The Secret Drinker reviews The Mallard in Dingwall
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What has happened to the Mallard in Dingwall? The place has gone nuts, totally nuts. Before the new landlords from Portugal took over the place you were assured of drama, you were assured of at least one fight that led to at least three to five more. No more.
The place that was once synonymous with aggression and hard drinking is now more synonymous with conversation and hard drinking. I saw it many times in the past – sometimes hilarious, sometimes just hideous.
I vividly remember one night amid a rather febrile atmosphere when a young woman in the process of trying to punch a young guy another woman yanked her ponytail so hard backwards her eyebrows reached halfway up her forehead.
An estimated 80 per cent of my somewhat dubious Grouse painfully went up and then ominously down my nostrils.
Then on three recent visits I was appalled that the service was quick and prompt, the atmosphere cheerful and the bar tops had actually been wiped – even the toilets were clean. So I ask and demand an answer: What has happened to the Mallard in Dingwall?
I blame the Portuguese not out of xenophobia – I am blessedly free of that – but because the new landlords that are making a success out of the National Hotel in the town appear to be doing the same with the Mallard. In short, they seem to have the knack of running a place well.
So what have they actually done with the pub? The annoying answer, and I am sorry for this, is that they have done a lot and nothing at all. Some things remain totally unchanged.
You wouldn’t successfully walk across this floor in flip flops as it remains stickier than a bun after many, many, many years of spilt drinks and, I presume, tears. I believe there is still a machine in the gents where you can buy adult items and there is an indistinct form of bandit on the way in. Even the staff are largely the same though I did see a couple of new faces.
But what I did not see were the unwelcome faces that used to congregate in the Mallard – every town has them – and they are probably fine human beings but simply can’t take their booze. Those guys were not there. I suspect that is the change and it is a welcome one.
The place is no less calm and it definitely (after 6pm) is not a place for a quiet drink and certainly not when a DJ is on. But it has become a happier place, more relaxed. Different groups of folk now talk to each other without the fear that someone will not choose to get the wrong idea.
The Mallard at the moment has great potential to get back to what it once was, which was a great place for people to go and take the shot. There is a new landlord in. There are teething problems – nothing terrible but noticeable nonetheless.
I had a double served to me in a half-pint glass which I fear, dear reader, could be habit forming and believe me I have enough sins. I am one of those who took Oscar Wilde's phrase "I can resist anything except temptation" as a reason never to resist.
But steering away from my foibles, some investment in the pub is promised and it could use a little TLC.
Some of the outdoor seating is gone – rumour has it they were chopped up for firewood but that is not confirmed. This is a severe drawback because it was one of the nicest places to sit of a sunny afternoon and sip something alcoholic – let’s hope they get this fixed for the winter because it gets hot inside.
Perhaps the best way to articulate this is that The Mallard is kind of like Inverness Caledonian Thistle – it should be in the Premiership alongside Ross County but it is just not quite there yet. It has moments where it soars very high on the right night but still drops off a bit later.
Yet I go back to my recent experiences which were all positive including an afternoon visit when I saw an old lady nodding her head to Green Day when it was quiet; to a bunch of friends arriving en masse and spending their evening there; to going there myself and finding people I know and like to have a dram.
For years The Mallard has not been like this. I took a Guinness and Grouse and both were tasty though I did feel I had to put in a written request to add my own water, as the lovely barmaid was simply killing me with kindness.
They don’t serve food when I am on the prowl but everyone I talked to tells me the kitchen has kicked up a gear and you have to do a double take when you look at the prices when the most expensive thing is a sirloin steak at under £20. It is pleasing also to see that one of the three local Dingwall butchers – Fraser’s – produce is there.
This is one of the most interesting prospects on the go at the moment. Sticking with a football metaphor, I can only hope that it gets the support it needs to move up a division, which is what the place, the town and the locals and even the landlords deserve.
It has one of the best positions of any pub in the north as it catches rail traffic going north, south and west and there must be many people who see a photo of the place and hope it matches reality.
At the moment it is still finding its feet and it has the potential to become one of the top pubs in the Highlands. The landlords have clearly started down that journey and I hope they make it all the way.