We have been sold a pup. The planning sketches and architectural models of gentrification promised a happy life in shiny surroundings. What we got was skips, coffee chains, and 4WD buggies parked outside properties no one can afford. If you’re lucky, you get a hat shop. From Paddington to Williamsburg, Aberdeen to Soho, redevelopment is now more about hand-wringing squabbles and – should you decide to open a café selling £4.50 bowls of Lucky Charms – civil disorder.
Which is why Finnieston in Glasgow is special. It’s part of the inner city sprawl, in an area called Anderston, once ironically dubbed by its most famous son Billy Connolly a “wee fishing village on the Clyde”. There’s been a kind of makeover, but from the outside you’d hardly notice. There isn’t a Starbucks.
Most pubs here had Highlanders in kilts drinking whisky (there are still several Gaelic hostelries nearby) but modernity demanded German artisan beer on tap
Heavy industry departed a long time ago, and most Glaswegians regard it as a commuter rat run en route to somewhere more interesting. A tad unfair TBH. In a city of stiff competition, it’s always been home to by far the best Indian restaurant (Mother India), a clutch of defiantly unspoiled pubs (The Grove, The Ben Nevis) and was once famous for Murphy’s Pakora Bar, which served 23 different varieties of deep fried pakora. (See if you can guess why Punjabi cuisine was welcomed into Glasgow with such enthusiasm).
Most pubs here had Highlanders in kilts drinking whisky (there are still several Gaelic hostelries nearby) but modernity demanded German artisan beer on tap, locally brewed, naturally. That’s in the Ben Nevis, whose neighbour has always been the Kelvingrove Café, where the newly unearthed original facade (pictured top of page) is so savagely disheveled it looks war torn, and whose killer cocktails do further collateral damage.
On the other side is The Gannet, assuredly the area’s best restaurant (I’ve counted around 40 new places to eat and drink around here) and some would argue the city’s best. (After two cocktails in the Kelvingrove Café it can easily become the world’s best. This is Glasgow, after all). It is tiny, comfortable and welcoming. They bake their own bread, crusty and warm, every morning using a sourdough starter kept alive forever. Stornoway Black Pudding is served modishly with a Scotch duck egg rather than chips, but white pudding? Millenials don’t even know what that is. Once a chip shop staple of deep fried suet, intestines, and floor sweepings, The Gannet’s update is an exercise in refinement: a meltingly soft puck of minced sweetbreads served with fresh English asparagus, confit egg yolk, caramelized onions and hazelnut.
Such cuisine pauvre has been adapted for the bourgeoisie everywhere. And just because The Gannet’s Gartmorn Duck Farm breast may be the best duck you’ll ever taste, or its Diamond Fillet the best beef, neither mean an environmental upgrade will ensue automatically. Although the dripping fried potatoes and Alsace pinot gris do encourage a distinct feeling of bonhomie.
However Finnieston’s success is due to the people who run small independent businesses. The wrecking ball mostly passed by this narrow corridor of no mans land between the city centre and West End, although the motorways and tower blocks loom large enough a few streets away. Employment here was once from riverside commerce, but shipbuilding and docks are a distant memory, their legacy of dereliction now punctuated by spendy projects like Zaha Hadid’s Transport Museum and The SEE Hydro music arena.
It was therefore to everyone’s surprise when this became the city’s coolest neighbourhood.
Cheap rents traditionally attract artists. In this instance it was a few art students, quickly followed by intrepid restaurateurs who converted derelict spaces in what was still an “edgy” area. Buoyed by occasional crowds from Hydro concerts (Take That, Prince, Madonna) it worked and word spread.
The familiar post-industrial shabby-chic (by way of Brooklyn) may be date stamped, but round here it remains unmistakably Glaswegian. Instead of tax-dodging coffee corporations and stag nights in Wetherspoons, new galleries have sprung up. The launderette runs discos, and there are free cocktails in the Soul Barber Room. It’s still scruffy, but there’s been CPR, and a small part of old Glasgow has not only survived, but seen off corporate developers.
Directly over the road from The Gannet is Table 11, a new offshoot from Crabshakk, one of the pioneering originals and which sits a few doors down. This is the closest you’ll get to a chain. Order from a scrawled menu of boat fresh fish and crustacea, hauled ashore on various Scottish coasts and whisked here for immediate consumption. In 2009, architect John MacLeod stripped out the shelving from a redundant convenience store (called “Johnny Aw” shops back in the day because, to translate, Johnny the shopkeeper would sell everything (all). Now instead of kettles and Mivvis it’s oysters, shrimp, crabcakes (a personal favourite) and whatever else is fresh. It’s tiny too, and the staff knows everything. They’re a hoot, and squeeze orders through minute spaces to eager customers. On the night we were scarfing scallops and turbot at the bar, a neighbour was served the biggest lemon sole I think I’ve ever seen: the Jaws of bottom feeding.
Pleasingly, somebody here’s got an odd idea of what “small” is
The bars along this formerly forgotten strip of Argyle Street are reinventions of old roughhouse pubs that contributed to the hard reputation of Glasgow (mostly around ten pm at night, the then chucking out time). The core operations are The Finnieston, with its hipster gin assortment, Lebowskis, resplendent with movie quotes and dudes mixing White Russians, and Distill (formerly The Ivy, no relation) for rum. There are more, mostly tiny, sometimes even hidden.
And then there’s the Ox and Finch, set in a large room scooped out from an old, dead Greek restaurant. They’re doing the small plates thing (in any order) but since my lunch date stood me up, the underlying conceit of sharing was lost anyway. Pleasingly, somebody here’s got an odd idea of what “small” is. My crab and crayfish starter would easily have fed two without a tussle, then a tranche of sea trout elegantly draped with lardo straddling a hummock of peas, garlic and gem was just as big, although possibly less easy to split.
The neighbourhood is still nineteenth century domestic tenements, the industrial revolution’s high-density housing built from sandstone which elsewhere the old Corporation (Council) started to demolish after they’d become slums, mostly to make way for motorways and high rise tower blocks. Tenements are communal, the doorways (“closes”) open directly onto the street and that’s the way people here like it. Now, in Finnieston, they’ve got good shops, bars and restaurants too, almost as if it was all planned.
Except it wasn’t. C
The writer travelled to Glasgow on Virgin Trains and had a seat the whole way.