’s an innovative “new line” for the famous McEwan’s range from its owners Wells and Young’s, the independent Bedford-based brewer, which acquired McEwan’s beers from Heineken.
McEwan’s was once a mainstay of the former Scottish Courage, and some Oran Mor regulars will remember the McEwan’s Sessions sponsored folk music sessions – which usually drew large, appreciative and thirsty crowds.
The beer was disposed of by the company, because it no longer fitted the former owner’s global marketing strategy, but these days – courtesy of Wells and Young’s – the draught version of McEwan’s Red will now be produced at Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery, meaning the direct brewing link with Scotland will be maintained.
The Bedford brewer has a solid reputation for cask ale (which, it’s been made clear to me, will certainly feature, if not necessarily in a big way, in future plans for McEwan’s) but also for products including its major keg success Bombardier.
The firm says it’s determined to breathe new life into what had been the flagging McEwan’s brand by launching a string of innovative new products, of which McEwan’s Red will be just the front-runner.
Wells and Young’s has been quietly forming plans for the past 18 months, since it acquired the brand, and – with the successful example of Belhaven Best to follow – is hoping for great things from the new red-coloured beer.
And where better to test such as product than the West End’s busiest bar?
At a launch for McEwan’s Red in Edinburgh (McEwan’s home town) Wells and Young’s chiefs predicted a born-again bright future for a beer big name they reckon can still exercise appeal, particularly with a new variant calculated to give it a contemporary spin.
We’re told Oran Mor has had its McEwan’s Red beer fonts operating a full stretch, and that the beer has run out at least once; and meanwhile customers at The Lismore in Partick have also been sampling the drink.
So if the ale does become a hit with drinkers across the whole of Scotland and the North of England (and possibly further south eventually), it can fairly be claimed that it was well and truly launched from the heart of Glasgow’s West End.
It’s being described as “a disaster” and “a tragedy” by many of its loyal legion of erstwhile customers – because sadly one of Hillhead’s enduring culinary favourites has finally shut up shop for good at the top of Byres Road.
Heart Buchanan had its work cut out, battling against heavy site costs and the recession – all the way through the dreary winter – but looked to be holding its own in the most challenging of circumstances.
Then on March 24, customers were invited to take advantage of a discount clearance sale of stock, after which – with a poignant farewell notice left painted on the window – what many people saw as the archetypal West End gourmet bistro closed its doors.
The venue’s website was still functioning this week, listing all the private dining, deluxe takeaway and other treats that will now be off the menu (presumably) forever.
Unlike another suddenly-shut Byres Road food site – of which more, below – there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of any reincarnation, with some revised kind of offer, for the foreseeable future.
That in turn seems to bear out recent newspaper doom and gloom reports of the perceived crisis hitting Byres Road retail.
Beside Heart Buchanan’s now vacant unit are the large premises occupied until very recently by Blockbuster, creating one very depressing empty stretch in what is supposed to be the most high profile part of the West End’s most famous thoroughfare.
One possibly heartening piece of news in these parts is that the former Clinton Cards shop opposite Hillhead subway – an empty eyesore for months – was “under offer” last time I passed it, although we’ll hold fire on the celebrations until we see what it’s going to become.
So apart from the obvious – high costs and straitened times – what went wrong for Heart Buchanan?
The prices certainly weren’t too steep for what was on offer, and in its particular dining format the place had that end of Byres Road to itself, with no rival operator attempting anything comparable.
The few people I have spoken to with the sort of experience that entitles them to a view on the matter say it was certainly the property fees charged on Byres Road, but also a gradual winding down of the “casual luxury” market.
It’s suggested that people are still venturing out in numbers at weekends, and for special occasions, but the weekday treat or corporate beano that could have helped Heart Buchanan retain healthy custom has died a death.
Byres Road is a strange and fickle market, where only operators who can somehow crack the difficult combination of what the public want (and are prepared to pay) can hope to prosper.
Going down market doesn’t necessarily help, as both KFC and Burger King failed to find their audience in Hillhead many years ago, and some cafes which were doing a solid job have seen four or five different revamps under new operators before finding a winning streak.
What will move into the Heart Buchanan site is anyone’s guess, as with the former Blockbuster, but meanwhile when you add this latest blow to the closed-down Otto, mid-way down the road, and the spate of closures at the bottom of Byres Road, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that food retail is a more perilous business than ever before.
Ice cream nirvana
In the autumn ice cream cafe Three Steps to Heaven shut down, with a notice to the effect that its operators “hoped” a new venture would emerge at some unspecified point in the new year.
It was another closure which horrified many local consumers, who remembered how wildly popular Three Steps had been a little over a year earlier – and not always in the middle of classic ice cream weather.
You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that Nardini’s – ice cream cafe extraordinaire – might have had something to do with the venue’s sudden demise.
Opened on the site of Morton’s, another failed cafe, Nardini’s was an instant success and was mobbed for several months before settling down to become merely “busy”.
Whether this was the main reason for Three Steps disappearing isn’t known, but few who mourned its passing can have guessed it would eventually be relaunched this wintry spring … as another ice cream cafe.
In a road whose surviving units are increasingly Italian in origin or inspiration we can now add – to Paperino’s, Little Italy, La Vita Spuntini, Tony Macaroni, Assagini, University Cafe and of course Nardini’s – a “gelateria”, and one bearing a famous name.
In Italy a gelateria is typically a rather posh proposition, and (for reasons too lengthy to explain here), tends to specialise in frozen dessert products that for general quality soar high above what we tend to think of as “ice cream”.
They may also offer deluxe bistro cuisine and even liqueurs – and don’t really resemble the Scottish notion of typical ice cream cafe in the slightest.
So we can be sure the operators behind the new venture at the former Three Steps site are making a fairly bold statement on quality even before opening the doors, which will certainly be within the next few days, or weeks at most.
But the real eyebrow-raiser is the brand name over the door. It is “Crolla” – a legendary local ice cream dynasty whose products are (to me, rightly) widely praised as among the best in Scotland.
Having this particular famous Italian name just a few feet from a venture with the legendary Nardini brand moniker is completely remarkable.
Rather than admit Nardini’s has the upper hand, profile wise, a deal has been struck which has “raised the game” by bringing Crolla straight to Byres Road, immediately beside an established fellow Italianate rival.
It’s the sort of competition where the real winners will surely be the customers, since both ventures – although they won’t say so, of course – will be trying extra hard to impress.
Since neither Nardini’s nor the new Crolla “gelateria” can hope to survive on dessert sales at this time of year, it goes without saying there will be plenty of other things to savour while we wait (in eternal hope) for warmer weather to arrive.
Thanks to Italo-Scottish entrepreneurial spirit, then, Byres Road isn’t a total disaster area after all.
Beer for all seasons
Maclay Inns’ new venue Munro’s duly opened this week on the site of the former Captain’s Rest near St George’s Cross, with a party bash that gave invitees plenty of opportunity to sample the voluminous beer choices on offer – not to mention the wine, the cask cider, speciality spirits and the rest.
One of the beers on offer is produced at the company’s south side pub The Clockwork Beer Company, and no doubt more will follow.
Everyone I’ve spoken to agrees this exciting new bar-restaurant is going to make a massive difference to this part of Great Western Road, drawing the same sort of crowd you’d expect to find at sister venture the Lansdowne, and at quality bars run by other operators nearby – for example Gambrini.
Much more on this exciting new addition to the George’s Cross scene in future weeks, but meanwhile it’s also just possible Maclay may have more local openings in store over the next year.
The company has a strong but tight portfolio of quality outlets across central Scotland, and is never in a hurry to open places simply for the sake of notching up a certain quota of units – and its measured approach seems to have been working well.
I’m told Maclay certainly has plans for more pubs in Glasgow and would like another West End outlet, but only if the right site can be found.
I can think of a brilliant unit in Byres Road which could work very well for the firm, but the fact that it’s tied up with a major leasing firm could be a disincentive … unless that company were to consider that a straight sale to a sound independent operator like Maclay could be a good move.
For Maclay it would also have to be more diner than bar, so as not to cannibalise custom at its existing success, The Three Judges at Partick Cross – but that wouldn’t be a problem.
They could even rename it The Rubaiyat, install a classical Persian-inspired design scheme, and reclaim a potent slice of long lost West End bar culture – and make lots of money.
However this is idle wishful thinking, and in the meantime at least we’ve the consolation of having three places (including Dram! in Woodlands Road) run by a local operator that patently understands the areas where it operates – and makes the most of its well-placed sites.
Curry Shop Heaven
Everyone is on the lookout for a keen deal, this weather, and The Glasgow Curry Shop – run by our sponsor Mother India – takes some beating when it comes to sizzling good value.
Its through-the-day offer gives you the choice of Thali (any two dishes) or biryani, each for just £5.75. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that this is not your “standard Glasgow curry”, and is worth taking the time to enjoy.
We’d like to say it’s worth the trip up the stairs to The Glasgow Curry Shop, Ashton Lane, just to enjoy the unique and steadily-expanding archive of photographs and articles about the history of Glasgow’s Asian restaurants, but in fact it’s the cuisine – traditional in the best sense, and not in the slightest “retro” – that makes this little hideaway treasure something really special.
But if you do have any treasured mementoes of Indian restaurants in the far-off 70’s and 80’s be sure to pass them on to the staff …and perhaps see your nostalgia immortalised in the restaurant’s gallery of fame.
One of the West End’s best-loved traditional pubs – one which can lay claim to having captured the real “flavour” of its bohemian milieu at least 35 years ago – is, we’re happy to report, well and truly saved.
Last year the very existence of The Halt bar in Woodlands Road appeared to be on the shoogliest of pegs, with scores of angry customers writing fire and brimstone messages on an online petition.
They were calling for the pub to be retained as a “real local bar” – as opposed to, say, a gastro-pub.
For reasons too laborious to go into the bar had clearly hit a rocky patch after it was obliged to pull the plug on major music events, and – spreading alarm and despondency among the regulars – a large “for lease” sign appeared outside.
Worse, as many online complainers noted, it was suggested in the property details that it might not be a bad idea to rip out the pub’s classic central bar feature and turn the place into “a gastro pub”, which as a potential development plan was about as popular with existing customers as might be a rattlesnake in a lucky dip.
The punters were incandescent with fury, incredulous horror and disbelief, but anyone who followed our coverage of the developing drama will remember we predicted only the boldest of entrepreneurs would try going down the “posh” route – it was never going to happen.
In an area hugely dominated by students and bedsit-land the idea of a bar-restaurant (in an area now seething with pubs offering food) catering for an “up market” clientele, which doesn’t really exist in these parts, was plain bonkers.
This wasn’t just my opinion, because I spoke to four or five other local operators who just couldn’t believe such a plan would ever work.
However it was obvious something would have to be done, both to recapture lost trade and to bring back some lustre to a bar which – when at its best – can easily claim its place in any top five list of “real West End pubs”.
Would it reopen as a glitzy wine bar with, say, a sideline in organic sushi?
A cheery note outside the premises advised that all would be well, while inside a swarm of builders banged, sawed, humphed and drilled.
Amid the debris, meanwhile, and plain to see through the open door, the central bar was standing there untouched, same as ever, and in fact it’s been given some extra flourishes to make it all the more prominent and characterful.
Now reopened, the only noticeable changes at the Halt have been a comprehensive sprucing-up (much needed) of the original interior, whose main features – classic snug bar and all – are just the same, more or less, as I remember them too many decades ago.
That snug used to be plastered with posters for concerts and other events, giving the place a sort of licensed arts centre look, and that’s certainly changed – but I think this is a distinct improvement: it all looks so much more spacious and, in its own quiet way, almost elegant.
In the early 80’s many traditional bars were gutted to make way for the passing fancy of style bars (the best of which were great – but the cheap copies were horrible).
Now the wheel has turned full circle, and pub design people are falling over themselves to install exactly the sort of quality wooden surrounds that gave The Halt its distinctive ambience all those years ago.
A quick chat with the bar’s amiable management this week was enough to convince me that The Halt is not only in safe hands but also nicely poised to regain its former glory.
There’s some cask ale on offer, but the bar has no intention of going head to head with the heavyweight local contenders in this area, and is instead putting the emphasis on quality wine and also what appears to be shaping up as a brilliant selection of bottled beers.
From the choice on offer it seems the bar is determined to tick all the popular boxes – for example there’s beer from the city’s German-style West Brewery – while also bringing something “new” to the West End.
Hence we find Colonsay Lager on the list – a really exotic product shipped straight from a tiny Hebridean brewery – and also Timmerman’s fruit beers, which could prove massively popular in summer.
The list, on a big board on the wall, is one very imaginative attempt to sum up everything that’s great about beer, in all its diversity, from continental specials to some stunning exemplars of Scottish brewing at its best.
What else? There are pies – reportedly excellent home-made pies – but not a trace of balsamic vinegar or rocket salad to be found anywhere in the house … for which let us all be thankful.
During my brief visit there was also the mandatory dog on the premises, supplied with its own bowl of fresh water, and clearly enjoying the banter, again underscoring the fact that this is a Real Pub where man’s best friend (as in the West Brewery’s bierkeller restaurant on Glasgow Green) is more than welcome.
People who know the place well will probably spot a great deal of other minor detail, but that’s enough to be going on with. Pub saved, no puce-coloured walls or frills and flounces; plenty of good beer; same old Halt but cleaner, brighter and better … what’s not to like?
The meaning of life – only £25
Regular visitors to Pat’s site will be well aware of the gastronomic, literary and philosophical delights to be enjoyed at the left-field but fun soirees of the Cleikum Club at Stravaigin in Gibson Street, where bon-vivants engage in earnest debate about the nature of our very existence while consuming the cornucopian (woo!) creations of the famous bar-restaurant’s ambitiously experimental kitchen.
This time, cutting straight to the chase, the aim will be to determine The Meaning of Life in a single evening, leaving the venue with the minor problem of what on earth to talk about next time (football?) if anyone comes up with the definitive answer.
The gate money is £25, the date April 4, and gourmands, aesthetes and all other such-like authentic West End savants are being advised to book now to avoid disappointment – see Stravaigin’s website for full details.
Love me tender
Meanwhile back on Woodlands Road, fun-loving pub Dram! has a very direct message for its customers.
Accepting that while romance – however fleeting its nature – could well blossom in the course of an evening at Dram!, management are also clearly aware of Burns’ poetic adage that the best laid plans gang aft agley … ie, usually don’t pan out the way we’d hoped.
Burns, we’re certain, never had this problem where “romance” was concerned – apart from that knockback from Clarinda, who to be fair was from Edinburgh – and otherwise invariably “pulled” (as the sign outside Dram! has it) during his many visits to inns and taverns.
But the pub is pragmatic enough to accept that most of us do not have the bard’s ready wit, charm, or ursine good looks, and to the disappointed in love it offers a ready solution … go home with a pizza instead.
Not the stuff that love sonnets are made of, admittedly, but on a dreich and wintry Friday night in miserable March it’s a Plan B with plenty of ready appeal.
Next month sees the launch of what will be only the fourth nightclub in the West End (following Viper, Oran Mor, Boho), in what may come to be seen as one of the smoothest transitions of its kind ever managed in Byres Road.
That is, if the sparse advance publicity for the venture is accurate – and we’ve no reason to doubt that it is.
To be called the Factory Club, this latest nitespot, presumably with 2am opening, appears certain to bring a completely new stream of traffic to the bottom end of the street, which houses the only premises I can think of where such a venture could possibly be launched.
On the site forum, one of Pat’s contributors noted that the street door facing of the presumed new club is “tiny”, but in fact a stairwell leads to a very substantial basement “tank” inside – if it’s the same place, it’s already a large-capacity bar – with plenty of room for a nightclub.
There is obviously a licensing story to be told here, since you cannot go around opening nightclubs anywhere you fancy – it’s a struggle to open a mere bar-restaurant – but I am guessing that the presumed venue’s existing late night bar permission allows it to transform from pub to club without too much difficulty.
There shouldn’t be any additional noise – a soundproofed basement shouldn’t cause problems – but it will mean two club venues within five minutes’ walk of each other in a strip which can get quite lively in the weekend small hours.
We’re not naming the site of the proposed venture until it’s positively confirmed – the Facebook page for the club is very mysterious about this – but the forum contributor who asserted it could only be launched at one address is surely right.
More news on this interesting development by and by.
A jolly battle of wits is in full swing among the embellishers of blackboards outside the sort of West End pubs which make a thing about cocktails, with each seemingly trying to outdo the others by listing snazzy and eyecatching ingredients.
Full marks this week, then, to Vodka Wodka in Ashton Lane, which has come up with a version of signature Cuban cocktail the Mojito I hadn’t heard of before (which isn’t surprising, as I don’t go for cocktails, and there are innumerable takes on the Mojito).
I’m almost tempted to try one – even if the weather outside is more Halifax Nova Scotia than Havana.
Also advertised the other day was the Caprioska, which mixes lime and brown sugar with vodka, soda water, and lots of crushed ice … which is again the sort of thing you’d expect to be served in balmy Caribbean climes.
Then, just to be different, there’s also the option of Agwa coca-leaf liqueur from Bolivia, where among the native Aymara Indian population coca-leaves are widely chewed, and also readily available in teabag form.
It’s a natural choice as base for a Bolivian spirit, as there’s a lot of the stuff about – so there’s none of the problems the Mexicans can encounter with tequila, which requires to be made with a blue-flowering agave cactus.
So what is Agwa? The publicity blurb tells us the leaves are grown 2,000m above sea level, then treated to a complex distillation process after being shipped to Amsterdam.
Other ingredients in what’s described as a distinctively peppery liqueur include Chinese green tea, ginseng, lavender and African mint – and in case you think it’s a mere novelty, Agwa won a gold medal at the World Spirits Awards, scoring most points in the herbal liquors category.
There are innumerable cocktail suggestions for the drink, including a Bolivian Bloody Mary, and – quite possibly as a tribute to the endeavours of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and his blood-and-thunder compañero Che Guevara (who was notoriously gunned down in the Bolivian hills during a doomed attempt to spread revolution) – there’s also a Bolivian version of the Mojito.
Well done Vodka Wodka for bringing this wacky but interesting niche proposition to Scotland’s premier bars circuit.
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No ordinary Cafe
Cafes are places where you sip cappuccinos, perhaps scoff a roll and sausage, or – increasingly common in the West End – partake of sophisticated Continental bistro food, all amid cheerfully informal surroundings.
That would be a short way of introducing the concept to someone – possibly from Mars – unfamiliar with the concept.
But have a look at the dictionary definitions (and dining history worldwide) and a rather different alternative picture emerges … one of an elegant cocktail-set environment where restrained style is implicit and old-fashioned quality bar-tendering to the fore – the Aperitif at The Cafe Royal in Edinburgh springs to mind.
That must be the thinking behind the Kelvingrove Cafe in Argyle Street, a bar diner which appears determined to set a new local benchmark in refined-but-fun dining and drinking.
It would be easy to write a whole article about its fantastic cocktail list, presumably continually evolving, even before starting on an interior decor scheme and overall look which puts the venue in exactly the same exalted league as, for example, recently-opened The Richmond in Park Road, or Gibson Street mainstays Stravaigin and The Left Bank.
Looking around the West End you’d be hard put to think of a surviving “licensed hairdressing salon” of the sort briefly popular in the 90’s, and the recent emphasis has been squarely on magnificently traditional bar styles – albeit typically with exposed stone walls, flagstone or blond wood flooring, and restrained but evocative artistic decorative flourishes.
On looks alone this place is a winner, adding a new seam of quality to an area which already includes, for example, The Finnieston (glorious interior), Firebird (a more contemporary look – almost like a reprise of 60’s chic), and (exceptional, avant-garde take on Celtic-trad) The Ben Nevis.
Of course simply looking the part isn’t enough, and when it comes to drinks Kelvingrove Cafe is up there with the best of them, an instant potential star on a tight circuit which includes, for example, Booly Mardi on Vinicombe Street.
The Rum section of the spirits menu is a case in point, with choices that include Mount Gay XO, Brugal Extra Viejo and Diplomatica Exclusiva.
There are a couple of Bacardi “specials” too, albeit no sign of Havana Club – but it could be this authentic Cuban rum, in its more exclusive variants, is available on request, as it’s made clear not every brand stocked appears on the workaday menu.
Then there’s the whisky and whiskey (it’s “whisky” if it’s Scotch Whisky or Canadian whisky; and “whiskey” if its Irish or American).
A little controversially, Kelvingrove Cafe puts Scotch, Irish whiskey and all the rest on a single list – but in fact this is an entirely sensible option.
Instead of an encyclopaedic choice, the drinks guru at the Cafe has carefully assembled a representative selection calculated to offer something to suit every taste – so we find, for example, favourite Scotch blends such as Famous Grouse and (deluxe blend) Black Bottle, along with malts including Highland Park 12-year-old and The Macallan 15-year-old fine oak variant (surely a Rolls-Royce of malts).
Then there’s the respected Irish whiskey Tullamore Dew (which is actually an owned subsidiary of Scotland’s William Grant and Sons Ltd), as well as “special” Jack Daniel’s variants for fans of the heavily-advertised US spirit; and also a clutch of elite Bourbons, including Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark.
Cut a long story short and the easiest way to explain the choice here is that anybody who likes premium spirits is going to find at least one brilliant exemplar of their favourite tipple.
In case this introduction to what is shaping up to be an exceptional venue is beginning to sound like an advertorial, it has to be said the beer offer (as listed online) is a tad disappointing.
Admittedly it is very hard to cut a dash in the beer department in this part of west Glasgow when you consider some of the competition, notably The Bon Accord and Brewdog, but even so there’s little to excite about draught Sam Adams or Oranjeboom Premium Pilsner.
Oranjeboom from Holland was never much more than a workaday standard lager, even before the global beer giant which acquired it closed down the Royal Dutch Brewery, which had been the oldest commercial business in the Netherlands.
The name, incidentally, means “orange tree”, and refers to the motif which represents the House of Orange, as epitomised by Willem, Stadhouder of the United Provinces … or King Billy, as he is better known in Glasgow.
Samuel Adams, meanwhile, is a “craft” beer (a term which has crept in from America and urgently needs some widely-understood definition) named after the Boston revolutionary and brewer who helped organise the infamous Boston Tea Party during the build-up to the American Revolution.
The beer is all right, and cannot have many (if any) other draught accounts in Scotland, but it will not set any heather on fire – unlike so many of our own, excellent native brews.
Beer-wise you can also choose Belhaven Best or Belhaven Black – each to his or her own – or Japan’s Asahi Super Dry. Or, confusingly in a beer list, you might opt for Stowford Press Cider.
But look at any of the other drinks sections, such as vodka, gin, fortified wines or indeed the wine list itself, and you are in for a treat if you enjoy a taste of “the best”.
Add to all of that an intriguing food offer and this place, based on the site of the original Kelvingrove Cafe (which actually was “a cafe”, of course), and you have one compelling new arrival on a strip so many people already consider one of the most vibrant in the city.
Rather than burble endlessly on about the glories of this latest Argyle Street/Finnieston marvel we’ll revisit this and every other bar of note in this area in a future column – from the effervescent Brass Monkey in Finnieston to Lebowski’s, The Ben, and the rest.
Southern Fried Alligator?
A few days ago that entertaining horror-action flick Southern Comfort (1981) popped up on the box again. It’s an improbable tale, somewhat on the same model as Deliverance (less one particularly distressing ingredient), and follows the disastrous fortunes of a group of gormless US “weekend soldiers” embarked on a horror-laden trek through the jungle-like bayous of backwoods Louisiana.
Every cliché you can imagine about Cajun people is deployed – and we are left with a picture of feral redneck “natives” living in tumbledown wooden shacks, where they all swill appalling moonshine firewater, keep mangy dogs, and play raucous ethnic music round the clock … a sort of dark side Deep South equivalent of “Brigadoon” but with lots of creepy swamps, and alligators.
By way of contrast to this fun but daft filmic defamation of the fine state of Louisiana, what had been The Common Rooms pub on Byres Road (which was The Chancellor, once upon a time), has now relaunched as an actual Southern-themed food and drink venue, with no effort apparently spared to bring us a heart warming slice of one of America’s most fascinating and exuberantly cosmopolitan regions – Napoleon Bonaparte should never have sold it (in 1803) to the USA.
Even the exterior of this new-look bar diner hints at a close knowledge of the subject, as emblazoned boldly along the length of its frontage are the fleur-de-lys lilies of pre-Revolution France – hearkening back to the days when Louisiana was a French colony.
Named Gumbo, after the best-known Creole dish, it boasts a fascinating menu, Deep South drinks, and live music – and it radiates N’Awlins-style colour, pzazz and cheerfulness.
Much more in future on this bold attempt to turn around what until now has been an unremarkable venue, but for the moment it’s maybe enough to say “definitely worth a try”, particularly as plenty of people have been writing to the venue’s Facebook page to congratulate them on excellent food and service.
If it all goes to plan, the bar could forge the missing link between Bar Soba and Partick Cross, while offsetting the scandalous eyesore of the former Otto bar-diner – still grimly shut down behind its steel cladding.
Various people who would like to “save Byres Road” may not see the relaunch of a pub as being particularly helpful, but if so they are hopelessly wrong.
There are all the heady delights of nearby Ashton Lane to call upon, of course, but on Byres Road itself (if you except Oran Mor, which draws massive custom at the very top of the road) only Bar Bola, The Curlers, Tennent’s and Bar Soba (all radically different propositions) wave much of a flag for the quality licensed trade.
The bottom of Byres Road desperately needs some of the action Argyle Street has been getting of late, and a lively, food-led music bar-bistro capable of attracting a discerning new audience could be just the tonic to get things moving.
Munro’s moves in
With plenty happening on Argyle Street and on Byres Road (and the recent launch of New York Kitchen in Thornwood, and the Sparkle Horse in Partick), there was already plenty going on to prove the West End bars scene is more dynamic than ever before the latest new opening near St George’s Cross.
As noted previously, the former Captain’s Rest has been acquired by Maclay, whose other local venues include Dram!, the Lansdowne, and The Three Judges, and after a fairly lengthy refurb has been relaunched as the proverbial “something completely different”.
Gone is the Captain title, to be replaced by the very Scottish and worthy name Munro, which we’re told alludes to a bit of local history (nothing to do with the iconic dry cleaning firm, then): the site apparently once played host to Munro’s Motors.
Just to be boring (and old), I remember as a child that on the other side of Great Western Road, near the junction with Maryhill Road, there was for many years a large advertising poster with the image of a knight on armour on horseback, bearing the legend “Rowena Tea” – Rowena being the damsel rescued in Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe.
Anyway, dimly-lit memory lane aside, this new pub venture is billing itself as a “craft beer pub”, deftly introducing what to many will be a completely new term – one which may sound “sexier” than “cask ale” or indeed “real ale”.
Regardless of terminology, it is obvious from the outset that Munro’s is serious about beer, because their main pouring cask ale is the magnificent Harviestoun Schiehallion, which the Alva-based enterprise does not install in just any old boozer.
Schiehallion – named, conveniently enough, after the Munro-rated mountain of the same name – is the berries.
Less excitingly there’s the once-legendary but now uninspiring Deuchar’s IPA, but also interesting newcomers such as Lakeland IPA – and what appears shaping up to be a strong selection of other cask offers.
Then, echoing the approach initially launched by Colin Barr’s Republic chain, there’s a miscellany of international bottled beers, chiming with the fact that young drinkers in particular are attracted to exotic foreign beers with interesting names.
A classic example of the “exotic” beer syndrome is Tiger Beer, about which much fuss was being made a few years ago, particularly in bars popular with students – readers with long memories who remember beer ads may recall the arresting “Suzie Wong” posters which advertised the beer on local bus shelters and in the subway.
Sad to say, far from being exotic, “Tiger” was the standard NAAFI option for countless thousands of khaki-clad squaddies in the Far East in the 40’s and 50’s, was produced at one of the largest production plants in Asia, and was typically accompanied by a pack of Woodbines and, no doubt, free mosquitoes.
In its home market it’s about as exotic as a bag of oven chips …but a bit of advertising spin and, hey presto, sow’s ear becomes silk purse – with price to match.
However I suspect Munro’s, being a Maclay enterprise, will have a much more honest and also sophisticated approach to international beers, when you consider the vast effort involved in creating the amazingly diverse beer offer at its famous Partick pub, The Three Judges.
The new bar is about ten minutes’ walk from classic beer pub The Bon Accord on North Street, so the bold claim that it’s going to be a thorough-going beer paradise can probably be taken seriously … even if this worrying (to me) “craft beer” moniker needs a little further exploration.
Given the choice of beers said to be on offer, customers are being offered the chance to sample three different beers in measures of a third of a pint (“a Pony”), which introduces some intriguing (to me) licensing conundrums – and a selection of three “craft” beers will cost £1 more than a trio of cask ales.
In a recent article in The Dram licensed trade magazine editor Susan Young observes that to her the most immediate impression of the new place was the amount of floor space, and here the aim is surely to anticipate potentially large volumes of trade at peak times.
The bar, meanwhile, features rootsy touches such as junkyard finds, rugs hanging as curtains, “natural wooden cladding” and reupholstered leather-surfaced seating in booths, as well as one very substantial bar made, like the one in The Left Bank in Gibson Street, from concrete.
Other design flourishes in this magpie’s nest of assorted decor influences include a big lighting feature which resembles a tyre, suspended from the ceiling – but by total contrast there are also plenty of references to Scotland’s mountains, in tribute to the Munro chap who gave his name to all the Scottish hills that are higher than 3,000ft.
With plenty of engaging pub food on offer – for example Spicy MacSween Haggis with jalapenos – all of the main most popular options are also catered for, such as pizza, chicken wings, nachos and chips, but in an imaginative sort of way that allows customers whose main mission is to drink beer the option of a light bite (or a full main meal) significantly more interesting than bog-standard pub fare.
All told this Maclay venture is definitely a “strategic acquisition” which spreads the company’s bets from Kelvinbridge (Lansdowne) to St George’s Cross and then (Dram!) Woodlands Road.
This trio of venues are all complementary one to another but also all significantly different in several important ways – and Munro’s, evidently aiming to capture the same sort of audience as nearby rival Gambrino, is definitely one of the most interesting bar relaunches of the last six months.
Eating and drinking Glasgow West End.
Thursday 14 Feb 2013
No novelty menus, no inflatable hearts, and not a sign of the colour pink anywhere in view the Glasgow Curry Shop in Ashton Lane is offering couples who want a romantic evening an evening to remember - without any of the sugary schlock which turns many other restaurants into a sort of Barbara Cartland-themed nightmare on February 14.
By contrast there is plenty of built-in romantic ambience within the quaint but warm surroundings of this cracking little upstairs temple to superlative Indian gastronomy.
This week was the first time I'd seen the place for a while, and it is looking terrific. The walls are covered with a unique montage of photographs of curry shops and their owners in times gone by, along with some piquant articles tracing the history of Glasgow Indian restaurants all the way back to the pioneering days of the 60's.
Since the restaurant (above Jinty McGuinty's) is not huge, that unique collection of photographs and articles already looks authoritative and deeply impressive, but it will continue to grow and evolve as customers those old enough to remember the "glory days" themselves bring forward their own anecdotes and mementoes.
Meanwhile it's important to point out the Glasgow Curry Shop is not a museum, and nor is it offering customers a glimpse of retro fare by serving up the famous "vindaloos on asbestos plates", or anything remotely comparable.
The restaurant's menu is instead thoroughly in tune with the award-winning pace set by parent venture Mother India, which has been steadily building on a reputation, now sky high, which was launched around 1990.
When you recall that besides its many Glasgow plaudits Mother India's Edinburgh restaurant won the title for best in the capital a city whose dining establishments tend to have a good opinion of themselves it's easy to imagine the local Glasgow version is also in something of a class of its own.
This, beyond doubt, is the sort of quality offered to diners at the Glasgow Curry Shop at what can only be described as reasonable prices (and check the special daily offers too).
The Glasgow Curry Shop also boasts possibly the best windae-seat view of Ashton Lane, along with the sort of unique dining experience you'd expect from an informal but thoroughly organised exemplar of great Indian cookery at its best. Meanwhile if you are visiting the Glasgow Curry Shop on or around Valentine's Day you might wish to take advantage of another value-led enticement there.
The phrase BYOB (bring your own bottle) is as retro as it gets, but an idea that has come full circle in these grim recessionary times. It gives diners to choose their own wine before the meal, and with only a small corkage fee to pay is one very helpful way of keeping the evening's bill within late February austerity limits.
There's no shortage of places locally from which to source a nice bottle of wine, but as it's St Valentine's Day mention must be made of Dino Valentino in Chancellor Street, about which I hear nothing but the strongest praise from anyone who's visited.
Everything about its presentation breathes enthusiasm and verve, and since it's about five minutes' walk from the Glasgow Curry Shop it has to be one very obvious place to start looking for the ideal bottle of wine to go with a special meal.
Meanwhile if you are planning a "Valentine's meal without the schmaltz" evening at the Glasgow Curry Shop it's worth noting that the restaurant isn't huge, and booking is highly recommended ask for a window-seat if it hasn't been taken already, and enjoy the best view of street life on Ashton Lane while enjoying what you'll probably agree is one of the best Indian meals to be found in Glasgow.
The folk behind well-regarded Chinese carry-out The Home Wok in Byres Road evidently take their annual New Year celebrations very seriously, as while Vietnamese restaurant Hanoi Bike Shop made a considerable fuss of Vietnamese New Year recently the Wok has declared February (or most of it) to be party month and after closing on February 3 isn't reopening until February 23.
For many of its regular customers it's nice to see the Year of the Snake being given the importance it deserves, but most will be waiting with barely concealed impatience for normal service to resume in the last week of the month. Richmond design special
The editorial team at The Dram licensed trade magazine (based in Finnieston) seem to have been as impressed as we were by the newly-launched bar diner The Richmond on what was once Bar Bola on Park Road and, again like us, also see it as a natural partner to existing local high end places such as Stravaigin and The Left Bank.
However in a special photo feature the magazine also deals in more detail with the ownership of the venue and how its special look has been designed to enhance one of the most vibrant dining areas in the country.
If you are interested in licensed trade matters in the West End, or in Scotland generally you can access the article about The Richmond, and also the entire magazine, at the dram
This week's award for "best cafe in the West End" goes to Smile cafe (or diner) at 102 Queen Margaret Drive ("where the shops are" more or less over the road from Clouston Street).
I called in a few days back with some hungry young colleagues looking for decent food at good prices on a cold and windswept evening and, not having tried this place before, I was bowled over by its characteristically young-Italian vitality and flair.
What I like most about the place (apart from its warm and welcoming vibe, fabulous coffee, lavish salads and beautiful bread) is the way it seems happy to offer anything from classic Mediterranean fare to a ritzy version of a trad Scottish cafe-style roll-and-something.
The member of our little party who opted for black pudding, fried egg and I think a potato scone, all in a roll reckoned it was the best thing of its kind he had ever tasted.
Those of us who went for super-healthy paninis instead, with masses of fresh salad, were also delighted by the quality of the wonderful food at normal bistro prices.
What was most impressive was that while this place is another cafe that flourishes despite being on the small side the staff are completely on top of every order at all times.
This isn't as easy as it seems, as while the diner fills up in no time there's a constant traffic to and fro at the busier times, with people calling in for anything from a coffee to a full meal, but nothing is ever a problem and the staff incredibly even seem to enjoy doing their job, splendidly as it turns out.
I'm looking forward to another visit soon, to explore the menu and daily specials in a little more detail.
Just to prove that no area of the wider West End is short of at least one new and exciting dining out proposition, New York Kitchen opened in Dumbarton Road, Thornwood, in December without a whisper of publicity.
Now it is thoroughly settled in, and its kitchen team are already planning enterprising new menu additions, eyecatching cocktails, and more. But isn't it just, after all, yet another American burger joint?
A leisurely lunch visit last week with Pat Byrne, to meet operator Eddie Tobin and manager Irene Thomson, was enough to reveal it's nothing of the kind. Eddie, incidentally, is one of the best-known professional licensed trade operators in the city, and is passionate about good food and about what he sees as the need for what marketing people would call "customer-focused value", or what he would call great food with no nonsense.
< In the course of a brief chat with Eddie and Irene it becomes clear the place is casually laying claim to produce the best burger in Glasgow, and for some venues that would be enough.
But while the menu is gratifyingly replete not only with burgers magnificent burgers but also standard NY diner entries such as spaghetti and meatballs, it also has just about every other main base covered from a "real" Caesar Salad to a classic Reuben sandwich.
Portions are generous and prices average for the quality of the fare on offer. Breakfast is already proving a hugely attractive option, with both classic Scottish and New York-style to choose from.
There's a wide choice of drinks too, from wine by the glass to real NY Brooklyn Lager to whiskey-laced milk shakes; and there's a button-busting selection of desserts.
Taken altogether this elaborate hommage to the better sort of New York diner the sort which go on to become great city dining institutions is not replicating a familiar theme at all, and is instead attempting something quite daring.
There are, after all, innumerable American-style diners about, most attempting some signature dishes apart from pizza and burgers, but none I can think of that set out to do the full job.
It would be easy enough to knock together an American diner menu, hang the stars and stripes in the window, and then hope to catch a slice of the everyday dining market from a population already in love with US-style food but New York Kitchen is hugely more ambitious in breadth and scope.
With a special Valentine's offer to take advantage of this week, this exciting new arrival in Thornwood is definitely in the "one to watch" category.
Amid all the doom and gloom about the difficulties of the bars and restaurants trade it's also great to see a veteran operator boldly go to a potentially great location, in an area where the demographic is rapidly evolving and opening up further opportunities for people aiming to run quality venues.
Much more on this enterprising diner with a difference in weeks to come.
Wednesday 23 Jan 2013
It's perfectly true. There on the menu of the former Dowanhill Bar in Dowanhill Street, in clear and unmistakeable type, are the arresting words "Horse burger" - which could worry diners aware of the recent brouhaha over horse meat found in some supposedly normal beef burgers sold by a well-known multiple retailer. And inevitably the people behind exciting new pub venture The Sparkle Horse, via their Facebook page, have been the very first to point out the unintended joke - while promising prospective diners that no actual horseflesh is included in their burger.
In fact recent comments reported from customers indicate the Horse's (beef) burgers are one of the main attractions in the pub's tight but imaginative selection of dishes - which offers everything from a £4 "fast lunch", in which you choose any two of several options, to vegan specials and even a steak pie cooked with Krusovice, the premium lager from the Czech Republic. In what appears an ambitious wine offer there are also seven wines available by the glass, and by way of more premium beer there's St Mungo from the West Brewery, besides a spirits offer which includes the likes of a Hendrick's perfect-serve G&T.
Together with a sophisticated but un-flashy makeover of the old Dowanhill - formerly a traditional bar known to have been in operation for well over a century - to the casual bypasser it might look as if someone has decided to bring the gastropub experience to Partick, but what appears to be on offer seems much more clever than that.
The name originates from the American indie band Sparklehorse, and a selection of eclectic sounds from the 80's and beyond is likely to figure.
Meanwhile Monday night is quiz night, adding a spot of intellectual colour to an otherwise soulless early weekday night.
At a time when news reports concentrate on the apparent meltdown of retail business at the bottom of Byres Road (of which more in a minute), this dazzling new arrival on the local licensed trade scene is another salutary reminder that Glasgow is teeming with licensed trade entrepreneurs determined to bring new and individualistic ventures to suit specific local audiences - and much more on this particular pub in weeks to come.
A newspaper report this week centres on the angst surrounding the mushrooming number of closed units and To Let signs on Byres Road - noting that the bottom end of what's described as the West End's main shopping thoroughfare has been very badly hit.
Anyone who's followed this column on a regular basis will know we've been saying the same thing for a couple of years now, while last year a Byres Road action group was launched in a bid to prevent the area becoming yet another "ghost" strip dominated by mass brand supermarkets and charity shops.
The newspaper article spells out the recent carnage in detail - the formerly highly successful venture Three Steps to Heaven closed before Christmas, with no explanation beyond a sign in the window advising that a refurbishment of some sort was being planned, along with the "hope" that it would open at some time in the new year.
It also flags up the unexplained closure of Otto - still grimly shuttered down in steel cladding - and quotes various local people as hoping that "something will be done".
However while the depressing trend of closures cannot be denied, that's not quite the full story.
Recent months have seen the launch of Assagini at the very bottom of Byres Road, effectively rescuing a site which nobody had managed to turn into a success - the smart money says it is in safe hands with its new owner, the Tony Macaroni chain - and on the site of a former launderette across the road we've now got the splendidly-named Euphorium Cafe, only the second ever Greek dining venture on Byres Road (if you except Stakis and the Grosvenor in yesteryear) ... the first was the once legendary Kebab Inn in the far-off 80's, in what's now Bar Soba.
Meanwhile the former Chocolate Emporium, which for years was prized local bakery The Pantry, had been "under offer", was then "unexpectedly back on the market" ... and is now "under offer" again.
Another new-ish business which appears to be flourishing is an Italian wine shop and deli in Chancellor Street, of which more once we've had a chance to study it properly, which has been fairly described to me as "a beautiful shop - a fairyland of Italian wine and food".
For the record, it has the most stunning window display I have ever seen in a wine-and-food shop, hinting at myriad Mediterranean delights inside simply begging to be explored in detail.
Across the road at Partick Cross, Bruadar pub reopened in time for the Christmas season, and has clearly been working hard to win itself an appreciative local custom, and new bar-restaurant Hyde should soon be opening on the site of the nearby former Memories bar.
And in Thornwood the New York Cafe is now offering its own take on the great American diner experience - burgers, inevitably, a house speciality - beside existing ventures Velvet Elvis and The Criterion.
The bottom of Byres Road, incidentally, also plays host to quiet but potent success stories Two Figs and restaurant Number 16, so while there have been plenty of failures there are also some hard-won success stories to enjoy while visiting this neck of the woods ... not least the Wee Curry Shop venture operated by our sponsor, Mother India.
When you consider we're in the tightest month and in the depths of a recession it's little wonder that some ventures are finding it impossible to take the strain (as witness the abrupt closure of one of the boutiques farther up the hill), but there appears no shortage of operators eager to win their share of a sometimes fickle local market.
Which brings me back to the Euphorium Cafe run by Greek operator Mr Antonis Xenos and his charming Scottish wife.
They have created a very welcoming bistro within premises which benefit from large picture windows and low-key but attractive decor (such as those reproduction Byzantine icons over the lintel, in pride of place).
Here you can enjoy many of the staple dishes such as Pastistio and Moussaka we all expect to find in a classic Hellenic dining venture - to which we can wistfully hope to add outdoor dining on the sunkissed pavement outside when summer finally arrives.
Mr and Mrs Xenos have clearly been aiming to open in this stretch for a while, but have faced difficulty gaining lets for premises - just possibly because there's some sort of systemic built-in resistance to new cafe ventures being opened in the area.
This particular claim needs wider investigation, but if true it's not acceptable. Lively independent ventures are exactly what Byres Road and Partick need (I think most would agree) - not Tesco Town, building societies and so forth, and particularly not permanently-closed shop and pub units.
Incidentally we're not talking about licensed premises, which always raise hackles (usually ill-advisedly) but straightforward cafe-diner propositions - and there should be no limit to the number of these whatsoever, beyond "what the market will bear".
Enterprising and original ventures whose owners are willing to stake all on success should surely be given elbow room to help win their trade, and shouldn't be presented with swingeing council rates levies and pointless red tape.
However according to a newspaper report the council has "exciting plans" for the area, and is aware of the economic blight said to be festering in the West End's once premier shopping and dining road ... so the turbulent saga of the business maelstrom between University Avenue and Partick Cross clearly has a long way to run.
I originally thought the Maclay Inns revamp of the old Captain's Rest pub near George's Cross would be all singing and dancing in time to rake in some festive cash, but what's clearly a major revamp - even more ambitious than the transformation of Uisge Beatha to Dram! by the same firm - is a job that cannot be hurried.
As I passed by today the old Rest was still very much a building site, but with enough taking shape within the temporary ruins to give an idea of what lies in store.
Most obviously, and just as with Dram!, what were blank walls are now punctured with large window spaces, allowing customers to have a good gander at the milieu inside before venturing in - and full marks for that.
Meanwhile the bold new pub sign has appeared over the door, bearing the legend "The Captains", with no apostrophe or suggestion that the word "Rest" (which sounds too tranquil for a live-an'-happenin' young-leaning bar-diner) will be added later.
So we're talking "Captains" plural - exactly which captains isn't explained, but I don't think the design scheme will in any case feature nautical paraphernalia such as anchors, nets, and all that jazz (if only because The Finnieston has already covered that base with a very crafty and sophisticated design take of its own on the seafaring theme).
More on The Captains as the general plot is made available - but it could be that yet another genuinely "different" quality pub is about to emerge on an already glittering local scene.
My biggest recent surprise was walking around the corner from Gibson Street into Park Road to find - shazam! - that the long-shut site of Bar Bola, hidden by wooden cladding for years, has suddenly burst back into vibrant life as The Richmond, a rather ritzy-looking new wine bar and diner.
Readers with long, long memories may recall this site was once The Blythswood Cottage pub, upstairs and downstairs, a boozy n' bohemian haunt whose interior decor, all plastic "oak beams" and cream paint, had been assembled by the same people who decked out the legendary and immortal Doublet Bar ... back in 1964.
The old Cottage sadly faded away, to be replaced after a mammoth refurbishment by Bar Bola, a "style bar" - one of the earliest - whose attractions included a back window view of the River Kelvin.
That was more than two decades ago, and while Bola soon won a regular customer base among sophisticated young trendies it didn't manage to adapt to meet changing tastes ... and finally shut up shop around four years ago.
Now, despite rumours its licence would be surrendered - making it difficult to gain a new one beneath tenement residential properly - the place is back in business under new operators, and with a vengeance.
There's a full dining offer, of the sort which again suggests - horrible, hackneyed phrase - "gastro pub", incidentally proving that the terms "bar-diner" and "restaurant" are now purely relative.
In fact we're possibly looking more at high end "pub grub", of the sort which tries to produce excellent examples of staples like fish and chips, burgers and hotdogs while also adding imaginative vegetarian and more obviously "exotic" choices ... and there's a children's menu too.
The Richmond also has one very ambitious wine offer, in a range which soars all the way up the price spectrum to #80 or so for one of the dearer bottles.
However a glance at what appears a very carefully thought-out cocktails menu shows you do not have to pay eyewatering prices to enjoy some of the premium drinks, and since the venue is still very new it will be interesting to see how things develop further in months to come.
Most obviously The Richmond (with a striking interior centred on exposes stonework and a magnificent centrepiece bar and gantry) already offers a counterpoint to nearby Stravaigin and The Left Bank as an evening-out choice, adding an extra dash of upper-end flair to an already vibrant local scene in and around Gibson Street.
Take all of the above threads together and it's obvious there's simply no let-up in the hectic pace of new or improved dining and drinking ventures in the West End, with several operators showing they can deliver something highly attractive to local customers at prices you couldn't hope to find for the same quality in many other areas - notably Ediburgh.
Nobody in the trade I have spoken to recently is pretending things have been anything other than "very challenging", but it is heartening to see people prepared to invest in ventures that promise to add new lustre to our existing collection of first class bars and restaurants.
Whether it's Finnieston, the Park area, Partick, Dowanhill, Hillhead, Kelvinbridge, Woodlands or Hyndland (which boasts, for example, The Hyndland Cafe, Jelly Hill and Cottiers) - or Anniesland, soon to be home to a novel new Spanish restaurant - the West is still reassuringly wild about its brilliant and continually-evolving dining scene.
And as if we needed reminding, we've also got the best Indian restaurants in the country, and the fascinating and entertaining story of how the West End circuit got to be just so good is now being told in fine style in the memorabilia, articles and photographs on show in The Glasgow Curry Shop (run by our sponsor Mother India), in Ashton Lane.
We'll have much more on this elaborate homage to yesteryear - but also its thoroughly enticing cuisine - in due course.
Thanks to Mother India: Monday 24 Dec 2012
Stuff the turkey - let's dine out in style: Wednesday 5 Dec 2012
Posh Nosh and other news: Monday 12 Nov 2012
Save The Halt!: Friday 5 Oct 2012
Pass the Pakora: Friday 7 Sep 2012
Nasreen's Bistro for all seasons: Monday 30 Jul 2012
A bold wee tribute to a great tradition: Monday 2 Jul 2012
Chip's in excelsis: Thursday 31 May 2012
Anniesland and Freedom: Friday 6 Apr 2012
Fasten your seatbelts - Akbar's is in town: Thursday 22 Mar 2012
Finnieston style: Monday 20 Feb 2012
Celebrating the Bard: Wednesday 25 Jan 2012
Out with the old: Friday 30 Dec 2011
What's New and What's Gone: Thursday 17 Nov 2011
Hot Prospect: Friday 15 Jul 2011
Festival Time in Glasgow's West End: Sunday 22 May 2011
Spring 2011: Tuesday 29 Mar 2011
Precious Memories of 2010: Monday 3 Jan 2011
Autumn, 2010: Tuesday 26 Oct 2010[ RSS .91 RSS 2 ]