GOING FOR THE HOLY GRAIL!
IT is fair to say that the decision by John Macleod and his partner Lynne Jones to take a leap of faith – in their fifties – and open a seafood restaurant in a down-at-heel part of Glasgow just as the financial crisis hit, may have caused a few furrowed brows among their friends and families.
But eight years on, architect John (59) and yoga teacher Lynne (60) have certainly proved the naysayers wrong – the eponymous Crabshakk in Finnieston continues to flourish and their second venue, Table 11, just a few doors down, is also receiving rave reviews following its expansion and re-vamp back in March this year.
While John’s passion for design and also for fish – the latter spawned during his childhood, growing up on the Butt of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – are key factors in the phenomenal success of both ventures, he insists that Lynne deserves just as much credit.
The couple also set huge store by their dedicated team of staff including head chef David Scott and Angela Sinclair (one of two general managers) – both of whom have been there since day one.
John trained at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow and spent the 1980s working mostly on social housing then switched to focus on things like interiors, exhibition design, set design, and one-off projects. He spent a year working in California in 1995 before heading back to Scotland and working again on interiors, construction projects and, latterly, bar and restaurant projects.
But he had always harboured a desire to open a seafood restaurant and when a friend mentioned a property in the west end of Glasgow in 2008, he and Lynne decided to go for it.
John says, “It was slightly accidental really but I come from fishing people and I wanted to be part of that and I’d been talking about the Crabshakk idea for a long number of years so we thought we would give it a go, even though we knew we might crash and burn. It was very much a decision for the two of us, whether we should do it and take the risk. As it happens, it coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers – if ever there was a disastrous time for two rookies to launch a restaurant venture, we chose it. There was a lot of anxiety, maybe not so much with us, as with all our friends and family who must have thought we were going over the cliff. We were both slightly over 50 at the time but we thought, ‘Let’s go for it and see what happens and if it doesn’t work, we will do something else’.”
They spent five months transforming the former paper shop – aided by joiner Liam Duggan and metal worker Pat Moran – digging out the cellar to create kitchen space and building a mezzanine floor to boost their covers to 55. John says it was a “tight, wee team” and it certainly must have been – given that they were all working in a space which is only four metres wide and around 12 metres deep. Despite the constraints, John’s design, including a pristine bar in white corian resin and reclaimed timber table tops gives the place a fresh, airy feel. Grainy black and white photographs – scenes from Lewis including him and his brother Iain (61) fishing as boys – complete the look and are an appropriate homage to island life.
John explains, “Every single bit has to have a wee function. It’s rustic modern. The forms are very clearly modern but we used friendly, tactile materials like reclaimed timber. There are very slick surfaces too – like the bar – and the two working together is a good combination. It looks like a place that sells seafood. I was also quite keen to condense the experience because of the size of the place. What it does is, it sets up its own great atmosphere, very intimate, sometimes very noisy, very buzzy, which is what you want in this type of establishment.”
They opened on Friday, February 13, 2009 – not the most auspicious of dates – but his brother was there to drink the first Espresso they ever made (it was Iain’s birthday) and the Crabshakk was soon very much on the map.
John recalls, “The intention was that we would be helping a lot – Lynne had some experience running front of house and we got a lot of good advice from friends. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be doing apart from enthusing about the product but within a few weeks it was pretty clear that this was going to become a professional event and we were kind of slung out by the staff really. We just had a real blast for the first six months, everybody was working round the clock, we were really busy and it was a really exciting time. Lynne is very much part of the project. She is easily half of the powerhouse that drives this and to underestimate that, is to underestimate what it takes to start a business and to run one.”
The couple wrote the menu together and eight years later, it still has the same core dishes, including seared scallops with anchovies, home cured gravadlax and shellfish chowder, as well as 20 specials each day. The seafood comes from all over Scotland – from Shetland mussels to Uist crab and langoustine, all the way down both coasts, while the white fish comes through the main markets in the North East.
John says, “One of the great things about the menu is that so many people know it intimately and they have their own favourites. There’s no question that people can use the Crabshakk in two different ways, at an affordable level but it can also cater for someone who wants to have a luxurious time and we have a great range of wines which complement the products.”
They acquired their second venue – known as Table 11 because Crabshakk has ten tables and that initially had just one long table in it – a year later and were due to launch in 2010. John jokingly refers to it now as “the famously difficult second album” because on the eve of opening, a structural problem with the building it is in came to light – and they were forced to close for two years. It finally opened in 2012, selling fish tapas-style dishes, but closed briefly at the beginning of this year after John and Lynne got the place next to it and knocked through to create more of a standalone restaurant, boosting their covers to 45. Fish is still the predominant ingredient but there is more of a twist – lobster dumplings in Laksa broth or charred monkfish cheeks with a corn and pineapple salsa – as well as mackerel and Loch Fyne oysters.
John says Table 11 is the same but different as Crabshakk – and it is easy to see why. The gleaming white bar and the wooden table tops are very similar but the way the space is configured and the lighting (including 1930s Czech factory scissor lights), inky black walls and lacquered sheets of metal gives it more of a mellow feeling, especially in the evening. He explains, “I like the fact that with the Crabshakk everything is contained in one volume, the nice contrast at Table 11 is that you have a bar and a dining room and I think people are enjoying that. You can see that the bar is there, you can see that there is a buzz, but if you want to have a quieter time, you can do so as well.”
John still works as an architect and recently finished working on an old Italian cafe, The Lido, back in his home town of Stornoway, but he loves being a licensee too and pops in to see the staff most mornings.
He says, “It’s been just an incredibly enriching experience for me and Lynne to have these places which hopefully give much enjoyment and pleasure, and also the relationships we’ve had with our staff are incredible. It’s been a thrill actually, and I think we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved in terms of the quality of the food too.”
He adds, “Restaurant design is about so many things – it’s not just about a place looking great. It’s about getting people to feel really comfortable where they are, regardless of which corner of an interior they are in.
“You’ve got to be careful that nobody is missing out. It’s a very, very subtle business, which is why it’s so all consuming, much more involving than many other interiors and building types. You really have to drill in to what makes customers feel they want to be somewhere – not what is peer to peer impressive.
“The combination of food, interiors, staffing and ambience – we all know that that’s the Holy Grail for everybody. If you start getting some of that magic you are lucky because it’s not easy to do.”