SWEDISH influence – as well as cakes and its own mini-library – brings praise for Edinburgh venue, reports Claire Smith.
When Anna Christopherson first walked into the Victoria pub on Leith Walk she found “three old men and a television”.
It was a familiar sight in Edinburgh bars – but Swedish Anna and her husband Mike believed things could be different.
Victoria – which has just been nominated as Best Bar in the national Best Bar None Awards – is now a vibrant, art-filled space with cakes on the bar, its own mini-library, and a thriving foreign languages evening.
Christopherson, who trained as an economist and worked in commercial property, now runs five bars in the capital but got into the trade by accident. “We lived in Leith and realised there wasn’t anywhere we wanted to drink down there.
“I just wanted a bar that was a bit more female-friendly, where you could come and have a coffee or a glass of wine in a relaxing atmosphere. Somewhere that wasn’t a party place like George Street but wasn’t an old man’s pub either.”
The Christophersons took over Boda on Leith Walk in 2004, Sofi’s in 2005, the Victoria in 2006, Joseph Pearce’s in 2007 and Hemma in 2012. Over the last ten years they have also had two children – which is one of the reasons you’ll now find a toy corner in many of their bars. I meet up with Anna Christopherson in Hemma, across the road from The Scotsman offices. Once a grey, featureless glass box with surly staff, Hemma now twinkles with fairy lights and has cushion-strewn sofas upholstered in warm red. The grey pillars and the kitchen wall have been covered with delicate William Morris wallpaper and the huge glass windows decorated with collages made out of old photo slides. Hemma has hosted poetry karaoke nights, pop-up fashion shops, chocolate tasting sessions and is about to announce its first comedy night with a big name comedian.
“There are so many interesting people working around here – at the parliament, the poetry library, the storytelling centre, so we got together with people to do really fun things.”
All five bars have their own events – depending on the character of the clientele. The strong community spirit is one of the reasons Victoria came to the attention of the judges of the Best Bar None Awards – which are run by the police, the Scottish Government and the drinks industry.
The awards originally began in Manchester as a way of increasing safety in city centre nightclubs, then after a pilot project in Glasgow the scheme expanded to Scotland.
Pubs which apply to take part in the award scheme are offered extra staff training on safety issues, problem drinking and crime. But increasingly the awards also recognise the role well-run pubs bars and cafes can play in community life.
Ashley Kellock, Scottish co-ordinator for Best Bar None, said pubs were increasingly offering space to mother and baby groups, holding special events for pensioners and becoming alternative community centres. As far as the police are concerned, pubs which work well with their communities are safer pubs.
Kellock, who is an acting police sergeant seconded to the Scottish Crime Centre, said police were aware that with two pubs a week closing in Scotland these are tough times. “We are fully aware that the licenced trade is facing challenging times. But well-run licensed premises can be a good place for people to get together.”
Increasingly, the award scheme recognises not just the way pubs and clubs have worked to combat crime but also the positive role a well-run pub can play in the life of the community.
The national winners of Best Bar None Awards will be announced tomorrow at a ceremony at the Sheraton in Edinburgh, hosted by Fred MacAulay. Among the pubs and bars up for an award are the Cheers Cafe Bar in Fraserburgh, which has a huge European-style drinking terrace, Johnnie Foxes and the Den in Inverness, commended for introducing high-tech sound proofing to cut down noise to neighbours, and the Old Ship Inn in Perth for charity work, including a cosmetics and toiletries collection for Women’s Aid.
Patrick Harvie, Green MSP for Glasgow, who has campaigned for a minister for pubs, said he was glad to see the positive role pubs can play being acknowledged. “All too often the debate around Scotland’s relationship with alcohol focuses on the social harm done, but well-run community pubs are a big part of the answer,” he said. “Whether in the heart of the city or nestled away in the country, we should be doing more to support those pubs that have a human scale about them.”
Camra spokesman Tony Jerome said there was a real trend around the country for pubs to offer a wider range of events. As well as making them safer, he said it made economic sense.
He said: “The rising beer duty, loss-leader supermarket pricing on alcohol, a tough economy and in some cases the beer tie are all playing their part in 18 pubs in the UK closing every week. This means many pubs now have to find a way of diversifying to offer more services than what pubs used to offer consumers ten or 20 years ago. If these services appeal to the local community then it can increase the pub’s chances of success.”
He added: “It is brilliant to see pubs winning awards for their community work and we would like to congratulate all the nominees for the Best Bar None awards.”