Thanks to a £1 billion regeneration project, Dundee is unrecognisable compared to a decade ago. With visitors pouring in and a renewed sense of local pride, the city’s nightlife has expanded beyond the traditional boozer to speakeasies, rum bars and craft beer specialists.
For this guide to the best bars and pubs in Dundee, Culture Trip speaks to three industry leaders: Matt Johnson, general manager at Bird & Bear; Alex McTurk, general manager at Duke’s Corner; and Chrissy Ousby, owner of Art Bar. Strikingly, many venues on the list have only opened in the last few years, likely reflecting Dundee’s cultural ascendancy following the opening of the V&A museum in 2018. “The offering in Dundee’s so much better these days than it’s ever been,” says Johnson. If it’s been a while since your last visit, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.
The first thing most visitors to Bird & Bear will notice is the exquisite decor: indigo walls, copper piping, floor-to-ceiling foliage and ornamental birdcages. It’s an attention to detail that’s reflected in the menu, which includes boozy milkshakes and Instagrammable cocktails tailored to suit every time of day. “The place looks beautiful. We try to make our drinks look the same,” says Johnson. Despite its hipster stylings, it never comes across stuffy or pretentious. “The place has a really chill vibe,” says Johnson. “It’s very unassuming – we don’t put ourselves on any kind of pedestal, we’re here to please.”
“Draffens is a secret bar, a 1920s-style speakeasy,” says Johnson. Since opening in 2017, it’s become too popular to stay a true secret, but it retains an enigmatic aura, tucked into Couttie’s Wynd with a single lamp marking the entrance. The bar takes its name from the Draffens of Dundee department store, a high-street mainstay for around 150 years until it closed its doors in the early 1980s. Draffens the bar has a similarly old-timey vibe, with a burgundy and dark green colour scheme, exposed brick walls and plush patterned rugs.
“Abandon Ship is an American-style dive bar, in the best possible way,” says Johnson. “It’s a bit alternative, there’s good music, there’s arcade games – something for everyone.” The walls are covered in 70 square metres (753 square feet) of hand-drawn artwork by owner Richard Davies, and the nautical-themed facade was painted by famed Australian artist Steen Jones. More than 70 craft beers are available as well as a few cocktails. The bar even sells its own brand of custom apparel, unavailable anywhere else. The menu has classic pub food with a generous range of vegan adaptations.
Welcome to the best rum bar in Scotland. Don’t just take our word for it – The King of Islington was crowned Rum Bar of the Year at the Scottish Licensed Trade News (SLTN) Awards in 2018. “They’ve got 120 rums from all over the globe – if there’s a region than produces rum, they’ve got some,” says Johnson. “He’s even got bottles that you can’t get anymore, ones they don’t make anymore because the distillery burned down – all sorts of things. Some real treasures in there,” says Johnson.“It’s a nice date spot,” adds McTurk. “Stop by early, however, as it has limited capacity.”
Blue Room is one of Dundee’s newest bars, opened in June 2019. “It’s an Italian-style amaro and aperitivo bar,” says Johnson. “They put on classic aperitivo hours, charcuterie boards, cheeses, meats, that kind of thing.” Housed in the same building as the Draffens speakeasy bar, it has an intimate vibe, with only 35 covers. As the name suggests, blue walls are the predominant design feature, complemented by white marble tabletops and original floor-to-ceiling windows. “It looks beautiful, especially in the summertime,” says Johnson. “It’s a really nice airy space.”
One of the biggest shocks of the Dundee Waterfront transformation was the tearing down of the ugly ’60s-style buildings in front of the Caird Hall. With Dundee’s largest events space now facing the V&A, the time was ripe for a new bar to move in. St Andrews Brewing Company promptly did, opening a 697-square-metre (7,502-square-foot) culinary complex with a 70-seat contemporary Scottish restaurant, a wine bar and a 20-tap beer bar that also serves craft gin. “I respect that company a lot,” says Johnson. “It’s a large venue – great food, great drinks.”
Literary types rejoice – with squashy leather armchairs, dark furnishings and soft candlelight, The George Orwell is the perfect place to curl up with a good novel. The vintage posters and piles of books give the space an arty touch. For Dundonian owner Mark Usher, it couldn’t be further from his previous life – he used to own the iconic London nightclub Fabric. “Mark’s really cool,” says Johnson. “He likes to make things a little bit different; it’s not the same offering as everyone around. There’s some interesting beers as well as some nice tequilas and mezcals.”
Though much of Dundee has changed beyond recognition, a few things remain steadfastly the same. At over 150 years old, the Phoenix is one such institution. “The Phoenix is your traditional boozer, a great place to watch the football and drink a few pints,” says Johnson. Its memorable red exterior and green leather benches are part of the fabric of Dundee for both students and long-time residents, who come at every time of day for hearty pub grub including chilli con carne and enormous burgers. There’s also a selection of craft beers on offer.
Located opposite Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Art Bar attracts a young, creative crowd: artists, musicians and designers. “It’s cosy and friendly – we get a lot of art students in here,” says Ousby, who graduated from the college. “We do open mic nights and we’ve got DJs on at the weekend.” There’s a small beer garden out the back, perfect for enjoying a Róisin tayberry beer during the summer months. Try the Fraoch heather ale, too – based on a 4,000-year-old Gaelic recipe. It’s a Scottish classic.
Moving into the building once occupied by the much-loved Doghouse concert hall, Duke’s brought the once shabby venue bang up to date while honouring Doghouse’s commitment to putting on great gigs. “In a word, variety is what makes our place great – from the products we sell to the music we play and the customers we attract,” says McTurk. “We’re open throughout the day until the early hours, and we’re one of just a few places in the city with a beer garden – we cover a lot of bases.” If you’re in Dundee for New Year’s Eve, grab tickets for the pub’s Hogmanay shindig – it’s one of the best parties in town.
Among students, Speedwell’s has the honour of being the westernmost pub on Perth Road. That means it’s the starting point for the famous Perth Road pub crawl, where students try to down a pint in every pub on the road (there are at least a dozen). That aside, it’s a beautiful, atmospheric pub in its own right. “The Speedwell is a Dundee institution and traditional pub from the Edwardian era,” says McTurk. “There’s a decent beer selection and a lot of whisky to choose from.” There’s also a taxi rank just outside, making for a safe trip home.