50 years of the Ubiquitous Chip - the story behind one of Glasgow’s favourite restaurants
The Ubiquitous Chip has turned 50, but how has the restaurant impacted dining in the city?
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Over fifty years ago, Ronnie Clydesdale opened the Ubiquitous Chip down a side street in the west end. Within six weeks it was packed and within five years it had moved to larger premises. It remains popular and, crucially, has survived the last two years of Covid restrictions. The secret? The restaurant team have never lost sight of the original ethos that made The Chip (as it's affectionately known - a nod to the city’s enduring culinary preference) - and the reason that it’s been a hub of the Glasgow food scene for half a century.
How it all began: When the Ubiquitous Chip - the longest-established family-owned restaurant in Glasgow, and one of the oldest in Scotland - was launched by Ronnie Clydesdale in 1971, the country’s culinary landscape was very different to how it looks today. The idea for the Chip a was a simple one; to celebrate the very best of Scottish produce.
Ronnie passed away in 2010, and The Chip is now run by his son, Colin, and his partner, Carol. They met at the restaurant, and in 1994 left to set up Stravaigin.
The Ubiquitous Chip was originally located in Ruthven Lane in the first half of the 1970s, in what was a glorified electrician’s yard, before moving to Ashton Lane around five years later. These formative years clearly made a lasting impression on the young Colin.
“Food has been omnipresent my entire life”
“One of my earliest memories is of sitting on an old box in the store room at Ruthven Lane with my shipbuilder grandfather, around the age of five, eating soup. He put pepper in the soup and I was amazed at the difference such a light touch of this mysterious powder made to the taste of the soup.
“From such a humble moment, an instant and lasting intrigue to the possibilities of taste was sparked. Food has been omnipresent my entire life. My brother Ewan and I were brought up around it on a daily basis. Dad gave us a second to none education on food. He dragged us around the country, but there was never any snobbery; Glasgow’s first kebab shop, country house hotels, Michelin star restaurants – dad was researching the industry he had chosen to go in to.”
Speaking of the Chip’s beginnings, Colin said: “Dad knew nothing of how to run a restaurant and had taught himself how to cook. He started practising when he was in National Service, on sentry duty. They had no-one to actually sentry against, so he would scuttle off to the canteen and cook, and the rest of the sentries would come and have a slap-up feed at three in the morning.
"He had worked as a manager in a whisky bond. At half past twelve they all went out for lunch with clients, which lasted three hours. I think sobriety was not the norm. Dad realised that the guys who'd been doing this a long time tended to pick the plainer, more traditional dishes. This was at a time when posh food was either French or Italian, but the guys had chosen a much simpler way of eating.
"He based his restaurant on what he wanted to eat and what he thought the guys who were experienced in eating out wanted to eat. That was the logical bit, then it kind of goes out the window: he broke every rule going. He opened down a wee scabby lane. Everyone said, 'No chance, you've got to be on a main road.' He opened with no licence. Everyone said, 'No chance, you've got to sell alcohol.' I genuinely don't think he employed anyone who had ever worked in a restaurant before. They made it up as they went along."
Colin continued: “The Restaurant became enormously busy very quickly back then. Dad realised he needed a license and also needed wine knowledge to offer a standard of liquid that complemented the astounding quality of food being served by his chefs. He became a voracious reader on wine, reading enormous tomes and self-educating to an almost evangelical degree on regions, vintages and food pairings.”
The Wee Pub was previously an off-sales created to showcase the wines The Chip offered (the black range cooker the wines were displayed on at the window is still there). The Big Pub upstairs, now a bustling all-ages den of chatter, with its roaring fire and sweeping drinks list, was only every meant to be a space serving as a precursor to dinner.
Former hotelier and restaurateur Ken McCulloch explained how the Chip stood out in its early years: "To call your restaurant Ubiquitous Chip in 1971, that was pretty brave. He didn't flinch from what he believed in, and that's why he got the following that he got. Ronnie was always about the produce – the freshness. And he employed some pretty interesting people. They weren't your stereotyped waiters and waitresses, they were individuals and characters, and that helps, too."
Pete Irvine, whose travel guide, Scotland the Best, consistently cites The Chip as a top Glasgow destination, added: "The Chip was a total experience. It wasn't just the food, it was a beautiful room; the ambience was always perfect. It was unique for its time. It didn't go after Michelin stars, but it was where you would go for special meals, fabulous wine, and great service, long before those things were de rigueur. Yet it was not highfalutin. You were never intimidated by the environment, the staff, or the wine list. It had that humanity about it, which is perhaps very Glasgow."
What is now The Brasserie upstairs was originally a storage room before becoming a function suite, and the scene of much wild patronage behaviour.
“To this day people come in to the Chip for lunch and stay for dinner”
Colin explained: “Merriment and mischief by our customers was de rigueur in the Chip through the 1980s and 1990s” said Colin.” It still is, of course, but back then it was something else. Rambunctious conversations, an unquenchable thirst for alcohol – brandy, port and Irish coffees in particular, cigar smoking, and legendary levels of debauchery.
“The norms of behaviour were pushed to new levels back then in the Chip. One well known television newsreader, who shall forever remain anonymous, would often get wildly intoxicated across an afternoon, get picked up by the studio car at 5.30pm and be on air for 6pm. A truly miraculous feat. The food came up on a hoist, which is still in place. To this day people come in to the Chip for lunch and stay for dinner.”
It is with good reason Ubiquitous Chip has won many accolades for its wine list. Indeed quite a few of those who have worked in the Chip became accomplished wine experts including Linda Rogers, Clare McPadden and Jean Thomson. When it comes to curating the Chip’s wine list, owner Carol Wright has always been the natural successor to Ronnie. While Colin is the food authority, it is Carol who is the Chip’s wine expert.
Carol acknowledges her initial lack of interest and understanding with refreshing honesty. She said: “Yes, the wine list at Ubiquitous Chip is very much my comfort zone
“I feel incredibly passionate about the joy a great wine can bring, be it with food or otherwise. When I started working in the Chip, I didn’t really drink wine, I knew nothing about it. Ronnie was my gateway to its wondrous taste possibilities. He encouraged me to go on wine courses, saying everyone needed to know about wine.
“I went to college to understand more, attended supplier wine tastings, and from these different avenues my idea of wine developed. Learning about wine became easy and a pleasure. At the end of a night’s shift in the Chip we would bring out wine, talk about it, have a singalong of Scottish folk songs – the staff, friends like Alasdair Gray and Eddie McConnell, the Oscar-winning filmmaker and cameraman. Everyone enjoying the unifying joy of great wine.
“My love affair with wine has been like osmosis. I gravitate to passionate wine circles, enjoy trips to wineries immensely and am heavily involved in the wine selection at Ubiquitous Chip. I can enjoy a quality budget wine as much a posh-priced bottle. There is no elitism in our approach to curating the Chip’s wine list. It is slick and well chosen, be it red, white, rosé and orange - new or old, traditional or avant garde. Personally, for me, a great white Burgundy is hard to beat. A properly made Old World will blow your socks off. And if push comes to shove, France edges it.”
Artwork and The Chip
Character and style have been synonymous with Ubiquitous Chip over the last 50 years and a patronage by many of the country’s most esteemed arts and cultural figures enjoyed.
The work of Alasdair Gray can be found throughout the building in the form of two remarkable murals. Florid Jungle, painted in 1976 at the same pond he subsequently danced around and fell in, is evocative of the Medditeranean-esque styling of the Courtyard Restaurant.
Arcadia by Alasdair Gray is a vast mural framing the entire Restaurant to Brasserie staircase. It features Chip staff from across the years, local faces from the 1970s and Carol and Colin’s son Ruaraidh as a child. The first stage of Arcadia was completed in 1981 with Alasdair adding further characters in the subsequent years, before completing it around 2006.
“It is an astonishing piece of work” said Colin. “As far as I can recall, dad and Alasdair sat down with a bottle of wine and hatched a plan. A democratic swap of some description was agreed, the exact details of which no one will ever know. That’s the way business was done back then. Alasdair was a very dear friend of the Chip. He would often sit with the staff at the end of the night and sketch them on napkins.”
Proving that really great design stands the test of time, the late, great sculptor George Wyllie created the Ubiquitous Chip logo, with a bit of help from Shona Maciver, Founder of Locofoco Design who commissioned him to be involved. George’s sign, which he handmade, can be found mounted on the Chip exterior on Ashton Lane.
Elsewhere, the work of Michael Lacey – a Glasgow School of Art graduate and former Chip employee – can be found on the stairway leading into The Big Pub. Commissioned by Colin and Carol in 2011 to mark the Chip’s 40th anniversary it features a history of Glasgow montage, and many of the Chip’s most colourful regulars. Michael is the only other artist to have been invited to create a piece of work for the building. Scottish and quirky, his work, much like Alasdair Gray’s is idiosyncratically “so Chip”.
More recent additions include a one-off literary work by revered conceptual artist Jonathon Keats and Scottish Jamaican poet Jeda Pearl. The wall art will only be revealed in full in 50 years’ time.
Equally striking are Carol Paterson’s paintings of Colonsay, a place Colin and Carol have been visiting “forever” and hold in great affection.
A 50th anniversary is a timely opportunity for any business to reflect on its achievements, especially one that has survived the last two years, and Ubiquitous Chip is no exception. Glasgow’s West End may have changed beyond all recognition since 1971 – and Colin and Carol have tales aplenty of the local people and enterprises who made it special - but the Chip has been a reassuring constant throughout the passage of time and trends.
The Chip's youngest customer was surely the two-day-old baby whose parents brought him in straight out of the maternity ward. "And then he came back for his graduation," says Colin. "The Chip has been here long enough that we've actually had people who have married here and divorced here." On a sadder note, Carol adds, they've held funerals, as well, in accordance with customers' last wishes.
The Chip has had many famous diners, and even served Princess Margaret lunch and Mick Jagger dinner on the same day. On Carol's own first day the actor James Mason strolled in. She was taken aback, but the rest of the staff passed it off with a shrug. Other famous faces include Michael Keaton, Billy Connolly, Kylie Minogue, Keira Knightley, Lewis Capaldi, Kelly Macdonald and Craig Ferguson (the latter two both former employees), but in 1976 it wasn’t so.
Originally a former undertakers and stables that took several months to make habitable, Ubiquitous Chip’s initial proposition on Ashton Lane in 1976 was a 50-seat downstairs restaurant operating under a bring your own license, and with what can best be described as an ad hoc approach to interior design, one such example being the Chip’s fish pond.
Upstairs in the warehouse, famed Glaswegian designer and illustrator Ranald MacColl had a studio, as did well known florist Sandy Martin. With no money to pay his rent, an agreement was made for Ranald to build a pond in the Chip courtyard using a pile of discarded sandstone, traced back, as Colin said: “to Glasgow City Council’s hatred of beautiful Victorian architecture.”
The Chip has enjoyed many configurations over the years, each evolution marked with marvellous tales of ingenuity and common-sense Glasgow gallus.
In the 1980s, the Ubiquitous Chip Restaurant, with its intimate 50 covers, and located off what was then a large vacant courtyard, had an unconventional journey to expansion.
Colin remembers: “The success of the Restaurant when we opened was instant, truly meteoric. Demand from Glasgow’s cultural cognoscenti clearly outstripped our capacity. Back then we had a public phone on the wall of the Restaurant, with its own table and chairs. One evening, two of our most loyal customers, Bruce Petty and Brian Coyle, when informed there was no space to accommodate their dining request simply picked up the phone box’s table and chairs, and placed them outside in the vacant courtyard. Henceforth, the Courtyard Restaurant was born.
“The pond, built by Ranald, has subsequently been a scene of drama and delight over the years;
Alasdair Gray painted a mural beside the pond, danced around the pond, and fell in the pond. On another occasion, the Chip’s handyman Brian Finnie dropped a pot of paint in it - cue colanders and sieves to retrieve the pot and (successfully) save the exotic fish. Brian was ok too.”
“The rules he causally laid down 50 years ago are still here, ubiquitously so”
It is food though which has always been the driving passion for Ubiquitous Chip. The concept of traceability punctuates many a restaurant’s proposition these days – and is to be commended - but the Chip was flying a largely lone flag for it in Scotland 50 years ago.
“No one else really did ‘provenance’ in the 1970s and 1980s”, Colin reflects. “We didn’t actually call it that back then but everything we presented at Ubiquitous Chip was locally sourced. Everything was Scottish. The ethos we prescribed to was on-point right from the get go, and is still at the core of what we do today.
“Extreme provenance might be a more appropriate description. We had handwritten menus for lunch, then handwritten menus again for dinner. Before every service we had to go into the kitchen to get the exact dish and ‘provenance’ from the chef. What farm supplied today’s lamb, what fisherman caught today’s squid, and so on. Back then there was a disconnect between locally sourced produce and what restaurants in Glasgow, and indeed Scotland, were offering to the public. It wasn’t a deliberate omission. The concept of provenance and traceability, as we know it today, just simply didn’t exist.
“The Chip still works with many of the same independent suppliers as it has for the last 50 years, who share the same values: John Vallance the fishmonger, John Gilmour the butcher, and others. We are proud to have stayed true to our beliefs and still push what are essentially humble Scottish ingredients through many of our dishes; neeps, barley, brambles and so on.
“To get to 50 years as a restaurant is fantastic, incredible really”, he said. “To be here after the last two years is even more remarkable.
“Reflecting now, it was a golden education under these highly skilled, old-school chefs. They brought huge knowledge and ability to the kitchen, but also mayhem and lunacy.
“It was never mine or Carol’s expectation to go into the family business but being exposed over the years to how things are meant to be both in a kitchen and front of house, realising the team in the Chip was the real deal, clearly had a profound impact on both of us. We, and now our son Ruaraidh too who works in the Chip, embrace the sense that eating out is a cultural event where great ideas may occur around the sharing of a fine dinner.
“Our menus have evolved enormously, food has evolved beyond recognition although our brilliant Head Chef Doug Lindsay and his team will be bringing back a few Chip hero dishes for the anniversary celebrations including Cullen Skink, Clapshot and Howtowdie. We even have self-cleaning ovens now!
“What is clear is that dad’s original ethos of extolling the virtues of Scottishness, of sustaining people along the way with decency, benevolence and inclusivity, and never compromising on integrity, was spot on. The Chip became world class just by being itself. Dad really was a genius. The rules he causally laid down 50 years ago are still here, ubiquitously so.”