IT’S been an up and down sort of day for Imran Akhtar. And in a much too literal sense, as far as he’s concerned. First, he had to clamber on top of the roof of the Ottoman Coffee House on Glasgow’s Berkeley Street, to make sure the temporary tarpaulin was still in place and keeping out the wind, rain, hail and snow. (It’s been one of those typical Scottish afternoons, with the weather behaving like a plump maiden aunt’s two-layered chocolate box. In other words, way too many delights on offer.)

As soon as Imran clambered down from the roof he was forced to race to the basement where he checked the electrics, which have been acting up.

When I arrive in the middle of all this frenetic activity he’s looking a little stressed and exhausted, as you’d expect. But elation is in the mix, too. Is that because he’s helped himself to a sly slug of the rich black perk-you-up brew bubbling volcanically in the corner of the coffee house? Possibly. However, the main reason he’s in an upbeat mood is that a dream came true the day before. And today that dream continues.

Imran is the co-owner of the Ottoman Coffee House, along with his brother Irfan. For several years they’ve used the location to host occasional parties and charitable events. But for the most part it has lain dormant, lurking just below the surface of the general public’s awareness. A myth and a mystery to most, like a certain shy water-serpent from down Loch Ness way.

For those who did manage to cross the threshold, it was almost like stumbling into the toy shop where that saggy old cloth cat Bagpuss occasionally woke to tell his tall tales. Or the quirky clothes store where Mr Benn got booted and suited and bolstered for adventure.


Recently rumours started to circulate about the Ottoman Coffee House. Glasgow’s more knowledgeable boulevardiers whispered to each other in tones of conspiratorial awe and wonder: “An under-the-radar coffee shop, you say? With doors firmly slammed shut to the hoi polloi? Then let us snag an invitation at all costs…”

It was never the brothers Akhtar’s intention to keep the business hush-hush for so long. The reason it wasn’t open for regular customers is disappointingly prosaic, and dispels the fog of mystery that has for so long enveloped the curious bolthole, like a peasouper draped over Sherlock Holmes’s London.

The unvarnished truth is that Imran and Irfan were far too busy to give the place the necessary love and attention it needed to thrive as a commercial proposition. They both have full time jobs that have nothing to do with catering, meaning there was precious little time to set up a fully operational coffee house.

Yet the dream never died. And then, exactly one day before my visit, the dream became a reality, with just a little bit of nightmare tossed into the blend, to give the brew a slightly acrid tang. But no matter. Imran can’t contain his excitement, even with weather woes, electrical mishaps and supplies not turning up on time. (Yup, that too.)

“It’s incredible that we’ve now actually opened for full-time business,” he says. “Incredible, but also a little bit nerve-racking.”

He sits me at a table and asks his brother to prepare coffee. And, no, that doesn’t mean a few heaped tablespoons of Maxwell House tossed in a mug. Nor is it the sort of homogenised gloop available in those MacCoffee shops that are scattered across every town in Scotland. It’s not even that swanky Italian coffee, best drunk while wearing sunglasses, and before scooting off on a Vespa.

What’s on offer here is unfiltered Yemeni-style coffee. “It’s similar to an espresso,” says Imran, “But an espresso is acidic and bitter. This is much lighter. Whereas an espresso hits your tongue and lower palate, this gives you a chocolaty full-bodied flavour in the mouth.”

Souness the Magnificent

While I’m sipping my drink (delish, by the way) Imran and I talk coffee. We delve into the history of the drink, which my host has researched thoroughly, becoming quite the geek regarding the grinding of beans.

“There are some stories that say coffee started in the farming communities of Ethiopia,” he tells me. “Apparently the sheep were tasting these beans and acting pretty lively.” (I guess that would make them the very first woolly jumpers.)

A coffee house was opened for the first time in 1554 in Istanbul. This was in the days of the Ottoman Empire. “It was two brothers who launched that place, too,” says Imran with a proud twinkle in his eye.

Because the empire was vast, the popularity of coffee spread far and wide. The pitch black brew drenched entire countries and cultures. However, Imran and his brother want to bring back some of the distinctive flavour of those original coffee establishments. The décor in their establishment has a Turkish feel to it, which isn’t surprising as most of the furnishings were bought in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul where the Akhtar brothers were holidaying.

There are also various paintings on the walls of impressive looking personages. “Those are pictures of Sultans,” says Imran. Pointing to the portrait next to our table, he adds: “That one there is Suleiman the Magnificent.”

I peer at the canvas. Blimey. Suliman looks an awful lot like a certain former Rangers manager.

“It could be Graeme Souness the Magnificent,” I point out.

Imran groans. “You’re right,” he says. “Now every time I look at that painting, I won’t be able to stop thinking that.”

Souness is perhaps best remembered in Glasgow for bravely grasping the thorny issue of segregation in the city, by signing Mo Johnston all those years ago and making the club more cosmopolitan.

So perhaps it makes a strange kind of sense that a Souness-like fizzog is watching over the Ottoman Coffee House. Because this is a very cosmopolitan joint, with a genuinely eclectic clientele.

“We want our place to be somewhere you can come in and chat and meet different cultures,” says Imran. “We’ve got Arabs over there,” he says pointing at one table. “And there are a few Turks at the back. Hopefully this place can be a regular sort of United Nations.”

Give a little back

Just as important to Imran is the vibe the place offers. He doesn’t want people to feel they’re being harried and hustled out the door. There are chess sets to play, sofas to sink into. Afternoons to ease through in a slumberous cat-in-a-sunbeam sort of fashion.

“People don’t want to get up in a rush, and I don’t want them feeling they have to get up in a rush,” he says. “We’ve already had people queuing to get in. But I’d rather they would come back after an hour, or maybe another day, so that the people inside can just relax.”

Food is provided on the premises courtesy of a pop-up kitchen run by Yemeni suppliers. “It’s a lot like Asian food, though not as heavy,” says Imran. “Also the spices are very subtle.”

The community kitchen was also set up to provide food packages for the homeless. Helping those who are struggling is very important to the brothers Akhtar.

Imran explains that his father, a respected and successful Glasgow restaurateur, originally bought the space that is now the Ottoman Coffee House intending to turn it into a restaurant. But when he was refused an alcohol licence the plan floundered, resulting in him eventually losing his house.

“Things can be going well, and then, just like that, you’re struggling,” says Imran. “And it can come out of nowhere. So you never know why someone is homeless, or what they’ve been through. That’s why I think it’s so important to try and give a little back to those in most need.”

Imran says he learned a lot from his father, who died a few years ago. “He never complained and was always smiling and positive, even when times were really rough,” he says. “Remembering his attitude is incredibly inspiring for me and my brother. Especially when we are trying to push forward and achieve so much with this coffee house.”