You won’t find fussy fine dining in Glasgow, but it does have a reputation for restaurants that are accomplished, adventurous and superbly affordable. As a child of Glasgow in the 1970s, I grew up thinking that people only ate curry when they went out for dinner.
My young parents – raised on the Scottish staples of mince-and-tatties and stews – were utterly entranced by places with exotic names like Koh-I-Noor and Shenaz, with their naans the size of dishcloths, their pakoras woven with crisp strands of thinly-sliced onion, their rogan joshes and Punjabi masalas. All our family meals and celebrations involved going for a curry, and even now roughly 70% of the city’s denizens are likely to tell you that curry is the dish on which they most wish to spend their hard-earned pounds.
Searching for Proustian pakoras, I head for Shenaz, where the flock wallpaper is long gone but the dark, thick lamb bhuna is still the same. The prices may have moved on since 1975, but I have this plus rice, naan and ice cream for £12 (pre-theatre between 4pm and 6.30pm) and I am so transported through time that it takes a strong will not to parade up and down the restaurant showing off my dress like I did when I was three.
Glasgow has never had much truck with fine dining; nor has she done much in the way of courting the Michelin fanfare: big-name chefs have blown in, bloused up a place and blown back out again, leaving the city lacking in stars. Yet gems abound. The Ubiquitous Chip is one of the city’s foremost restaurants, but its wee lassie Stravaigin is a less stuffy, less extravagant affair. The name comes from the old Scots word ‘stravaig’ meaning ‘to wander aimlessly with intent’ and encapsulates its ‘think global, eat local’ ethos.
The menu is vast, its range appealing more to regulars who no doubt tire of black pudding – it boasts that ‘no culinary stone is left unturned’. I stick to the Scottish stones. Here they lovingly make their own haggis to a secret, gently spicy recipe handed from father Ronnie Clydesdale to son Colin. It’s served with mashed neeps, champit tatties (starter size £5.75, main £9.95) and an optional side of whisky sauce (£1.80).
In the architecturally-magnificent Merchant City district, I return to my regular haunt Café Gandolfi, where stained-glass shoals of fish swim across the windows, and I seek out Rannoch Moor smoked venison with a pot of rowanberry jelly and gratin dauphinoise (£14). Outside, red and honeyed sandstone buildings stand, built on a grid system years before the famous blocks of Manhattan or Chicago even existed. Beneath the pavements runs the subway – Glasgow’s Underground system a.k.a. ‘the clockwork orange’.
At the Shields Road exit on the Southside is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School, sits The Fish People Café. Initially, owner Tom Bell fancied opening a chippy alongside his wet-fish shop, but instead he created a café that simply cooks eye-poppingly fresh fish, mostly caught off Scotland’s shores. Here I find some of the finest-ever cullen skink – light and creamy (not thick with flour), with chunks of poached smoked haddock and potatoes (£5.50).
Oysters from the Isle of Cumbrae are sweet and astonishingly cheap at £1.75 a piece, and I adore the pickled herring salad with beetroot, apple and horseradish slaw (£6.50). Coffee comes with chunks of crumbling tablet (like fudge, but brittle and more grainy) as perfect as my mammy used to make.
I stay in 15 Glasgow, a Grade-A-listed 1834 townhouse with large, high-ceilinged bedrooms, located between the city centre and the West End, both of which you can reach on foot. I walk the main thoroughfares of Great Western Road and Byres Road, stopping for a truckle of sharp, saliva-inducing Isle of Mull cheddar and a mouldy Dunsyre Blue at IJ Mellis the cheesemonger. Over the road I courie in (hunker down) in a tartan armchair at Felix and Oscar, a café-cum-giftshop housed in one of the city’s most iconic red sandstone buildings.
Here I order a scotch pie served with owner Sandra’s homemade baked beans. Some glorious-looking doughnuts (also made by Sandra) are pouting at me like puffy glove puppets – all red, jammy lips and sugary frosting. Up by the gate to the city’s fabulous Botanic Gardens, there’s the miniscule Mangia, a one-woman operation selling soup, sandwiches, Italian coffee, teas and cakes from a converted blue police box, just like the tardis in DrWho.
Near the magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, take a left and head for the once down-at-heel stretch of the city’s famous Argyle Street, now suddenly fashionable. Here
is Old Salty’s, a soigné chippy selling not just traditional ‘suppers’ (haddock /battered sausage/black pudding/ haggis and chips), but single scallops pan-fried with a light curry oil, prawn cocktails and calamari. Under the lamplights on the counter, the Scottish carb-fest that is macaroni pie winks in cheesy wooziness.
At The Finnieston across the street, I nurse a Caorunn gin served in a tall glass with a pillar of ice and slices of red apple. But it is in The Gannet that I eat one of the best meals I’ve had in my home city
in years – decades even. Here they smoke their salmon in-house, do their own butchery and even make the charcuterie. It’s my birthday, so I eschew the pre-theatre menu (just £19 for three courses) in favour of Tarbert langoustines with herb butter, pan-fried scallops with confit chicken wing and tender Perthshire venison with game sauce.
I have been known to argue that Glasgow is 10 years behind Edinburgh in culinary terms – but the more I return home and the more I listen to myself, the more I know this is starting to sound a lot like a load of old blethers.
HOW TO GET THERE
By coach: Megabus has the cheapest fares; National Express serves more destinations (nationalexpress.com). The journey takes around nine hours from London.
By train: Most services from Glasgow Central serve southern Scotland, England and Wales; Queen Street station mostly serves the north and east. A direct train from London’s King’s Cross/Euston takes five hours. Advance return tickets from £18.
By plane: Glasgow International Airport, 10 miles west of the city, serves domestic and international destinations. Glasgow Prestwick, 30 miles southwest, handles most of the no-frills flights, including Ryanair (to several UK destinations). The cheapest return from London at the time of going to press was £63 with a journey time around an hour
More info: peoplemakeglasgow.com
Prices correct at time of writing (June 2014)
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