Thursday, 2 August 2012

Glasgow Merchant City Festival: 28th July 2012

This was to be the 11th Glasgow Merchant City Festival, which had moved from a September date to a July one back in 2010 and hadn't looked back since in terms of popularity. It now perfectly ends the Glasgow Fair holidays and prefaces the month-long Edinburgh Festival at the other end of the M8. In the time that I've been living on the West Coast the Merchant City area itself has come on in great steps, huge bounds & quantum leaps and now takes on an almost continental feel at the weekend - great buildings, pavement cafes, street markets & entertainers. I think it's been the redevelopment of the City Halls, the Old Fruitmarket and the Merchants Square buildings which has helped a lot in this - it's a great environment for families during the day & also for evenings out with friends. The Festival was a great excuse to head out and try a number of Merchant City pubs in an afternoon - I think I would most definitely call this more of a crawl than a walk.

View Merchant City in a larger map

Train: Glasgow Argyle Street

My first stop was probably on the outskirts of the Merchant City proper just before the expanse of Glasgow Green, Café Source in St Andrews in the Square. This is part of a fantastic restored church and since it is slightly off the beaten path remains fairly untrampled by the mass hoards.

They were setting up for an afternoon concert in the main church hall so I entered the basement Café Source from the right hand side of the building down steps from the outside terrace.

It's a basement bar so it's always going to feel quite enclosed, but it's lit by a whole load of halogen lights on what seemed to be rails so that it's really quite bright and modern. There are a number of diner-style bench seats around two sides, smaller tables in the in the centre of the room, old black-and-white pictures of cars & musicians on the walls & pillars and the bar set along one entire side of the room. It's a place you'd be quite happy taking the In-Laws to!

This afternoon there was a single hand-pull with Belhaven St Andrews available, but I didn't really fancy that with my lunch and so went for a Pilsner Urquell instead (WEST St Mungo, Peroni & Belhaven Best were also on draught). They had soup, fish, pork & lamb specials on the blackboard but I decided on the Cullen Skink which was full of smoked fish & tatties, but the liquid was probably just a bit on the thin side for my taste - though the bread was superb.

Having had my fill of fish soup I headed back into the heart of the Merchant City passing a number of Glasgow Walking & Ghost Tours encamped around the Mercat Cross and the Tollbooth Steeple. By now the the stalls around the City Halls & the Old Fruitmarket were packed and selling all sorts of clothing, jewellery and 'exotic' food from around the world.

A small stage had been setup outside Blackfriars alongside a large number of outside tables - a plastic glasses only outside edict was enforced by the 'security'.

Blackfriars is normally always busy and today it was even more so. I fought my way to the bar to see that (at first) only 3 hand-pulled ales were on - Tryst XL5, Inveralmond Independence & Barney's Ordinary Pale Ale, so I took a half of the dry, bitter Pale Ale. However a few minutes later Inveralmond Ossian & Tempest Unforgiven came on - I like that in this pub - the staff are always happy to put on new casks even when it's really busy. They also have some decent draught beer and one of the best selection of interesting bottled foreign beers in Glasgow, normally all written up on the blackboard beside the huge mirror opposite the bar.

The bar area in Blackfrairs isn't the biggest and I don't really like standing amongst the tables in the 2 raised sections, but where I do like standing (if I can't stay at the bar) is at large cylindrical pillars. Sometimes I feel pillars in a pub don't feel right mostly because you keep getting jostled at them (I don't like the ones in Tennents, for example), but for some reason the pillars in Blackfriars work well - maybe they simply aren't in the line of the passing flow of people. There's also a lot of look at in Blackfriars - flyers for music and the comedy downstairs, posters for old gigs, the beers that will be on next, but until I walked out of the door I somehow managed to miss the flyer which would have told me that Weihenstephan Dunkel was on draught - it would have gone down well with their German curried cheese.

On my way out of Blackfriars I was almost accosted by this - a woman who was taller than me (OK, on stilts), wore lots of makeup (blue admittedly) and had horns growing from her head (I think I would have to draw the line at this). Thankfully I was saved by a young lad brandishing a light-sabre and she tottered away parrying furiously with her broadsword.

Across the road from Blackfriars is what used to be called 'The bar with no name' but which now (after a competition) has signage which has christened it The Libertine.

There's only the one hand-pull in here but it is normally Fyne Ales Jarl, and today I managed to get the first pour off the top of the new cask & it was superb - lots of sharp grapefuit bitterness in the aroma & flavour. They were setting up for a BBQ outside (all fancy burgers were £5) and a DJ inside, but the piped music was currently set way too loud. Apart from that it's a decent place - nice comfy seats, a high ceiling and a huge huge screen for the football, Olympics etc...

I then headed up past more market stalls and into Candleriggs towards Bar 91.

It's an OK 'trendy' bar with an extensive wine & cocktail selection but since it was so busy inside the bar and with only Deuchars IPA on hand-pull to compensate me (although I was almost tempted by the WEST Hefeweissen), I decided to head across the road to the Beer Café.

Normally I take a bottle of something continental & cold in here but today there was a pleasant surprise - Isle of Skye Red Cuillin on handpull, and very impressive it was indeed. At a great temperature, a slight spicy sweetness with some nice red berry tones and no acidic after-taste at all which I sometimes pick up in the Red Cuillin.

Chatting to the barman it seems they've had a hand-pull in for several months now after getting the required cooling in the cellar, and after a bit of a shaky start with some Arran beers they seem to have settled on those from Isle of Skye - a welcome addition to choice in the Merchant City. As expected they still have an excellent selection of draught beers (Kriek, Leffe, Franziskaner, Staropramen and others) and there's also a great central stacked tower of bottles on display - your choice from the numerous German, Belgian, Czech, Polish & others available then comes out one of the many fridges). I also like the selection of pies that are available and which are described on the large blackboard, including a goats-cheese, sweet potato & spinach variety called the Heidi Pie.

I left the Beer Cafe from the direct exit into the Merchants Square, a large enclosed atrium space with lots of restaurants & bars set around the outside, a number of art & craft displays, performance areas and a large projection TV tuned to the Olympics for the next few weeks.

It's a nice place to wander about for a bit but I decided there wasn't much point in trying any other other bars in the Merchants Square and headed out to Blackfriars Street and Babbity Bowster.

This is an excellent pub, restaurant & hotel with probably the best beer garden in the Merchant City. Unsurprisingly the outside benches were mobbed, but thankfully there was actually a fair amount of free space inside even though it's not the largest of places. It's very white and light inside, enhanced by a huge mirror with a tiled surround behind the bar, with some Glasgow prints, olde maps & lots of cacti around the walls & shelves. I got my pint of Jarl (in a Tennents glass!) and stood just inside the doorway listening to the impromtu session of Scottish folk music from an ever changing line-up of musicians.

Back out in Blackfriars Street there was a large blue robot (or puppet or robot/puppet) which a group of students seemed to be trying to revive - I think they did manage to do this for Sunday.

Finally I wanted to head to Committee Room No. 9, another impressive building at the west side of the Merchant Square area.

They were having a few 'Craft Beer' events as part of their 'Swallae Fest' (only in Glasgow!) promotion during the Festival and this afternoon Harviestoun Brewery were participating in a craft beer & curry tasting/pairing session - 2 of my favourite things. Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion were available at the bar, kegged but not too fizzy, as well as a superb curry taster platter from the kitchen of Committee Room No. 9. I'd have to say that I probably preferred the more bitter(!) Bitter & Twisted with all of the more spicy curried food over the more floral Schiehallion except for the lentil curry, but both were very good. I would have been intrigued to try a stout such as Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout with such a platter but then I could always try that at home sometime - given a couple of weeks of preparation! The Harviestoun people were great - informative, chatty and (very) patient - well done to them and to the kitchen staff at Committee Room No. 9 for this.

Never having been in Committee Room No. 9 previously I took the chance to have a look around. They have a lot of diner style tables at the windows to attract people looking for food, a couple of large tables in the centre of the room for bigger groups and there's an upstairs balcony area set above the bar gantry hosting a few tables - the view down to the rest of the bar is quite impressive.

All told it was a really enjoyable wander around the Merchant City - there certainly was a nice buzz about this part of the city, and afterwards I also managed to take a final look at Bruadar in Partick before it closed down for good that weekend.

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