Wednesday, 1 May 2013
Calling a Halt to gentrification
A while back I wrote about the threat to turn venerable Woodlands pub The Halt Bar into a gastropub, ripping out most of the interior and remodelling the whole place, removing the central bar to make space for tables and probably doing away with the rear snug (something which is very rare in Glasgow).
I have nothing against gastropubs, but I liked the Halt just the way it was, and it was never going to be that sort of lucrative establishment in its existing form: it had too many customers who have no money and spend all night with just a couple of pints or a White Russian.
The temptation for every pub company is to attempt to go upmarket (or what they believe is upmarket) – spend a fortune on interior designers, introduce a “strong food offering and the premium drinks brands that consumers love”. But the announcement last autumn that Punch Taverns were planning to do just that provoked protest from the pub’s regulars.
At the time, while I wished the campaigners all the best, I wasn’t optimistic. Pubs like the Halt have been on the retreat for years, driven out of the city centre by a declining customer base and pubcos intent on pushing drinks and food with a higher profit margin.
But the campaign succeeded. Punch met the campaigners and agreed that any revamp would preserve the essential character of the pub – a great victory given their original plan to destroy most of the interior and replace it with something trendier.
We learned from that experience that Punch themselves didn’t really have a clear idea of what to do with the pub – otherwise they wouldn’t have backed down from their initial proposal so quickly. I speculate that another major factor might have been the paucity of potential partners begging to take on their share of the six-figure refurbishment costs.
What the Halt needed, I thought, was an experienced licensee who understood pubs. There are lots of such people, but they are generally too sensible to agree to the kind of crazy terms that debt-ridden pub companies are in the habit of demanding. So I was pretty much resigned to the place staggering on for a while in the hands of someone desperately trying to scrabble a living from it, while not offering anything that I wanted to drink.
When the doors were shut a few weeks ago, I thought that was the end.
Then I heard it was open again, and went along to take a look. And it is better than I had dared to hope: the new operators have changed hardly anything. The exterior has had a lick of paint. Inside, it seems, well, cleaner. The woodwork doesn’t appear to have been re-varnished, but someone has gone over it with the Mr Sheen. And some of the mirrors and pictures have been moved around. There are pies, the sole concession to the “strong food offering” Punch dreamed of.
The old Halt did have one beer I enjoyed – bottled Kaiserdom Dunkel from Bamberg, not a beer you commonly see here so something of a curiosity. But the loss of that is made up for by the fridge of new arrivals: Thornbridge Kill Your Darlings, Black Isle Yellowhammer, Harviestoun Old Engine Oil, Colonsay Lager, Sierra Nevada Torpedo, West St Mungo and several Williams Bros beers. A blackboard promises Marble Dobber and Gordon Scotch Ale in the future.
On the cask front progress is being made. The old bar sold Hobgoblin and Deuchars (if you were lucky and there wasn’t an up-ended pint glass over the pump handle), but I never saw anyone drinking it. On re-opening, the range was still fairly dull – Flying Scotsman, Hobgoblin and Doom Bar – but it was in perfect condition and the bar staff were promoting it. I watched with delighted bemusement as the barman talked a group of four thirtysomething women into getting a round of cask ale. Later I overheard them chattering in French and realised that the barman’s job had been easier than usual – the tourists didn’t have the British cultural baggage telling them that women don’t drink beer. But staff in so many pubs wouldn’t bother to try.
There have been small concessions to going upmarket. The candles in wine bottles are trying a bit too hard and light jazz on the stereo has replaced math-rock. The wall of the snug has sadly been stripped of gig and club posters, which is a shame considering the place’s heritage as a music and musicians’ haunt (Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson first played together here).
And while trying not to be a cheapskate, £3.95 is a lot for a pint of mild any way you look at it; but when I think how close we came to losing the place altogether, I’ll happily fork out the extra pennies. It remains a pub where you can bring in your dog or your bike.
A week after re-opening I pop in after work, with a cold, to find Stewart’s Edinburgh Gold on the bar; also not the most outrageously-flavoured beer in the world but one that fits in well in a pub like this. As time passed, we saw the likes of Black Sheep Bitter and Thwaites Mild. You don’t want to drink Mikkeller in here, after all. It’s a pub in which you skive off university, chill out in the afternoon after a job interview, spend long, drunken evenings talking about Situationism and just before closing time form a band with some people you’ve just met. At least, it always was, and I think it will now remain like that. I certainly hope so.