Design Focus: Topolabamba, Glasgow

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By Jamie Allan

I’ve long been a fan of Mexican cuisine, and was excited when I heard that Paul Sloan and Mario Gizzi were opening Topolabamba on St Vincent Street, on the site of a dormant bank.
Paul and Mario also own Mexican burrito bar Pinto on Queen Street, and Paul told me that his experiences in the country inspired his vision for Topolabamba. Says Paul, “I lived in Miami for seven years and had business in Mexico every weekend. I also road-tripped the country several times, it’s a real love of mine.”
The venue is named after one of Mexico’s culinary hotspots, and the bar and cantina had been open for exactly one week when I visited the site and met General Manager Rich Linford.
You can’t miss Topolabamba. It’s exterior is painted a bright aqua blue, with contrasting dark granite coloured signage above the floor to ceiling windows. Neon signs abound, with the names of various Jose Cuervo bottlings glowing in the windows, custom-made taco signs either side of the entrance and of course the venue’s name above the door. The ‘bamba’ in Topolabamba flickers intermittently, an eye-catching feature best appreciated at night.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter Topolabamba, apart from the brightly painted skeleton wind chimes which hangs by the doors, is that the owners have really gone with it when it comes to the Mexican theme. The venue is a kaleidoscope of colour, with so much detail that it can be difficult knowing where to focus your attention first.
Interior designers IBDP were given a brief to create a Mexican restaurant unique to Glasgow and with an authentic feel. Company Director Dominic Paul told me, “We researched a number of different Mexican Cantinas, street food cafe and bars and restaurants in London (and elsewhere) and put together a mood board of things we thought appropriate.
“We were actually in the enviable position of being asked to design something no-one had really done before in a Mexican restaurant concept. I don’t mean reinventing the wheel, just to create a rustic, “quirky” interior with a contemporary laid back feel. We had a fantastic client in Paul Sloan. We put forward ideas and generally he said ‘yes!’ or ‘love it!’”
The bar top is divided into two parts, a speckled concrete top intended for drinkers, with a thicker, dark wooden top for those looking to dine at the bar. Small bullet casings are sunk into the wood, one of many small details in Topolabamba that are easy to miss but reward the inquisitive customer.
In the corner of the bar a dozen or so sombreros are perched on top of a statue of a kneeling man, one of several genuine Mexican artefacts dotted around the venue. Indeed, there are so many touches of detail that it’s conceivable that you could visit the venue many times without noticing them all. Rich pointed out a skeleton witch marionette sitting high atop the doorway, which he’d only just discovered in recent days.
The bar gantry is a series of connecting, asymmetrical squares and shelves built from reclaimed scaffolding boards, hosting over 35 different tequilas and mezcals. Behind the wooden structure a Jose Cuervo mural has been painted onto the exposed, red bricks by artist and designer Ranald MacColl. Ranald is responsible for all of the painted murals in Topolabamba, of which there are many, and he has succeeded in creating a truly unique imprint on the venue.
The naked bulbs that light the bar top are held within metal spheres reshaped from old pipes, with the inside of the frames painted in copper leaf. The bar fonts are also fashioned from old piping, a change from the usual backlit, branded fonts. Sitting on the back bar are two slush machines for dispensing margaritas. The plan is to rotate the flavours regularly; when I visited a curious sounding Pear and Chocolate option was available as well as a Classic or Green Apple. The fridges are home to Mexican soft drink Jarritios, as well as imported craft beer Dia De Los Muertos. There is also a tortilla chip dispenser behind the bar, which keeps the homemade chips warm before they are handed out to customers in quirky copper cups.
The wallpaper on the walls adjacent to the bar features traditional Mexican imagery evoking the Day of the Dead, with bright orange and red skulls set against a black and grey background. Real dried red chillies hang at the top of the wallpaper, reminding diners of that most classic of Mexican ingredients. The wallpaper was designed by Ewan Leckie from My:creative; Ewan also designed Topolabamba’s branding, logo and website.
Says Dominic, “We worked closely with Ranald and Ewan to ensure we got the correct look and feel to the space, even down to development of the logo and bespoke wall papers and paying homage to the Mexican graffiti artist Neuzz in one of the wall murals. We also worked with furniture suppliers CFG and Chantelle lighting to have a bespoke finish to all the furniture and lighting in line with our design vision. This extended to the curved and low ‘stretch chesterfield’ booths, expertly executed by Ian Graham Upholstery in Glasgow. The hides of the chesterfields were aged and dyed before being fitted, giving them a rustic, lived-in feel.”
Mexican coins and hibiscus flower pendants are hidden within the knots of the booths, another minor detail that goes a long way towards Topolabamba’s sense of authenticity. Custom made, solid wood tables sit in front of the booths
The floor is made from 250yr old French oak, and a line of custom made mosaic tiles of Mexican and Spanish influence leads from the entrance to the open plan kitchen. Curiously, a set of traffic lights have been attached to the wall beside the kitchen pass. Rich explains, “We mature our own green chillies on site, and the lights let our customers know how hot they are on any given day.”
The restaurant area is divided from the bar by another wooden shelving structure. A row of deep red banquettes line a partition wall, the tables lit by green, amber and bronze glass bulbs, custom made for Topolabamba. Opposite the banquettes two supporting pillars have been painted in pastel white, blue and red and adorned with traditional artwork. More red chillies hang from the pillars, and coat hooks shaped from bullets have been attached. Standing in the centre of the restaurant gives you a true impression of the dramatic exposed venting overhead with dominates the venue’s ceiling.
Up a small flight of stairs you reach the first of two private dining rooms. With a view out onto St Vincent street the space can hold up to ten customers. Native artwork depicting banditos and traditional Mexican families dot the walls, though the dominating feature is a large neon sign depicting a snake on a fork. Behind it a floral mural has been painted onto the wall, one of many pieces of original artwork that really adds to the specialness of Topolabamba.
To reach the other private dining room you pass through another restaurant section. Two dozen cacti sit on shelves on the wall above a graffiti legend reading, ‘Mezcal’, and further down another graffiti effect above the banquettes reading, ‘El Borracha’, the name of Topolabamba’s specially brewed draught beer. More sporadic shelving sits above, holding idiosyncratic artefacts. Low hanging, half sphere, silver light shades illuminate the tables, and rainbow coloured frogs are attached to the pillars.
The second private dining room differs from the first in that it has a cage door which can be pulled over the side entrance. Guests can then only access or leave the area via a small stairway by the kitchen. The cage effect allows for privacy of space without losing the atmosphere of the restaurant itself. Inside the private area a large Nuezz-inspired mural depicts three faces with bold red, black and orange features.
I wouldn’t usually include the toilets in a design feature, but then Topolabamba isn’t any ordinary venue. The wallpaper on the stairway leading down features black and white strips, broken up by the occasional ‘Wanted’ poster for an array of banditos. Although you’ll most likely miss it on the way down the stairs, the bottom of each step is lined with more of the brightly coloured mosaic tiling featured on the bar floor. More images of gun-slingers greet you at the bottom of the stairs, and Rich tells me that there are plans in place for a shooting post, complete with bullet holes, to be depicted on one of Topolabamba’s few blank canvases opposite the toilets.
Both bathroom doors feature a Day of the Dead skull in the window, with a moustache added for the gents and lipstick for the ladies. The mirrors on the inside of the bathroom are deep red with Mexican patterns on the perimeter.
Topolabamba looks special, and Paul was quick to praise those who helped him realise his vision. He told me, “The whole team was brilliant, in particular Paddy from Argyll Contracting. He’s very organic in how he works, and he always seems to find a way to make things work. To have him on board was a dream. Dominic from IBDP was also very supportive, and he understood that we don’t always work entirely to spec. Both of the guys were great.”
It is refreshing to see a venue so committed to its concept, and the attention to detail that has gone into Topolabamba is indicative of both the owners’ and designers’ passion for the traditional Mexican cantina. Viva La Topolabamba!