Interview: Brian McGrory - On braw way

IF THE words "Scottish bar" fill your head with unsavoury images of nodding Scotty dogs, tartan placemats and Buckfast on draft then you're far from alone. Take 33-year-old Scot Brian McGrory, a bar and restaurant manager currently based in New York. Until recently, the mere notion of such a place seemed ludicrous to him. "I thought the idea was horrendous," he says. "It sounded like one of those Irish bars full of cheesy brands and decor. I just thought it would be terri

Curious words from a man who earlier this month, along with business partner Mary Wan, opened Highlands, a Scottish, er, bar and restaurant in the heart of the New York's West Village. (If you're planning a trip, the address is 150 W 10th St, NY 10014). What on earth made him change his mind?

"Scotland has fantastic produce, it's got fantastic designers, textiles, artists, and a wealth of historical references. We realised we could use that to almost revitalise the image of Scottish food and drink. I thought, you know what? Maybe we should focus on the more contemporary, artisanal style of Scotland. And that's where we started, really."

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Highlands, which opened its doors to curious New Yorkers on 8 October, is as far removed from the tartan shortbread tin image of Scotland as you can possibly imagine. The walls are covered in prints by Glasgow design duo Timorous Beasties; the chair coverings are by hip Edinburgh textile and fabrics firm Anta; a work by Glasgow figurative painter and celebrity fave Gerard Burns hangs on the wall and a piece by Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon is on the way; the menu features dishes such as Scottish scallops and bacon in a brioche bun and roast pheasant with mustard mash and Stornoway black pudding. As well as a wide range of whiskies behind the bar, they also stock Scottish-made gin Hendricks, and the top-end Scottish vodka brand Pincer.

But perhaps the most interesting thing of all about Highlands is where its money comes from. Rather than being the end the result of a faceless corporate investment, its funding was raised by a small circle of artistic Scottish friends. Gordon, the famed Glaswegian artist whose works such as 24 Hour Psycho and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, are known the world over, is an investor. Burns, whose paintings hang on the walls of Ewan McGregor and Alex Salmond (who has one in his First Minister's office), has also invested in the project. The Scottish painter and photographer David Eustace was also involved at an early stage, although later had to pull out.

Wan and McGrory, meanwhile, are both veterans of Glasgow's St Judes, now a boutique hotel but originally conceived as a private members' club, hotel, bar and restaurant that was the epicentre of the city's style scene in the late 1990s. Both have been working in bars and restaurants in the US for some time now and it was partly McGrory's experience as manager of an Australasian restaurant in New York called Public – which won its first Michelin star in January – that influenced the creation of Highlands. "Public was the first bar restaurant in New York that really introduced Australian and New Zealand food and drink into the US," he says. "They were ambassadors for the wine, the food produce, and they did it in this very artisanal, cool way. We've tried to take that kind of model and do the same thing for Scotland."

Highlands is not the only Scottish bar and restaurant in New York. There is St Andrews Bar, near Times Square, which describes itself as a "mid-priced seafood and steak house". It keeps an enormous "Scotch" bar and runs whisky nights in conjunction with the Scottish Malt Whisky Society. Then there is Jock Tamson's Bairns in Manhattan, another bar specialising in Scotch, which was recently used as a filming location by the hit US TV show Gossip Girl.

But, claims McGrory, Highlands offers more. "We are the first authentic Scottish bar and restaurant in New York. We are all Scottish owned, the chefs are Scottish, there's a real sense of authenticity in Highlands."

Their confidence, particularly in the middle of such a severe economic downturn, is admirable. What makes them think hardened, style-savvy New Yorkers will be impressed by what contemporary Scotland has to offer? "Americans are fascinated by Scotland and have this sense of history and romance about the country," says McGrory. "New Yorkers are educated about food, they know where it comes from and they know Scotland has this great reputation for seafood. There's a genuine interest there."

Burns, wearing his investor's hat, agrees. "We can't believe somebody hasn't done this already. It's just sitting there waiting to happen and the feedback about the whole Scottish dimension so far has been amazingly positive. There were reviewers lined up before it had even opened."

That it hasn't been done before, and what's more is being done in New York, arguably the world's cultural capital, adds a certain frisson of excitement about the project.

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Alistair McAuley, one half of Timorous Beasties, who supplied its famous Glasgow toile design for the walls as well as another paper "which we gifted them as a 'good-on-ye, all-the-best' present", says that for many Scots, there remains a certain glamour about doing business in New York.

"We've been promoting ourselves in America since 1995 and we've done some of our biggest business in New York. The thing about America is it always holds great promise, for our generation particularly. America's the place your dreams come true, the place where you can have great success and live this classic lifestyle. The reality can be somewhat different, however."

So far, the Highlands dream appears to be on track. Although it is early days (the food menu will not launch for another fortnight and the 8 October opening was kept deliberately low key), feedback has so far been positive, and with namechecks in the New York Times and Time Out New York, Highlands has all the hallmarks of being a success. Unsurprisingly, VisitScotland is delighted. Fiona Stewart, the body's consumer PR manager for North America, says she's already planning meetings there on her next trip to the US.

"It gives us a chance to take media and contacts out and experience something Scottish over there. It's a fantastic menu with good Scottish products, and we can impress upon people that these are some of our contemporary arts and crafts."

Stewart says it fits in with a strategy to change perceptions about Scotland. "Overall we're trying to get people to think about Scotland as a young, vibrant place," she says. "Our traditions are such that people think about landscapes, scenery, the whisky, all of which are of huge importance, but to have something like this post-homecoming is a bit exciting. The use of Timorous Beasties, for example, is fantastic because it shows Scotland has a lot to offer and that we have a fantastic creative industries showcase."

For his part, Timorous Beasties' McAuley describes the lack of a modern image of Scotland being projected as "the bane of my life". He says: "People promoting Scotland and what comes from Scotland as being kilt-wearing, caber-tossing, shortbread-eating, all that stuff. I'm very proud of Scotland and I love Scotland but I do object to that."

Jonathan Engels, who runs Pincer vodka, a vodka flavoured with milk thistle and elderflower that is made in Scotland and will be stocked behind the bar at Highlands, agrees. "It's very easy to trade on the 'granny's Highland cottage' image, but it doesn't necessarily do the people of Scotland any justice. Something like Highlands shows that Scotland is in fact a modern, progressive European country with fantastic local products."

Burns suggests that, rather than it being the rest of the world that views Scotland as the home of the deep-fried Mars bar and an eye-popping array of clashing tartans, it is a perception we have somehow managed to perpetuate ourselves. "This tartan-tat image is maybe a thing we've got in our heads in Scotland," he remarks. "New Yorkers are conscious that the Scots are a force to be reckoned with and it's something they're quite happy to be associated with."

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A force to be reckoned with indeed. Highlands may just be out of the starting blocks, but already there is a plan in place for expansion. "We want to create this cool, contemporary Scottish brand and really take it out not just to one but a few places," says McGrory. "The next thing we want to do in New York is called Mary Queen of Scots, a more rocky, Vivienne Westwood look, rock-and-roll style bar/restaurant."

And there are plans to roll out Highlands as well. "We want to keep it very much away from being a mass, generic chain. It's more special than that. We want to make sure we maintain that it's special and keep the magic. It's unique and unusual – people keep commenting on that when they come here, but we would consider a roll-out, possibly to cities like Chicago or Boston."

Sounds great. Just don't call it a Scottish bar.