If you’re a fan of the UK’s north eastern coastline, the train from London to Edinburgh is the one for you. The window seats on the right hand side of the train will allow you miles of seafront, the train tracks running parallel, surely almost touching the sand dunes that fold into the North Sea and out to Scandinavia. I sat on my way up to Glasgow reading an essay on travel writing, and noticing the pattern in the carpet (that was the topic of the essay, Virgin doesn’t deck out its trains in particularly noticeable upholstery just yet). Which is perhaps why this guide has taken so long to put together. I tried to notice the carpet, as it were, in Glasgow. I took notes, I memorised a hundred details. The grit covering the floor of the train carriages during our trip into the city each morning. The incredible feel in the station that even after you’ve travelled five hours north of London, over 400 miles, there’s still just under 300 miles left of island until you reach the furthest tip. The warmth our tenement flat gave us even after the heating went off for two days. The totally different drinking rules that lent, all the time, to the feeling that we were somewhere not quite familiar.
It’s the 14th February, Valentine’s Day, and also my birthday, and more so that ever, I’m feeling the love.
We’re sat in The Flying Duck and I’m writing out a list of all the food I’d like to order. I’ve actually got a paper and pen out. Although I sat with the menu open on my phone for the entire train journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow, I still haven’t decided between a macarrito, a burger or waffles. I go with what I consider I can handle.
My boyfriend and our best friend Fanny come back from the bar five minutes later. They’ve been working through my order but the bar staff can’t work out how to compile it all onto a plate. Apparently my choices have veered into OTT territory, even for a place that sells a burger called the Seitan Worshipper- the ‘main course’ I punt for, alongside skinny fries, sour cream and salad, macaroni cheese and gravy. On the cheese. It’s at this point I realise the prosecco on the menu is described as ‘yolo juice’: we’re home.
N.B. Below is a photo of a banana split I ordered for pudding on my birthday, JUST BECAUSE.
I first heard about the vegan Mecca that is Glasgow on holiday last summer, when we stayed with a family from the city, and the names Stereo, Flying Duck and Mono kept cropping up. I’d read the hype on Glasgow as a vegan city in articles like this one from 2013, but it was the idea that veganism could be so established in the heart of a country many would consider to be at odds with a vegan way of life. I heard about Craig Tannock, the man behind those three restaurants as well as The 13th Note and The 78, and I read about his ideas for normalising vegetarianism and veganism. None of his businesses make a song and dance about being vegan, but they’re not apologists either. I saw on Instagram as Vic Henderson, the head chef at Mono, posted incredible things like palma violet frosting, bibimbap and coca cola black beans and just thought - I have to get up there.
When I started planning the trip, I asked friends on Twitter and Instagram for some pointers. I do this quite often, and usually the same three or four places will crop up again and again, meaning it’s really easy to make a to-do list. Not so much with Glasgow. By the time we left for London there were over 20 places I was determined to visit, with another long-list of ‘well if we end up near by it would be a shame not to…’. I have to say a huge thank you to Emma, who sent me a huge email of recommendations for places, and ones I never would have known to look out for. Thank you!
The food we found in Glasgow was inventive, quietly assured and plentiful. If there’s another way to write wonderful, show me how.
For our first full day in Glasgow, we trudged over to Fanny’s part of the city to try and wake her up with the promise of book shops and cake. Tchai-Ovna is a vegetarian tea house in the West End, next door to Voltaire and Rousseau, an amazing book shop with more of Anthony Bourdain’s travel writing than can be good for anyone. The tea shop wasn’t as cheap as the rest of Glasgow (which is, on average, about a third cheaper than the prices I think you’ll generally find in London, so I'm not complaining). Fanny and I delved into a mound of super rich chocolate cake each, and the teas were actually gorgeous- a huge pot for a few pounds is money well spent on a cold day way up north.
Our second day began waiting in a Subway station for vegan donuts. After a tip-off from Emma, and another hint from my friend Rachel, I’d decided to swap a usual birthday cake for six vegan, homemade donuts. You simply add yourself to a Facebook group (follow Lisa's Instagram for more info), place an order via message, and in a few days, you have freshly made donuts. I chose a mixed batch- and I love how different each flavour was- as well as the game of guessing what kind of icing you’d just bitten into.
We were supposed to save the donuts for friends on the way back to London, but if you’ve tried battling snow and wind in Scotland with four donuts in hand, you’ll know they won’t last for long. So we polished them off inside the People’s Palace as we planned the day ahead.
We fought through actual RAGING wind back in to town, to meet another old pal, Taz, for lunch at Stereo. All three of us absolutely loved it in here. Stereo has the atmosphere of the college canteen you wish you’d been to- I mean that in the best way- from the minute we walked in I wanted to stay there for as long as possible. We were a few minutes early for Taz, which meant I got some more time with a menu I didn’t know how to pick my way around. This was a major feature of our time in Scotland- having a choice between vegan items on a menu. On an average day, there’s no way I’d consider having a pudding, usually because there’s not much to have. But in Glasgow, there was EVERYTHING. Choosing a salad- often the only thing I can go for- felt like a cop-out against shamuchun (a Turkish pizza wrap with vegan haggis), crispy gnocchi or buffalo cauliflower. Then there’s that sneeky affogato down at the end of the menu. HOW IS SOMEONE MEANT TO MAKE ALL THESE DECISIONS?
The vibe in Stereo is relaxed but attentive- we didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for anything- with HUGE portions, really tasty food (and I mean that in the very moreish, savoury, salty way where you know a chef actually loves what they’re cooking) and really reasonable prices. Take the polenta chips. Those guys can be the most neglected feature of the side dishes, but these were salty, hot, crispy, and with a huge load of garlic mayo. Stereo definitely rings true of Craig Tannock's intent for anyone to enjoy the food on offer- all three of us left loving the food for the food itself, not as the novelty of being meat free.
Then we swung over to the Gallery of Modern Art, followed by a few more trips on the Subway, which, coming from a city where it takes an hour to get anywhere, feels like a time machine with 24 minutes for a complete circuit. If I told you it also ran in a continual circle, would that freak you out?
For dinner we had so many places to decide between. But I wanted to try out somewhere Emma recommended, so we headed to Kimchi Cult in the West End. Who knew Chaka Khan and Korean comfort food went so well together? Although it’s not a totally vegan place, Kimchi Cult is perfect for that date night / other-peeps-want-to-eat-different-things vibe. I chose crispy tofu bao with pickles and ssamjang. I’m yet to eat bao in London because I can’t find anywhere that does a vegan filling, so it was such a treat to bite into that ludicrously pillowy dough of snack-sized steamed bun with tofu. We followed this with bibimbap with tofu and cucumber kimchi.
Bibimbap is the perfect thing to order when you just can’t face saying the words ‘salad’ but your body might just combust if you go near another side order of chips. It’s also quite easy to get wrong because essentially you’re handing out bowls of unmixed salad, some tofu and some rice. You gotta have some pizazz with the bibimbap, and Kimchi Cult’s is good- just the right balance of fresh and spicy, fragrant and fattyness. There’s also a lot of sauce action at Kimchi Cult, which, yannow, I respect.
On our final morning in Glasgow we skipped breakfast so we could turn up to Mono and eat as much as physically possible in honour of our last meal in the city. What did I love about Mono? Let me count the ways. It’s tucked away on street you’d miss if you weren’t determined to get there or didn’t know how to find it. The burgers taste like someone’s actually spent time working on what should be next to each other in the bun. I’ve eaten a lot of burgers on my travels and they have a knack of becoming the cloud software of stuff-we-could-maybe-add-to-a-bread-roll.
But Mono’s burgers hold up under the bread roll in a way someone has also spent a good amount of time considering. The chips are FRIED AND PLENTIFUL (band name, I call it). The burritos have coca cola beans. You can order anything off the menu because it’s all vegan. There’s a bar. There’s a record store. It’s the kind of place I’d happily spend twelve hours in.
In the afternoon we caught the train over to Edinburgh to see Taz’s sister, our bestest best pal Guj. Guj is the creator of the ‘Guj break’, whereby when you’re eating a massive meal, you take it upon yourself to give yourself an actual fifteen minute break to get yourself together. Then you come back and finish the whole plate. The first time I saw it happen I thought she was leaving half her food. She wasn’t. She just knows how to eat it all. So, with this in mind, Guj took us up to the foothills of Arthur’s Seat. Where we promptly entered a pub and didn’t leave for five hours. We ordered the regular nachos at The Auld Hoose, which came with chilli, vegan cheese slices and more guac than we knew what to do with. It later emerged that people tend to walk up to Arthur’s Seat and then eat in the pub, where as we’d just been for a meander through town to buy champagne yeast. In any case, if you find yourself hungry in Edinburgh or just want to share one plate with four people, The Auld Hoose is where it’s at.
Our last, last meal turned out to be one for the train journey home. Guj recommended The Baked Potato Shop, which is just up the flight of steps that joins Cockburn Street to the back entrance to Edinburgh station. What that means is it’s a great place to buy food for the train instead of battling with whichever sandwiches Virgin has deemed not to make vegan that day. The entire place is vegetarian, with about two thirds of the fillings also vegan, including mayo and margarine, which, if you care about jacket potatoes, you know really MAKE IT A THING. Then there are samosas, little cakes and snacks, and everything else you’d want for a four hour journey home. The potato above kept me going until Newcastle, and was just £5.50 for the spinach salad with tofu, mushrooms, seeds, peppers and tomatoes, and a drink, if you split the medium meal deal with someone else.
So we packed ourselves back on to the train once again. And this time we were facing the wrong direction, on the wrong side of the train, but it didn’t stop Berwick from looking gorgeous in the late afternoon February sun. Or my jeans from being far too tight after eating so well for four days. Or my phone overflowing with photos from so many great meals.
I do find it wonderfully strange how intense patches of veganism can crop in the most unlikely of places. If it represented vegans evenly, Glasgow, like the rest of the UK, would have less than 1.0 per cent of its population choosing an entirely animal free lifestyle. But of course, it doesn’t. If humans behaved like predictable statistics, there would be no soy and almond milk available in every coffee shop we went to. No vegan muffins, cakes, cream cheese for your bagel or multiple burrito fillings. Maybe one vegan burger knocking about the other side of town. That’s what 1 per cent might feel like. But Glasgow isn’t like that. Instead of being spread evenly throughout Scotland, 41 per cent of people in the country live within the city’s conurbation. It’s the third biggest city in the UK. So when you see veganism doing so well there, and you see how easy it can be, you can’t help but be encouraged that perhaps this is how the other cities on this island will evolve.