This month's column begins not with a pub, but a restaurant - Bar Milano on the site of what had been Leonardo's, at the increasingly trendy Dumbarton Road end of Byres Road. I won't go into the cuisine in any detail - no doubt the eating out guide will pay a visit in the fullness of time - but even discussing the bar aspect (it's a bar and a restaurant) it's fairly obvious this is no ordinary venue. The pub bit centres on the fact that before the site became Leonardo's, a franchise chain which unfortunately folded, the site was Wilson's Bar - which naturally traded with a public house licence. Without going into huge detail this meant there was an established "pub" use for the place. It's maybe worth pointing out that many of the country's best restaurants actually trade under public house licences, as under our licensing laws (awaiting a major revamp over the next few years) this allows restaurants to be far more free and easy about where and how they serve alcohol - Brian Maule's well-regarded Chardon d'Or in town is just the nearest example I can think of. In Bar Milano's case it has allowed the owner to open a bar adjoining the restaurant, effectively as an aperitif spot for diners.
It is a wine bar or a cocktail bar - emphatically not "a pub" in any of the usual senses - but it does mean you can have the option of visiting just the bar, or visiting the restaurant and having a pre-dinner aperitif - a very civilised continental concept.
For anyone who knows even a little about the trade in Glasgow, though, the really interesting fact about Bar Milano is that it is the brainchild of Mario Romano - a big name in the trade. This immediately guarantees that a place will be "different." I was lucky enough to meet him recently, very briefly, and he told me his aim was to open an Italian venture which would be designed specifically for the West End and its eclectic range of potential customers. Again, I won't give the game away and spoil some future eating and drinking guide article, but suffice to say that for the sort of cuisine which is on offer this place is in no way expensive - though of course if you are a wine aficionado with a small boat to push out you can indulge yourself with some extremely well-chosen Italian and other wines.
The head chef is reputedly very special, and in the course of a demanding career has spent ten years working in restaurants in Italy. The general manager is Mr Toni Almiento, a man with very considerable experience of running the best Italian restaurants - and a glance at his establishment is about enough to tell that he runs a perfect aperitif bar. Not fussy, or "pseudy" or too ornate - just pure contemporarey urban Italian style. One beer font is visible - premium lager Nastro Azzuro - a brand associated with dashing high-octane Italian motorbike sponsorship. But of course fine wines are a main offer, and Mr Almiento tells me plans in the future will include refreshing Italian cocktails. The bar is very light and airy - a place you can look into from outside and think "hmmm...that looks nice" - and the staff are, with Mr Almiento, completely charming.
One feature of the decor, which must be mentioned, is a large wall mural depicting a famous piazza in Milan, painted by a talented Scottish artist - again more of this another time, but It has some neat modern flourishes, connecting the old, traditional, majestic Italy to the vibrant and youthful culture of today. Anybody who has enjoyed Italian kingpins A C Milan's recent triumphs could do worse than enjoy a quiet victory celebration right here - and in fact the Milan influence is continued in the cuisine (which however also contains many other regional influences).
With at least four West End projects on the go which could be described as "interesting" this bar and restaurant arrival is easily one of the most intriguing. Without stressing the point unduly, Mario Romano does not open places simply for the sake of having an extra outlet, and has chosen his area and his potential custom with great care. The Italian tradition in Glasgow is extremely strong, and on both sides of the river, and in the West End we've seen some of the best Italian ventures down through the decades (though to my knowledge there's never been an Italian cocktail bar before).. I'm completely sure this venture is going to prove an exciting addition to that tradition - oh, incidentally, you can also sample a very reasonably-priced range of light Italian meals and finger foods in the bar.
Robin Morton, the busy owner of Brel in Ashton Lane, is a West End Festival stalwart, and as Pat Byrne knows is heavily involved in all the planning for the West End Festival. His place is also part of the Baby Grand group, which includes a dozen or so venues which are all completely different - for example the Baby Grand itself at Charing Cross; Cuba Norte in the Merchant City (and there's another Cuba Norte in Edinburgh). He is an expert on every conceivable aspect of how you can manage considerations like outdoor drinking, and as previous Festivals testify this has always been perfectly managed. Only the Royal Mile at the height of the Embra Festival comes close to the buzz on Festival Sunday, when many pubs and restaurants put tables outside (rain or snow) and when everybody has a fantastic time: the event is now so high profile it has won sponsorship from big blended whisky brand Whyte and Mackay for the second year, and in any terms is an established success.
Robin's Brel naturally plays a full part in proceedings, and perhaps particularly because of the bar's music programme - which is increasingly featuring well-known names from many spheres. Robin tells me most of the best acts source him rather than the other way around, because word soon gets out about which are the best music venues, and Brel can guarantee fabulous jazz and every type of contemporary music. Don't take my word for it - check out the venue's website and you will see exactly what that old cliche "packed programme" means.
The Baby Grand group incidentally will be running the licensed side of the forthcoming Jazz Festival in town - a main highlight of which is a Glasgow George Square performance by lounge crooner veteran Tony Bennett - and will hopefully set the trend for more Festival-type events in the city, and perhaps not only in the West End. Still with Baby Grand the Cottier Theatre (abetted by its very significant bar operation) is the sell-out venue for probably the main artistic event in the Festival, Operation on a Shoestring's production of Carmen. This really is a breakthrough, and really implies that the sky's the limit for future Festivals.
In a previous column I mentioned cask ale at some length, and The Three Judges at Partick Cross, a noted cask ale pub, is well and truly entering the spirit of things by producing not one but two special festival ales. One is from Harviestoun at Dollar, a splendid enterprise which has won numerous top awards at major British cask ale events; and the other is from the highly enterprising Bruce Williams of Heather Ale fame. I fully intend to have fun deciding which one I like the best.
The Judges has its own lively music programme - jazz Sundays are very popular - and there will be special Festival entertainment..
The Festival brochure entry reads: "After the Midsummer Carnival passes its doors, why not enjoy a pint of real ale during the festival at The Three Judges' 'Festivale' and listen to the sounds of jazz from the Duncan Nairn Quintet." Why not indeed - a quick detour and you can stock up on some quality messages at the nearby Farmer's Market too..
Final point for this column - you may have noticed some media coverage of a spat over the name "Bloody Marys", which by a strange coincidence is the name chosen for two quite different ventures - a venue on the south side owned by the G1 Group (whose considerable assets include the evolving Ashton Lane cinema project - another big development - and Gong) and restaurateur Alan Tomkins, who co-owns the vodka bar in Ashton Lane but more particularly some high profile restaurants in town: in fact he is chairman of the Glasgow Restaurateurs Association. His particular Bloody Mary is under construction on the site of the recently closed Chandigarh restaurant in Vinicombe Street (opposite Gong). As far as I know both ventures are going ahead, with versions of the "Bloody Mary" name, on their respective sides of the Clyde.
Mr Tomkins' outlet is to be (as the name suggests) a stylish cocktails venue serving bistro-style food. There are some other projects in the West End in much earlier stages of development, but I think you'll agree that's plenty to be going on with - at time of writing the best of the West End Festival has yet to come.
Hope it's sunny.