Review: McCune Smith Café, Glasgow

It was during a historical slave walk through Glasgow‘s crumbling streets when a young farmer turned graphic designer stumbled upon — then was eventually followed — by a mysterious figure named James McCune Smith…

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Months later, with a rented Duke Street premises under his thumb, Dan Taylor was sitting in the pub discussing ‘shitty names’ for his café. ‘My brother was reading them out. Yummy Yum, Tasty… Then he said McCune Smith and everything just detonated.’

This was Dan’s lightbulb moment.

It was the idea that set his business plan on fire and propelled him towards the Scottish Enlightenment as a concept. ‘I had no interest in Glasgow’s history until that slave walk. Then it enthralled me.’ James McCune Smith’s name ‘went in one ear and stayed,’ fuelling Taylor’s vision for the café.

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What followed Dan on the slave trail of Glasgow’s ‘backward and progressive’ story repeats itself in every detail of the café. Step in through the blended black and gold front face on Duke Street and history saturates the air in the smell of fresh produce.

The eatery’s name is an elegy to the first African-American medic who excelled at Glasgow University’s former city centre campus; the menu an ode to intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment (the sandwich dedicated to philosopher David Hume is stuffed with brain-sustaining salmon) and even details— the menu typeface for example — is inspired by a Stephen Mitchell tobacco tin, ‘the founder of the Mitchell Library and the connection between tobacco and knowledge.’

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And it’s precisely the history which transforms wholesome meals into intellectual elegies. The menu itself is ‘enlightened’ and the food is unfussy, perfectly presented and honestly gratifying. Dan dryly insists that his resident chef Harrie ‘deserves all the cooking accolades; I just slice olives.’

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The food is fresh, nutritious and thoughtful.

The lunchtime filled sandwiches are ‘ethical and organic,’ the bread complementing the frequently local flavours that fall inside. Meats are paired with salsa or sauce, soups are steaming and seasonal, pre-lecture porridge glitters with seeds and chocolate slivers… And just try to escape without trying the tumble of cakes on the counter: scones served toasted with ‘sex jam, it’s that good’, vanilla cupcakes, red velvet cake and warm lemon loaf.

So students, professionals and foodies:

Cross the Cross and educate your stomachs on Duke Street.

This article was first published in the Journal in October 2013. You can find McCune Smith at 3-5 Duke Street, Glasgow or give them a call on 0141 548 1114.

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