Reminiscing about times spent in his London local while waiting for Noel Gallagher to arrive had Murray heading to Edinburgh’s Scran and Scrallie and Newport-On-Tay’s Boat Brae.
Amidst the general misery of lockdown deprivation, I have to admit that not being able to go to the pub wasn’t a major loss for me, although I appreciate it was a huge sacrifice for many.
Lifestyle changes, brought on by the fact that no-one ever questions my right to a free bus pass, mean that my drinking is now done in a place where the booze doesn’t come on tap and there is little risk of having to listen to Celine Dion or some whining un-electric male, the whiff of Clearasil serving as a poor pheromone substitute for the carnality my generation felt for the Max Factor glamour of Marc Bolan and David Bowie.
There is also the logistical issue that the nearest hostelry is just a bit too far away from my house, thus denying the element of spontaneity that dropping in for a cheeky half pint relies upon.
Walking – especially uphill and in a straight line – is rarely an option after too many beers and living so near to the Tay brings its own set of risks when haar and Holsten Pils can so quickly and fatally blur the demarcation line between land and sea.
It’s also true that these days I’m more of a whine than a beer man, although nothing ever beats a pint of real ale in a country pub, a roaring log fire and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps at your side, the air pungent with the heady aroma of Scotch eggs, Branston pickle, wet dog hair, Barbours and suspicion of newcomers.
The last time I sat in a pub and whiled away too much of an afternoon was actually in 2015, which shows you what a lightweight I’ve become – or maybe now I’m just stealthier in keeping my vices closer to home.
That December 2015, as London slowed down into the Christmas break, the writer and controversialist Julie Burchill sat in a pub in Maida Vale in London, waiting for Noel Gallagher to arrive to be interviewed. But first Julie got me – and she and I had form, going way back to 1994 when an angry Miss Burchill locked a bewildered, lovestruck Morrissey in her flat, having just landed a hefty punch on my face and thrown me out her front door.
It wasn’t quite the welcome Morrissey was used to but Julie, then at one of the many peaks of a dizzyingly dramatic career, was no pushover for a popstar, even one used to getting his own way with the restless lament of ‘how soon is now?’.
As was so often the case in my PR career, booze lay somewhere at the core of this incident. You see, if I hadn’t been so hungover the day Morrissey implored me to take him to meet his idol I would have paid more heed to her previous stridently negative response to my request for her to interview him.
He’d wanted to meet her for years and, as his publicist and friend, I was used to his perseverance when trying to meet people he admired. It was often left to me to make the approach although the day I had to call the clearly distressed veteran Carry On star Charles Hawtrey felt like some form of cruelty – to him and to myself.
Mr Hawtrey put the phone down on me and I don’t blame him; Julie’s reply, which I still have on a fading fax, was as direct as the slap she would later land on my chops – yet if ever a blow was to hit me and feel like a kiss it would be this hungover slug from Burchill, the Bard of Bristol.
In words worthy of Morrissey’s adored Oscar Wilde Julie Burchill answered me with this stinging rebuke – “sir, I do not do interviews. I grant them”.
Catching up with Julie in a pub all those years later reminded me of how much I love the idealised notion of a local – a place where you can sort out the world, or at least your own place in it.
As we downed our drinks – pints for me, doubles for her – I remember feeling intensely cossetted, wrapped in that heavy, hazy blanket of memory and laughter that makes time disappear along with the contents of a bottle. By the time Noel Gallagher arrived I was blotto and Julie was so fired up I feared Noel might not get a word in edgeways. I haven’t got drunk in a pub since then.
Eating in pubs is my thing now and eating by myself in a pub is my favourite thing of all. I just love a solo lunch in a good bar, spending a few hours with a pint and the paper and something good to eat.
London offered plenty of opportunities for this and still does; this part of Scotland offers slimmer pickings, although that could be because of our wise aversion to the term gastropub which somehow still implies a trip to Boots for Gaviscon.
I haven’t yet found a pub in Dundee that does good food and the mention of nachos and haggis bonbons is enough to make me run for the hills, which is just as well because the hills are the key to pub gastronomy in these parts.
Venturing out to Angus and Perthshire will usually pay dividends; places like the Drovers Inn at Memus and the Meikleour Arms were much loved haunts pre pandemic and I very much look forward to revisiting both.
The View in Wormit is good but is more a restaurant than a pub these days; sadly gone are the days when I’d sit there with my mum and ask her to road test their steak pie against her own supremely honed version of pie heaven.
The Scran and Scallie
On the day lockdown lifted to allow drinking indoors my sister flew into Edinburgh from London, the first time we’d seen each other in more than a year. We wanted somewhere quite relaxed in the capital and chose Tom Kitchin’s award-winning poshpub The Scran and Scallie in Stockbridge.
Our mood was buoyant – that first glass of Merlot indoors with food! – yet realistic enough to expect that there might be a few glitches in service as the restaurant kitchen opened fully after lockdown. In truth it was all seamless.
I found the menu irritating though. “Yer classic starters” seems highly mannered and patronising in tone, especially when applied to six Loch Fyne Oysters for £19.50 and seared Orkney scallops, peas, lettuce and pancetta for £18.50.
‘Yer seasonal starters’ included a bowl of pea soup for £8 and asparagus with wild garlic hollandaise for £14.50. Further pointless linguistic affectation included the prices being listed as £14 & 50p, under a heading of pounds and pennies.
What’s the point of this nonsense? Who thinks it’s amusing or interesting? My abiding thought was that whoever wrote this menu probably laughs at Jimmy Carr and Michael McIntyre, carries a tape measure in their pocket just incase and thinks keeping their socks on when having sex is a sign of subversion.
Despite these niggles the food was good with Elaine’s fish pie (£16.50) notably well made. Service was excellent although we both felt a slightly transactional, corporate element to the whole night which strangely tempered any feelings of joy at being able to eat and drink indoors. Nevertheless, this was good quality pub grub – albeit served at a premium price.
Closer to home and stuck for somewhere to have a solo lunch in the middle of a busy day of zoom calls, I remembered that Boat Brae in Newport on Tay was back open and that they served food in their beautiful bar area.
In the past I’ve been both delighted and frustrated by Boat Brae, sometimes on the same visit. I remember reviewing their opening night and loving everything about it, from the design of the place to the food. It seemed set to be the great brasserie that Tayside lacks, apart from the ever-reliable Jute at the DCA in Dundee.
Subsequent visits showed inconsistencies in their offering, most notably in the erratic quality of the food, the lack of imagination in the menu and some of the pricing. Hit the right night, when the cooking matched the truly spectacular setting, and you’d have a wonderful experience; choose the wrong day and the experience could be frustrating and desultory.
But now what a joy to walk through those doors again into that gleaming, beautiful bar space! Manager Dugald McGarry, a highly-skilled operator and a huge asset to Boat Brae, was behind the bar and recognised me behind the mask – and what a simple joy it is to walk into a place and easily drop into a conversation that was ended against our collective will 18 months ago.
It felt like coming home, which is a feeling that all the best bars provide.
There is also a new chef in place here and it shows. An excellent bar menu now includes shiitake spring rolls with a sweet and sour sauce (£4.75), a steak baguette with wholegrain mustard, red onion jam, gem lettuce and tomato for £10.95 and a Scottish shellfish bisque (£7.50). Great stuff!
I had a perfect fish finger sandwich with dill and caper mayo, served on white bread, slightly pappy in the mouth, as it should be (£9.75). A glass of Viognier was the perfect accompaniment to a lovely lunch.
Boat Brae’s bar is everything I wanted, and more and it’s wonderful to see this beautiful restaurant and bar space now back to firing on all cylinders – congratulations to them for their recent triumph at the catering industry’s CIS Awards where Boat Brae won the 2020 Pub Excellence Award. If you ever need me at Friday lunchtime, in a space that is both comforting and celebratory, here is where I’ll be.
The Scran and Scallie. 1 Comely Bank Road, Edinburgh EH4 1DR. 0131 332 6281. www.scranandscallie.com
Boat Brae. 2 -14 Boat Brae, Newport on Tay DD6 8EX. 01382 540540. www.boatbrae.com