The Secret Drinker reviews The Phoenix Ale House in Inverness
Few people realise how challenging it can be to write a review of a pub. You want to be fair, don’t want to be vicious – people often try very hard. You have to try and see what they are attempting to achieve rather than what you yourself prefer.
The in-depth research is also very hard indeed. It is real work, real graft, time consuming, you have to spend a lot of time in each place drinking, listening, absorbing atmosphere and assessing. And then there is the hard thinking you have to do about each place.
Now – and this will shock you, dear reader, so brace yourself – I was roundly mocked when I expressed this recently to a couple of colleagues. They did not even have the decency to hide their mirth, there was no gentle irony, no covering of mouths – they looked me in the eye and laughed in my face. Their heads were cocked backwards, mouths open like chicks in the nest awaiting food, screaming at the ceiling, laughing. I seethed.
Chastised, I decided to do extra research – giggle ye not, colleagues. I took to my books and thought about the great writers who wrote about pubs. The first that came to mind was Martin Amis, partly because he is the poet laureate of bad, bad pubs, writing with love and style about the unlovable, and also because he died last week. In fact, one of his greatest books – London Fields – basically takes place because of a meeting in a pub, drawing together disparate personalities.
That is something the pub does better than coffee shops – cafés are a different story, because they serve alcohol. There can be few sweeter joys than outraging a certain type of coffee drinker (“I need my caffeine hit”) with ribald humour, loud laughter and maximum conviviality.
So despite my earlier set-back – being savagely, even cruelly, mocked – newly armed with the perceptions of some great minds I felt like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. I hope you can see where I am going with this.
Famously, amongst a certain coterie of local truth tellers, investigators, wordsmiths and holders-to-account, The Phoenix on Academy Street used to be a journalists' pub and with it came rules.
I am reliably informed by our in-house expert on bouncy castles that in the heyday of drinks after, during and – sometimes – before work, The Phoenix had its prescribed places to be – always on the far side of the bar, never the side next to the door.
That is for one reason only – journalists are a wee bit nosey and like to cast an eye on new entrants, perhaps exchange a nod, try to freak out a court reporter (never not in need of a dram), and otherwise assess.
And The Phoenix is one hell of a horseshoe bar, which is undoubtedly its best feature despite the now redundant spittoon trough. On my most recent visit there was a collection of regulars to the right of the entrance, perched at the bar.
That is where you have to really be in The Phoenix too to make the most of it, talking across, joining in with neighbours, and it always felt to me somehow lazy and, not quite snobby but holding yourself apart, to sit down.
It is really neither of course, but being at the bar is like staking a claim to your own place in a pub like The Phoenix, you can mind your own business, as well as that of other people’s, and sooner or later the chat will come; that is the beauty of it.
Another major plus is you put less miles on the clock when it comes to ordering from its healthy selection of classic drafts and obviously, as an ale house, there is a good selection of brews including one or two locals.
I am going to stop mentioning that the pints are well poured and taps clean because that is how it should be and that is how it was during my visit, and instead mention only when the pints are substandard.
They have an excellent selection of whisky without clearly trying to nail every tourist that walks through the door (“can I interest you in a…?”) – no, instead what you get is a barman or woman who is attentive and relaxed, assuming it is not chocka.
Now The Phoenix has another quality, and I didn’t appreciate it the first time, nor the second, third, fifth, tenth. Only around my dozenth visit, when I came up with the right answer to ‘where should we go’ and I suggested The Phoenix, did I twig.
You leave and you feel you shouldn’t, even when you are ready. You have your space at the bar and it feels like home away from home, and you want to go back because it is easy.
It has a good crowd and you are made to feel welcome just by walking in the door.
This is also one of its more perilous aspects.
Once, while waiting for a train, I nipped in for one and found myself being poured out again, some hours later.
At work the next morning the editor asked if I was unwell. I was. I told them I was suffering a certain cranial pressure, indistinct nausea combined with peculiar feeling of a sickness in the blood, sensitivity to light...
The editor sympathised, as much as this breed can, until an idea occurred to them (usually a bad point of any day).
“You’re hungover?!” they asked.
“No,” said I. “I have a certain cranial pressure, indistinct nausea…” In truth I was hanging worse than Guy Fawkes.
The Phoenix has been around for years and remains reassuringly the same throughout the tenures of various owners, including the incumbent landlords.
If you like Turkish food, there is a superb restaurant next attached to the pub. Be warned, it is not cheap. But every single person I know who has been there has afterwards implored: "You HAVE to go there."
The Phoenix is the ex you meet up with again, and who knows how the evening may end.