Thirty years in the restaurant business is impressive anywhere. In Glasgow it represents a lifetime. For back in the 70s the city had little at all in the way of a dining culture. What it did have tended to come courtesy of the city’s Italian residents.
And when it came to finding anywhere with Scottish, well don’t be silly. Quality Scottish cuisine?
The Ubiquitous Chip was a ground breaking idea when it first opened in 1971. And when owner Ronnie Clydesdale moved it to Ashton Lane off Byres Road in the West End of Glasgow, it was already proving to be a major success.
Today it is still going strong, still run by the family, and now at the heart of one of Europe’s most fashionable areas.
Known endearingly as The Chip, what makes it special is the fact that it has stuck doggedly to a set of fundamental principles and has not seen fit to reinvent itself.
As a result it has become something of an institution, a place that Glaswegians have grown up with and trust to deliver every time they visit. It commands loyalty as a result.
“We have seen people grow up and have 18th or 21st birthdays here, have engagement and marriage parties and even celebrate their divorce,” says Ronnie, who is preparing to hand over control of the business to his son.
“We have seen Glasgow change around us and now we find ourselves in the heart of a lively and vibrant area full of places to eat and drink. But still we retain our place and attract our regulars.”
From the outset a desire to bring fine cuisine to Glasgow meant an emphasis on whisky. Indeed, Ronnie came from a whisky retailing background and it was natural to extend the link.
“It’s what I knew best,” he recalls. “For me the harder part was learning about the wine. But they were very different times back then.
“It wasn’t uncommon to go to an event where you were being entertained and there would be a bottle of whisky on the table for each group of four. You’d have four large glasses of whisky or gin and tonic and then drink whisky throughout the meal.
“If the subject of wine came up people would turn it down on the grounds that it would make you drunk. You’d drink all the whisky and not have wine because you said you had to go back to work afterwards. They were very different times.”
From the outset whisky has been recommended alongside food and been used as an ingredient in some dishes.
“Over the years we have served various dishes such a sa whisky tart, which was very popular,” says Ronnie.
“We have also used it regularly in sauces. We have a policy here to ask regulars about dishes they particularly liked in the past with a view to bringing them back. And just recently we were talking to someone about Dover sole with a prawn and whisky sauce made with one of the lighter Islay whiskies. Bowmore was very successful for this.”
Other selections include using Glenmorangie in orange sauce to accompany crème caramel, organic Orkney salmon marinaded in Laphroaig and dill and served with poached salmon hollandaise and caper soda bread; and tea-smoked duck with bacon, figs stuffed with black pudding, and smokey whisky sauce.
But the Ubiquitous Chip will also recommend whiskies with particular courses and as a result the role of the staff is tantamount. The restaurant pulls off that notoriously difficult trick of appearing to informal and casual while actually being highly disciplined and thorough in its approach to service.
It’s the sort of place where you are made to feel relaxed enough to ask for guidance and where the person you ask is likely to be able to help you.
“Getting that right is difficult,” concedes Ronnie. “The relationship between someone waiting on tables and the customer is very much one to one, it’s very democratic. The customer has to feel that he is special and not feel he is being patronised. Anyone can learn to shuffle knives and forks about and pour wine with their arm behind their back. It’s the next level that’s difficult.”
However the management goes about it, it’s working. In an industry notorious for high turnover of staff, The Chip can boast staff members that go back decades. The longest serving staff member has been with Ronnie since The Chip moved to its current location 30 years ago. Head chef Ian Brown has been with him for 12 years.
Many of the staff are serious enough about what they’re doing to have taken their Wine and Spirits Education Trust certificates, and most have learned a fair amount about the extensive wine list.
“Less so with whisky,” admits Ronnie, “but there are two or three who would say that they know a lot about it, both in terms of knowledge and taste. Some of them would call themselves whisky drinkers.”
That makes recommending a suitable whisky with certain foods that much easier.
“We have always served whisky alongside haggis. We do a Caledonian oatmeal ice cream here which Delia Smith described as the best ice cream she had ever tasted. It goes incredibly well with most whiskies but especially The Macallan 18 Years Old .”
In Ronnie’s experience desserts have particularly benefitted from being served with whisky. He talks about Glendronach 12 Years Old with chocolate tart.
“But not just that one. We did some work with a journalist a while ago looking at whisky and desserts and it was revelation,” he says.
“We were working with ten or 12 desserts and it was quite astonishing how well some of the combinations worked. Some were as good as any food and drink combination I’ve come across – better than port and cheese.”
Whether you’re mixing your whisky or food or not, it’s hard not to be impressed with the choice on offer here in general, all at reasonable prices.
Rarely do malts stray above £10, most are well under £5. And there are some crackers on the list. Treat yourself to a Bowmore 17 Years Old at £4.95, a Highland Park 18 at£6.60, or a Balvenie Single Barrel cask strength at £5.95.
The relaxed nature of The Chip make it the sort of place you could easily spend all day, and because the venue boasts two informal pub-style bars – one of them tiny – you can do just that.
It’s a wonderful place – and there’s no reason to doubt that it won’t still be sending customers home happy another 30 years from now.
The Ubiquitous Chip
12 Ashton Lane, GlasgowTelephone:
01413 345 007www.ubiquitouschip.co.uk