Ronnie Clydesdale: As Chic as Chip

IN THE winter of 1971, regular patrons of Curlers, a bar in Glasgow's Byres Road saw a man in his mid-30s sitting quietly, nursing a half-pint while reading a book.

• Ronnie Clydesdale opened the Ubiquitous Chip in Ruthven Street in 1971, but moved to Ashton Lane six years later. From humble beginnings, the Chip has evolved into one of the nation's best-loved restaurants. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Once in a while the door of the pub would be flung open and a woman rush in, shouting, "Come quick, we've got a customer". And that's how the birth of modern Scottish cuisine began: the man who would instantly leap up was Ronnie Clydesdale, and the destination where that hungry patron waited, usually alone, was the Ubiquitous Chip.

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The restaurant was then housed in a scrubbed-up former electrician's storeroom tucked down an alley, Ruthven Street, in the West End. Diners ate at an assortment of tables and chairs bought for a few pounds apiece, while chef and owner toiled over a second-hand cooker bought for a fiver from a house in Castlemilk. The walls were white-washed, the wooden beams exposed and the menu ransacked from the recipe book of the chef's Islay-born grandmother. Diners sat down to fare which was, at the time, unique: salted ling, clapshot and beef hough and a popular favourite, Mallaig-landed squid with conger eel and bacon.

The news that Ronnie Clydesdale died on Saturday at the age of 74, some 17 months after a fall left him paralysed from the shoulder down, has saddened culinary Scotland who have paid tribute to the restaurant's lasting influence. Martin Wishart, owner of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Leith and at the Cameron House hotel on Loch Lomond, said: "He elevated the standard of dining out in the west of Scotland by championing Scottish produce and cooking simple, often unpopular dishes, such as coley, and making them sought-after."

The Ubiquitous Chip, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year, has evolved into one of the nation's best-loved restaurants, continuing to attract celebrities such as Kylie Minogue, and billionaires like Roman Abramovich, while exerting an influence far beyond its locale. Like the Ivy restaurant in London, the "chips" restaurant and trio of connected bars have long been popular watering holes for the city's literary and media chattering – or should that be munching – classes. It also has the curious honour of being the subject of a question on the American game show Jeopardy, whose quizmaster once asked: "In which major city in the world is the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant?" The contestant got it right.

"In the late 60s when posh people wanted to eat they went to places like Rogano or hotels where they had French service," says Alasdair Gray, the novelist and artist whose murals decorate the walls of the "Chip". "Folk who wanted to eat out went to Italian fish and chip shops, or Indian restaurants or Chinese restaurants, but there were practically no restaurants that served native Scottish food. That was reserved for the aristocracy, who were quite fond of salmon, venison and game.

"No doubt you could buy Arbroath smokies if you were in Arbroath or Forfar bridies if you were in Forfar, but in general what you might call ordinary native Scottish food was not provided. You made that 'at hame' or your mamie made it, or your wife made it. You did not go out to eat it. Ronnie started the notion that there should be a Glasgow restaurant that served Scottish food well made and not too dear."

If Scottish cuisine had a tipping point it was when Playtex, the bra manufacturer, (for reasons that remain unknown) bought the Black & White whisky bond where Ronnie Clydesdale was a manager. He was quickly made redundant. A keen cook who had travelled in Europe tasting national fare, he'd long wondered why Scots food was not served in Scotland, and used his pay-off to open a restaurant whose title cocked a snook at the one dish it did not serve: chips.

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After six weeks of very few customers, during which Clydesdale took himself to the pub between diners, it earned a sparkling review in the Trenchermen column of the Glasgow Herald and its fortunes changed. Perfectly positioned between the then headquarters of BBC Scotland at the top of Byres Road, and the University of Glasgow, both of which provided a steady supply of paying customers, the restaurant thrived, becoming so successful that the owners of the premises decided to jack up the rent. Clydesdale refused to pay, and sought out his own site, just across Byres Road.

Today, Ashton Lane is the pulsing heart of the West End, where restaurants, bars and a popular cinema attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But in 1977 the main building was a derelict stable block and garage and the entire lane was marked for demolition. Clydesdale bought it for 8,000 and from here a mini-empire that now includes four dining areas – the Courtyard, Dining Room, Brasserie and Mezzanine – and three bars – the "Big Pub", the "Wee Pub" and the "Corner Bar" – have all evolved, the first attracting attention by favouring Fustenberg as its house lager.

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The courtyard, which is now a covered atrium, was first used during a baking hot summer when a customer took it upon himself to drag a table outside. The murals of local patrons came about when an impoverished Alasdair Gray asked Clydesdale if he was up for a barter. Gray says: "I was in difficult circumstances at the time and I asked him if I could paint a mural in the courtyard in return for meals. He said yes to that and so I painted the mural in the wall behind the pond."

How the Ubiquitous Chip became the media and liberal hub of Glasgow is inextricably linked to BBC Scotland, whose senior executives used it more or less as a canteen. And when the drama department were looking for a restaurant to wine and dine a prominent actor, they went to the Chip. Like bright filings to a powerful magnet, increasing numbers of stars were drawn through the front doors. One day the restaurant served Princess Margaret lunch and Mick Jagger dinner. The Princess's security staff called ahead to brief staff that she required Robinson's Barley Water, a sharp knife, a chopping board, and lemons and limes, as she preferred to cut the lemons herself for her G&Ts. When Ian Paisley dined, his wife and her friend talked incessantly while he remained silent. Meryl Streep was a regular visitor when her son was studying at Glasgow University, and preferred a quiet corner table. The staff could never quite work out why the Coen brothers proved regular diners, but certainly appreciated their custom.

Seamus MacInnes, the owner of Cafe Gandolfi, which opened in 1979, regularly dined at the Chip and remembers that the restaurant offered a different level of sophistication – it wasn't how smartly the staff were dressed, but how fresh and well-cooked the food was. He says now: "Glasgow was a changing city and this was a new modern energy about it, because it was not just a stuffy fine dining restaurant it was a brilliant place and to sit in the courtyard is still a lovely experience."

The politics of the establishment were set by the owner, who was active in CND and served as chairman and secretary of the anti-nuclear pressure group's local branch. His son, Colin, recalls: "My father did his national service, but didn't fancy being a soldier. When he was on night sentry duty he would escape into the cookhouse and create a few dishes for himself and his colleagues." The restaurant was also a regular meeting place for Glasgow's anti-apartheid campaigners during the days of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment. At Christmas the restaurant still feeds 150 of the city's homeless.

A favoured staff anecdote concerns the time a couple arrived for lunch with an elderly mother. After enjoying a delicious meal, she fell asleep and, unperturbed, the couple carried on dining and chatting. It was only when they paid the bill and prepared to leave that they discovered she could not be awakened. The staff carried her out in her chair and, despite suggesting that the couple take her to the nearby Western Infirmary, they said, "We'll just put her on her electric blanket and she'll be fine". As Clydesdale told one interviewer: "I'm absolutely sure she was dead, but what a good way to go."