Boisdale rings the changes for life in Canary Wharf

Timothy Barber
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THERE are few restaurateurs who better understand the disposition and dining requirements of the business high-flyer than Ranald MacDonald. Since 1988, when he opened his much-loved restaurant Boisdale of Belgravia, he’s been dispensing hearty Scottish food, superior malt whiskies, Cuban cigars and stonking jazz music to his fellow bon viveurs, all wrapped in a tidy parcel of Tartan-lined conviviality and clubby decadence.

It’s a combination that has the pinstriped classes directly in its sights, and the popularity of Boisdale number two, launched just off Bishopsgate in 2002, only verified this further. The opening of a third site in Canary Wharf, therefore, is big news for Docklanders – though quite how big is only revealed when you see it.

The venue, which opens to the public on Monday, occupies the former premises of the Cabot Hall conference centre, one of the original buildings of the Canary Wharf development. Looking out onto the fountains of Cabot Square, the imposing glass and concrete curve of the building’s semi-circular facade bears the word “Boisdale” in huge red letters. In contrast with the two other Boisdales, neatly secreted into their locales, this is a statement of intent – Boisdale has come to take over the Wharf.

“We’re aiming to be the go-to place,” says MacDonald, 47. “It’s not following what we’ve done in the past, taking hidden-away venues and making them exciting. It’s one of the most prominent restaurants I’ve seen.”

Inside, it does the same thing as the other Boisdales – epicurean indulgence, music, tartan – but bigger. Much bigger. The cigar deck alone occupies around 1,000 square feet. The first-floor bar fills that enormous glass curve, stretching eventually to an in-house cigar shop and walk-in humidor, where members can keep their favoured stogies in secure lockers.

But it’s upstairs that you really see the scale of MacDonald’s ambition.

The all-in-one restaurant, music venue and whisky bar up here seats 200, showcasing big-name musicians (Jools Holland is patron), refined dining – MacDonald explains his culinary priorities as “Hebridean first, Highland second, Scottish third and British fourth” – and one of the largest fine whisky collections anywhere.

“It’s a one-stop shop for all the things I think are most exciting,” says MacDonald, who makes a lively case for the Boisdale brand of good living. “We’re in a sort of post-modern reformation right now, with everyone judging and telling each other what to do. It’s a puritan backlash led by politicians, and future generations will find it very odd.

“Well, we’re an antidote to that.”

Amen. To fight the good fight, MacDonald has brought in as general manager Geoff Todd, previously of legendary jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s. The appointment reflects his serious intention to compete on the largest of live music stages: this, it’s clear, is not simply another jazz club.

“We’re setting up a world-class music venue, with a line-up that competes with any in Europe. You don’t have to eat, you can just come for the music. But I’ve not seen a serious, world-class music venue that’s also offers this level of dining.”

And while Canary Wharf hasn’t always been known for its cultural offerings, MacDonald is a fervent fan nevertheless.

“It’s a great place to be and it’s not celebrated enough,” he says. “Canary Wharf is a global micro-city, an incredible achievement that powered the reawakening of the East End. We knew we had to be here.”

Macallan 1946 A very, very rare example of one of Macallan’s most famous releases, which gains its distinctive taste from being made with peated malt as a result of a post-war coal shortage. “It’s deep and dark and incredibly unusual, which is why it costs £1,200 a nip,” says MacDonald.

Dewar’s White Label circa 1955 Only a 12-year-old at the time of bottling – whiskies stop ageing once bottled – this is one of a raft of 1950s whiskies offering a glimpse of past tastes. “Preferences evolve, and this is what was favoured then,” says MacDonald. “It’s like going back in time.”

Ronnie Scott’s The biggest names from the global jazz scene over the years have all been hosted in this iconic Frith St club, the daddy of the London jazz scene and one of the world’s most famous venues.

The Vortex Head east to now-hip Dalston where this club has seen performances from groundbreakers like Evan Parker to favourites like John Dankworth over the past 20 years.

606 Club On Lot’s Road, this West London bar is one of the most atmospheric music venues in London.