Extraordinary cafes

ke cafe

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

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.






Three cheers for The Halt Bar
Last laugh for Tennent's Bar?

This section: Eating and drinking Glasgow West End

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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