Interview: Mary Wan, restauranteur

NEW YORKERS can’t get enough of Mary Wan’s contemporary twist on Scottish hospitality

If Irish bars are like weeds, popping up everywhere there’s a crack in the pavement, then, outside Scotland, Scottish bars are a rare orchid. Holiday resorts frequented by the Caledonian hordes may have a Jaggy Thistle serving Tennent’s lager and Premier League but, Magaluf aside, it is all but impossible to get a hauf and a hauf once you have crossed the border.

Yet in New York, where jaded diners demand Ethiopian buffets or postmodern falafels and bars open and close faster than a butterfly’s wings, there is a notable Scottish presence. In a city with 200,000 eating and drinking establishments to choose from, models, celebs and beautiful people can’t get enough of three venues run by Glaswegian Mary Wan. Highlands, Mary Queen of Scots and the newest opening, Whitehall, have enchanted some of the pickiest customers on the planet.

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Forty one-year-old Wan, together with partners Brian McGrory and Donal Brophy, is on a patriotic mission to convert the cool capital of the world to the great stuff that comes from Scotland: Islay malts, Brewdog beer, fried breakfasts, Timorous Beasties wallpaper. In fact, Highlands and Mary Queen of Scots are so successful they have given Whitehall a wider British remit.

“Brian and I are both Scottish but Donal is Irish. We felt he was a bit left out when we did two Scottish places. Also, we’ve done the Scottish thing, the whisky thing, the haggis. We thought it would be good to encompass the rest of the British isles.” So Whitehall, despite the bowler hat and rolled brolly name, is British rather than English. The design is stripped back and industrial, inspired by classic train stations. There are 50 gins on the drinks list, plans to start a roast dinner on Sunday nights and the option of a full English for Sunday brunch.

Do customers, such as Isabella Rossellini’s model daughter Elettra Wiedemann and her sample-sized besties, not run for cover at the sight of so much cholesterol? Wan laughs: “Obviously a fry-up is not the healthiest option and we do salads, grilled sea bream on the bone ... But New York is saturated with restaurants and bars and this makes us a little bit different.”

When Wan left Glasgow in 2009 it was with the intention of opening one bar, not a mini-empire. She has history: she and partner Bobby Paterson opened Groucho St Jude’s in Glasgow’s Bath Street in 1999 and made it the supercool canteen of the city’s demi-monde. The rooms upstairs were the crash pad of choice for visiting glitterati. The venue was, Wan thinks now, “ahead of its time”. The couple had sold their interest in the business when Paterson, the former bass player with 1980s band Love and Money, died in 2006.

“When Bobby passed away five years ago, it was a very difficult time for all of us. I grew up with Bobby” – they were together for nine years, he was 14 years Wan’s senior – “he taught me a lot about the restaurant business, the service industry. I felt that there was nothing more for me to do in Scotland.”

In the interim McGrory, an old chum from behind the bar at St Jude’s, had moved to New York. Every time he came home to Glasgow, he campaigned to move Wan across the Atlantic. “Brian and I talked about doing something together. He always wanted me to move. I was never quite ready, I was always involved in something back home. But he kept on at me, saying that if this is what you do, New York is the best place to do it. But I never thought it would happen, it was pie in the sky.”

Then, as the recession bit into the hospitality industry, the time was suddenly right. “One of my good friends says. ‘Fortune favours the brave’. I realised that, if I want to do something, I have to go for it. And that was it.”

It was the perfect moment for a change of mind. Before Highlands opened, the only Scottish joint in Manhattan, St Andrews, was a conventional tartan and whisky theme bar with zero scenester appeal. “I think they serve Irn Bru,” sniffs Wan. “We don’t do anything like that. We wanted a more contemporary, younger, more happening Scottish vibe, the kind of place that we would go to. We want to reflect what’s happening just now, not what Americans perceive to be Scotland. No TVs. No puggy machines.”

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Once across the Atlantic, it was not a case of sitting back in a penthouse and discussing candelabras with interior designers. “We were in there putting up the wallpaper, painting the place, sanding stuff.”

Wan, McGrory and his friend Brop hy were, Wan recalls, “by no stretch of the imagination ever rich. We cashed in all our savings, got some investors and that it was it. A wee bit of luck, a wee bit of gold dust.”

Thanks to friendships forged over the basement bar in Bath Street, artists Douglas Gordon and Gerard Burns chipped in some cash.

For Wan, this is Paterson’s legacy. “He made a lot of connections for me back in St Jude’s; through him people knew me. Douglas used to come into the bar all the time when he was back in Glasgow, we made his favourite negroni. Bobby brought in a lot of that kind of business. Ewan McGregor stayed there and bought one of Gerard Burns’s paintings. Gerard was a struggling artist at the beginning, we put his paintings up in Saint Jude’s. So then he felt he had to give something back to where he started.”

The three partners have kept the same business model for Whitehall, inviting investors who can bring more to the party than a carrier bag of cash. James Marshall, Elettra Wiedemann’s British fiancé, attracts the kind of attention money can’t buy. As a result of his involvement, has been following the restaurant’s progress and reported breathlessly on its opening night. “Guests like Prabal Gurung, Monique Péan and Anja Rubik congregated in the back room for a dinner of British-inspired fare: butternut squash salad, grilled calamari, fluke and butterscotch pudding,” it squealed. “On the fashion front, Gurung sported a varsity jacket–inspired piece by Junya Watanabe over his signature white T-shirt.”

This level of frothing requires a bit of translation for the folks back home (Wan was brought up in Springburn). Prabal Gurung is a Nepalese-American fashion designer, worn by Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Monique Péan is an ethical jewellery designer, also favoured by the first lady. Anja Rubik is one of the world’s highest-earning models. Junya Watanabe is a Japanese designer, originally a protegé of Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons. Fluke is a type of flounder native to New Jersey.

It is easy, from the grey and unsparkling depths of Scotland, to mock a lot of very thin people in Japanese outfits, who don’t realise a piece is something you have with jam on, sitting in some of the world’s most expensive real estate eating traditional British salad. Wan is used to this kind of reaction: customers at St Jude’s were regularly dismissed as pretentious. She doesn’t take it too seriously. “They’re just people.

“When we opened St Jude’s, there were all these fabulous people. Lots of my friends thought that all these famous types coming to stay were the main thing, and that was fine in itself, but it’s the people who come in every day who are your bread and butter. We got a lot of business from the art school and that was my favourite part of it – the lecturers, the students – and they’ve all gone on to do really good things.”

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That’s the thing about running the hippest operation in town: if you are in it for the long haul you will see your kitchen porters win Brit awards and customers who once struggled to buy a plate of chips in HD on TV. “Alex Kapranos started off in the kitchen at St Jude’s. Kelly Macdonald used to come in to the bar. Now she’s over here doing Boardwalk Empire. She comes to Mary Queen of Scots with her husband Dougie [Payne, the bass player in Travis].”

Of course the investors swing by with their mates. “Thanks to Douglas we always have artists coming in: Jim Lambie, Tracey Emin. Elettra and James Marshall bring all that fabulous glamorous fashion crowd. Where we are, in the West Village, is where a lot of celebrities live anyway, so we see a fair share of them. Adele came in when she was doing a concert over here, she was lovely. We’ve had Cameron Diaz, Hugh Jackman, Kim Cattrall, she was fabulous as well.”

With regulars of that calibre, it takes someone special to get the staff hot and bothered. Enter Swedish stud muffin Alexander Skarsgård, the star of True Blood. “Everybody swooned over him. The guys and the girls. He was absolutely gorgeous, they were all going crazy over him.”

Wan causes a few minor sensations of her own. Born into a Hong Kong Chinese family and retaining a pungent Glasgow accent, she has blown a few American minds. “I’m Asian, I’m Scottish, people find that mixture intoxicating, they get carried away. At first, when I start talking, they look at me as if I’m some sort of alien. They can’t get over it. Of course for me it’s just the way I am.”

In fact, leaving Glasgow, living in Brooklyn, taking the subway, walking past McCarren Park and sucking up the Manhattan skyline on her way to her apartment, has prompted Wan to reconsider her identity. “It’s very strange. When I was at home it’s just who you are, what you do. I’m Scottish. But as soon as you leave home you get really patriotic. I don’t know why, it just happens. You’re homesick, you miss your friends and family, you just don’t get that kind of chat and humour over here.”

The gallus patter is not the only thing lacking in Wan’s life. While she can have one of Highland’s award- garlanded sausage rolls (a sophisticated take on the Gregg’s version, served with harissa aioli) whenever she likes, Wan pines for the tastes of her childhood. “I miss Sainsbury’s. The food I grew up with, the biscuits and the crisps. I do get little Red Cross packages from back home. Scottish Blend tea, Mr Kipling’s cakes.”

She laughs at the irony of New York’s premier purveyor of gourmet Scottish delicacies craving a cherry bakewell and builder-strength cuppa. “The first thing I did when I came home last New Year was go to M&S and buy a microwave meal.”;;