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.

Alcohol – Is It Really A Danger To Society?

Alcohol, or booze as I like to call it, is always in the news for one reason or another. Whether it’s due to mass hysteria that alco-pops are turning Britain’s kids into feral nightmares or that the supposedly cheap cost of plonk somehow contributes to the downward spiral of alcoholic life, alcohol often gets a bad rep and blamed for many of societies’ ills.

But can alcohol be solely blamed for taking such a grip on people’s personalities and lives? Or are there other reasons for people acting the way they do? It’s time to explore alcohol in a bit more detail, including some of my own experiences with the stuff to see just what on earth is going on. Warning – this article may feature tales of someone under the age of 18 drinking booze. You’ll just have to cope with that I’m afraid.

My relationship with alcohol started around the Sunday lunch table when I was probably around 11 years old. I would be on drinks duty, fetching and pouring my Dad’s can of Kestrel (no idea why he drank the stuff) and I’d taste it on occasion and be utterly repulsed by its unpleasant metallic taste (the beer, not the can). Maybe Dad deliberately drank rubbish beer to put me off ever trying it, who knows. At Christmas, when the wine was cracked open with Mum, Dad and various relatives, my brother and I would make our own “exotic” concoctions. I’d usually have a lime cordial over a few games of cards. It seemed cool at the time, alright? Both of my Grandads enjoyed a Scotch and I felt like I was joining in. Thankfully I seem to have inherited their love of the stuff, and I hope they’re both looking down now, secretly proud of the collection I now have in my drinks cupboard.

My first REAL pint in a REAL pub was in January 1994 during a Manic Street Preachers gig, so I would have been 14. It was Fosters’. It was in a plastic pint glass. It made me feel a bit squiffy to be honest, although I’m not sure if that was the adrenaline of my first gig or my first pint or what. All I knew was that it went down pretty well. I don’t remember necessarily when my next drink was or even when I started drinking more than just a pint. I remember drinking a steady four or five pints of Fosters’ in my local (when I may have been just a little bit under age to be doing so) and going out round Bristol to metal and indie nights where the only difference to that routine may have been a cheeky Scotch and soda to round off the night. Similarly I remember a few Fosters’ Ice bottles slipping down a treat in Salcombe’s beer gardens on holidays with friends.

My friends and I were never ones to go too bonkers with booze at that age, preferring a quiet few pints. I think we were probably a bit scared of going above the four to five drink comfort zone and spending the night in A&E having our stomachs pumped, although we did raid some parental drinks cabinets in our time, creating Southern Comfort and Tango cocktails and other strange homebrews. Again, nothing too crazy, and we weren’t drinking every day but alcohol was still a relatively big part of our lives.

There were a few strange moments – I do recall having a Scotch pre-school on my Birthday one year, possibly in my GCSE year. I probably did it more for effect than anything. But largely, especially since I had an older brother who wasn’t bothered either way about going on the sauce, I took it steady, but was still probably drinking more than I should have done at a young age. Do I regret it? No, not really. Those nights out were more about the night itself rather than trying to get as annihilated as possible. Similarly I would never drink that much at gigs in those days. I did have a few all day sessions around the age of 17-18 during the summer, but who wouldn’t on a sunny Bristol afternoon with jazz in the air and cider on tap?

When I went away to University I filled my time with what any sensible student would, interspersing lectures and degree work with excessive drinking, pub lunches that turned into all-dayers and house parties fuelled by wine and lager. Again, cheap booze was the order of the day, the girls often buying a sub-£2 bottle of Lambrini before going out and some of us men folk developed a taste for £2.99 Co-op Rioja that probably hadn’t seen a grape in its life. I probably felt the worst I have ever felt from booze on a couple of occasions in those days, notably staying in one night with a litre bottle of Asda’s own Claymore Scotch and mixing it with a two litre bottle of Irn Bru. If that is what alcohol poisoning feels like, please never let me have it again. It felt like my innards were rotting through my skin. Bad times, but it taught me a valuable lesson; don’t shop in Asda.

There were several “incidents” at University that could no doubt be blamed on booze. A fair few injuries and scraps (involving people other than me, natch), but we were in Yorkshire so I’d expect nothing less. Did I also blow a considerable amount of student cash in a very short space of time to compensate for a break up? Yes I did. But it was my choice. And again, with hindsight, it was probably as much about showing off and attention seeking as it was drowning my sorrows. Perhaps the only regret I have about my Uni years is that my memory is now pretty bad, caused no doubt by the sheer amount of brain cell killing grog I poured down my neck, but that was a decision I took. Can I still function in society? I like to think so, although those who know me may say otherwise, but moving on…

When I left University, I calmed it down a bit. Responsibility, lack of disposable income and moving to Manchester and having few friends up here contributed. But again, after a few years, it became a Friday norm to go out with a few colleagues for some stress relieving post-work pints. Team Drinking extended to more and more people so you could usually guarantee that there would be someone about come Friday to share a jar with. Some say I instigated this cultural shift, but it could well have been more down to the economic gloom and a lot of people approaching 30 with a shared mind-set. Either way, some great times were had tearing up Manchester’s Northern Quarter, and it was the first time I really felt like I had a local since about 1997.

Post-work drinks then started involving more non-Friday events. Football down the pub on Saturdays and Sundays took off. Karaoke nights, pub quizzes, and the now frequent train-based pub crawls were all attended by various acquaintances, and all through a shared joy of alcohol and pig by-products. Would we have bothered if alcohol wasn’t available, making us giddy with its intoxicating ways? Probably not. A few of my friends do swing towards detoxes on occasion for health, money or other reasons, but they’ll still happily come to the pub for a half of lemonade or some such.

But could I do that? No. I fully admit that if I wasn’t drinking I find it difficult to be out with others who are for a full night. I have the utmost respect for people who can do it, but it really isn’t for me. Yes I can have a quick Coke in a boozer or other non-alcoholic beverage but not if the intention is to stay there for a good few hours. It seems a waste and I resent paying the ridiculous prices that soft drinks cost when for a little more I can have something bigger and tastier. Does this make me an alcoholic? No, I don’t think so. I don’t go out every night, and I sure as anything don’t sit at home by myself drinking every night. In fact I probably only have a tipple two or three days a week. Do I drink more on those two or three occasions than an adult should according to medical guidance? Probably, yes, but I’m not the only one by a long way. And I enjoy the sense of euphoria that alcohol gives. I enjoy the social aspects of getting a round in and sharing a pint and some banter. I like the taste and smell of a nice San Miguel after a long week of work. And yes I can talk to my friends without a pint in my hand, but pubs were invented for drinking (probably, I’ve not done the research) so I intend to use them precisely for that.

But what of the terrifying scenes witnessed across our town centres on a Friday night? In Manchester I’m the first to admit that the sights you can see are often shocking. Women sat on kerbs unable to stay awake by 8pm, men scrapping or urinating down an alley. This happens all over the UK, and is booze to blame? Partly. The people seen in such states still chose to take that route to utter obliteration, and chances are some of them may have been in a fight or been otherwise unlawful when the tribalism of football was at play rather than beer, but that is just speculation. One thing’s for sure, pubs will continue to sell alcohol and people will continue to get drunk. They do it to get over disappointment and misery. They do it to celebrate success. They raise a glass to toast summer sun, or to escape the long dark winter nights. They do it for every reason known to man, and it is ingrained into British culture as much as queuing or complaining about public transport. You could probably count thousands of people in this country who wake up on a Saturday morning with a sore head and a bellyful of regrets. I for one will fully admit that I can count at least four or five occasions when I have either acted like an idiot, annoyed or upset people, done something irresponsible or let myself or others down in the past couple of months alone. I’m sorry, yes, but I’m not blaming beer, I’m blaming myself.

I do also appreciate the effects that alcohol can have on individuals and their families in worst case scenarios. I’ve witnessed first-hand someone close to me in constant denial that they are an alcoholic, despite being done for drink driving. To them, this just meant they needed a lift to the pub. They drank every single night, and I was surprised they held down a job. It tore their family apart and left a trail of debt and despair, but this was simply because alcohol is a drug and when that drug is combined with a mind-set that isn’t right in the first place, it can be a recipe for disaster.

And here we are in 2012. I’ve had a relationship with the stuff for 18 years and I don’t see it ending any time soon. Has it cost me a lot of money over the years? Yes. Has it cost me my dignity? On occasion, yes. Do I blame it solely for every woe that has happened to me over the years? No. At the end of the day, I still wake up each morning sober and in control of who I am and the decisions I make. And it is this fact that the media seem to miss. Alcohol may enter the bloodstream but at some point it leaves, and at that juncture, what people are left with is themselves. If they cannot cope with that reality then maybe there is sadly very little hope for them at all.