Divine inspiration behind city bars

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Operator pays tribute to Amsterdam following church conversion

Saint Lukes & The Winged Ox
Formerly a place of worship, the building now houses Saint Lukes & The Winged Ox – a music venue and bar

ASK Glaswegians of a certain vintage their opinion on the Gallowgate, the heart of the city’s traditional east end, and they’ll tell you the same thing: “It’s no the same.”

While in most cases the assessment is meant to be disparaging, there is no little truth in the statement.

But change is, more often than not, a good thing.

The traditional wheeling and dealing nature of the area that has played host to the famous Barras market for a century has quietened down over the years and Glasgow City Council is now making a concerted effort, alongside business owners, to make the place more shabby chic ‘cultural quarter’ than past-its-peak haggard.

And few places encapsulate the best of that change as profoundly as the former St. Luke’s & St. Andrew’s Church, a stone’s throw from one of the four iconic Barras archways.

A steady decline in attendance eventually killed off the church, which had been in use since construction in 1836, and the building lay empty and unused.

Fast forward to 2019 and the building is a temple of hospitality, having been transformed into bar, restaurant and music venue, Saint Lukes & The Winged Ox, welcoming a large congregation of patrons and playing an important part in the current revival of the east end generally.

The Amsterdam
The Amsterdam bar features “tongue-in-cheek” nods to the city

The significance of the old kirk’s metamorphosis into a hub of activity, which hosts scores of weddings and gigs year-round, hasn’t been lost on one of the business’s co-founders, Michael Woods, who launched the venue together with his brother Anthony  in 2016, and described the opening as a “catalyst” for change in the area.

Since then more fashionable bar/restaurant-style venues have opened in and around the area, with more in the pipeline, as the district garners greater favour with a new generation of operators and consumers alike.

“We were the first ones to make a move on the area,” said Michael.

“We knew the area, knew what it was like and we had a real affiliation with it; our dad used to have a plumbing business around the corner in the Calton.

“It’s a short walk from the city centre so we took the gamble. The area was much worse then than it is now but it has paid off.

“I think we were the catalyst for a lot of people coming into the area.”

However, the process of converting a large church built in the Georgian era to a live music venue and bar was not straightforward for the brothers, who bought the building to develop in 2013.

The eventual outlet was three years in the making and required countless meetings with external bodies.

“It was an absolute nightmare at the time going through the rigmarole of getting planning permission but it was more than worth it in the end,” said Michael.

“I was in construction with Anthony and we bought the place to develop.

“We saw the opportunity a building of this kind presented to do something with it, whether it be flats or something else but then we got the idea that we’d turn it into a music venue.

“We showed it to a few people in the music industry and they told us it was perfect and that was it.”

All in I think we had spent £1.8 million before we opened the doors.

So having finalised their plans, the first stages of redevelopment began and included the small expense of restoring the church’s stained glass windows at a cost of £90,000 each.

“The council, Glasgow City Heritage Trust and Tennent’s all supported our plans initially and that helped us massively, all in I think we had spent £1.8 million before we even opened the doors,” said Michael.

In the years since the doors opened, the venue has become something of an institution in the east end and it is in part thanks to Michael’s wholehearted desire to create a bar that he would want to drink in as well as giving customers the food they want to eat.

He said: “We wanted to have hearty food, big bowls of chilli, big burgers, the kind of  portions you’d get at your granny’s.”

With three years under his belt as an operator, an offer that Michael couldn’t refuse fell into his lap as he was offered the chance to take over the lease to one of his favourite bars, the former Brutti ma Buoni in The Brunswick Hotel in Glasgow’s Merchant City.

He said: “I used to drink in the bar for years and had a real soft spot for the place and got to know the owner of the building, so he asked me if I was interested in the place and I just jumped at it.”

The bar needed something new and Michael was keen to introduce some of what had worked for him at Saint Luke’s and a few more idiosyncrasies of his, chiefly, his affection for Amsterdam’s nonchalant, hip café bars.

He said: “I love the bars in Amsterdam and when I was in Canada I used to go to a bar called The Amsterdam, that’s where I met my wife who was working there.”

And so Glasgow’s very own The Amsterdam was opened in January, an homage to the cultured continental cool of the Dutch city.

“We wanted to go with the kind of dirty-music-rough-just-do-what-you-want-and-enjoy-yourself vibe, responsibly of course,” said Michael.

“That’s our vibe, we want people to relax and have a good time.”

Suitably, there are plenty of nods to one of Europe’s great capitals within the bar including a sprinkling of red neon lights, dark curtains, a large sex shop sign and bicycles suspended over the bar.

“It’s a wee bit tongue-in-cheek,” said Michael. “But that’s never hurt anybody.”