The Secret Drinker reviews Hootananny in Inverness
I agree with those who believe that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not just a great novel but a great and defining Scottish novel – has there ever been a more persuasively apt description of what can happen to people when they drink?
Scots are known for imbibing, and so are the Irish and the Finns, but we have better serum than either so let’s keep with us for the time being and with Hootananny, because it is a Jekyll and Hyde place.
Hoots is one of the most Scottish pubs in Inverness so it should be no surprise that it carries that duality captured so well in the Stevenson novel which, depending on your mood, makes you either love it or leave it.
Named Scotland’s Best Music venue in 2005 and best pub in Inverness between 2006 and 2010, for a long time it was undeniably the best place in the city to go on a Friday night and one of the very few offering high quality traditional Scottish music.
It had everything – it was both cosy and spacious, welcoming and a little wild, atmospheric, cheering, great food, great booze, great service and the sort of crowd that made you feel at home.
And it still can lay claim to a lot of those virtues on the right night but it is diminished from the high watermark that it once set as it appears to have withdrawn from the mission it once set itself – to be a Ceilidh bar.
Instead, it has become like two places in one – between 5pm and 8.30pm it is one of my favourite places in Inverness, after that it is less a pub/Ceilidh bar than a music venue.
Now there is no need to damn a place to hell just because I can’t personally go crowds and get claustrophobic, tense and irritated – that is my problem – and there are hundreds who enjoy Hoots after dark, in the Mr Hyde hours.
So first the Dr Jekyll
It is a very fine bar with extremely professional staff, no nonsense with these guys at all, it used to be the very first choice for nights with boozing colleagues from the world’s most alcoholically noble profession.
The food is outstanding and everyone I talked to remarks on how much they love the haggis – and even the chips and cheese is superb. I have never had a bad thing from the menu.
They open their doors at 5pm and at that time it is one of my favourite places for pint and dram in the city – where else can you get McEwan’s, the red devil, on tap? Write to us if you know. Seriously.
There are a plethora of beers, ciders and stouts on tap and to my mind they have a very discerning offering of malts and blends-a-plenty and pleasingly they know how to serve them.
You get your order and they always have water at the ready for the whisky either on the bar or they provide you with a wee jug, just as I like it.
A whisky drinker will make do but being accommodated like this is rare and sometimes I have asked for water only for bar staff to take the dram and fill it to the neck with water, but never in Hoots.
I didn’t go full on Mr Hyde but the manager had to explain, after I showed him the dram, though the new hire was adamant: “I, like, totally don’t get it – I mean, like, why? That’s stupid, like.” I digress.
So, taking the food together with booze you should find a very fine evening for yourself that edges very close to a “Scottish experience” – that wonderful myth dreamt up by tourist bodies to con people out of cash.
But you are not short-changed at Hoots, I must say. There is plenty of space and it stays like this, getting more and more lively as the night goes on. But like Jekyll turning into Hyde it too transforms after dark.
One of two things will happen at this point, that determines whether I stay – either the music is excellent and traditional or it is a guy on his guitar and it gets loud, and I don’t need to hear the word “Wonderwall” ever again.
Now both are good but not for everyone and I have been attending pubs, bars and clubs long enough that strangers jumping up and down while balancing against me only irritates me, even though they are only having fun.
The thing is it basically becomes so cramped and loud your face begins to ache as you try to make yourself heard, but if it is loud music and dancing (some would say jostling) you want, then you will have a great time.
But I am one of those extremely tedious people who like conversation, so it simply isn’t for me though there is a release in the heavenly though quite unlovely to look at smoking area at the back where it feels more like Hoots in the old days than now – people sitting together and talking over a dram.
Alterations rather than improvements
Earlier this year long-held plans to convert Mad Hatters and Glow Bar, a music venue at the top of the building, accessed via a perilous ascent, into flats seriously undermined the appeal of a place that it was once impossible to be bored in.
The owners have every right to to maximise revenues, particularly given the cost of doing business crisis and the extreme pressure on staffing, but punters also have a right to offer their views on that too.
I lost count of the number of events, gigs and DJs I have seen in Mad Hatters that even included a bid to break the world bagpiping record (whatever happened to that?) such was the brilliantly eclectic nature of the place.
Now it is going to be accommodation for tourists.
A mezzanine was also added to the main bar to provide more seating, which has the effect of making the place feel more cramped and claustrophobic.
I remarked earlier how colleagues always went there on nights out, but that stopped when one of our sublime sports reporters remarked “ye’ll nae hear in there, min” and everyone agreed.
It remains one of the best places in Inverness for a well poured pint, a well served dram, and truly excellent food that is genuinely reasonably priced and, clearly, I prefer the Dr Jekyll hours of 5pm to 8.30pm, but that is just me.
In fact when working out where to go with the aforementioned sports reporter we didn’t hesitate to go to Hoots, for a draught of McEwan’s and a pair of large drams, before we had to be at our appointed place.
Walking out to go to this “do” we had on I was sorry to be leaving, however going home several hours and several hundred pounds lighter I was not sorry not to go in when a gig was on.
And there were plenty of people inside who clearly and passionately would disagree, preferring the Mr Hyde hours after 8.30pm, who were having a whale of time by the looks of it.
It is hard not to see Hoots as diminished but that is no reason to strike it off the list off, so whether you prefer Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde this remains an impressive venue.