LIFE moves fast on Byres Road, except at the University Cafe.
Opened by Pasquale Verrechia in 1918, it is a place steeped in the past that continues to serve the local community today.
When I arrive, there is a queue at the counter where Gino, Pasquale’s grandson, takes orders.
The rain outside is torrential, so there’s more demand for the buns and sausages than for their vanilla ice cream cones, made to the family recipe.
Gino’s son, Americo, is in the kitchen, the staff laying plates of comfort food on the narrow table between two friends dissecting the local news.
A group of students lower the seats to occupy one of the compact wooden booths, studying the menu with some earnestness.
They’ll find that almost everything comes with fries – great potato boards you can count on – except maybe the spaghetti bolognese.
I order a pie, beans and chips, the culinary equivalent of a hug in Glasgow on a day like today. The cafe itself is adorned with kitschy nostalgia with a few Art Deco flourishes. The current exterior with its distinctive sign dates from the late 1940s. I ask Gino about the room itself, where does the look of the place come from?
“It goes back to the beginning. My grandfather was a carpenter on the Clyde. These cabins, you see the chisel marks on the wood, they were shaped by hand, that’s why we don’t touch them, that’s how it’s going to stay. People come here all their lives and they love it. New university students will join us every year. It’s been like this since 1918,” he says. Meanwhile, Byres Road is changing.
Gino said softly, “My grandma used to say ‘if you can’t get it on Byres Road, it’s not worth it’, look at the shops, it’s not the same today.” Then you go to the pub for a pint and they offer you a cappuccino.
He stares at me playfully, then smiles.
The first generation of the University Cafe was the golden age of a local style of hospitality. It is one of the last faithful examples of this era.
“In my grandparents’ time, especially in the 1930s, there were lots of cafes on Byres Road, you had The Continental, The Grosvenor, The Garden, all kinds of places,” Gino explains.
I remember at Cafe Gandolfi on Albion Street there are photographs, mounted on the walls 40 years ago, that trace the visual history of old local cafes, most of which have faded from memory.
“I’m a little annoyed about this,” Gino said.
About the relentless march of progress and the failure to recognize the value of our coffee heritage?
“No, I saw the photo on the wall, he took it on a Tuesday when we were closed. All places were closed on a Tuesday in the West End so we closed the shutters. Another smile.
The family business has found its enduring place in the world, with fish teas, macaroni and other hot coffee dishes, traditional sweets behind the counter and the legendary ice cream menu.
Traditional options start with a wafer — two scoops of smooth, super-sweet ice cream sandwiched between slices of wafer — progressing to a double nougat with two generous slices of chocolate nougat added.
The banana split sundae is a classic of the genre. This is the best place in Glasgow for ice cream.
I walked to Partick from Bath Street specifically to order a cone on a particularly hot day this summer, having decided not to accept any substitutes.
The take-out fish and chips side is next door. Anthony Bourdain enjoyed his fish supper so much while filming his first TV series A Cook’s Tour that he returned with a CNN crew years later for his hit show Parts Unknown. The rain has stopped and a line forms at the counter again, so Gino goes back to work and I go back to my pie, beans and chips.
The University Cafe is at 87 Byres Road