Sadly Ronnie Clydesdale passed away in April, 2010
Feature by Roy Beers
It's just possible some readers may have heard of - may even have visited - a reasonably well-known West End restaurant called The Ubiquitous Chip? I went along to 'The Chip', in Ashton Lane, in the heart of Glasgow's West End to meet the owner, Ronnie Clydesdale, and hear his views about restaurants, Scotland, the world and everything.
One thing that became very obvious as we chatted was that the Chip is still a work in progress: it's still "revolutionary", as Ronnie puts it, with no need for a hint of irony. Clearly he has much more he wants to do there -. 34 years after he first launched the business on a wing and a prayer: "When I don't like it any more I'll chuck it", he told me. "But not until then."
Today's Chip is a somewhat different enterprise from the one he founded back in the days of kaftans and kipper ties - when, older readers may recall, there were more Zapata moustaches in Byres Road than in the whole cast of the movie "Villa Rides!"
"I was skint" he confesses. "We did everything on the cheap, because we had no choice, but we never provided anything but the best food - that's what it was all about. The restaurant was a gamble, but it was one we were pretty sure could pay off. Now we have 100 employees, in bars and restaurant, and we have a high proportion of staff who have been with us several years - which is great."In fact some have been at the Chip more than a decade, and one since 1972. This is a gauge of success people in the licensed trade instantly recognise, because there is a general dearth of employees in the hospitality industry, and bar and restaurant work is often seen as a transient occupation. Get a good long-term team together and, Ronnie avers, you can try to do something really special.
His previous job was in the whisky industry, where trade dinners and lunches were routine - apparently in every sense of the word. The food was rich, boring, overcooked, unimaginative with French pretensions ? and this was the good stuff! Ronnie's restaurant was about as different from this stodgy old posh dining template as its possible to imagine, and it could probably only ever have worked in the West End at that time (though he may know better). You may recall the Chip was actually founded in Ruthven Lane, on the other side of Byres Road from the present site, and by a happy coincidence the same lane now plays host to Stravaigin 2, spinoff of his son Colin's original Gibson Street Stravaigin. When the Chip originally moved to its current site it was the only outlet of its kind in a somewhat run-down neck of the woods. The original fixtures and fittings were odds and ends bought cheaply, and there was no drinks licence - so you brought your own bottle. But the food - and the heady ambience of avant-garde West Endyism - ensured early interest from a wide variety of outrageously coiffured beatniks, BBC types and bien-pensants of every conceivable kidney.
The place was full of women staff, too, at a time when (Ronnie reminded me) some pubs still didn't have ladies' toilets, and when women would in some cases only be allowed to buy half a pint of beer at once (and in fact women going to the bar to buy anything was a bit daring in some places - that was their husband or boyfriend's job). The Ubiquitous Chip cheerfully drove a coach and horses through this nonsense - probably at about the same time female students at Glasgow Yooni were waging a strident campaign to gain admission to the blokes-only Beer Bar at the students' union: that was a point of principle of course, as a scruffy bar full of inebriated Hooray Henrys didn't, for most rational beings, really have a lot going for it. No, the old Rubaiyat and The Aragon were the places to be. The Byre was legendary in its day.
There's always a danger, in discussing 70's Glasgow, to wax nostalgic about a time when flares and platform shoes (for men) were de rigeur, and when - as Ronnie observes - restaurants (and pubs still more so) were somewhat primitive by today's standards. In a career retrospective Ronnie wrote a few years ago he notes that aubergines, hardly the most outlandish of vegetables, were labelled "exotics" in the city market of those times.
The late Sir Reo Stakis, of course, pioneered the middlebrow restaurant where anyone could get a decent square meal (introducing Glaswegians to the wonders of Black Forest Gateau) - but generally speaking restaurants were poor or very posh or both: casual fine dining didn't exist, and Scottish food was what you ate at home - behind closed doors.. There were some wonderful Indian restaurants to enliven the scene, of course, one or two of them justly famous, and some venerable Italian restaurants, but that was about it. Pubs, as such, didn't do food at all, except for those dodgy-looking pies you would occasionally see festering in a sort of perspex box on the counter.. So you could argue it wouldn't, in that sort of context, be too difficult to be "revolutionary" in the matter of cuisine - but of course that's with the benefit of hindsight.
Ronnie's greatest claim to fame may be that he was prepared to wager his shirt on an idea whose time, he was convinced, had come. Back breaking work is the norm in the licensed trade, and in the hospitality industry generally, but at the Chip it seemed to be guaranteed. Even these days, he assures me, there is no easy life to be had at Glasgow's best-known fine dining restaurant, and many who start working there rapidly find it's simply not for them. This is mainly because the Chip doesn't take shortcuts, or use what Ronnie dismisses as the "convenience" approach. Everything has to be done right. He excoriates chefs who use pre-processed ingredients (and given the latest in a long line of food scares, no wonder) and despairs of customers who accept this without question. Basically, he insists, there's no excuse for feeding people anything which is, as chemicals must be, intrinsically bad for them.
He's relaxed about competitors who have apparently "discovered" natural, decent cooking, with the best Scottish produce, a mere 30-odd years after he started out, and is quietly confident his own enterprise's approach can still cut a distinctive dash among the me-too's which have sprouted over the last five or so years. He sees healthy challenge as good, and like all trade entrepreneurs has no intention of standing completely still - even if the basic ethos never changes. Ronnie, and for that matter his son Colin, and Colin's wife Carol, are invariably discussed in terms of "restaurants", but of course Ronnie is also a publican, even if the "pub" side of the Chip was also a very different proposition from the typical Glasgow boozer of its day.
Really his whole career appears to have consisted of steadily ratcheting up the quality quotient in every area of pub and restaurant endeavour, and in the bar he decided at an early stage he wasn't going to be serving any standard products at all.
"I was determined I wanted a lager that was made to the German Reinheitsgebot purity laws:, he said., "so I got F?rstenberg in on draught. Instead of 'export' I wanted proper cask ale, so that was the next stage."
Almost nobody was serving cask ale at this time. In fact several distinguished publicans who were eager young entrepreneurs in those days have told me the brewers basically wouldn't let you have it without a lot of arm-twisting and hassle: instead they wanted to sell oceans of gaseous "heavy" and the idea of footering about with casks, live beer and things was anathema. Wine was another kettle of fish altogether. At the Chip it started as bring your own bottle, but of course while bohemian and chummy this couldn't continue unaddressed: serious folk were flocking to the Chip, for its cuisine and for its reputation as "the place to be".
A major turning point, Ronnie told me, was when an Australian lady who worked front of house turned out to be a walking encyclopaedia of wine knowledge. She knew what to buy, all right, and in no time even trade professionals were coming round to ask her advice: the Chip's reputation as a wine paradise was born. These days even the most ordinary pub is expected to have at least a selection of reasonably-kept mass brand wines, so the farther up the ladder you proceed in restaurant land the cleverer, arguably, the wine offer has to be. The price range has to be carefully managed too, many experienced people tell me. Some fine dining customers are happy to pay top whack for great wine but have their own idea about what is reasonable damage for acceptable wine..
Contrast what you would find at the Chip - or for that matter The Wee Chip bar - with Ronnie's memory of the bad old days: "Wine, if drunk at all, was opened with great ceremony and wriggled into a basket where it would slosh about, ensuring that any sediment was well and truly disturbed. The mark up was usually cost multiplied by three or four times. It was a mysterious business, and would only be properly performed by a man in dinner suit."These days wine is a very different consideration, thanks to foreign holidays, supermarkets, Oz Clarke and Sunday supplement wine clubs, and customer expectation is sky high Good house wine is a must, too. I know precisely zero about working in a bar or restaurant, incidentally, but that appears to be a consensus view among Glasgow fine dining restaurateurs.
On the all-important food side, Ronnie is fanatically proud of Scottish produce - by the way, it was obliging of Mr Ronay, this week, to leap back into the limelight with the assertion that we have the best "regional" cuisine in Britain (5 out of 10, Egon) - and at the same time he is scathing about a tendency for some restaurants to use peculiar French soubriquets for bacon, or beef, or whatever ("les puddings noir"?). Study a sample Chip menu and you'll see what I mean: a dish doesn't have to be in French to sound great: the only entry I'm a but leery about is the "heather-fed black face lamb", which I suspect might reduce some small girls to tears. The Chip was banging the drum for Ayrshire Bacon long before it became fashionable - and Ronnie is totally serious when he urges the official adoption of Scottish regional produce names - just as you find with, say. Parma ham. "Whenever I was on the continent I was always impressed by how in tune and at home the locals were with their cuisine", he said, "and I always wondered why we weren't." His memories of home cooking are idyllic, and wholly accurate - perhaps in some way the restaurant is trying to create that sort of "excitement" for its customers, using labour-of-love cooking and the best Scottish ingredients. Sitting on a quiet morning at a table on the balcony of the main dining area I got the full effect of that grand, airy arboretum of a place: an Elysian conservatory with a full drinks licence, and good food, suddenly seems like paradise found. The light through those swathes of roof glass makes a completely stunning interior, together with the water, and the foliage, and the stonework. I can't think of anything like it.
Celebs are always popping up, including, fairly recently, a "very unassuming" Meryl Streep, but of course it's an old West End custom to "not notice" these worthies - part of the appeal of the place, I suppose (my wife met that Sir John Gielgud in Safeway once). Alasdair Gray has been a frequent flyer for years, but doesn't count as a celeb as he is now a venerable West End institution - and so have playwrights, and other authors.galore. For years the Chip was also the unofficial headquarters of some of the leading lights of the anti-apartheid movement, including the late Cardinal (then Archbishop) Thomas Winning, and the effort to free Nelson Mandela. Ronnie always hoped Mandela would visit the Chip, but so far he hasn't had the chance. Ronnie was, however, one of the people to meet the man in person at The Hilton in Glasgow - an unforgettable experience, he says. Broadsheet grandees have held court in the restaurant, and at the humbler end of the scale I first met my first live Scottish Licensed Trade News editor at a sherry lunch there (it started with Champagne, and finished with The Macallan, never mind the actual sherry - I think they'd call that binge drinking these days). But the kenspeckle faces - Mick Jagger, or maybe Richard Branson - do helpfully illustrate the point that you're likely to encounter just about anybody at The Chip, with a heavy bias towards politics, the arts, journalism ? a tolerable amount of "showbiz".
* The name, incidentally, was either inspired by the chip every Scot has on each shoulder, or after the play Chips With Everything, which Ronnie admired - take your pick.