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Food Feature: Gleaming Glasgow

Scottish slag-heap pretties up

The year was 1985. I was attempting to milk as many travel miles as possible out of a summer grant to study Roman fortifications in Great Britain when I eyed Glasgow on the map. Scotland's largest city, the country's seat of industry, seemed a natural place to while away a day in grant-subsidized personal sight-seeing.

Instead, it was a day largely wasted.

The museum at Glasgow U. was somewhat diverting, filled as it was with 6-foot-long claymore swords and other antiquities, such as the inch-think layer of vintage dust covering all the exhibits. And the Glasgow School of Art, designed by art nouveau pioneer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, had an understated grandeur.

But the bulk of the city was drab, gray, sooty and ultimately depressing; I began to expect a statue of Stalin to greet me around each corner. Finally, at a dingy tourist office, I asked where I might find the shopping district.

Two forlorn clerks glanced at each other for guidance. "Och, I dinna think we have one-a those, as such," came the weary reply.

What a difference a decade or so can make in the cultural life of a town.

In the United Kingdom, Glasgow is known as a comeback city. No longer is it classed with Manchester, Leeds and other urban slag-heaps of the Industrial Revolution. Those who would be the arbiters of such pseudo-facts declare that Glasgow has surpassed even the gorgeous, arts-conscious Edinburgh as Scotland's hippest city.

OK, so that last distinction may seem feeble praise, like calling Birmingham the hippest city in Alabama. But it takes only a short taxi ride to see how Glasgow has pulled itself up by the garter straps to transform itself into a destination city for visitors.

When we landed at Glasgow International Airport last November, the sky was sunny and the weather unseasonably warmish. A 15-minute train ride landed us in the middle of the action, which now includes a formidable shopping district, restaurants and spruced-up landmarks and historic buildings that the city is no longer shy about promoting.

Our first stop had been planned months in advance: the Willow Tea Room on fashionable Sauchiehall Street. Designed inside and out by Mackintosh, down to the chairs and plates, the Willow Tea Rooms were the focal point of Glasgow cafe society a century ago and have been painstakingly restored in recent years. A full Scotch tea, including hearty scones and finger cakes, is surprisingly reasonable at around $8. Small, savory salmon cheesecakes with oatmeal crust are wonderful as appetizers.

Now heralded as the primary inspiration for the Viennese art-nouveau movement that spread across Europe and the eastern United States around the turn of the past century, Mackintosh was a local Glasgow secret for decades. Now, he's the city's adopted patron saint, revered much the same way Robert Burns is throughout the country. Tours are available for most of his creations, including the carefully restored dream house he designed for his family.

Lined with shops, Sauchiehall Street leads into Buchanan Street and the heart of Glasgow's commercial district. It's here you'll find Buchanan Galleries, a new mall boasting a branch of H&M, the white-hot Euro-Gap; the largest Habitat home furnishings store in Europe; and a particularly welcome sight, the cozy Whiskey Shop, crammed with every bourbon, blended and single-malt concoction imaginable, in a range of sizes and price points. It's here you can learn the difference between the peaty Speyside and the intense distillates of the Southern Highlands.

The street and surrounding blocks also contain the venerable, sprawling Fraser's, an old-world department store that manages to stock the traditional along with the fresh; the Princess Square shopping center, filled with upscale boutiques, including an outlet for Ted Baker clothes, a cheeky improvement over Tommy Hilfiger; a slew of vintage clothing stores; and even the U.K.'s first Versace shop, a seal of international fashion approval.

Another unmistakable sign of Glasgow's turnaround is the imposing UGC Cinema on Refrew Street, a sizable art film and repertory theater with an ambitious roster of foreign programming.

And a city that used to roll up the sidewalks at dusk now is hip-hopping after dark. Return to the northern end of Sauchiehall Street to see the roadway filled with hipsters trying to decide which club has the DJ with the most BPM that night.

Of course, this is also the city of Trainspotting, (and the site of a major battle from Braveheart) so a visit wouldn't be complete without witnessing an outbreak of senseless, booze-fueled violence. We arrived on an auspicious day. A showdown between bitter cross-town football rivals, the Celtics (Catholic) and the Rangers (Protestant) took place that afternoon and by evening the side streets were noisy with drunken, chanting "soccer hooligans."

Most of the restaurants and pubs had signs warning "No football colors or team jerseys" allowed inside, reminding we Yanks of Crips/Bloods rumbles of early '90s L.A.

Later, as we sat in the back of a crowded bar enjoying cold pints of cider and Guinness with friends, a sudden flurry of fists a few feet away sparked a full-tilt mélee in which it was momentarily impossible to determine whether the other patrons who surged in toward the combatants were attempting to intervene or get a piece of the action.

Although typically brief, the fight, which seemed to involve at least a half-dozen chaps, was invigoratingly vicious; I was graphically reminded that a lifetime of soccer-playing can make a well-aimed kick a formidable weapon, not the sissy reflex you might see in Buckhead. One wanker had even grabbed a fire extinguisher to use as a club, but was disarmed before he could do much damage.

From high tea and salmon cheesecake to low blows and rabbit punches, there's plenty to see and do in rejuvenated Glasgow.

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