And for those living on Carrick Road, a short walk from the centre of Ayr, that’s exactly what’s happened. What was once the Carrick Lodge Hotel re-opened last month, having been bought out of administration and given a £100K facelift by long-time friends and industry veterans Allan Low and Alan Watson.
Not only have the duo breathed life into what was a well-loved, but slightly dated, local landmark, but they have also exported a little bit of Finnieston-style experimentalism to South Ayrshire, boldly challenging the locals’ drinking habits in the process.
Allan told DRAM, “I live locally, and the Carrick Lodge, certainly in the time I’ve known it, has been quite an institution as a business and a building. It’s had many different owners, the most prominent one in recent times being Jim Murdoch, who had it for about 10-12 years and was very successful in that period. Latterly it’s fallen away it just maybe hadn’t evolved over time and needed to be brought up to date.”
He continues, “The competition is very stiff down here. I would argue the quality is actually better per head than it is up in Glasgow, it’s maybe just not as diverse.”
When you walk through the door of the Fox & Willow into the reception area there is a broad staircase which leads to the six bedrooms upstairs and at the rear lies a ‘Secret’ walled beer garden, which is now a real selling point with the tables nicely spaced out on the grass to capture the sun and surrounded by a charming mix of trees, shrubbery and rockery.
Inside the public areas are split into four distinct areas. On the right there is a dining area which is is classically designed with a blue tartan carpet and some interesting artwork, but its the restaurant on the left of the building and The Taproom bar which really gives the building the wow factor.
The first thing that is apparent is the gleaming wood floor which melds the restaurant and a further dining area with the bar as it flows all the way through. The restaurant area houses a floor to ceiling wine display encased in and a bar dispense area. These both have been painted gray but the rest of the colour in this area is more vivid with the wood panelling on the right painted a dark blue/green colour with matching upholstery. The wood panelled walls stretch the length of the room with tongue-in-cheek artwork, which depicts animals such as dogs, stags and badgers dressed as generals or royal family members and posing proudly. This area also has a modern tartan carpet, which, although it doesn’t go edge to edge, fills the centre of the room. It matches the colour on the walls.
The area is similar however the colour gold has been used to define this area with the upholstery and walls once gain toning together. This area is not quite as luxurious as the restaurant as it doesn’t have the tartan carpet and the designers have introduced dark blue tiling here too. It ‘s more in keeping with The Taproom which is immediately adjacent.
The bar area features a statement clock above a fireplace, exposed stone walls, an impressive bar, and back bar, all stainless steel and gray tiling, sitting on spanish-style tiles, and the obligatory flat screen TV. The designers have also opted for leather upholstery in shades of brown. It looks great.
But the star of the show is a statue of the eponymous fox, crouched cheekily in an alcove between rooms with, of course, a strand of willow clutched between his teeth. He also can seen on the signage, cider fount, and menus. Alan and Allan felt the Carrick Lodge name was slightly old hat, so spliced the name of their limited company, Urban Fox, with a plant native to Ayrshire, and hey presto, The Fox & Willow was born.
Says Alan, who was general manager of The Jefferson in Kilmarnock, until he decided to embark on this business adventure comments, “The drinks package is what makes us slightly different to everywhere else here. It’s quite adult-orientated; we’ve taken a bit of Finnieston and brought it down here. We’ve got 12 or 13 different gins and over the opening weekend we sold them all.”
Allan opined, “The drink offering we now have certainly wouldn’t have worked in the Carrick Lodge. What we’re doing might not set us apart from somewhere in Glasgow or Edinburgh, but locally, it certainly will.”
Alan continued, “Inverarity Morton are our drinks supplier and their support has been phenomenal. They also supply a cracking product. Some of the things we were looking for were really bespoke items that they’ve been able to source and get for us.”
Not to invoke The League of Gentlemen, but The Fox & Willow is at its core a local project masterminded by local people. The eye-catching signage outside was designed by one local company (Launch) and created by another (Owen Kerr Signs), the builder (JD Thomson) lives only three doors away and Allan Low’s other successful unit, the No. 22 Bar & Grill, is just a short walk up the road. The head chef is yet another local, and he’s a key piece of the puzzle according to Alan.
He said, “We’ve hired an absolutely exceptional chef in Gareth Furey, a guy I worked with for ten years previous to this. To be honest, he was the only guy we wanted, and it took a bit of time, but we got him in the end.”
As for the future, messrs Watson and Low are ambitious but very much keeping their eye on the ball for now.
Commented Allan, “We’re controlling things just now, protecting our standards and quality. It’s always challenging with a new place. Until we get a feel for the place and the level of business, then we’ll unleash and go for it. But I would say the interest levels, enquiries and bookings that are coming in, have far exceeded our expectations.
“I was keen to get a second place, but I didn’t want to do that myself, simply because splitting yourself in two is not easy and I had worked with Alan before. We both lead from the front. We’ve come from that kind of environment and that’s not going to change. We make a good team.”
They definitely do.