Bars, Booze and Burgers – The Manchester Drinking Scene

Apotheca – Where it all began.

If there’s one thing I love about Manchester, it’s the plethora of friendly, intelligent, witty folk who write about the city’s food and drink scene. If you’re ever struggling for inspiration on where to take a new hot date (or to break up with an ugly, older model) a quick search through the Twitter machine will give you all manner of fantastic ideas.

It was after reading one such foodie blog recently that I came to a realisation; other than my two eating competition articles and my general missive on alcohol, I’ve never actually written a food or drink piece on this blog myself.

I gave a bit of an overview of my pub habits back in the aforementioned booze blog, but as I trotted around the Northern Quarter the other Friday, I began to realise just how much the city and its social scene had changed. At first, I thought I was getting a bit old and neurotic (well, older and more neurotic) but having sounded out other people, times definitely seem to be changing; and to try to figure out why I thought I’d recount how it all began.

The Early Years 2001-2005

I moved to Manchester in late 2001, but my first proper experience of city centre pubs came at the back-end of 2003. Before this time, my weekend shopping trips to town usually just involved the standard luncheon fayre of The Printworks (an easy option when unaware of everything else that the city had to offer) with Norwegian Blue, Old Orleans and Henry J Beans taking my hard earned cash from me in exchange for a pile of horse burgers and nachos.

Peveril Of the Peak
The Peveril Of The Peak – What’s not to like about a place that looks like this?

As i got to know the crew where i worked down Oxford Road in 2003, Friday lunchtime trips to the pub became de rigeur, and tended to be to more ‘traditional’ boozers. The local for the guys at work had long been The Peveril of the Peak, a bizarrely named pub with traditional opening hours, tucked away from prying eyes down Great Bridgewater Street. The Pev is a great old place full of snugs, local nutters and that comforting smell of wet dog. Yes, it can get a bit claustrophobic in there on a moist Friday night, but for a bit of banter of a lunchtime, it was ideal.

On occasion, we’d mix it up with Rain Bar (good for outdoor drinking on Manchester’s two sunny days of the year), The Paramount (big Wetherspoons, cheap decent ale, but it’s still Wetherspoons for crying out loud) or the now defunct Kro2. Eventually we settled on a new local as we were looking for something that catered for us on a night out, and the lucky recipient of our custom was The Thirsty Scholar. Renowned at the time for its sticky floor, and, er, having Bud on tap, the Scholar was actually a top notch meeting spot, eventually getting retro table-top video games and an outdoor decking area.

I still pop into the Scholar on occasion, usually when en route to a gig at the Academy, and it never fails to impress with its great ales, admirable vegan ethics and friendly staff. It’s amazing to have such good boozers relatively far from the centre itself, and between the Scholar and the amazing Big Hands, I’m forever spoilt for choice before a show.

We tried to keep things fresh between 2003 and 2005 by going to The Lass O’Gowrie a fair bit. The Lass is still a great, award winning pub, and Manchester’s retro gaming and Doctor Who Mecca, featuring regular meetings  and themed nights to this day. Another slice of old Manc, The Lass prides itself on snugs and traditional values and it’s also one of the few pubs in Manchester to show rugby on its big screens. The crowd you get in there is a great mix of old hands and young students, all there for the same purpose; to have a good time.

The other pub we frequented in those days was the Temple. An odd concept, this former public convenience is a tiny little bar with great continental bottled beers and Krombacher on tap. I’ve been there when its been both empty and really busy, but on either occasion it’s a great pub to hit up for a cosy drink or two, with its amazing, locally-themed jukebox and comedy scrawls in the toilets.

Strangely, other than the odd leaving do in Revolution, I don’t really recall visiting bars such as Odder or Joshua Brooks when i worked down that end of town, whilst The Briton’s Protection and Sandbar were probably just that little bit too far away for those who just wanted a quick half in their lunch hour or before their train home. We did hit up Space and Font on occasion, the now-defunct former being a good bet for some decent food, whilst the latter served (and still does) some of the cheapest cocktails in Manchester.

Looking at the area now, it’s great to see that the majority of the old stagers are happily co-existing with the new wave of Gorilla, Black Dog Ballroom NWS and Whim Wham Cafe, giving some great, varied options for a decent night out in the south of the city.

Sam's Chop House
Sam’s Chop House – A Proper Pub For Proper People.

It was around this time too that I first sampled the Chop Houses that Manchester offers. Both Sam’s and Thomas’s have amazing food, great ale, and a more mature vibe than a lot of the pubs in town, with Sam’s in particular being the closest you’re going to get to a ‘local’ in such a major city centre, and it now serves us dutifully for all our rugby-watching needs. That mid-area of Manchester is definitely the place for ‘proper’ pubs from the Town Hall Tavern near Albert Square all the way down to The Old Nag’s Head and the Sawyer’s Arms on Deansgate. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the city is just full of trendy bars and 1980s dives, then you can point them there and tell them to get a grip of their lives with a large slice of self-confidence that they’ll find somewhere to suit.

Manchester truly does cater for all sorts, and if it’s after a ‘Diversity’ badge to sew onto its Cub Scout uniform, it certainly has that, and the city is showing few signs of slowing down either. As much as new bars are springing up, there are still a fair few golden oldies going strong and even a new Chop House (Albert’s) has opened up in recent years.

Up to the here and now 2005-2013

When moving jobs, you get an insight into a whole different culture, and this also went for the drinking habits of my new workplace as I switched from the south of the city to the north in late 2005. Initially, the culture was again one of lunchtime drinking, with a lot of the team nipping for a half at least every Friday, if not the rest of the week, and it usually took a leaving do, Birthday drink or agency party to get a big crowd out and about for a full evening of drunken debauchery.

The main lunchtime drinking holes this time were places like the Ducie Bridge or Sinclair’s Oyster Bar (still probably the cheapest pub in town, albeit now overrun by the local whack jobs and psychopaths).

Centro – Shabby until the end.

In the evenings, this was the point at which a few of us ended up in Northern Quarter bars for the first time, usually the more established ones such as Cord, Fringe (beer garden! Well, beer car park!) Centro and, God help us, Bluu. Largely, the NQ of the time was a quieter part of town full of thoughtful important haircuts and those after a little slice of Bohemia. It still got a bit busier on Fridays but the friendly, community vibe kept idiots away and ensured the regulars were well catered for,

Even I wasn’t that much of a frequent flyer on the NQ hipstercopter at this time, but then in late 2008, something happened. Apotheca opened. Practically on our work doorstep, the place had Asahi on the pumps, excellent, friendly staff tweaking the nozzles, tables freely available at one minute past five on a Friday and lovely pizza only next door in its sister restaurant Dough. The opening of this pub happily coincided with a time when many of us like-minded early-to-mid-20s guys and dolls were starting to really focus on our careers and as the ‘work hard, play hard’ vibe began to ring true, it was guaranteed that everyone was in a shared mindset come Friday afternoon. Beer o’clock.

Often taking over most of the back bar, the Friday Drinking Crew as it would be known had many, many regulars and also picked up numerous new recruits along the way through friends of friends. It didn’t matter if you were only out for one or two or 20, it was time to shoot the shit at 5.01pm and let off some steam in the company of many like-minded individuals. In fact, it became so standard, the pre-pub email conversation at 4.30pm would be:
And that was enough to know the time and place for Friday drinking each and every week.

We did mix it up a bit, mainly during the summer when we’d always fruitlessly try and search out a beer garden (always to no avail), but on the whole, we’d be propping up the Apotheca bar every Friday from five until 11 for months on end. Eventually we experimented with late night trips to Illusions (or Magic Bar as we always called it) in The Printworks, usually when only a few of us remained, but after it closed we ended up sticking to our NQ guns more and more.

AF Christmas
The Almost Famous Christmas Burger – epic doesn’t even cover it.

Since Apotheca opened, we’ve seen an explosion in the NQ. The Blue Pig, Bakerie, Hula, Noho, Barcelona, Marble, Port Street Beer House, Black Dog Ballroom, The Northern, Almost Famous, Solita, Terrace, Home Sweet Home, The Whiskey Jar, Kosmonaut, Walrus (later Hunky Dory), Tusk and the bizarrely named R-House have all opened, whilst Centro became Tib Street Tavern, Rodeo became Keko Moku and most recently, the legendary Socio Rehab converted itself into the SuperCaliMexiFragilistic Lust Luck Liquor & Burn.

Nestling in alongside the old guard, all of these pubs offered something a bit different. Pool in Black Dog, craft ale in Port Street, the best burgers known to man in Almost Famous, football in Tib Street or hardcore zombie annihilation in Keko Moku. The Northern Quarter certainly changed massively, but why?

Because it had to. As much as everyone likes a good niche or a best kept secret, businesses in this day and age simply cannot survive without masses of custom. Take Centro. I was in there on Michael Jackson Death Night TM, and we were pretty much the only people in there. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to get straight to the bar and to get a seat, but I’m not naive enough to think that a pub can survive on Friday and Saturday trade alone. In fact, in Centro’s case, it tended not to be hugely busy at weekends either and the increasingly shabby interior suggested it was almost relying solely on its status as an NQ pioneer to keep its doors open.

The Great Northern Warehouse area of town has always been relatively isolated. Okay it’s near enough to the more mainstream Deansgate Locks, and the hugely enjoyable Knott Bar, but over time the Warehouse seems to have had a higher turnover of bars than Guns N’ Roses have had guitarists. Recently though, the area seems to have become more stable, with Epernay offering great champagne cocktails and Taps’ quirky ‘pour your own’ schtick bringing customers in from far and wide. The impact of Spinningfields’ redevelopment to this wider area can’t be ignored either. Initially just a couple of office blocks with a Gourmet Burger Kitchen and a Natwest, the place has now exploded into life with Alchemist, The Oast House, Neighbourhood, The Liquor Store, Southern 11, Yacht Club (then Ski Club), and Revolucion de Cuba all in the vicinity, attracting suits and students alike.

So what’s happened to the old school city centre drinker? Largely, and this is solely through my sometimes inebriated eyes, people are flitting about between areas more and more. The NQ used to be the best place for a crawl, but with a large number of bars in close proximity in Spinningfields and in the Whitworth Street West vicinity, people have so much choice that a relatively small city centre has expanded massively. You can dabble in ale, cocktails, and regulation lager, or maybe you fancy partaking in a tiki tipple, traditional pub grub or underground speakeasies. Either way, you’re going to find something in Manchester to cater for every occasion, and that is why I love it as much as I do.

You may think from this blog that I’ve experienced pretty much everything Manchester has to offer, but that really isn’t the case at all. I’ve never really spent much time in Dry Bar or Night & Day and I’ve only had the briefest of trips to Mother Mac’s, The Wheatsheaf, The Castle Hotel and Gulliver’s. I also still have yet to sample Band On The Wall or Matt & Phred’s or The Frog & Bucket comedy club despite their famous status, whilst the majority of The Printworks is still pretty alien to me, and will hopefully remain that way.

I’ve dabbled in the Piccadilly area’s least salubrious boozers, taking in The Waldorf for the footy, The Sevenoaks for late night quiz machine fun and the Garden’s own Wetherspoons for a rogue shot of Apple Sourz. Kro has become a standard watering hole for a quick stop off on the way to the train as well as being our traditional Christmas Eve drinking spot, whilst Fab Cafe is a late night temptation for sci-fi stomping.

Brewdog Manchester
Brewdog Manchester – A Little Slice Of Northern In A Very Different Quarter.

Across the rest of the centre there are still parts of student-ville further down Oxford Road that I have yet to take in, having only been to Sandbar, The Footage and The Deaf Institute a couple of times each, whilst Deansgate and Spinningfields still both have a couple of establishments left to try. The promise of further regeneration of the Peter Street area is also interesting. Kickstarted by Brewdog’s NQ snub, Trof and others are soon to move into premises that were for so long renowned for violence and general drunken idiocy.

So, that’s where we are. Choice has massively increased. Bandwagons have been clambered upon, and we’ve all become a little older and more cynical. Will my drinking habits change as the Printworks overspill claim even more of the Northern Quarter? Probably. As I said at the start of this ramble, the Friday night crowd is becoming more and more like the one I went so out of my way all those years ago to avoid. The one saving grace seems to be that bar owners are feeling the same way and are already ahead of the game, coming up with new ideas and venues to keep us interested even in our advancing years. One thing is for sure, I’m certainly not going to be short of a watering hole for many years to come.

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