The best neighbourhood pubs and bars in Edinburgh and Glasgow
The last few years have seen a revival of top notch watering holes beyond the city centres
Over a pint or two, David Pollock finds out why there's been a spirited revival among neighbourhood bars and pubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh
Back in August, the Good Beer Guide 2014 declared that up to 4000 British pubs would go out of business over the next year, and that it was ‘high time they closed their doors’ to make way for new licensees with fresh ideas.
Maybe what the editors imagine is something like the scene in Glasgow and especially Edinburgh, where pub regeneration is spreading out to less well-served neighbourhoods, with spit‘n’sawdust saloons being gutted and replaced by smart, customer-focused bars with professional kitchens and well-stocked beer fridges.
‘It would be difficult to open in the city centre without major backing,’ says Steven Clark of Glasgow’s Sparkle Horse (and the electropop trio Bis), a new Partick venture set up in conjunction with Craig Steel (both formerly of Café Gandolfi), and Barney Waygood, who used to run The Flying Duck. ‘We’re an entirely independent operation funded by savings, personal loans, wives, girlfriends and favours. Due to our local knowledge and, let's face it, drinking experience, it was a site we believed could be turned round to suit our collective vision.'
Some key factors – low move-in costs, lack of competition around them and a real understanding of an area which they can call home – also seem to be inspiring others in Glasgow including the retro revival of the Kelvingrove Café and Williams Bros’ opening of Inn Deep at Kelvinbridge.
In Edinburgh, the opportunities offered by less likely areas was observed a decade ago by Anna and Mike Christopherson, a Swedish couple who opened the stylish and homely Boda on Leith Walk and who now run five bars including 2012 opening Hemma in the more central but still under-represented furrow between Dumbiedykes and the Royal Mile. ‘We moved to Edinburgh in 2003 and happened to settle in Leith,’ says Anna. ‘Soon we realised there was nowhere to go if you were a woman, wanted a nice glass of wine or a coffee.’ Many more have followed in their wake, with Leith Walk’s Woodland Creatures and the Shore’s excellent, restaurant-quality Vintage being among the latest colonisers.
‘The decision to set up in Abbeyhill wasn't a hard one,’ says Andy Caird of Edinburgh’s recent opening The Safari Lounge, a restoration of the crumbling Victorian-era Station Bar. ‘The surrounding streets house a very diverse population, and so far the bar has appealed to a varied clientele. It proves that serving quality products and produce is a formula that can work even where people don’t think it’s viable.’
Food is an essential aspect of keeping trade in the area, says John Duncan of The Shilling Group, whose growing portfolio includes The Fountain on Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge and Cross & Corner in Canonmills. He says bars in high-density residential areas with ‘a great feel, architecturally’ are perfect fits for any new opening. ‘At the Cross & Corner we focus on new draught beers and gins served in Spanish style "copa" balloon glasses. The Fountain is more food-orientated. We try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, as these places need to be great all-day amenities that people want to spend time in.’
Most owners now agree that friendliness to ‘cubs (children) and dugs’ is essential. Even in a chain pub, local knowledge is key, as Lynn Lovelock of Glasgow’s Maclay Inns confirms. ‘We’ve been working to broaden the appeal of the "traditional pub" by essentially stretching the definition of what a pub is. Our bars offer free Wi-Fi, comfy seats and papers, and you can grab a cup of tea or coffee with a slice of cake. We have local events that might be a knitting club in the West End of Glasgow or a comedy night in Linlithgow.’
Such forward thinking is central to a bar's survival, agrees Andy Caird: 'You have to be imaginative to compete with the supermarket culture we live in. Closures that were once blamed on things like the smoking ban are generally because these weren’t inviting places. Pubs can't expect to continue doing the same old stuff; 30-40 years ago, women pretty much weren't seen in pubs, let alone children. We now have a dedicated area for kids.’
For Steven Clark, it’s a simple question of a good individual experience leading to solid word of mouth. ‘It's a bit like today's record industry where the majority of big-selling music is owned by the same few companies but the independents have found ways to survive,’ he says. ‘Maybe the resurgence of old-man boozers is like the resurgence of vinyl: it's something tangible and real, to be enjoyed over and over and not just be used and disposed of.’
The top pub openings across Edinburgh
The former Black Bo's pushes the boundaries on pub grub in an arty-alternative setting.
Setting the tone for the Canonmills revival with excellent snacks and sophisticated drinks.
An endearingly quirky arrival on Abbeyhill with quality food and drink to the fore.
The List's top venue of the year, redefining the landscape with craft beers and charcuterie.
An example of how simple but creative design and some TLC can breathe life into old pubs.
The top pub openings across Glasgow
A retro-revival that's helped elevate Finnieston into the hip precinct for eating and drinking in Glasgow.
Not so much a refurb as a restoration, scrubbing up the best bits of an old favourite.
The owners of Lebowski's displaying their sure touch in revitalising the local.
Bringing together the best of the craft beer and BBQ-food trend that's coursing through the city.
Character, individual style and appealing food in a neat package in Partick.