Nick takes a quick trip to Glasgow.
Every restaurant bill tells a different story. Of the place, of the occasion, or as an increasingly essential memento of the food, the wine and the company. These are some of the reasons that I try to hang on to them for as long as possible.
My bill from the Partick Duck Club in Glasgow’s West End on Friday 4 June is particularly special – and at the same time it conveys a very general lesson.
This bill for four totals £100.10, without service, and includes two shared first courses, four terrific mains and two shared desserts. And no alcohol.
For perhaps the first time in our 41 years of eating and drinking together, we were thwarted by the politicians. Glasgow was in Tier 3 of Scotland’s COVID-19 restrictions and no alcohol could be served indoors until one minute past midnight on the following day, Saturday 5 June. And as we were there for one meal on the evening of 4 June, we had to be out of the restaurant by 8 pm as well. We could have eaten outside, where alcohol could be served, but these tables could not be reserved – which made it even more galling to be sitting so close to the bar where trays of drinks were being prepared for those sitting outside.
The more general lesson is that, of course, without alcohol any restaurant bill is considerably reduced. We have lost count of the times that we have spent more on drink than food in a restaurant, although these occasions are few and far between today. The initials TBL (a two-bottle lunch), once common in my days as a restaurateur in the 1980s, are largely unheard today.
But had we eaten outside I would probably have missed the owners of this particular restaurant’s design contribution to the world of restaurants. Behind the bar on the right-hand side and above the pass to the kitchen are the giant illuminated words Water Closets with an arrow pointing to the lavatories. I have never seen such a clever, time-saving device (no verbal directions needed) in any restaurant. Although it does apparently have a flaw.
The fact that it is there of course shows that Ross McDonald and Greig Hutcheson care about their customers. By making the whereabouts of these services so obvious, the owners are not only removing the need for their customers to stop and ask a waiter what has to be the most frequently asked question in any restaurant, but they are also ensuring that their waiting staff can carry on working without having to stop to listen to what is invariably a question asked sotto voce, before pointing and giving what must be a standard response.
The problem lies in what to call these facilities. When I emailed Ross McDonald for an explanation of this sign, this was his reply, ‘Well, the water closet sign was conceived out of an almost never-ending procession of queries about where our toilets were located. Rather than display the usual run of the mill signage we thought it would add something to the restaurant to make a feature out of it and tie in with our other feature, the Duck Club sign near the front of the restaurant. Using the "water closets" terminology has created something of a talking point too as many of our younger clientele have no idea what a water closet is or where "WC" came from, so it has been educational too!’
There is an obvious language divide. Should it be toilets (too direct?), lavatories (too old-fashioned?), loos (too divisive?), or even, in the case of American visitors, restrooms. But an expression that conveys the message clearly and appeals to a younger clientele escapes me for the moment. Readers’ suggestions are invited.
This may be these two owners’ most original contribution their restaurant’s appeal but it is not the only one.
On the back of the single-page menu, they explain the origins of the restaurant and its name. It was formerly a large building that became the favourite tavern of a group of Glasgow merchants, bankers and professors who would walk out to Partick from the city centre each Saturday to dine on roasted duck, sage and onion and green peas, washed down with locally brewed ale (lucky them!). The Duck Club of Partick was formed in 1810.
They credit their suppliers fairly and squarely. The milk buns are the produce of Freedom Bakery, the social-enterprise bakery located in Low Moss Prison in the north of the city. The wines come via Woodwinters in the Bridge of Allan. Even the coffee-roasters get a mention: Papercup on the Great Western Road.
Collectively, and in many small ways, the two owners have created a restaurant that manages to fulfil one final but fundamental aspect of any popular restaurant: that what is inside the Partick Duck Club’s front door meets and fits with what is on the outside. This area of Glasgow is smart, but not overly so, friendly, and home to a wide range of professionals of different age groups and incomes.
The menu looks exciting. We began by sharing two particularly artful starters, fried macaroni cheese balls with truffle oil and Parmesan, and a ramekin containing a creamy combination of Orkney crab and cheese formed into a custard served with a slice of Freedom’s sourdough.
These were followed by my brother-in-law choosing his favourite main course of a 12-hour duck leg served alongside a crisp duck egg, duck-fat fries and spiced pineapple chutney. My sister and wife enjoyed monkfish from Barra in the Outer Hebrides with tiny fresh peas and a curry lime butter, while I chose one of the four dishes under the heading ‘duck club bun’. This was an unlikely but ultimately highly successful combination of pieces of slow-cooked duck with seared pak choi, coriander and pomegranate mayonnaise. All of this, the soft meat enhanced by the spice of the vegetables, was squashed into a slightly sweet Freedom bun and was terrific. I cannot imagine many regular customers fail to order the salted duck-fat fries, which come in five different versions.
A vanilla and coconut baked Alaska served on a pool of pureed mango almost made up for the lack of wine. And a dish described as a deep-fried ice cream cinnamon bun that was just that – vanilla ice cream squashed into a crisp bun. I paid my bill extremely happily.
We walked back to my sister’s flat where we proceeded to raid my brother-in-law’s stock of malt whisky.
The Partick Duck Club 27 Hyndland Street, Glasgow G11 5QF; tel: +44 (0)141 334 9909