What's Hot in Glasgow
Published: May 2009
By Dan Savage
How do you take the pulse of a city on the verge?<b>Dan Savage</b> dresses up (or is it down?) and hits the most happening clubs to find out what's hot
SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN HIP, SOME ACHIEVE HIPNESS, and some have hipness thrust upon them. On my first night in Glasgow, I'm hanging out with some authentic Young Hipsters, friends of friends. Niall and Ben take one look at my clothes and inform me they just won't do. My jeans, T-shirt, and baseball hat quickly give me away as an impostor—I'm the least hip person I know, at home or abroad. "Your clothes say, 'Hey, look at me!'" Ben says, laughing. "'Over here! I'm an American! Overcharge me for drinks!'" So before we hit a single bar or club, Niall suggests we hunt down some of Glasgow's happening shops, where he and Ben would thrust a little hipness upon me.
Niall's an artist and Ben's a filmmaker, and both went to school here in their Scottish hometown. Ten years ago they would have moved straight to London after graduation, but with so much going on in Glasgow, they decided to stay put. We shop like the students they so recently were, first browsing through the outrageously expensive clothes in the stores that line Ingram Street. All have live DJ's standing at turntables and blasting house music, making the shops themselves seem like clubs, with racks taking up all the space on the dance floor. Ben and Niall tear through the clothes, making note of styles and trying some things on, but buying nothing. After the third shop, I have a pounding dance-dance-dance-music-induced headache. We work our way up the street, threading in and out of the men's stores surrounding Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art. Then we head to the Buchanan Galleries, the city's newest mall, where Niall and Ben make a beeline for H&M, a British version of the Gap. They ransack the merchandise, pulling out cheap knockoffs of the designer duds we've just pawed over.
"This place is brilliant," Niall says, holding a pair of pants up to my waist. "Whatever you see in the pricey shops, they've got the same stuff a month later."
Ben and Niall outfit me in cargo pants, a tight electric-blue T-shirt, an orange bubble vest, and a floppy vinyl fishing hat—I suddenly look like someone I wouldn't sit next to on the subway—and it's mission accomplished. To celebrate, we head for tea at the upscale department store John Lewis.
"This is where the ladies of leisure take tea," Ben says in a stage whisper as we find a table. "Pure class, pure class."
While we pick over cranberry-and-Brie sandwiches and a selection of fruit tarts—tea is really about fattening food—I ask the boys to explain Glasgow's thriving bar scene. First, bars are not to be confused with clubs; the two are completely different. Bars open early and close early; clubs open late and close late. You drink in bars, dance in clubs. But once, I'm told, there were only pubs—places with lots of dark, carved wood, threadbare velvet, and beveled-glass mirrors.
"Then about ten years ago," Niall says, "around the time Glasgow was named European City of Culture, TM bars started opening. 'Twisty metal.' It's what we call bars with 'cutting-edge' design." Ben cocks an eyebrow. "Lots of rough, unfinished wood and uncomfortable metal stools."
TM bars—the first big one was the Living Room in the West End—shattered the pub aesthetic and created a desire for cool watering holes. Such a vast crop of new bars has sprouted in the last few years that the city's nightlife is facing something of a supply-and-demand problem: too many cutting-edge bars chasing after too few cutting-edge customers. But cutting edges dull quickly, so about five years after TM bars broke the pub mold, stark, minimalist bars began appearing. In fact, they're still opening—and still booming. Only now it isn't enough for a bar to be merely minimalist, my guides explain. It has to have a theme.
"Like the weather, or Asia," Niall says. "Or frozen tundra, or Ally McBeal, or spaceships."
Considering the number of bars Niall and Ben tell me we'll visit before the night is through, I worry that we'll wind up drinking in a place with a gastrointestinal-tract theme because the good ideas have already been snapped up.
They assure me we will not.
WHAT AM I DOING IN GLASGOW, SIPPING TEA WITH HIPSTERS while ladies of leisure sniff at my gangsta wear?Well, rumor had it that formerly grimy, formerly industrial Glasgow was taking its turn as the United Kingdom's hippest city, having wrested that coveted title from formerly grimy, formerly industrial (and now formerly hip) Manchester. Why the usually sensible editors of this fine publication would send a writer who is not even remotely hip and happening—that would be me—to investigate these rumors is a bit of a mystery. The idea that I could just fly into Glasgow and discover its hot spots seemed absurd. But, as my dear ol' granny always said, never say no to an expense account.
It was my job to experience Glasgow's new urban scene, my editor told me, and that would mean going out. At night. Drinking. I have long since passed the time when a great European vacation meant standing around in smoky dance clubs and drinking American beer while blood ran out of my eardrums. The last time I was in Scotland, I spent a week on the Orkney Islands watching sheep chew grass. The sheep watched me watching them. All in all, it was a perfectly restful vacation. I suggested to my editor that if he sent me back to the Orkneys, we could get ahead of the curve. I'd heard that Kirkwall on Orkney was going to be Britain's next Hippest and Most Happening City, I told him; next year all the hipsters would be tromping through pastures watching sheep graze. He didn't buy it.
Having just returned from my assignment, I can assure you that the rumors are true: Glasgow is the United Kingdom's Hippest and Most Happening City—as of this writing. By the time you actually read this, it might not be anymore. So quickly does the title get passed around the Merry Olde Kingdom that just in the time it took to write this story—and for an editor to correct my spelling and grammar and rush it into the magazine—some other place could have been declared the HMHC. There's an almost endless supply of post-industrial cities in the United Kingdom with photogenically decayed urban cores, and each gets its turn. To see Glasgow while it's still the hippest, put down this magazine and call your travel agent now.
That's the problem with what's hip, the thing that's so aggravating about it. Hip doesn't sit still—which is what makes so many people (myself included) give up on it. Just when you finally get your hair right, or your living room right, or your trendy travel plans right, you pick up a magazine and learn that bangs are out, Barbra Streisand is selling off her Arts and Crafts furniture, and Kirkwall, not Glasgow, is the United Kingdom's Hippest and Most Happening City.
TRENDY BARS IN THE STATES MAKE ME UNCOMFORTABLE, as if I'm having a bad-hair life (and I am), or the bartender can tell I'm wearing underwear my mother sent five birthdays ago (and I am). My fashion-senselessness once got me and four more-stylish friends tossed out of Idlewild, a bar in New York City that was, at the time, so hip it hurt. I'm still traumatized by the experience. Now I avoid bars with guest lists and bouncers and velvet ropes, opting to drink in dives and average-Joe places where I can get a cocktail the old-fashioned way: by paying for it, not dressing for it. So I'm more than a little nervous about hitting Glasgow's ultracool watering holes, even in my H&M hipster disguise.
We start at Strata, a weather-themed restaurant and bar on Queen Street. It's early, but the place is packed with students—and even a few tourists soaking it all up. Huge weather charts on the walls not only give Strata its theme but also capture the swirling energy of the room with striking visual imagery. Thankfully, there are no velvet ropes, so we're quickly seated and served. Our next stop is only a few doors down. Yang, with its Blade Runner-esque theme, attracts a crowd that's mostly wearing cargo pants and puffy down vests. The music is so deafening we can't talk. I stand and sip my beer while my kidneys vibrate to the beat.
From Yang, we head to Glasgow's Merchant City neighborhood, dropping by what has to be the most stunning restaurant and bar in Europe. When you've had your fill of minimalism—and you'd be surprised how quickly you can fill up on minimalism—the Corinthian is a tonic. Built on Ingram Street as a bank in 1842, it represents opulent maximalism. The interior is all soaring ceilings and richly detailed plasterwork, with stuffed chairs and huge private booths larger than my hotel room.
The industrial history of Glasgow—once largely shipbuilding, coal, and manufacturing, back when it was known as the Second City of the Empire—has left behind a collection of almost absurdly ornate red and white sandstone banks, warehouses, and markets. Many of these house bars and clubs today, transforming Merchant City into a virtual entertainment district. Unlike Edinburgh, downtown Glasgow is not a photo op for tourists, but a shopping zone and, at night, a playground for its own citizens. Tourists are welcome, but on Glasgow's terms. That means no baseball caps.
LEAVING MERCHANT CITY, WE HEAD TOWARD THE CITY CENTER and Spy Bar. With its reddish-wood floors and red and silver everything else, this is Glasgow's most happening spot (at least, it was when I was there). To make it into Spy Bar, we even have to get past bouncers. But you're not supposed to call them bouncers. "We're stewards," Nicole, Spy Bar's 20-year-old boun—. . . er, steward . . . says to me on the sidewalk. "Bouncer conjures up the wrong image: meaty guys with shaved heads in a bad mood. We're not like that."
Indeed, Nicole is nothing like any bouncer I've ever seen. Slim and pretty, with a professional rather than a menacing air, she explains that it's her job to keep things fun, not to keep people out. Unfortunately, to keep things fun in Spy Bar this night, she does have to keep someone out. As we talk, an obviously drunk hipster approaches the entrance. Nicole smilingly turns him away, suggesting that he try the chip shop down the street.
"Go have something to eat," she suggests, "and when you're a little firmer on your feet, maybe you can stop in." The guy isn't angry; instead, he takes Nicole's advice and weaves off down the block. She turns to me and winks.
"He won't find his way back."
AFTER A FEW COCKTAILS AT SPY BAR, it's late enough to start hitting the clubs. We've been out for hours, and at this point my notes get just a little blurry. I know we went to Archaos, a hugely popular dance club with a slightly sinister circus motif, spread over three floors on Queen Street; then we dropped into the Arctic-themed Alaska, where we kicked back vodkas in an ice-white lounge. Toward the end of the night we stopped by the Sub Club, one of Glasgow's oldest, loudest, darkest, and most crowded dance spots. It's also the place where I reached my limit. Bleary-eyed, smelling of smoke, and still pulsating from the bass, we trudged out of the Sub Club at three in the morning and headed to a late-night café for chips with curry sauce.
EVEN AT THE PEAK OF ITS HIPNESS, Glasgow is so thoroughly overshadowed by nearby Edinburgh that most tourists can't be bothered with the 45-minute train ride between the two cities. This means you basically have Glasgow all to yourself. Edinburgh may be prettier, but like a homely stranger at the end of the bar, Glasgow gets better-looking with each drink—which may explain why there's a bar on practically every corner.
You can take a walking tour through the three stages of Glasgow's watering holes—pubs, TM bars, and minimalist bars—by heading out to the West End. Start at the Edwardian-era Halt Bar on Woodlands Road, where it's all beveled glass and dark wood. Then have lunch at the University Café on Byres Road, an authentic old café where nothing has changed—décor, menu, or staff—since the 1930's. Take Byres Road to the Living Room, among the first twisty-metal-and-wood places and still hopping.
Afterward, walk up Kelvingrove Street to Air Organic, which has creamy white walls, booths, and bar, and a cocktail lounge by way of 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Star Trek. With its cement floors, cube-shaped stools, and molded-plastic chairs, Air Organic doesn't seem that warm or welcoming. But once you settle into a booth with your drinks and order some food—which comes on TV trays, à la The Jetsons—the room starts to warm up.
For me, the difference between Scotland's two leading cities can be summed up in two images. I spent one day in Edinburgh, and along the Royal Mile I saw bagpipers on every street corner, turned out in full Scottish regalia and playing traditional tunes while American and Japanese tourists snapped pictures. Back in Glasgow, shopping on Argyle Street, I saw a black girl in cargo pants and an Adidas windbreaker playing the bagpipes, flipping her braided hair in time with the music. Clusters of old ladies in cloth coats sat on nearby benches and smiled.
"Everyone is more down-to-earth here," says Sara Jones, a Glasgow art student who works at a trendy home-furnishings shop, Nice House, in the Italian Centre. "Things are relaxed, easygoing." Jones is also a promising interior designer. Her current project?A bar in Merchant City, naturally. "I don't want contemporary furniture. I'm going to use old pieces, sofas and stuffed chairs, with lots of old glass and old wallpaper in rich colors."
Jones's design concept sounds an awful lot like the places where Glasgow hipsters used to drink before Blade Runner bars came along. If her new bar is a hit—if glass, stuffed chairs, and wallpaper in rich colors roar back—then Glasgow's bar and club scene will have come full circle. And what'll happen to all the minimalist places, with their molded-plastic chairs?Bars and clubs that live by what's hip are ultimately fated to die by what's hip. Remember, hip doesn't stand still, and, just like my hair or my underwear, one day all of Glasgow's achingly hip clubs will become unfashionable—old, tired, and worn-out. Yesterday's news.
But for now—right now—Alaska, Archaos, Strata, Spy Bar, Yang, Sub Club, et al., are just as hip as they can possibly be. If you want to enjoy the bar and club scene at its pinnacle, and experience Scotland's second city while it's the United Kingdom's Hippest and Most Happening City, now's the time to visit Glasgow.
Arthouse 129 Bath St.; 44-141/221-6789, fax 44-141/221-6777; doubles from $141. The Arthouse, in a renovated 1911 building, is Glasgow's most striking hotel. All 68 individually designed rooms display original art.
Malmaison 278 W. George St.; 44-141/572-1000, fax 44-141/572-1002; doubles from $180. Part of a chain of sleek U.K. hotels. The lobby and some of the rooms are in a beautiful old Greek church. A short walk from many area hot spots.
Nairns 13 Woodside Crescent; 44-141/353-0707, fax 44-141/331-1684; doubles from $173. Glasgow's best boutique hotel has four thoroughly art-directed rooms. No rough edges here: Nairns is all attentive service and beautiful surroundings.
One Devonshire Gardens 1 Devonshire Gardens; 44-141/339-2001, fax 44-141/337-1663; doubles from $267. If money is no object, this is the place to stay. It's far from the center of town, but so lovely you may never leave your room.
Café Mao 84 Brunswick St.; 44-141/564-5162; dinner for two $50. You're in Glasgow drinking American beers, sitting on Italian stools in French-designed bars—so you might as well drop by this Asian fusion restaurant for good noodles, curry, and tempura. Service is hit-or-miss.
Corinthian 191 Ingram St.; 44-141/552-1101; dinner for two $60. A stunning bank building dating back to the mid-1800's houses one of the city's best restaurants.
Nairn's 13 Woodside Crescent; 44-141/353-0707; dinner for two $86. Nick Nairn, one of the U.K.'s most famous "telly chefs," demonstrates that his fame is deserved.
Gamba 225A W. George St.; 44-141/572-0899; dinner for two $110. I had one of the best meals of my life in this basement seafood restaurant. Order the lobster mousse twice—once as an appetizer, once for dessert. Don't miss the whole-fish entrée. Ragona 11 Exchange Place; 44-141/248-4055; dinner for two $100. The interior resembles an Art Deco ship. Too bad you can't eat the paneling. Stop in for a drink, check out the scene, and then head elsewhere for dinner.
Strata 45 Queen St.; 44-141/221-1888; dinner for two $50. Stylish bar/restaurant with a weather theme.
BARS AND CLUBS
Air Organic 36 Kelvingrove St.; 44-141/564-5201. Organic food served upstairs, attitude served downstairs in a stylish, retro-futuristic bar where Captain Kirk would feel at home.
Alaska 142 Bath Lane; 44-141/248-1777. Arctic-themed club.
Archaos 25 Queen St.; 44-141/204-3189. Multilevel dance bar.
Spy Bar 153 Bath St.; 44-141/221-7711. Black-clad fashionistas sip cocktails here after work or before hitting the clubs.
Sub Club 22 Jamaica St.; 44-141/248-4600. Grungy basement dance spot where you can let your hair down. Loud, loud, loud.
Yang 31 Queen St.; 44-141/248-8484. A student hangout with futuristic décor and video loops.