Ben Mervis

Born in Pennsylvania, Ben Mervis came to Glasgow to study mediaeval history, but left university with an appetite for food. After relocating to Copenhagen to work at Noma as Rene Redzepi’s personal assistant, he returned to Glasgow where he set up Fare, a bi-annual journal that dedicates whole issues to exploring a single city’s dining culture. In addition to being Fare’s editor-in-chief, Mervis is lead researcher for Netflix documentary series, Chef’s Table. His book "The British Cookbook" was recently published by Phaidon and offers a comprehensive take on traditional British cooking in 585 recipes. In short, when it comes to food, Mervis knows a thing or two, including the best places to eat in the city he calls home.

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Why I Love Glasgow

I ended up in Glasgow by chance and it is so fortuitous that I did, because I can’t imagine my life having played out differently. I think Glasgow does something amazing for the people who move here: they are welcomed from day one. That’s how it was for me. Rough Guides voted Glasgow the friendliest city in the world, and it truly does live up to that. There’s a lot of rawness and realness to the city and I think people find that comforting in a way because there’s nothing that’s really hidden. Everything is what it seems. I guess this is largely why I’ve ended up coming back to Glasgow over the years. It always felt like home. I love Glasgow. I’m such a patriotic Glaswegian.

Glasgow’s Food Scene

People here want value, so don’t expect too many frills. Historically, Glasgow is not a city that’s very conducive to fine-dining, but it’s worth mentioning that we now have two one-Michelin-starred restaurants: Cail Bruich and very recently Unalome by Graeme Cheevers. Over the last 10 years, there has been a big wave of new Scottish restaurants and restaurants that are exploring a lighter style of cooking. The fifth issue of Fare magazine is on Glasgow, but so much has changed since the issue launched three years ago. I would probably make a very different issue today. I always speak in glowing terms about Glasgow, and now more than ever. It’s a really exciting time for the city. What Glasgow may have lacked in the past were chefs who had knowledge and experience from different food cultures around the world. Now we have that in abundance. 

Vegan Glasgow

I like to suggest places that buck the expectation of Glasgow being a heavy and meaty food city. I actually think of Glasgow as trying to provide a lot of options for vegans. A lot of the restaurants that are opening are geared towards having offerings that will be good for both a vegetarian and vegan dine-in crowd. One example is a restaurant that opened recently called Sylvan. It serves a lot of natural wines as well. This does not only apply to new restaurants. We have many established places where the menu is vegan. A lot of them are bars and live music venues, which is the last place you would expect a menu like that. Stereo and Mono have entirely vegan menus and have been around since the 90s. They’re both really great for dinner and a gig. I recently took friends visiting from London to Stereo. They were incidentally vegan and really into their music, so it was a perfect fit. We had dinner upstairs – I had arepas – then we went to see the gig downstairs. It was a really nice way to sum up Glasgow to newcomers, because a lot of people expect deep-fried Mars bars, battered haggis and pizza crunch, which do exist – although the battered Mars bar is really a thing for tourists – but there’s a substantial young liberal wing to the city fuelled by students who have come to study but eventually stayed. Other bars that serve full-on vegan menus include The 13th Note, The 78 and The Flying Duck.

Food on the Go

Glasgow is a city of not necessarily sit-down meals, but also great grab-and-go options. It’s definitely one of the city’s strengths. In my neighbourhood there’s an amazing falafel place called Kurdish Street Food. It’s four pounds for this giant falafel wrap, all made from scratch, and it’s fantastic.

Best Bakeries, Cafes and Coffee Shops in the United Kingdom

In my opinion, Glasgow has some of the best bakeries, cafes and coffee shops anywhere in the UK. I think that’s because Glasgow is a very DIY city. People are finding that you don’t need hundreds of thousands of pounds behind you to start your dream project – that it’s pretty accessible and possible to back yourself. This creates venues that are so personal. I think that’s the best thing in Glasgow’s food scene at the moment. 

Two of the Best Bakers in the Country

I’m very lucky to have two of the best bakers in the whole country on my street. Husband-and-wife duo Sam and Anna Luntley run a bakery called Two Eight Seven. I go there almost every single day that they’re open. It’s one of my favourite places in the UK and really underscores the Glaswegian values of being community-oriented. They’re giving back to the local area through a bread pay-it-forward program. They contribute to the local people’s pantry which subsidises groceries for people in need in the neighbourhood. They’re collaborating with at least a dozen different local artists to make everything from prints to coffee cups to bread lames (razor for scoring bread). The year before the pandemic, Sam spent a year at Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall, milling and baking 400 loaves of bread a day. His is genuinely the best sourdough bread I’ve ever had. He bakes the bread, croissants and morning buns at Two Eight Seven. Anna bakes the cakes and biscuits. She makes about 20 to 25 different sweet and savoury bakes each day. Everything she bakes is fantastic and a lot of it is her own creation. It’s an insane undertaking for two people. Like a lot of the great bakeries in the UK, it also sells amazing butter and grocery staples.

Southside Bakes

Glasgow has some of the best baking programs as well. A lot of the places that I’m recommending are in Glasgow’s Southside which has changed so much in the last several years and is now where a lot of the most exciting new food places are. Around the corner from Two Eight Seven, which is also around where I live, is a coffee place called Short Long Black that has a huge number of bakes and makes great pastries. They’re really wonderful and have another place called Patricia’s also around the corner from me. That’s where I would go for a sitdown brunch in my neighbourhood. It does American-style pancakes, bacon and eggs, but other locally-inspired stuff as well. There’s a vegan bakery called Honeytrap Bakery on the other side of the park opposite where I live that’s open every single day. It’s all vegan bakes – really nice stuff. 

Southside, Continued

Sunny Acre is another really lovely cafe near me. I go there quite regularly for either takeaway sandwiches or a sit-in meal. They have a wide selection of bakes and a special sandwich of the day. I recently had one with a pork patty, wholegrain mustard and pickled red cabbage on a ciabatta roll. The chefs used to work in high-end restaurants and really wanted to open a cafe. At the moment they just do breakfast and lunch, and it’s simple, produce-driven food. Glasgow’s Southside started with a lot of coffee spots, brunch places and bakeries but is thankfully progressing into some more evening dining, whether it’s sit-in or take-away. There’s a new place called Lobo which makes interesting small plates and is a little different from what the locals are used to. 

More Baking Programs

Kaf Coffee is fantastic for everything that you would want before 4pm. Leonora Belcher, who runs it, makes great coffee and wonderful baked goods and bread. She loves travelling and taking inspiration from what she sees abroad, adding her own spin on things. Another favourite bakery of mine – one that is more classic – is Cottonrake Bakery. They’ve got great pastries like pistachio and blackberry financiers and a treacle tart, which is a very British thing.

Where To Try Scotland’s Best Produce

A good friend of mine, Peter McKenna, has one of the best Scottish restaurants in Glasgow called The Gannet. This is definitely a must if you are coming to Glasgow and want a taste of modern Scottish produce. Peter’s Irish and when he first came to Scotland, he found that it was quite difficult to find food that came from local producers. So when he set up The Gannet, it was very much based around the provenance of the ingredients. It’s all about searching out and building relationships with great suppliers across the country. The restaurant has hit its stride in the last several years. It’s a great place to go for an occasion. The décor evokes the warmth of the Scottish landscape. It’s a really warm and cosy venue: the kind of place that you want to sit and relax into.

“Punjabi Home Cooking From The Punjabi Mother That You Never Had”

There’s an incredible amount of diversity in Glasgow, and we have really vibrant Indian and Pakistani communities. I think that Indian and Pakistani food here is far away some of the best. Ranjit’s Kitchen is one of my favourite local restaurants. It’s run by a Sikh family that cooks vegetarian and vegan Punjabi food. Chef Ranjit Kaur raised three kids after immigrating from Punjab, and after they all grew up and went off to university, they said to her: “Mum, now you need to go and do your thing.” She’s a fantastic cook so they put their savings together and opened this spot. Ranjit cooks a different dahl and a different sabji every day. It’s wonderful Punjabi home cooking from the Punjabi mother that you never had. The restaurant is situated in between two neighbourhoods: one’s very working class and the other very upper class, and here they mix and co-mingle. I usually get a bunch of dishes including parathas, pakoras or samosas. You end up having this incredible feast that’s so good to share with friends. Kebabish Grill is a Punjabi Pakistani restaurant that’s also great. I order a lot of chicken makhani from The Indian On Skirving Street.

Mediterranean Small Plates

Alchemilla is a wonderful Mediterranean restaurant that was originally set up by chef Rosie Healey, who trained in London with chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Food writer Jay Rayner was absolutely raving about the focaccia when he was there. It was also one of the city’s first restaurants to embrace natural wines. Rosie’s since moved to set up her own place called Gloriosa. It’s a lovely place with amazing, Mediterranean small plates.

Good Pastas and Italian Dishes

A big London chef called Robert Gill opened an Italian place called Celentano’s and very swiftly got a Bib Gourmand. He did it with one of his old chefs, Dean Parker. It’s next to the Glasgow Cathedral and is now super popular. They make really nice homemade pastas and meats, and very nice looking puddings. 

Stand-Up Pizza

For pizza, I go to Canotto for delivery and Errol’s Hot Pizza if I was sitting in. I ordered a lot from Canotto during the pandemic. They specialise in Detroit-style pizza with the crispy caramelised edges. They’re big slices and are really nice. They only do that and cannolis. Errol’s is run by an alum of Alchemilla and has developed a cult following. The pizza is really, really good. It’s Neapolitan-style, only slightly heftier. They release time slots for pizzas on Tuesday nights. If you show up five minutes late, you are done for. I’ve made that mistake before and five minutes was all it took to sell out. I can’t imagine what they’ll be doing once they’ve had years of experience built up, and make bigger and more ambitious plans. It’s a thought that really excites me.

Burgers and Natural Wine

Errol’s has a sister spot, Big Counter, that calls itself a “dinner house” and is a super cool neighbourhood spot. The couple who owns it, John and Claire, have come up with a menu that’s the exact opposite of what I described about Glasgow’s vegan offering. It’s very heavy on butter, cream and cheese: it’s the food you want to eat if you’re not vegan. The menu changes every week and will have things like a rarebit gratin or a big club steak for-two with chips, just like really old-school, comfort food served in an unfussy, casual atmosphere. All the attention is on the fact that it is simply tasty food and they sell some nice natural wines and beers with it. You can pick up your Italian sub, some cookies and a Grégory Guillaume to-go.

Where Else To Buy and Drink Natural Wine

The availability and interest in natural wine has become a real litmus test of the orientation of a city’s dining scene and how progressive it is, which is kind of funny, but I think it does have merit. When I moved back to Glasgow from Copenhagen four years ago, I got laughed out of a wine shop for asking for natural wine. But different natural wine shops have opened since, like Big Counter and Made from Grapes. The natural wine options in Glasgow are mostly shops at the moment, but Bar Brett is the one that’s closest to a proper sit-down natural wine bar. It’s not exclusively natural wine, but it has a very natural wine-heavy menu. It’s actually the sister venue of Cail Bruich, so the food is also really good.  

The Bacon Roll, Glasgow-Style

I absolutely love bacon rolls. In the cookbook that I’m currently writing, I compare my love for bacon rolls to Proust’s madeleine moment. A bacon roll always takes me back to a very particular (and happy) time and place. Bacon rolls are all over the UK and generally they’re the same idea: a soft butter roll with griddle back bacon and either HP sauce or ketchup. In Glasgow, you’ll get asked if you want it soft or crispy. The crispy roll has a slightly crisp top with semolina dusting. The Glasgow-specific version is what they call well-fired. It’s basically burnt – a very curious tradition. Up the street from where I live is a spot that’s been open since the 70s called Caldwells Dairy. For me, the bacon roll there is the best in the city. I usually take a crispy roll with tattie scones: thin fried pancake-like patties made from mashed potatoes, which is obviously a fantastic thing to chuck into the roll. I eventually figured out how to order it like a local: ask for a bacon and scone roll. Caldwells also does a beef mince roll, which is basically the British version of a sloppy joe. They serve it with a spoon. It’s so great, and it’s only £1.50.

A Bucket List Sausage Roll

A treat that’s very Glasgow is a roll and square sausage. It’s what it sounds like: a heavily spiced beef sausage cut into a square and served on a roll. Back in the old days, workers used to carry a lunchbox with their square (bread) loaf and their square sausage meat, so that’s how it got its start. Comedian Billy Connolly is from Glasgow and there’s a quote of his that goes, “Above all, go to Glasgow at least once in your life and have a roll and square sliced sausage and a cup of tea. When you feel the tea coursing over your spice-singed tongue, you’ll know what I mean when I say: ‘It’s good to be alive’.” That is just the most amazing thing. You can find a decent roll and square sausage anywhere that does bacon rolls.

Korean Fried Chicken

There is a wonderful Korean fried chicken place called Kimchi Cult. It’s some of the best Korean style fried chicken in the city. They’ve [thankfully] only got one location – in the West End – otherwise I’d be fattening myself up on fried chicken every week!

Great Malaysian Street Food

My friend Julie Lin has a Malaysian cafe called Julie’s Kopitiam. It’s a lovely, cosy little spot serving great Malaysian street food. Julie is half-Scottish, half-Malaysian. She’s done a lot of research into the Malaysian side of her family and spent a lot of time visiting Malaysia with her grandmother. She’s used those experiences to set up something really exciting and so personal. That’s my favourite kind of restaurant.

The Best Chinese Food You Can Get in Glasgow

The Real Wan does Southwest Chinese food, the food of the region that its chef Lea Wu Hassan comes from. It has attracted quite a following. Chinatown Restaurant is an institution in Glasgow. I have a lot of friends who love going there for dim sum. 

Brits-Mex

Rafa’s call themselves Arizona-style Mexican food. It’s definitely not Tex-Mex but it isn’t authentic Mexican food either. They do really nice, very hefty burritos. It’s better if you’re eating in but they also do delivery even as far as my house which I appreciate because I live 20 minutes away. That got me through many Saturday evenings during lockdown and still does. Britain doesn’t have good Mexican food so it’s really nice that an American chef came into town and offered something that reminds me of Mexican food that I can get back home. They sometimes do Birria tacos nights which is awesome. There is another place that does tacos, burritos and Mexican-inspired side dishes near me called Sacred Tum Tacos. It basically does a local take on some Mexican flavours and combinations, and it’s really tasty. I think it’s still take-away-only since the pandemic but it’s really popular in the neighbourhood. 

The Taste of Home

I would be completely inauthentic if I didn’t say I will always miss the chips when I leave the UK. It’s what you eat after a night out: you know, you’ve been out at the pub with friends for a couple of drinks and then you go out and grab some chips and cheese. I will admit, I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve gone for one of the crazier offerings: Glasgow chippies, which is battered haggis, chips and cheese. Nothing more closely straddles that line between euphoria and death. It is wild, that’s for sure. I wish I could recommend a particular place for their chips, but usually I’ve had a few pints already and enjoy it all the same! If you’re going for a chippy, then Salt & Vinegar (near me) is good, or Old Salty’s in the West End. Benny’s Fish & Chicken Bar is also good apparently, though I’ve not been able to get there yet.

Scottish Pubs To Drink At

The pub scene is fantastic in Glasgow. The Laurieston, which is on the cover of the Glasgow issue of Fare magazine, definitely needs a mention. It’s operated by multiple generations of the same family, and has been for decades. The décor hasn’t changed since at least the 70s, and the clientele are a mix of old-timers and hipsters. Elsewhere, there are amazing options in terms of whisky at The Pot Still as well. Glasgow has many fantastic old pubs that are locals-only kind of spots, where you’ll be the youngest person there by about 40 years. It’s an absolutely great time with lots of banter and people having a laugh. I love to go for the karaoke. The Star Bar is one such locals-only experience. It has a three-course, three-pound lunch. I wouldn’t recommend the food, though. An absolute institution – and don’t judge the name too harshly – is Nice N Sleazy. It’s the kind of bar and club where you’ll find university age students to 30-somethings.

Scottish Pubs To Dine At

A good Scottish place, a classic one, is the Ubiquitous Chip. It opened in the 70s and has been a mainstay of that scene. Its affiliated smaller restaurant is called Stravaigin, and is where I would take someone who wanted to experience a Scottish bistro. It’s got a real gastro-pub kind of vibe, where the menu has influences from elsewhere around the world, but they will at all times of the year have haggis, neeps and tatties on the menu.

Best Cocktails in Glasgow on a Legendary Road

There’s a cocktail bar called The Gate on the Gallowgate, one of Glasgow’s oldest roads which literally led to the gallows back in the day. It’s across from one of the city’s iconic venues, the Barrowland Ballroom, which LCD Soundsystem called their absolute favourite place to have ever played. The Gate does some of the best cocktails in Glasgow with a very limited menu of just toasties. They make them in an old-school, British-style toastie maker. They become like triangular hot-pockets because of how they’re pressed together. They serve them with Monster Munch (classic British bag of crisps) – it’s super funny and very Glaswegian. 

Say Cheese

I’m always eyeing up the toasties at a cheese shop near me called Starter Culture. It also sells Scottish-made charcuterie, different preserves and some wines. The toasty they do is great though. If you’re like me, when you want a toastie you want it to be straightforward – made with good cheese and maybe the occasional kimchi or something slightly sweet – no fancy stuff needed. 

If You Only Have One Evening in Glasgow

If friends are visiting Glasgow, I’m going to take them to Mother India for butter chicken, that’s for sure. I do it often. The restaurant has a very bizarre atmosphere: there’s candelabras on the table and the waiters are in suits. The service is not great, by the way, but oh my God, the butter chicken is so good. It’s a wonderful place and so reasonably priced. I usually take them around the corner to The Ben Nevis after that for a dram [a single serving of whisky] and a half pint. It’s named after Scotland’s – and also the United Kingdom’s – tallest mountain. It’s one of the best places to get a whisky. It has traditional music three nights a week, so if we’re lucky there’ll be someone on the fiddle in the corner, and someone else on the accordion, and maybe someone singing or playing guitar. Everyone’s watching the band and getting merry over a number of rounds of a dram and a half pint. There are a few venues like that in Glasgow. The Lismore is another such venue.

Photography Credit: Courtesy of Murray Orr.

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