Despite being right on my bus route – I’ve even been known to walk through it of an evening, when my daily step count has needed a little boost – the Merchant City has never been top of my list when it comes to thinking of places to eat in Glasgow. Which is strange, given there are probably more bars and restaurants within that single square mile than there are in any similar part of town.
O’Neill’s might be a chain, but I have fond memories of drinks and live music with my brother in their much-missed Paisley branch when I was a (legal) youngster – the space is now occupied by a bright yellow aberration by the name of Cafuffals, which gives me a whole-body cringe whenever I pass it. So I was delighted to accept an invitation to review the menu at the newly-renovated pub in Merchant Square.
Inside, the refurbished O’Neill’s is the right combination of snug and surprisingly spacious for a city centre pub – although I suspect that wouldn’t have been the case the day before our visit, when the Old Firm game was on (our waitress, Charlotte, explained apologetically that they had been cleaned out of limes and other garnishes for a gin and tonic). The decor was homely without being too gimmicky, with a touch of neon and a light fixture made entirely out of miniature gramophones, which I loved – and I was particularly impressed with the inclusion of a power socket at which to charge your mobile phone in the cosy booth we were allocated.
Menu-wise, O’Neill’s has everything you would expect with a wide variety of burgers, pizzas, grills and what I’d describe as “classic” pub grub. There were a few things unavailable on the evening that we visited, but no more than I expected the Monday after the city’s biggest sporting fixture – and it’s not as though we weren’t left with a pretty decent selection of alternatives. Craving a burger, Stringer opted for easily the most offensive thing on the menu: the Hawaiian Burger (yes, he’s one of those – incidentally, the O’Neill’s menu also offers a unique take on the Hawaiian pizza they call the “Irishman in Hawaii”, which amused me no end). Thinking of the optics – and, perhaps, wanting to keep my meal choice a little more authentic – I requested the steak pie.
But first, we made a rookie mistake and let Charlotte talk us into an Ultimate Sharing Platter to start, since it was a review meal anyway. Holy shit, you guys. I have never seen so much food in all my life.
Charlotte placing the large platter full of bowls of chicken wings, garlic mushrooms and onion petals, and a really tasty garlic bread, on the table was our first clue that perhaps we should have approached the menu a little more cautiously – then the plate of nachos arrived. Sure, you could argue that we could have picked at it and saved our appetites for our main course, but I’d been at work all day – and, much like a particularly handsome, bookish squirrel, Stringer was stocking up for the approaching winter that was me heading to Dubai and leaving him to fend for himself. I told myself I was done – and then Stringer found the pepper-crumbed fried chicken pieces buried below the garlic mushrooms. Heaven.
Stringer made the excellent point that if you were in with a group of pals for a few drinks and to watch the football on one of the big screens scattered around the pub, a couple of platters would be the perfect accompaniment – especially given they come in at under a tenner. As a starter for two, though? Not if you’re planning to finish your dinner.
In keeping with the theme of the night, Stringer’s burger was both a hefty and a handsome example of the genre. Served in a brioche bun with coleslaw and fries (he went for the optional upgrade to sweet potato fries), the Hawaiian burger is a mighty double-burgered effort topped with cheese, bacon, beer-battered onion petals and a slice of grilled pineapple. Jeer away, but Stringer claims this is one of the tastiest burgers, meat-wise, he has ever had which is enough to tempt me back out for a more traditional bacon and cheese version…
My steak pie came in a rich mushroom and Guinness sauce (on brand right there) and was served with buttered greens, tasty gravy and triple-cooked chips – although you can opt for mashed potato if you are in fact a monster. Despite my experience with double-cooked roast potatoes at home I’m not sure I could tell you how you would cook chips three times but whatever it is I highly recommend it for perfectly-seasoned crispy outsides and fluffy insides. The Ballymaloe steak sauce, which O’Neills has recently begun stocking, was recommended as an accompaniment by Charlotte but was a bit too vinegary for my liking. Still, I’ve never been one for sauces at the best of times.
Bellies groaning with food (and Stringer contentedly sipping on an O’Neill’s-style Old Fashioned, with a ginger kick) that really should have been it for us. If somebody hadn’t clocked the highlight of the menu immediately on arrival.
This monster is a Baileys ice cream sundae and it combines vanilla ice cream, at least two full-sized cookies, toffee sauce and whipped cream with a shot of everybody’s favourite Irish liquor. It is every bit as incredible as it sounds – but if you manage to make much of a dent in it after consuming the amount of food that I did on my visit to O’Neill’s please invite me along, so that I may shake your hand (and possibly carry you home) afterwards.
Side-note, unlike most ice cream sundaes you can expect to be served in a bar/restaurant, the whipped cream topping here was made from fresh cream and none of your artificially-sweetened aerosol nonsense. Which leads me to believe that if you’re after the perfect Irish coffee in Glasgow, O’Neill’s is your best bet…
Was there anything I didn’t like about O’Neill’s? Honestly, and I’m trying not to come across as a total shill here, I think you’d be hard pressed to find better value, tastier pub grub with better service anywhere else in town. Let’s get real for a second: it’s a chain pub, in a major city centre, with huge screens showing football. If you’re after a quiet date without Manchester Utd fans swearing in the corner, maybe pick somewhere else? But for a really tasty burger, a decent drink selection and a chat, I have no problem telling you O’Neill’s has cracked it.
We were provided with a complimentary meal for review purposes, but all views are my own and unbiased.