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The NQ Review

77 NQ bars. 5 friends. 1 mission.

Month

February 2016

The Bay Horse – An NQ Review

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A feature of the Northern Quarter for as long as TNQR team have been going out in the area, The Bay Horse has been a staple at the lower end of Thomas Street for quite some time; but can it evolve enough to keep pace with today’s young pretenders?

A traditional boozer given a fair few spit and polishes over the years, The Bay Horse draws a mixed crowd. Groups of young ‘uns out for a session mix with old boys who probably remember the sawdust on the floor and this does sometimes lead to letching from the more “established” drinkers.

There are some interesting choices on the taps, with a couple of ales on for the traditionals (Seven Brothers on our visit), whilst Yardbird American IPA, Mahou, Erdinger and Sam Adams put the pub above many of its neighbours for variety alone. Spirits and wine are pretty standard stuff though, showing the bar is aiming firmly at a more classical pub market.

It’s a promising start but the bar is let down in a few other ways. Although we know it’s a tough job, the bar staff’s disinterest in serving customers or having any idea who was next in line was poor on our recent visit. Similarly many of the punters seemed particularly rude; not necessarily the pub’s fault but it didn’t exactly encourage us to stick around and it’s maybe a hint for The Bay Horse to look at its door policy.

The beer garden used to be one of the reasons we picked The Bay Horse for summer drinking back in the olden NQ days (there literally wasn’t anywhere else in the area with any sort of outdoor space) but really all the area amounts to is a few tables underneath a noisy, dripping air con unit and it’s usually in the shade too. Fortunately there are plenty of other options these days with Port Street Beer House‘s little sun-trap a particular favourite.

The basement of The Bay Horse has changed quite a bit over the years (sadly, the pool tables are long gone) and the never-open left hand mini bar has been usurped by a full size one on the right. Pitched as an underground cocktail haunt, The Saddle Club as it’s monikered is a typical utilisation of an NQ downstairs area with space for dancing and supping until the early hours. Similarly to Apotheca though, you lose a bit of the buzz if you end up down here in the early evening simply because there are no seats upstairs, making it preferable to loiter on the top deck to get more enjoyment from your night. It also means the venue’s moved away from being a proper gig venue, filling weekday nights instead with acoustic open mic nights.

The Bay Horse tends to be stuck in a bit of a rut despite the numerous makeovers. Because it still attracts punters you’d expect to see down the road in the Hare & Hounds, it seems to put off most of the young trendy crowd, preventing the place from catching on as a real destination bar as somehow Terrace has. Instead, it’s a pub with some half decent beer muddling through without really putting much effort into standing out or pushing customer service as its number one priority.

The Bay Horse

Classification: Pub and cocktail bar

Food: Pizzas, pies and hot dogs

Drinks: Lager, ale, cider, cocktails, wine and spirits

Price: ££

Related City Centre establishments: None

Bongo rating: 4/10

Allotment – An NQ Review

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The green fingered amongst you may have been excited to see this little number on the list. Manchester’s first (and only) garden-themed boozer is nestled away up on Dale Street and has been offering something a little different to Northern Quarter punters for the past 18 months or so.

Decked out from head to toe in rustic wooden tables, chairs, stools and wall panelling, Allotment certainly looks the part. Miniature tin buckets hold cutlery and optimistic greenery in planters are dotted all over the place giving Manchester a quite literal breath of fresh air.

The theme doesn’t end with the décor either. Food is local and fresh, with burgers, grilled chicken, duck and fish all offering you plenty of protein alongside your five a day. If you don’t want anything too heavy, you could go for a healthy salad or sharing platter, or maybe the pièce de résistance the Picnic Basket; a proper afternoon tea for two of sandwiches, scones, cake and either a caffeinated beverage of choice or bubbles, all for £22. It’s a nice idea, creates a talking point and fits the place well.

Space is always at a premium in NQ bars so it’s surprising how it’s been used at Allotment. Admittedly plenty of room has been given to the tables meaning you’re quite likely to find a spot to park your backside, but the bar itself is minuscule making it a struggle to elbow in and get served. This is made even more frustrating by the stools there which only serve to single-file the crowds in, and as Allotment can barely fit two staff behind the bar, queues are highly likely.

When you do get to the front there’s a decent selection on offer. Four ales dominate proceedings and at £3.60 for a pint of Prospect you’re left with enough change for your bus fare home. Other taps are more expensive, boasting Shindigger (£4.60) and Dortmunder Pils (£4.80) with small wines all above £4 a pop. Cocktails are the usual £7-£9 and are bolstered by the fact the gin list rivals pretty much everywhere in town bar Atlas.

For all its quirk though, Allotment can come across as a bit twee. Serving as a post-work boozer, it does get a lot of the suited and booted crowd in as well as a few drinkers who have heard about its theme and want to go and check it out with their own eyes. This does mean Allotment doesn’t have the usual NQ atmosphere and feels a bit transient, not helped either by its slightly isolated location.

A Northern Quarter oddity, it’ll be interesting to see how long Allotment can stay fresh.

Allotment

Classification: Bar

Food: Modern British

Drinks: Lager, ale, cider, cocktails, wine, lashings of gin

Price: ££

Related City Centre establishments: None

Bongo rating: 6/10

The Lower Turks Head – An NQ Review

IMG_2681It’s not often on this journey of the Northern Quarter’s drinking establishments that we get to visit somewhere with this much history and whilst seemingly a relatively new addition to the scene having reopened its doors in 2013, this place has actually been around since 1745 according to some sources, thus at over 250 years can lay claim to being one of Manchester’s oldest pubs. But does that make it one of the best?

The previously mentioned refurb/refit has been completed tastefully and very much in line with the historic nature of the place, and what has been done so wrong in other attempts feels less forced and more genuine here, something the management/owners should be proud of. They have also added more space from the original extension with the link to the former bookshop next door now called Scuttlers Wine Bar, (that venue will be covered another time). Unusually for these parts there is also a B&B upstairs, which gives an interesting option to visitors wanting something a bit different from the conglomerate chains that dominate a large portion of the city hotel market.

The bar hosts a pretty generic selection of lagers and ciders from the kegs, although it does include that Manchester staple Boddies, (although we all know this isn’t brewed in these parts any longer). On the wickets you will find a decent selection from local breweries, think Lees, or Holts rather than craftier options from Redbank. But at least it’s local, and if all that’s not good enough, there are also rotating ales from further afield for those that like a change to their drinking routine. The beers are backed up by a selection of wines and spirits not uncommon in this type of boozer, just don’t expect cocktail flaring & sparklers. If that’s your bag I would definitely go elsewhere.

Clientèle as you expect for this type of establishment is on the older side, but I would not say that is altogether a problem, everyone has their tastes and it’s good that even in the NQ there is usually something for everyone. Overall I have a bit of a soft spot for the Lower Turks Head, whilst it’s not likely to be a first choice establishment for some and yes the beer selection could be a bit more interesting, it’s not the worst in town and overall I think they have captured exactly what they are after and it’s one of the best examples of this type of pub around.

The Lower Turks Head

Classification: Pub

Food: Pub grub

Drinks: Ale/lager & spirits

Price: ££

Related City Centre establishments: Scuttlers Wine Bar

Bongo rating: 6/10

Shack – An NQ Review

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A former clothing wholesales showroom, this venue was re-purposed into a bar/restaurant a few years ago & has since gone through a number of incarnations; remember “R House” anyone? Shack has a certain curb appeal, and if it were located over on Deansgate, or down in Fallowfield I could imagine it packed to the rafters weekend in & weekend out, however it is not & therefore it isn’t, and herein are the beginnings of a problem for this place. We have walked past this place countless times on our way to the Tariff Street strip of bars, and there are rarely more than a handful of punters inside, and like on our recent visit those there tend to be on the sausage side of the gender equation which can put off the fairer sex.

Whilst some elements of the décor do look out of place, (the padded leatherette door to the gents for example looks like it was rejected from a sleazy gentlemen’s club in 1976), it largely holds its own and is tasteful enough. The booths are roomy and there is a good selection of tables of differing sizes making it suited for both friendly group gatherings and those on more intimate date nights. In addition, Shack is furnished with a number of other pub accoutrements not often found around these parts and with pool tables, fruities & even beer pong, there’s entertainment available in addition to obligatory TVs and this does lend to its appeal for some.

The beer on offer tends toward the premium end of the generic lager staples, think Moretti & Staropramen rather than Foster’s & Stella with a Symonds cider offering replacing the common Strongbow choice. They also have the same Franciscan Well IPA that is found at Dive (although with fewer of the pouring issues) and this is a good choice for those who like their craftier tasting options. For the non-pint drinkers you’ll find the usual selection of wine & spirits, along with a well-priced cocktail list (although it wasn’t clear if this was at the expense of quality). Unusually the drinks list includes some milkshakes too, expanding on the regular options of post mix sparkling drinks or cordial based offerings for the non-drinkers.

Food wise, again the fayre on offer is OK without being spectacular. Burgers & grill items dominate the menu, and it should prove a better option than the local Weatherspoon’s type establishments but I can’t help but think it’s all done just that little bit better elsewhere and that may well prove to be problematic. Whilst Shack is largely inoffensive, there is also nothing that makes it stand out against a busy marketplace. Personally I think the main problem with Shack is that it’s a suburban pub masquerading as a city centre bar, and has tried to lay roots in the wrong part of town, which is a shame for the team behind it as they would be more successful at a better suited pitch, and it’s also a shame for this space as there remains a lot of potential to do something different.

Shack

Classification: Bar/restaurant

Food: Grill & Burgers

Drinks: Cocktails, lagers & spirits

Price: ££

Related City Centre establishments: None

Bongo rating: 4/10

Bar Fringe – An NQ Review


There was some discussion at TNQR towers when first concocting this plan as to where the NQ’s eastern boundary lay and one of the main reasons we chose the far side of Swan Street rather than the near was because of a single NQ originator, Bar Fringe.

Another modern NQ institution, Fringe is pretty well renowned for one thing; danger. No you won’t take your life in your hands when you enter, but you will fear for your wallet and your liver when you see the array of beer in stock. We’ll come onto the taps in a minute, but what you can expect from Fringe first and foremost is the finest selection of Belgian beers, all served in the appropriate glassware (or apparatus – Kwak, we’re looking at you) anywhere in the NQ, possibly in Manchester.

Fruit beers are often on tap too which is a great, if rare thing to see, whilst the odd chewy cider sits alongside the plethora of other draught beer. Yes, you can get a Stella or a Staropramen if you like, but you can also choose one of six or so ales or even a Duvel. On tap. Yes, it’s dangerous alright.

Whereas The City and The Burton Arms are rough around the edges in a not-necessarily-a-good-thing way, Fringe prides itself on retaining the décor for which it is renowned, and somehow it simply works. Whether it’s the motorbike hanging from the ceiling or the crazy cardboard cut-outs, Fringe has always been a mish-mash of different scenes and this gives the bar a curious but friendly vibe. Sometimes known as a biker pub, it’s in no way limited to that; the ales on show encourage the beard fraternity whilst students are enticed by decently priced booze across the board. The bar also used to do free chilli on a Sunday and although we’re not sure this is still a deal, it merely gives us an excuse to go back and find out.

Another bonus for the city centre is the beer garden. Essentially just a back yard next to a car park, we’ve still spent many a sunny summer’s afternoon on the picnic tables or kegs out back, mixing with an eclectic bunch of folk and even a snake on one occasion. The eccentricity stretches back inside too with one of the finest jukeboxes in town. On last check Gary Glitter was still in there, but if you excuse that you’ll find something for everyone from Manchester scene regulars through to ‘Nelly the Elephant’. Bizarre, quirky and fun, it’s everything Bar Fringe stands for in one musical nutshell.

The place can get crowded on busy days and nights and the table placement tends to mean wherever you stand or sit you will be in the way, but hey, we’re all for making new friends whichever way we go about it. The toilets too could do with a bit of renovation and the uneven floor has caused us the odd spill on occasion.

Even so, Bar Fringe is a great little place to hang out with friends, stop off as part of a major session or just bob in for a beer you probably won’t find anywhere else nearby. This is a classic example of how to get all things NQ right in one unassuming package.

Bar Fringe

Classification: Bar

Food: Bar snacks

Drinks: Lager, ale, cider, Belgian beer and spirits

Price: £

Related City Centre establishments: None

Bongo rating: 7/10

 

 

The City – An NQ Review

 We knew we’d have to visit some of Manchester’s less salubrious boozers on this jaunt and we also knew we’d have to mix them in with some of the more tasteful places just to take the edge off. And lo, it came to pass that on one recent weekend session we decided to throw The City into the mix.

As regular readers will know, we’re partial to a bit of history and love an old school boozer like the next man. Even so, we weren’t quite ready for the ‘delights’ offered by The City. Situated on the way out of town down Oldham Street, The City was originally two separate pubs and has been knocking around for donkey’s years; unfortunately for the modern day drinker, it really, really shows.

A laminated sign on the wall boasts ‘Karaoke – simply the best. All the hits from 50’s to 2005’ and it honestly feels as if The City has forgotten the last decade completely. The usual lagers punctuate the taps (Stella, Carling etc) while a couple of hand pulls seemed of interest but tasted vinegary and badly kept.

Unfortunately the same could be said for the decor. In the ladies are two horribly mismatched sinks seemingly chucked in place with little care or attention, whilst the both female and male facilities needed a serious visit from Kim & Aggie to get them anywhere near up to scratch.

The main bar is long but strangely utilised with inwards facing benches keeping it all uncomfortably intense and although there is a large pool table at the back, this was pushed aside and covered over on our visit, presumably to make way for someone to belt out another 2005 classic later.

Clientele was at the older end of the spectrum but a fair amount of locals and passers by  from all walks of life nipped in and out during the time we were there. It certainly seems as if The City does enough business to keep it ticking over but you wonder what will happen when some of the older locals die off.

There’s definitely a place for traditional boozers slap bang in the middle of the NQ but what there isn’t an excuse for is to let said pub become shabby, uninspiring and awkward which is, unfortunately, exactly what The City has done. One ticked off the list but the only way is up from here.

The City

Classification: Pub

Food: Bar snacks

Drinks: Lager, real ale, wine and spirits

Price: £

Related City Centre establishments: None

Bongo rating: 2/10

Bar21 – An NQ Review

 Formerly TV21, the newly-monikered Bar21 is positioned at the Shudehill end of Thomas Street and has been knocking around longer than most of the other establishments in the area.

Nearly a decade ago, TV21 was a top haunt for the crew here at TNQR and getting to the place early enough to blag the space shuttle booth at the back was always a Friday priority. Caged aliens fought with life-size predators as retro shows looped on little screens, and as we supped our pints the place really felt a little other-worldly.

Today, Bar21 has started pitching itself as a movie-themed party bar. It’s still quirky, just not quite as different and ‘Fab Cafe‘ as it once was. After a recent tart-up, the bar now boasts Rocky Horror pictures under its table tops, and the rickety Student Union window tables have thankfully been replaced with giant spacey booths. Other themes complete different areas of the cavernous upstairs; there are shiny Tetris chairs to the back, music, film and TV posters on the walls and cabinets of memorabilia dotted around the place. It’s quite  a lot to take in, but it does add something different to the usual NQ exposed brickwork brigade.

Downstairs remains the long lost cousin of The Crystal Maze‘s Industrial Zone, with pipes overhead and a subtle blue ambience that lends the place a darkly dangerous tone. It’s a decent option for a private party and at weekends the basement comes to life all on its own with motown, indie and soul banging out until the wee small hours.

Back upstairs, the bar is a touch smaller than it used to be and has scuttled sideways, so rather than being slap bang in the middle like a boozy space invader, it’s now a semi-circle of fun to the left, and there’s plenty of choice on offer. One of the few places to have Cobra on tap, the drinks menu in Bar21 also includes a selection of bottled beers, movie-themed cocktails, pitchers, shots and just about everything else in between.

Food-wise, don’t expect anything out of the ordinary with a menu comprising the usual array of crowd-pleasing burgers, pizzas and sharing platters. We didn’t get around to food on this occasion but it all looked decent enough, it’s just not that different a culinary concept to pretty much every other NQ bar.

The problem with TV21 was always that it seemed to exist solely for the weekend and things don’t seem to have changed too much in recent years. Bar21 takes a hammering late on a Friday and on a Saturday evening, as it’s one of the few places large enough and lenient enough in the NQ to let stag and hen dos in, but during the week Bar21 tends to be pretty desolate. We’ve walked past on many a mid-week night to see it with only a smattering of patrons, whilst neighbours Trof and Apotheca have been bustling with punters. On the Friday we visited it was just about right, with enough space for us to settle into a booth and enjoy a couple of pints with planets glistening overhead, but we probably got in and out before the drunken mobs descended.

It’s a shame that the shabby geek-chic of TV21 has been replaced by a newer, shinier model, but Bar21 has still brought back a little of the quirk that helped it battle against the norm in its early years.

Bar21

Classification: Bar

Food: Pizza, burgers, platters

Drinks: Cocktails, lager, shots and spirits

Price: ££

Related City Centre establishments: None

Bongo rating: 6/10

Tusk – An NQ Review

Tusk.JPGWhen we first set out on this little adventure of ours, we knew one thing; we wouldn’t always all agree on everything and Tusk is probably the place that has divided TNQR opinion more than anywhere thus far.

Some of us have been visiting this little African-themed cocktail bar on and off for a number of years, tempted in by their quirky home-brew spirits such as fig-infused whiskey, fiery rum and peppery gin. Others among us have avoided the place, seeing it as another Walrus-like mainstream money gobbler. The aim of this jaunt of ours is to go in with an open mind though, so I for one was pleased to get the rest of the gang into Tusk to sample its quirks.

Like its larger brother next door, Tusk has had a fair few refits in its time and now has a shiny copper bar to match Walrus. Zebra heads protrude from the wall as the voodoo fish tank bubbles away and the smell of incense fills the air. Imagine if Baron Samedi had won the Lotto and decided to deck out his front room with luxury trappings and some hunting trophies. It’s that kind of a place.

The theme extends to the cocktail menu which boasts the The Black Rhino and The Sex Panther amongst its number and although there are no taps, a few decent beers such as Moretti and Sol knock about in the fridges behind the bar. Offers are plentiful at Tusk, with bottles of Heineken during happy hour at two for £5 and some of the inventive cocktails are two for £8 until 8pm. When a round for seven people, including two cocktails, comes in at a sub £25 figure, a bar is doing very well indeed in my book.

But Tusk isn’t a total crowd pleaser. On our visit, some found the incense to be stifling whilst the flickering of the light bulbs drove many to distraction. Service was good though, with the bar staff keen to recommend or help in any way they could, and the menu looks decent (if not as quirky as it once was), with burgers and snacks to suit most tastes.

Unfortunately, Tusk falls into the damned if you do, damned if you don’t category. One person’s tongue-in-cheek is another’s tacky, and although it deserves points for originality, Tusk falls down a touch by trying that little bit too hard. It’s deliberately dark to make it more cosy and mysterious but when parts of the menu are printed in dusky orange on a black background, ordering a drink becomes less of a pleasure and more of a chore.

Despite this, Tusk is still recommended for a happy hour snifter or a decent bite to eat. This little slice of Africa deserves its place in the NQ, punching above its weight and proving that you don’t have to take yourself too seriously all of the time.

Tusk

Classification: Cocktail Bar

Food: Burgers, wings, hot bar snacks

Drinks: Cocktails, spirits, wine, bottled beers

Price: ££

Related City Centre establishments: WalrusRosylee, Infamous, The Fitzgerald, Hula

Bongo rating: 6/10

Apotheca – An NQ Review

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, many of the TNQR team worked in the same building, and it was with the 5:05 Friday drinks club that our on again/off again love affair with Apotheca began. Fast forward several years, a couple of refurbs (for Apotheca not TNQR) and we arrive at our latest visit.

You’ll find Apotheca behind its unassuming facade at the top end of Thomas Street, close to the junction with High Street. Convenient for a first or final cheeky snifter for those of us getting trams or buses from Shudehill to the suburbs. Deceptively spacious, it often doesn’t feel so with punters often filling the front or the narrow space along the bar rather than finding space at the back or indeed migrating downstairs (although in their defence downstairs is often closed). Styled on an ancient apothecary the decor is a unique break from the NQ norm, the dark interior hosts a multitude of seating options, from comfy sofas in the front window, intimate booths in the bar and the more traditional tables & chairs at the back, there’s something to keep everyone comfortable.

Whilst there is a selection of taps, and some decent craftier beers in the fridge, the main event here at Apotheca are the cocktails, and rightly so; the list is one of the best around and they are rarely poorly made and always use top notch ingredients. Staff are helpful & always happy to provide suggestions to those less confident in their booze choices. The downside to all this of course is that sometimes there can be a bit of a wait at the bar which is a bit jarring if you just want a couple of beers.

They have a limited food menu of pizzas & sharing platters, served up from the kitchens next door at Dough, where the pizzas are easily as good as Apoth’s cocktails. Whilst the food is good, for me Apotheca is a bar, and therefore you will get a wider selection & a better overall dining experience elsewhere, saving Apotheca for the obligatory after dinner drinks.

Whilst the bar staff are great, on the flip side the door staff have been hit & miss on occasion, particularly I’ve found on Saturday nights. Whilst I know venues & door staff have policies & I understand the desire to keep out the miscreant portion of Printworks overspill it is disappointing to turn up to a venue & be turned away simply because you have more than 3 friends, or you didn’t all bring your better halves along.

Apotheca has an outstanding cocktail list, and when not too busy it’s an equally perfect date spot or group gathering point. However when busier, the music will inevitably reach a volume that makes real conversation difficult, and the lack of a proper dance floor space means you can’t have a boogie either, leaving the venue in my opinion at least with a somewhat confused identity at times taking the edge off an otherwise well put together place.

Apotheca

Classification: Bar

Food: Pizza, platters

Drinks: Cocktails, craft beers, spirits

Price: ££

Related City Centre establishments: Dough, Bakerie, Pie & Ale

Bongo rating: 7/10

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