What’s new eating and drinking Byres Road and Kelvinbridge

ko hi noorSylvano no more

You can’t turn your back on the local dining scene for five minutes without something opening, closing, or undergoing a radical transformation – as witness what until very recently had been Italian restaurant Sylvano’s, on the site of the former Persia restaurant at the foot of Cecil Street on Great Western Road.

It was a tragedy when Persia closed, as it really marked the end of a spirited attempt to bring a truly “new” high quality cuisine to the West End, but its replacement Italian-style venture clearly hasn’t worked. In what seems like no time at all the signs were coming down and the site was being converted back into some kind of Middle Eastern concept, with a shisha-smoking annexe attached.

I can’t see shisha being a major draw, if you’ll pardon the pun, as although it obviously has its Middle Eastern fans the mainstream Glasgow restaurant audience really doesn’t want to know about puffing flavoured tobacco from a hubble-bubble pipe – it’s the sort of thing some smokers will try out of curiosity, once, but not really a customer lure.

So can this venue hope to prosper in its latest incarnation? If it does, it will be squarely on the food, which we’re guessing will be closer in style to the Middle Eastern or Levantine shawarma outlet, a close cousin of the kebab shop.

Kebab shops are fine, or at least some of them are (for example the Koh-i-Noor in Gibson Street does my favourite Indian chicken tikka kebab), but they’re unfortunately irredeemably linked with the going-home-from-the-pub market – and are pitching at a high volume, relatively cost-conscious trade.

Cutting a very long story short, it appears what had been a bold attempt to break out of a particular late night pub-goers’ takeaway slot hasn’t worked, which in turn means that after 9pm or so Great Western Road, between Botanic Gardens and Kelvinbridge, is primarily about fast food … starting of course with the chip shop immediately before the bridge.

At the Botanics, where the multitudes wheel left into and down Byres Road, there’s in short order Cail Bruich, Oran Mor and La Vallee Blanche to fly the flag for quality dining (and Bovine over the road) – but that middle stretch of Great Western Road is more like an annexe of city-side Sauchiehall Street on a late week or weekend night.

Vive La France

But Kelvinbridge itself continues to produce surprises. Along comes a West End spin-off of Le Bistro Beaumartin in the city centre. I’ve been assured that Epicure de Beaumartin is “the real deal”, run by a couple of business partners with intimate expert knowledge of their particular cuisine.

French isn’t new in the West End, of course – starting with the venerable La Bonne Auberge – and at the high end there’s La Vallee Blanche being specifically Gallic at the top of Byres Road.

epicure.jpgReaders with long memories may recall that at one time the venue that is now Di Maggio’s on Saltoun Street (through Ruthven Lane, past Hanoi Bike Shop and The Bothy) was once the grand-sounding Bistro Metropolitain de Paris, while even The Curlers for a time themed its upstairs lounge to what the owners fondly imagined was a Parisian design – it looked like the set for an amateur stage production of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

Then there was Cafe Francaise on what (after a whole catalogue of failed ventures) is now Tony Macaroni, at the bottom of Byres Road. It looked like a vintage Montmartre salon, and had Edith Piaf belting it out on the sound system, but the food didn’t cut the moutarde on any level and it closed in short order.
Contrast all of that with this new Kelvinbridge venture and we are definitely in for something completely different.

From initial reports, I’m guessing it will amount to a sit-in deli version of the city centre parent venture, and could be a brilliant addition to the local scene.

When you think about it, it seems a little odd that with such a great variety of international cuisines represented in the West End, with Italian restaurants galore, that of France has been lacking until now – even if several of the more expensive restaurants have a heavy French influence in their cuisine.

One of the main attractions will presumably be a major focus on French wines, which despite the fascination for New World wines developed over recent years (led by the supermarkets) remain “the benchmark” for many diners determined to seek out the best.

More on this fascinating new arrival when we’ve had a chance to check it out in detail.

King of the Hill

Good news, meanwhile, back on Byres Road, where the former Otto bar-restaurant at number 94 – closed and derelict for way too long – has burst back into life as The Hill, which has been garnering favourable reviews from customers. Its website somewhat confusingly shows a picture of Gardner Street, looking down to Dumbarton Road (and that is a hill with a vengeance), but it could mean it’s on the hill running down to Dumbarton Road from Byres Road – or indeed that it’s at the bottom of the hill leading up to University Avenue. There are, to be sure, plenty of hills to choose from.

Food seems to be a careful resume of current bar-restaurant favourites, with some interesting twists, and premium drinks – and cocktails – appear to be a particular forte: I’m told there’s also a house drink named after the Rubaiyat, which once memorably occupied the site, but the revamped interior (which includes boothed seating) is resolutely contemporary.

The fact that anything with a spark of ambition is operating on this site has to be a plus, as for too long the complaint has been that this end of Byres Road verges on the dull.

I’ll look forward to writing more about this place, again once I’ve checked it out properly, and meanwhile wish its operators the best of luck in gaining the sort of discerning local market captured by, for example, the excellent Sparkle Horse in Dowanhill Street.

the gannetNew Byres Road?

However in the great Monopoly board of West End dining and drinking Byres Road –despite its disappointments and ravages – is still Leicester Square, while Finnieston, about which much excitable prose has recently been written, is Fenchurch Street: that is to say, it has some way to go.

Yet another very interesting new restaurant has opened there recently called The Gannet (a name joke which reminds me of the stuffed gannet the late Allan Mawn deployed at The Criterion), as well as a music bar – both of which demand comprehensive reviews – and of course for the last year we’ve had fun charting all the other many attractions to be found in that general area, even before you consider the parallel-route offers nearby, for example the various Mother India restaurants.

But it is undeniably grungy, and in a different way from Byres Road or Kelvinbridge, and is more like a successful version of the slow transformation that has taken place in Partick than anything which has been happening around Hillhead.

This isn’t because it loses out in some sort of inventory of nice places to go (because there are plenty) and has more to do with the area itself. The nexus Dowanhill, Hillhead, Kelvinbridge, Woodlands is where any first-time visitor to the West End ought to head if in search of an authentically “local” experience, perhaps with a side-trip to the delights of Finnieston if there’s time in hand, or if visiting the Riverside Museum, SEEC, etc.

That general area is also going to play host in the near future to the massive new Hydro Arena, but I am not convinced this is going to materially affect Finnieston by drawing lots of new custom to inspire and reward good restaurants.
On the contrary, I have been told by somebody closely involved in the development of the retail offer there that the Hydro will be explicitly on “the American model”, and will be a temple to branded dining and takeaway outlets, catering for a relatively undemanding mass market – in fact together with the SECC it will really become a self-serving enclave that won’t necessarily have much obvious connection with west side Argyle Street.

brel imageThe Hydro could even leech trade from Finnieston, much as the Olympics in London – expected to be a boost for central London hotels and restaurants – had exactly the opposite effect.

For locals, ‘though, Finnieston is another matter. It’s relatively easy to become jaded with the familiar haunts of Hillhead (even if The Curlers Rest excelled itself the other week by hosting a beer evening with the estimable Stewart’s Brewing of Edinburgh), or with the boisterous weekend scene pervading Ashton Lane, Byres Road and Great Western Road (although note that in press reports places are either rowdy and too busy or quiet and deadly dull: there’s never a happy medium).

One place that definitely postpones the jaded factor is classic Irish pub Jinty McGuinty’s – which has extensive outdoor facilities at the back, including a very seductive smoking shelter. It’s one of the few places that never seemed “ersatz” at a time when Irish theme bars were briefly all the rage, and after obvious renewed investment is as appealing now as ever.

Apart from many other attractions it offers an excellent lunch menu (perhaps if you have already been to The Glasgow Curry Shop upstairs that week), and – inevitably – a fine pint of Guinness.

Another well-established top pub in that area, Bar Brel – which recently changed ownership – has been recently given something of a makeover, and has also brightened up its exterior with some very attractive lights in the garden.

Finnieston is a different kind of night out experience, although once you’re past The Brass Monkey (excellent bar with a solid command of premium drinks), you’re suddenly in the mean streets heading towards Central Station. You’re no longer within even the most generous boundary delineating the West End. But for a change from familiar haunts, “the good stretch” can’t be beaten. Starting at the Brass Monkey, heading back towards Kelvingrove, there’s a choice of at least half a dozen places worth visiting before you hit Old Dumbarton Road – and that’s not including The 78, off to the left, one of the most attractive specialist bars of its kind.

the caveWest end Argyle Street and Byres Road both have a Tesco now – a brutal fact of modern-day retail – but Finnieston doesn’t have a Waitrose and has no conceivable chance of attracting Whole Foods Market (allegedly scouting out the former Arnold Clark garage in Vinicombe Street), or the sort of specialist food shops and delis which are cutting such as dash around Kelvinbridge.

It does have one or two well-regarded specialist off-sales, but nothing to compare with (Kelvinbridge) The Cave or (other side of bridge) Valhalla’s Goat, or (off Byres Road), Valentino’s – and I would argue it is the food and drink shops, defiantly trading despite heavy rents, soaring overheads and supermarket competition – which add to the overall flavour of the West End: there’s a superfluity of charity shops, of course (of which my favourite is the Oxfam book shop, where extraordinary bargains can be found), but that’s not the end of the story.

Finnieston doesn’t have a memorable Chinese restaurant (although it definitely gets two points for having a Korean restaurant), whereas Hillhead has one or two, and also the highly-regarded Home Wok takeaway – and Kelvinbridge has the Wu-Don Noodle Bar, which (says one of my restaurant spies) is packing in the customers despite a fairly sniffy review from critic Joanna Blythman. You can also find Vietnamese, of course, and (Partick, near Kelvin Hall subway) Japanese.

And it doesn’t have a cask ale pub, or at any rate one which makes much of a thing about good cask ale – “real beer” fans who find themselves in Finnieston really have to go to the Bon Accord at Charing Cross or Brewdog opposite Kelvingrove. Generally speaking.

That’s not to say that some of the bars have at least “an offer”, but it’s fair to say Finnieston is not part of the cask ale revolution.

However rather than try to set one area against another (which is almost irresistible, admittedly) it’s surely better to appreciate each has its own problems and its own advantages.

Finnieston’s latest renaissance, won solidly by publicans rather than solely by restaurateurs (eg Firefly, The Ben Nevis, Lebowski’s, The Finnieston, The Brass Monkey), hopefully has a long way to run, and while Byres Road will possibly never again be the “bohemian” milieu claimed for it by advertising features it still packs a punch – despite those depressing For Lease signs that seem to take forever to shift.

Konaki no more

Until very recently there were two West End Greek restaurants, Konaki and (smaller, and more recently arrived) The Athena – and both of these are now gone, in each case to do business from what must be reckoned more profitable sites in the city centre.

The torch for all things Hellenic has now been passed to Euphorium at the bottom of Byres Road, which appears to be pushing the envelope when it comes to offering classic Greek dishes in a bistro format. It was closed very recently while the owner was on a break back home in Greece, but in the suddenly wintry weather it is a welcome addition to our large selection of Italian restaurants and rather smaller selection of Spanish outlets.

Konaki traded very successfully for many years, building trade with exuberant but probably labour-intensive weekend Greek dance nights, and had a beautiful interior decor scheme full of artistic tributes to the wonderful island of Crete.

The Athena, by contrast, was through a family connection linked to the former Athena Taverna in Pollokshaws Road, but I am guessing its move to town means – like Konaki – that it can simply hope to do better there.

Possibly the first Greek restaurant in the West End was the old Kebab Inn, in the distant 80’s, where I remember one particularly exuberant Christmas meal involving a lot of Ouzo … and that was just the staff.

These days Greek cuisine has benefited to some extent from the enthusiasm for Mediterranean cuisine (no doubt helped along by memories of happy summer holiday trips to tavernas), but doesn’t really get the attention it deserves.
Euphorium is doing its level best to bring Hellenic culture to Byres Road, now that it has vanished from Argyle Street, but Konaki was one very big and colourful venue, and anyone who likes Greek food and culture must be sorry it has gone.

Good Cafe

One of the nice things about writing a “generic” dining columns is that the material isn’t constrained by “fine dining” (whatever that is), and is allowed to cover the places “where most people go” – and that of course plays to one of the area’s greatest strengths, the cafes.

A friend tells me that within Partick alone there are around 22 cafes, if you include every venture that loosely fits that description, and they range from the licensed restaurant (Cafe JJ’s) to Papa Gill’s (Indian restaurant, but also a cafe), Bibi’s (Mexican restaurant, also a cafe) and numerous others.

One of my current favourites, which I discovered purely because I spend a lot of time at Partick station waiting for trains that have failed to appear at the advertised times, is the aptly-named Good Cafe immediately to the left of the station entrance as you go in.

It does not attempt to be flamboyant, and majors on excellent service and above-average versions of normal cafe food (including the archetypal full breakfast – in which you can select a variety of add-ons, tapas style, to suit your preference) along with superb coffee: as good as any I’ve tasted recently.
It also has a loyalty card, which doesn’t carry any time limit – so if, like me, your visits are fairly sporadic, it doesn’t matter: you still get a stamp towards a free coffee another time.

As we’ve said before on this side we try to avoid critical reviews, as there enough expert and not so expert people around willing to dish out bouquets and brickbats, but every now and then it’s nice to come across something that is an excellent example of its own particular thing. Good Cafe sums it up very nicely.

Another popular West End Café, Enjoy at Kelvinbridge, has new extended opening hours (9 a.m. – 11 p.m.) and new appetising lunch and dinner menus.

still gameStill Game

I didn’t realise until now that the wildly successful TV comedy show Still Game was effectively born at the West End’s Cottier Theatre, some years ago – but that fascinating snippet came up in recent coverage of plans by stars Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill to revive their famous Jack and Victor characters, apparently (at least initially) in some sort of stage show.

Still Game ran to more than 40 episodes and could have easily run for 40 more, and must be one of the best comedy dramas ever to come out of Scotland – right up there with the work of the late Rikki Fulton (who of course also started as a massively popular stage actor, along with the immortal Jack Milroy).

Scatalogical, irreverent, edgy … Jack and Victor weren’t exactly what you might imagine in a tale of two pensioners living in a Glasgow tower block. The other characters were brilliant, too, for example the classic Asian corner shop owner Naveed, irrepressibly nosy Isa – arguably the most real to life of them all – miserly Tam and entrepreneurial Winston.

Then there was Boaby the Barman, who typically greeted Jack and Victor at grimy scheme pub The Clansman with a cheerful insult – only to be immediately flattened by a Wildean but unprintable riposte from the pensioners.

Here, by the way, is another West End connection. Ford and Greg did a lot of detailed research around local pubs to frame their picture of authentic Glasgow bar life, and the results are sometimes eerily authentic.

It sounds a hoot, as if they were just enjoying themselves in pubs, but I know for a fact they were taking careful note of the Real Banter in bars including The Three Judges at Partick Cross – and no doubt many more where “real Glaswegians” congregate.

The screenplay is full of innate understanding of its subject matter – and the pub scenes are among the best.

Unlike the Judges The Clansman is dingy and depressing, but while the badinage across the bar there can be a bit fruity it’s also extremely close to the mark – in fact it’s as convincing an evocation of an unreconstructed 70’s punter’s pub as you’ll come across.

Not the sort of “style bar” where trendies hang out, of course, but an unprepossessing boozer where a largely older clientele tend to congregate.

They’re the places which have been closing down in swathes in Glasgow’s schemes, due to rising prices and the effects of the smoking ban, but they also have their near equivalent in registered social clubs (bowling, football, miners social, whatever).

And they’re often in areas where merciless and ultimately pointless Tory policies are making life intolerable for the elderly, the handicapped and the disabled, and where smoking rates and alcohol health damage are massively higher than the not very good average. Seafood bistros in this sort of environment are nowhere to be found.

Where Jack and Victor repeatedly scored in the past was by showing the tenacity of people under pressure, and their ability to fight back and survive – using vicious humour to show up “the system” in all its greed and cynical disregard for ordinary citizens.

A new round of Jack and Victor will surely include a sketch about the disgusting Bedroom Tax, but – sadly – there’s really no shortage of similar material to draw upon.

I hope the new show ends up as a new TV series, and that The Clansman reappears in all its dog-eared glory … because in these grim times we surely need bar-room philosophers like Jack and Victor as seldom before.

Glasgow Bars help the Clutha families - by Roy Beers
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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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