Added on Friday 30 Dec 2011
Hands up anyone who had a wonderful 2011? There must be a few lucky souls out there who coasted through an otherwise universally rotten year completely unaffected by recession woes - but if so I haven't met them.
Over the last few months I've got into the habit of asking bar and cafe owners on the qt how they're getting on, and the best any of them have managed is along the lines of "hanging on" - and that's really across the whole spectrum, from fast food bars to mainstream restaurants.
But at least Christmas seems to have delivered some much-needed solace for the hard-pressed licensed and catering business.
I haven't mentioned eternally popular Partick pub The Three Judges for a while, but it's maybe an indication of how well that well-known beer specialist bar is doing that the abrupt arrival of new venture Bruadar immediately beside it (on the site of the former Old Mill) is being seen as a welcome addition to the scene.
The Three Judges was fighting the punters off with pointed sticks on many week nights long before Christmas, and deservedly so: I'm still convinced its beer offer is literally unrivalled for quality and variety, but it's 'a good pub' too - and of course everyone defines what that means in their own way.
Rather than warble on about the infinite glories of the 3J's cask ale (and cask cider) blackboard, it's maybe worth mentioning another new arrival on "the scene" this year.
Less than ten minutes' stroll from the Judges in the Kelvingrove direction another cask ale bar, Brewdog, opened earlier this year with very little publicity.
One of the Sunday broadsheet mags finally got around to giving it the treatment a few weeks ago, but when it first opened (on the site of what was once the old Calypso Bar - fondly remembered in popular lore as 'The Collapso") the only write-up it received was a gloomy verging on alarmist article in the Evening Times.
The headline pointed out the firm was "controversial" - in fact it courts controversy, and is forever picking fights with official bodies it considers Nannyist or just fuddy-duddy - and made considerable play of Brewdog's reputation for producing ultra-strong beers.
And just for good measure it quoted a local community council member as hoping there wouldn't be trouble on the streets, or words to that effect.
On this column I predicted exactly the opposite would be the case, that the pub would be a howling success, and that it would attract drinkers not usually given to sampling cask ale with a responsible but fun way of exploring fabulous, sophisticated beers in nice company and ergonomically swish surroundings.
I was right
I'm so seldom completely right about anything that I've given the fact that I was right about Brewdog a heading to itself.
There had been a theory that the site (most recently the Lock Inn) wouldn't work well because it was neither at the Ashoka Triangle up at the top of west end Argyle Street nor at Partick Cross, where the 3J, the Lismore, Gallus, the Dolphin, and now Bruadar, are all close to hand - and I wondered about that potential negative too.
But in fact it has completely broken the mould, attracted customers to a "new" area (albeit it can only help that near neighbours include the fabulously popular Pelican Cafe), and even more than that has produced an extra spin-off for existing venues.
I know this because on two or three occasions towards the end of the week I've seen groups of young women appear in the Judges of an evening, and take an inordinate interest in the regular cask ales - neatly dispensing with the myth that "real" beer is bloke-ish, bearded and middle-aged.
It's worth making a fuss about good beer pubs in Glasgow, since outwith the Wetherspoons bars the number of pubs able to offer a decent cask selection remains very small, and so Brewdog's arrival is a very welcome addition to relatively nearby outlets which - heading the other way, towards town - also include the Bon Accord.
It used to be whispered, but now we've got a weekend magazine restaurant reviewer openly telling us that the West End has become "a little rough" - while playing up the fast-improving scene on the south side.
In fact the restaurant under review was Bungo, of which I've heard good things (maybe it will open a sister venue up the road called "Strath") and it's only the latest in a string of recent southside openings with offers as diverse as those of Banana Leaf (offshoot of the West End original); eclectic bistro, wine bar and deli Cookie, and established classic Italian restaurants like Bella Napoli, Battlefield Rest and Barbarossa - to name just a few.
But while we certainly feel confident about getting to and from Pollokshaws without being attacked or inconvenienced in any way - most nights - is the barb about our own neck of the woods remotely justified?
Sadly, I think, yes. It's ridiculous to call the whole West End "rough", but outsiders tend to think the West End is in fact "Byres Road", and weekend evenings are now the stuff of Tin Pan Alley or even Gin Lane - not threatening, exactly, but "rough" in the sense of "uncouth". Pure dead non-brilliant, to be frank.
It is the price of fickle success, replicating scenes once familiar to licensees in Dublin's Temple Bar, which had become a favourite venue for stag and hen parties.
And unfortunately the boozy late night ribaldry inevitably leads to cries of "too many licences".
Uninformed critics suppose there's a direct correlation between number of premises and number of inebriated neds.
In fact it's more complicated than that, and has more to do with the notion that the West End is "Entertainment Grand Central", rather than a residential area with some excellent eating and dining hotspots.
It's also possibly due to a policy of trying to make things supposedly safer by replicating the conditions of the city centre (which is largely non-residential and copes with 70,000 revellers most weekend nights).
The southside, frankly, has never had this sort of problem because it's never had the luxury of being a destination in its own right - even although these days it's peppered with places well worth a visit.
Read local news reports, however, and you soon find areas like Queens Park, Pollokshaws and Shawlands have plenty of home-grown problems, and more than their fare share of crime.
Where the southside is scoring, though, is in its growing collection of what are essentially neighbourhood venues catering for a previously poorly served local audience.
The Bungo reviewer claimed to have spotted "loud" West End types scouting out the culinary attractions of the south side, but I think this is really just the same old refrain continually touted by (south side journalist) Jack McLean in his heyday.
Instead of generic terms like "West End" and "south side" we should probably be talking about specific districts, like Woodlands, Partick Cross or Pollokshaws - and perhaps there's room for some joint initiative among independent bistro owners in these areas.
We already have Gourmet Glasgow, an excellent promotion, but in these recessionary times a joint promo offering something like a prix fix meal along with a cinema or theatre ticket could open up a whole new seam of possibilities for people who don't have the time or money to explore every area in detail. Instead of the relatively high end venues of existing promotions the idea would be to push quality cafes and smallish family-run restaurants - the sort of places which cater for discerning casual diners.
There's a recession on, of course, but it's also the age of the small independent operation able to appeal to a largely local audience. South Bank Show
Meanwhile a company best known for its very well-regarded West End venues, Left Bank and Two Figs, has sort of proved the point about quality venues working for discerning "local" audiences by launching a south side Left Bank.
The south side of Glasgow (meaning specifically the three areas mentioned) is going to become interesting in the same way as the south side of Edinburgh, with its distinctive shops and restaurants, and despite the general economic gloom it could be the best has yet to come.
Too much happened in the volatile world of West End bars and restaurants in 2011 to be recounted in detail, but as we've said before it's been a complex story of amazing triumphs and crushing disasters, with plenty of new ventures (for example Nardini's in Byres Road) still to open.
We've seen the arrival and prompt departure of both the Pakistani Cafe and the Chocolate Emporium on sites at the bottom of Byres Road, but also the apparently successful launch of Mexican venue (he said very cautiously) Pinata where Pakistani Cafe had been.
Incidentally I had to admire Pinata's cheek a while back when it decided - to the bemusement of passers-by - to stage a special themed night to mark the centenary of the Mexican Revolution.
From the busy scene inside the restaurant it's fair to say it was a case of "Viva el Revolucion, Jimmy" ... the management had correctly guessed that Glaswegians are always up for any kind of celebration.
Saladin's sit-in deli-cafe on Great Western Road (across the steps from the Belle pub) also came and went in a flash, but back down at apparently luckless Partick Cross we've also seen (as noted above) the launch of Bruadar in time for Christmas.
This place, incidentally, will be the subject of a full investigative review once the folks there have run the place in for a bit - but from the little we know already it's certainly shaping up to be an interesting and complementary venue to 3J and Brewdog.
Bruadar translates from Gaelic as "The Dream", and clearly the Edinburgh owners, Fuller Thomson, are trying to tap into the area's well-established links with the Gaeltacht (as in nearby pubs including The Lismore, Ben Nevis, Park Bar, Islay Inn and Snaffle Bit) - and certainly one of their beer standards appears set to be from a brewery in the heart of the Hielans.
In fact it will be the only pub in Glasgow I've heard of to make a substantial feature of the well-regarded beers of the Black Isle brewery.
Bruadar will be selling Black Isle's Blonde, Goldeneye and Porter in keg; while in cash (this will surely fascinate a beerhound barman in the 3J who's an avowed fan of porter) the pub will have both Molly's Vanilla Porter and Chilli Porter.
Given that the Judges also runs regular cask festivals on special themes - Milds and Porters seasons spring to mind - I wonder whether this iconic Maclay pub might one day join forces with its new rival across the way to launch joint promotions.
Between the pair of them I suspect they could lay on a potted ale festival to rival anything in Scotland.
I'm not talking about events like the famous Paisley Beer Festival, which glories in providing incredible variety over several days, but a smaller and more specialist event - maybe on a Scottish beer theme, or even a Highlands and Islands theme - which would make the most of the choice the pubs' respective suppliers can provide.
Of course quite a few patrons of the Judges aren't interested in cask ale at all - some are Tennant's Lager diehards, others are converts to premium German beer - but it's the specialist choice and often encyclopaedic beer knowledge behind the bar which gives the pub its edge.
With the culinary resources available to Maclay, for example from the Lansdowne, one of its other West End assets, and the experience of Bruadar owner Fuller Thomson, something really special could be devised - maybe to coincide with the West End Festival.
Another local pub milieu which continues to thrive despite the vile Scottish weather is the ever-breezy scene in Ashton Lane, where the bar and restaurant tables are the West End's frequently soggy but defiant version of continental street life.
It was once unkindly remarked that Glasgow's outdoor tables culture makes our streets resemble "Paris after a nuclear war" - but I think that's unkind: it's just a bit gallus, that's all.
Almost any time of the day after lunchtime in the Lane you'll find groups of customers - often quite glamorously dressed - eating and drinking merrily away, regardless of the weather.
Not a few of them are refugee smokers - most tables show at least one packet of fags and a lighter.
Now, in a surprise move, no doubt in an attempt to take away from that "sitting on a wet park bench in mid winter" feeling, The Ubiquitous Chip (or rather its associated downstairs bar, The Pub), has come up with a cunning but as far as I'm aware previously unadvertised wheeze.
The outside chairs are covered in what looks like deerskin - I kid you not - creating a sort of Flintstone living room look (or it could be advanced wigwam furniture for Dances With Wolves) which is really quite endearing - "a page right out of history"
All that rugged hide also neatly complements the themes of the best Scotch beef and game produce promoted so enthusiastically in The Chip restaurant itself. Does the hide make for comfier chairs? I suppose it must do, or they wouldn't have gone to the trouble.
A friend of mine who owns a half share in a bar in Oslo tells me that when it's very cold - as in sub-zero - his pub and several others issue duvets to customers who wish to smoke outside.
This way they do not freeze to death and instead come back inside and buy another drink.
We both gloomily agreed that if this were tried in Glasgow someone would almost certainly manage to set fire to the duvets.
Talking about customer service, bar staff have been coping admirably with a curious new piece of legislation designed to prevent under-18's from getting served alcohol in bars.
I was recently invited to an all-party parliamentary alcohol committee launch of Challenge 25 at Holyrood, and saw first hand the effort the trade has put into making it work.
However one or two licensees present had their doubts about how it would operate in practice.
They predicted there could be difficulties in situations where just one member of a young-ish group looks under 25.
This is because, in a nutshell, if you look under 25 to bar staff you have to produce ID proving you're at least 18 - for example a driving licence or passport.
Very recently I saw exactly how the system can work. A group of four young women were buying each other drinks at the bar.
The barman politely challenged just one of them, and managed to turn the suggestion she looked under 25 (which she did) into a compliment. The woman concerned clearly thought it was nonsense, but a bit of a laugh, and produced the ID.
One positive side of the new rules could be that actual under-18's will be much easier to spot.
Whereas an oldish looking 17 year old might once have been given the benefit of the doubt the fact he or she is obviously "under 25" should now mean an automatic knockback.
The Holyrood event launching the scheme was presented by committee chair Hugh Henry MSP, who pointed out that with all the legislation in the world it's still the public's responsibility not to abuse drink.
He gave as an example a mother who had given her 15-year-old daughter a bottle of vodka to help her celebrate her birthday. How do you legislate against that?
Meanwhile the minimum pricing debate is back on the radar, with the SNP government determined to force it through despite dire warnings of the possible damage to exports from the Scotch whisky industry and the wine and spirits trade, among others.
If it does go ahead, it could be the first of many new legalistic restraints to be applied to the sale and promotion of alcohol - but the supermarkets and perhaps larger pub groups will fight them all the way.
Do we want alcohol retail to be managed along the same lines as some states in the USA and also Canada, where drink sales are very strictly monitored?
Contrast the high visibility of American whiskey brands on display in Scottish stores - along with highly-effective mass advertising - with the way sales are handled at one well-known brand's actual distillery outlet in Tennessee. There, I'm told by someone who's been on the tourist visit, the sale of the stuff is a deadly serious "under plain cover" exercise.
The legal age for alcohol in the US is frequently 21 - and yet here an SNP plan to allow area licensing boards to make it 21 caused uproar, not least among thirsty students.
In some Canadian jurisdictions the government decides what brands can actually be sold, an approach which would surely horrify drinks producers here.
Guess which brand might well be "deselected" by a future Scottish government - one with a big alcohol control agenda - run on these Canadian lines.
Given the country's well-advertised problem with drink (although it's frequently argued most people drink sensibly) these noisy debates about ever-evolving alcohol control measures (a burgeoning little industry in its own right) are surely going to be with us for many years to come.
Full marks for festive creativity to Janne Johansson, owner of award-winning Scottish seafood restaurant Mussel Inn, who made a big batch of handcrafted gingerbread houses for sale this Christmas.
The actual tale of Hansel and Gretel and the Gingerbread house (with its resident cannibal witch) is, you'll recall, like something by Stephen King - but the cake is apparently very tasty.
Mr Johansson said: "We started making gingerbread houses for Christmas a few years ago. It's a European tradition, but we soon discovered that our Scottish customers can't get enough of them."
They're probably all gone now, but had been on sale for £10 from Mussel Inn at 157 Hope Street - who will cheerfully hand over the recipe if you fancy making your own edible property.
It occurs to me that a "Gaelic" gingerbread cottage could include a generous dose of Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey liqueur to the mix - or to be really clever it could be My Old Kentucky (Gingerbread) Home and be soused with fine aged bourbon.
The sit-in deli is a well-established part of today's eating out scene, but the new Carluccio's outlet recently opened in West Nile Street arguably takes the whole experience to an ambitious new level.
Boasting a genuine Italian restaurant, food shop and delicatessen, Carluccio's offers handmade pasta, seasonal fish, meat and vegetarian dishes as well as decadent desserts, many based on Antonio Carluccio's original recipes.
We're advised that two courses paired with a glass of something fruity will set you back "as little as £15" - and the venture claims to be offering good food at sensible prices
Meanwhile the deli side of the equation includes food from artisanal family producers - for example traditional panettone, chocolate covered figs presented in a handmade basket as well as the finest olive oils and carefully put together gift sets .
As well as this, Carluccio's deli counter displays an abundance of cheeses, olives and parma ham as well as tarts, sandwiches and desserts ideal for lunches on the go and take home suppers.
It is, in fact, an elaborate Italian version of the sort of experience aficionados of Indian cuisine have been enjoying at the West End's Dining In at Mother India, and in as city which loves its Italian food should find plenty of ready custom.