AS a business move, opening a new style bar slap bang in the middle of a double-dip recession would seem bold. But tough as things are in the wider economy, few would bet against Martin Luney and Colin Church, the irrepressible duo behind Capital hang-outs Hamilton’s in Stockbridge and Broughton Street’s Treacle – and now the Blackbird in Leven Street, which opened on Thursday in a blaze of glinting chandeliers, art-deco mirrors and psychedelically coloured work by leading design talents from Edinburgh and overseas.
It is yet another sign of the a revitalisation of Tollcross after the opening of watering hole The Cuckoo’s Nest and the new base of arts group the Forest Cafe. Rising from the ashes of what was the historic Auld Toll bar, the Blackbird effortlessly combines restored period features – gold on pine-green cornicing and fireplaces – with boldly coloured bespoke couches and chairs made from tweed, tartan, silk and even recycled scaffolding.
Martin and Colin, both 36, admit the investment required was a step up from what they had ploughed into previous ventures but insist they have absolutely no qualms about pushing the boat out.
“I just knew that question was coming,” laughs Martin, originally from Belfast, when asked if he and his business partner are at all nervous about opening their latest venture amid the absence of any sign that the current consumer spending squeeze is coming to an end.
“There’s luxury and then there’s luxury,” he explains. “You can’t afford a 50-inch telly but you can still afford a £5 beer. People are still going to the theatre and they’re still going out.”
The pair have certainly gone to town in their efforts to provide an oasis from the stretched budgets, rising costs and job uncertainty that are facts of life for many in 2012.
Taking pride of place next to the exit leading out to the Blackbird’s newly built beer garden is a giant piece of photo-art by Sydney-based Christopher Mercer.
A playfully surreal take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the work sits alongside eye-catchingly coloured, fashion-inspired paintings and prints by Edinburgh College of Art graduate Katy Anderson.
“We wanted to have photography in the bar and we wanted to find something instantly recognisable and British, and we came up with Alice in Wonderland,” says West End-based Colin. “We found Christopher and he gave us permission to use his image, and we threw elements of street art and graffiti over the top.
“We’re exhibiting Katy’s work because we wanted to choose a young artist. We contacted a number of art colleges and put a post on the Edinburgh College of Art Facebook page asking if artists were interested in coming to do work for us. I’m really happy we’re exhibiting her work – she’s a lovely, lovely person.”
Martin adds: “We’re aware of the double-dip recession but people still need to feel good about themselves and they need to have that bit of escapism.
“For this bar, we looked to London for inspiration – to places like Portobello Road, Hoxton Road, Camden – where you have all of that edgy street style. And for the food, we have also gone very London gastro, with dishes like bubble and squeak, and great, three-way lamb dishes – and all at a reasonable price. It’s all about a classic British look and feel that we have tried to bring up to date.”
As befits a bar featuring the Blackbird’s array of expressive quirks and personal touches, the story behind Martin and Colin’s rise to prominence among Edinburgh’s bar fraternity is not without its own splash of colour.
Sitting proudly on top of the main bar display is a bright red teapot which was the centrepiece of the pair’s early business meetings before their decision to take the plunge and open Hamilton’s in 2008.
With several years’ experience between them in managing flagship bars and restaurants in the Capital, the pair had an ambition to open a venture of their own but had to contend with a drinking and dining-out community that was, as they euphemistically put it, “close-knit”.
“When we first met, we were constantly having a glass of wine and beers, and we weren’t really making any progress,” laughs Martin.
After three months of booze-addled discussion, and with little to show for it, the pair ditched alcohol and started drinking tea. “
I’m Irish and when you drink tea over there, you always use a teapot,” says Martin, “and Colin started to say ‘put on the big teapot’ whenever he came over.”
“It became a kind of code for the meetings that we were having,” Colin recalls.
“None of the people we worked with knew what we were talking about when we said we were going to have tea.
“It really helped as the Chinese whispers would definitely have started if people saw us having coffee every day – they’d have said, ‘why are those two hanging out when they never used to?’.
“And the pot became our business logo – it’s simple, it reminds us of good times and it was the least pretentious thing we could think of.”
The pair have even named their holding company after the pot and insist drinkers in the Capital, and further afield, will be seeing a lot more of it in the coming months.
“We have drive and vision,” says Colin.
“When we said we were going to open the Blackbird, the whole world was telling us, ‘don’t be stupid – don’t open in the middle of a recession’, but we went for it and we’re not about to stop.”