17 Feb Café Gandolfi
Tucked away in a quiet street of the Merchant City, the Gandolfi is an oasis of sorts for me on my occasional, often solitary trips to my old home town. When I lived in Glasgow, I never went to the Gandolfi though I had vaguely heard of it. We rarely ventured as far east in the city back then. Not that it’s very far east. But our lives were lived in the west of the West End. The Merchant City is the part of Glasgow just east of George Square, the city’s heart. The streets are wide, many are splendidly paved. It’s an area of fine Victorian buildings that once housed or warehoused a thriving commerce. Still does, but only here and there. Many of the fine buildings have found new incarnations: classy bistros, stylish stores, bars or clubs. Much has changed. Some of it for the better.
I need an oasis sometimes when I visit the city that I love still but that has lost me a little over the years. I no longer feel I belong to it the way I once did. Not because I feel I belong in London where I have lived all these years. It’s more the absence now of the people that connected me most tightly to the city, I suppose, that has slackened the bond. And the changes in the city itself, though it still feels familiar to walk the streets between those tall buildings and breathe in the melancholy sandstone air.
Early on a Monday afternoon but still in time for a snack lunch, the Gandolfi is quiet inside. A few other lunch-ers, taking a break from work, catching up with friends, maybe the odd tourist though less likely this time of year. I am shown to a generous four-seater table where I can spread myself, get out my jotter and scribble a bit while I wait for my modest lunch to arrive. The Arboath Smokies with tomato, cream and parmesan are a wondrous blend of Scotland and Italy, sizzling hot with some sourdough toast on the side and an elegant array of salad leaves. There must be more to it than the fish, tomato, cream and cheese because there’s a hint of something deeper and secret that holds the whole small but satisfying dish together. Maybe it’s just the quality of the Smokies; maybe they were happy fish before they gave themselves up to fire and hessian in the smokie pit.
Café Gandolfi is one of those places where it feels that time stands still. Or perhaps I mean it feels timeless. Swarthy tables of uneven pale wood and stout wooden chairs are earthy, homely, unfussy. The style is, I imagine, unchanged in the 40 or 50 years since it opened. The staff are like generous hosts entertaining us in their own home. Gentle classical music plays so you can hear it but it doesn’t get in the way of thoughts or conversation. It’s peaceful, almost quiet despite the music and the hum of conversation from the kitchen, the occasional whoosh of the coffee machine, the whirr of the glass washer, clink of cutlery, earnest chatter from tables behind mine or in front. The woman who took my order and brought my food comes to check if I have all I need. There is no sense of being hurried to finish and leave. You can take your time, relax in the gentle atmosphere. I am facing the window onto the street where high up fish swim across a sea of stained glass and low down a wooden panel shields us from the envious eyes of passers by who haven’t the time, haven’t heard of the Gandolfi, or had their lunch already at some other place down the road. Some people are just unlucky.
It feels like a hug, this lovely interlude in Café Gandolfi. It always does. Somewhere to gather my thoughts and place some more pieces in the puzzle of the past.