A taste of Glasgow's grit: a foodie's guide to the city

Neil McQuillian embarked on a foodie tour of Scotland’s “second” city and discovered just what makes the place tick. 

“Do you actually know him?” I ask Andrea when we’re out of earshot of Jerry, a fellow touree on this food-angled exploration of Glasgow. He and Andrea, the guide leading our group, have been riffing off each other all morning like faux-bickering siblings. Andrea comes back with a sing-song ding-dong “No, no…” A beat. “We’re just Glaswegian.”

Our little party have just finished a half-hour stop at Glasgow institution Gandolfi Fish, a café and takeaway where we tucked into deep-fried haggis and black pudding.

Owner Seumas MacInnes regaled us with tales of his business (“We were the first to put black pudding on the menu as a non-breakfast dish…”) and his childhood on the Isle of Lewis (his mother was Flora MacNeil, probably the most famous of all traditional Gaelic singers).

So natural is the chat, I’ve mostly been feeling like a kid hanging around his parents’ dinner party, listening quietly, surreptitiously nicking bits of what the grown-ups are eating.

“Here I am, 55, still working a Saturday,” Seumas laments. (I get the distinct impression from Seumas’s jaunty tone that he would have it no other way).

“Family business,” my fellow touree Jerry nudges this response to Seumas, to the room. I chew and nod.

“Relentless…” Seamas replies. I dip and crunch.

“Hard work,” our guide Andrea pipes up. My hands are getting greasy. And I swear the accents become thicker, burrier, even over the course of this little exchange.

People Make Glasgow goes the city’s slogan – and the marketingese was ringing true

On my way up to Glasgow for this foodie weekend, I had the city’s reputation on my mind. Its gritty reputation. That’s what they say about Glasgow, isn’t it? It’s got grit. The football, the accent, the attitude, the Glasgow kisses (so crunchily demonstrated by Trainspotting’s Begbie). It’s a gritty city.

But something dawned on me at Gandolfi’s – actually, this was Glasgow’s grit, right here in this little tour group. It’s grit as presence and personality, and actually engaging with each other. In this respect our motley party was as gritty as it gets. People Make Glasgow goes the city’s slogan – and the marketingese was ringing true.

I’d come away then with the sense that the Barras was the very belly of the Glaswegian whale

People were most certainly making this tour. Take Jerry. Engulfed by his woollen coat, his white hair a tamed patch of scrub, cheeks red from razor and rasping wind, I’d periodically catch his eyes flashing towards me.

Next moment, he’d be there by my side, unable to resist augmenting Andrea’s latest insight with one of his own. The tour was a gift from his children, whom he had presumably regaled in similar fashion over the years.

Gandolfi’s sits on the far eastern edge of the city centre, just a short walk from Glasgow’s fabled East End, home to the Barras, a market that represents the gold standard of grit.

We didn’t have time to go on this tour but I’d visited some ten years previously, when its gothic rawness made a visceral impression on me. I’d come away then with the sense that the Barras was the very belly of the Glaswegian whale, that the market had to exist or perhaps Glasgow would not.

So to hear from my fellow tourees that the area is undergoing a gentrification of sorts takes me aback. It’s slow, I’m told, but it is happening: early signs of this shift include EEFS (East End First Saturdays), a new programme of cultural and street-food events, and A’Challtainn, an acclaimed seafood restaurant from BAaD (Barras Art and Design).

Glaswegians will never let what came before be forgotten – it would be like forgetting themselves

Now, if pop-ups, industrial design and asymmetric acronyms give you the Shoreditch shivers, fear not. The east London comparison has already been bandied about in relation to another area of Glasgow: Finnieston, the area strung loosely along Argyle Street, which connects the city centre to the moneyed West End.

But Finnieston is no hipster theme park. “Finnieston was literally derelict,” I’m told by Rosie Healey, head chef of Alchemilla, part of the cluster of Finnieston restaurants that have made the area the city’s foodie hub. Rosie, of Glasgow’s West End, cut her teeth at Ottolenghi in London before returning home.

“The building that Alchemilla’s in was boarded up about six years ago. Then Byres Road in the West End got too expensive and someone opened up Crabshakk in Finnieston. It was cheap, got everyone interested.”

To get to Finnieston from the city centre you must first navigate the not-insubstantial obstacle that is the M8 motorway (a rare example of a motorway ploughed right into a central urban area). As you begin your westward stroll down Argyle Street, the road is barking and growling at your back.

Peep down side streets. They’re still dark and unlit at night. Finnieston was once a liminal place of dockworkers and brothels, and it feels like it was. Entering the area, the vibe is more akin to banishment from the city centre than being welcomed into a hipster enclave.

Still, Rosie does admit to a little anxiety about the Finnieston restaurant revival – “I was thinking, ‘Is it a strange thing? Where else do you get that?’ It’s like a holiday strip.”

But I reckon she needn’t worry – Glaswegians like her will never let what came before be forgotten. It would be like forgetting themselves.

Eating and drinking in Glasgow: 6 of the best

Grit in your food is usually the worst – the chip of stone in your cheap bag of basmati; the unspeakable shard in your spag bol mince – but Glasgow grit is a different kettle of fish. Here are six venues with great food and great people.

1. Alchemilla

Together with The Gannet (you have to try their caramelized chicken wings), head chef Rosie Healey’s offerings at Alchemilla have helped make Finnieston Glasgow’s foodie hotspot. She served her time at London’s Ottolenghi, but what all three restaurants have in common is excellence.

Grub is of the on-message, small-plates variety (oh my, that ox heart…), and the interior decor is just-so (pale wood and Pantone colours). But there’s not a hint of pretentiousness here – staff and fellow diners get stuck into conversations and food with true Glasgow gusto.

2. Celino’s

Glasgow has a rich Italian heritage and Dennistoun’s Celino’s does it proud. Founded in 1982, the East End stalwart is a bit of everything – deli, restaurant, takeaway – but it pulls each role off with aplomb. It’s set to open a second branch this year out west in Partick. Other Italian highlights include Eusebi’s and pizza maestros Paesano.

3. Babu Bombay Street Kitchen

The influence of immigration from the Indian subcontinent on Glasgow’s culinary scene is a match for the Italians. Mother India is the big mamma of the restaurants, but Babu Bombay Street Kitchen is the plucky newcomer.

This small, cheerfully decorated basement café in the grand environs of Blythswood Square is as good for breakfast and brunch as in the evening. The chai’s highly moreish.

4. Babbity Bowster

A pub-with-rooms, Babbity Bowster (named after a traditional wedding dance) is the place for simple but classy accommodation in the city. The pub’s traditional music sessions, suntrap patio, excellent beers, whiskys and well-executed Scottish grub go down well too.

5. Riverhill

The neighbouring Riverhill venues are solid choices for reliably good coffee and breakfast/brunch/lunch eating. Other honorary café mentions include Gordon Street Coffee, tucked into the Glasgow Central Station building, and the Merchant City’s McCune Smith, named after local abolitionist and the city’s first African-American student.

6. Big Feed

Glasgow has been relatively slow on the street food uptake, but the Big Feed is gaining traction. With a permanent base south of the river, not far from Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium, Big Feed offers all the fun of the street-food fair, plus a range of off-site one-offs.

Inspired? Plan your trip with The Rough Guide to Scotland. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. 

Images top to bottom (left to right): Warunyou Terapinyo/123rf; Neil McQuillian; People Make Glasgow; Karen Munro/Flickr; Scotclicks/Alamy; Adam Wilson/Flickr; East End First Saturdays; Pixabay/CC0; Alchemilla; Neil McQuillian; Tony Webster/Flickr.

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