The Central Manchester Slow Pub Crawl - Day 2
Pub 10 - Bar 5 (Old Bank Street, off St Anne's Square)
Day 2 of the slow pub crawl starts early this week, and for a reason. Bar 5 shuts at 5pm on Mondays to Thursdays (it is, however, open until 1am on Fridays and 2am on Saturdays but shut Sundays). But even with spaceman and barney turning up at the door at about 4:30pm, we still struggle to get in. The junior barman is hankering after shutting early and it takes our persuasive technique for them to let us through the door. Our offer of just a quick beer leads the boss to override the initial decision to shut half an hour early. Phew! Our pub crawl nearly stalled before it started.
Relieved to have got in, we delightedly order two pints of Fosters (for £4.50). You can see why they were going to shut early - the place is empty, with no sign that anyone was going to join us. This placed used to be called the Conservatory, spaceman vaguely recalls, with a pool table downstairs (now replaced by a dance floor). Bar 5 is awash with primary colours, a bit like a poor effort from a primary school child in an art lesson. There is a bank of TVs in the corner which form one big picture and on Friday or Saturday nights provide much entertainment via the cameras pointing at the dance floor downstairs. It's too early for monkeying around so we're not tempted.
It's a bitter and bleak autumnal day outside, dressed up as winter. Looking around, barney comments that it's the first time barney's seen a decent selection of magazines to peruse (GQ, Arena, etc). There are what seems like gigantic saucers hanging off the ceiling - perfect for gigantic tea parties. Free postcards are available near the magazine rack - we decline. Offers on drinks are aplenty. Pints of Carling are 5pm 'til 8pm daily (hang on, doesn't it shut at 5pm most days?) except Saturday when it's 5pm 'til 10pm. There are offers on various alcopops (Metz, Bacardi Breezer, Reef and Holsten Pils). Doubles are £2.60 all day every day. We contemplate mischievously ordering some (slow-cook) food given their proximity to closing time, but don't. (We're not hungry.) We hurriedly finished our beers (they're not giving us the eyes yet but feel they might soon). Across the way to...
Pub 11 - The Rat & Parrot (Old Bank Street, off St Anne's Square)
Handily just a five-yard walk from Bar 5, we plump for the slightly more old-fashioned surroundings of the Rat & Parrot. "A little busier" notes barney as we walk through the door - but all things are relative (i.e. there's six other people rather than no-one else). Two pints of Fosters for £4.20 (sensibly sticking with the weak stuff at this early stage - spaceman's favourite tipple, Kronenbourg 1664, is turned down). We sit in the far right corner, making sure Anne Robinson and her Weakest Link quiz machine are out of our eye line. Barney, out of nowhere, suddenly pulls out a huge table-sized map of central Manchester, and we start to analyse the task ahead.
This place seems to do reasonably well given it's discreet position. There are no apparent special offers, or even recent decoration. (Keen-eyed barney spots the lack of use of a dust cover when they last painted the ceiling - spaceman shrugs.) There is also a strange-looking combination of red paint and red wallpaper on the wall. They must be short of pint glasses at the moment as spaceman's Fosters is served in a Stella glass. Discussions on curries and bowel movements proliferate the conversation before the work curry night on Thursday, and we then move on to talking about The Office on TV - a classic. Still fixated on the décor, barney mumbles "needs a lick o' paint" as we head for the door. [Spaceman has since walked past (in early December) and noticed that the Rat & Parrot has closed down and is now being replaced by another pub - this pub crawl is indeed hard work.] Left onto St Anne's Square and into the Royal Exchange Theatre brings us to...
Pub 12 - Exchange Bar (Royal Exchange Theatre, St Anne's Square)
We would never have come here had spaceman not seen it on the Pride of Manchester website earlier in the day. Uh-oh, only Carlsberg Export on draught - £5.20 for two pints. True to form, barney picks up where it was left in Rothwells and starts banging on about the architecture again. "Got to be one of the best interiors..." barney says. "In the world?" spaceman asks incredulously. "...In Manchester" barney finishes finally. To be fair, it is impressive; all huge columns and "lunar module" theatre domes. Better than Rothwells anyway, we reckon.
On getting our beers, we quiz the barman relentlessly. The place opens at 9:30am, but the bar doesn't open until 11am. The bar shuts when there is a performance on (which usually starts at 7:30pm) and opens for the interval and after the show. Tonight is Shakespeare (we don't ask which one) and it finishes at 10:50pm, so the bar will be open for a mere 10 minutes at the end! We're not staying for the performance, though - we've got our own show to run. It's an open plan IKEA-style furnishing main drinking area. The toilets are spacious (but not used to full capacity at the time of our visit). We finish our pints of Export and head out the other side of the Theatre, onto Cross Street. A right turn, a few paces, and we find ourselves at...
Pub 13 - Mr Thomas's Chop House (Cross Street)
Well, via HSBC anyway, where barney has a card swallowed by the machine - although we don't know which card was actually put in. All very confusing. Apparently it doesn't let you get out money with your Sainsbury's reward card (or whatever it was). The Chop House is long and thin, which makes it a bit awkward when it's busy (and it's getting that way as we enter). Two pints of Heineken for £5 (in Carling glasses at no extra charge). A sign says "City Life Food & Drink wine list of the year". Lots of historical stuff on the walls - we would read it if we could focus (we're not that bad really). We sit right at the back of the pub and, with pressing need, spaceman runs up the stairs at the back to investigate/find a toilet. There are in fact toilets and a staff room, but a barmaid runs after spaceman to apprehend - it's a staff only area and there's a toilet down the other end of the pub.
Where we're sat, it looks like an old Victorian pub (spaceman thinks swimming baths - must be the ancient tiled floor). Quotes on the blackboard: "Excellent booze, great food, top service" (The Independent). "A Victorian Fantasy" (The New York Times). What did they get up to, we wonder. "Very green" says barney, in an apparently unrelated sentence - green everywhere, the ceilings, walls, radiators, round the windows. The postponed and much-needed visit to the toilets is a long way back to the front of the pub, down some stairs (bit of an obstacle course - mind the step, watch your head). They're as yellow as the main pub is green, but in this case it's not the décor. It's like they've been left in the sun for far too long, but this isn't really possible given its basement location. It's a bit cramped and the gents are bizarrely split into two rooms (making it even more cramped). And it could do with a clean and a refurbishment. Anyway, enough of toilets, we've run out of beer. Back out onto Cross Street, turn left, across the road and up a pedestrian bit to...
Pub 14 - Grinch Wine Bar (Chapel Walks, off Cross Street)
We're asked from the start if we plan to eat, this being more of a restaurant place than a bar. ("Are you just having a drink?" the barmaid squeals. "Yes" we both intone solemnly.) We just want to access to the bar, no food please - yet. Two pints of Fosters set us back £5. Barney thought the stairs were going to collapse on the way to the toilet, where the floor was squeaky underfoot. Blue mosaic tiles ("like leisure centres?") on three walls, with rusty black metal plating on the fourth wall ("a bit bizarre"). In the main part of the bar, there are lots of mirrors and a glitterball. The tables are a bit too close together, really, as barney tries to be clever by analysing the number order on the cocktail menu. We agree to get food in the next pub (which is going to be Sam's Chop House). Suddenly lights dim and barney comments on how this place is better than all the run of the mill chain pubs. (Is Grinch not a chain? We don't know.) In the far corner, "Grinch F.C" which stands for "Grinch For Christmas", stupidly. Our stomachs rumble, so we exit in a rush. Only a few paces up the road and it's...
Pub 15 - Sam's Chop House (Chapel Walks, off Cross Street)
Owned by the same people as Mr Thomas's Chop House (can you tell?), Sam's Chop House, just below street level and established in 1872, is spaceman's preferred one of the two. Two pints of Heineken are ordered, costing £5 (consistent prices). It's a nice little pub, full of suits tonight (it's half past seven and there are lots of offices nearby). The visit to the toilet involves a trip past the (well laid out) restaurant area, which spaceman has not tried. Table service is provided for bar food, the menu for which lists a good range of home-cooked food and big sandwiches. Barney finds a vacant table near the piano (which neither of us can play). We order sausage & mash, corned beef hash and chips & dips. We ask for the chips & dips to be brought a little earlier than the main course (we're ravenous) but, in the end, the sinister barman/waiter denies us. There is an old style wood carving on the walls.
Looking around again, the place is lively, busy and noisy for a Tuesday night - obviously a popular venue. Spaceman's Heineken is served in a Boddington's (whose Manchester days are apparently numbered) glass - very much a theme for the night. Barney suggests the Boddington's brewery's imminent move to Wales is just a publicity stunt. The food comes quite quickly. The 'dips' with the chips turn out just to be ketchup and mayonnaise - ah, the extravagance. Barney tucks into the corned beef hash with gusto, and can't stop saying "fantastic". It's the nicest meal barney's had in a long time, apparently. Should do more than warm up frozen pizza every night then. It consists of corned beef, tender potatoes, a nice sauce and is topped with 2 rashers of bacon and a fried egg. Spaceman's meal consists of three very tasty sausages (wrapped with leek), a mould of mash (which, unfortunately for spaceman comes with a high density of peas buried deep inside) and gravy to die for. It's thick, it's rich, it's smooth, it's lovely, and makes up for the mash disappointment (removing the peas become far too difficult - there's just too many of them!).
Luckily, the chips do the job of mopping up the gravy. The meal comes to around £25 (including a 10% service charge). We leave enough for the total bill and what just happens to be 6p over. Then, bizarrely, the waiter leaves 5p back on our table, which we leave. Next time the waiter passes, he places his hand on it and barney exchanges looks with him, so he leaves it again. We then decide to make a symmetrical pattern with the doilies, vinegar, etc. on the table, with the 5p piece at the centre. We decide suddenly that as we have resorted to making arrangements with random objects on our table means that we've been here too long. It's time to leave. As we walk past the window outside, we peer in and the arrangement on the table is still there. Up the hill, right onto left King Street and left up the hill again to...
Pub 16 - Chez Gérard (Corner of King Street and Brown Street)
Principally a restaurant, specialising in steak and fish (see the restaurant reviews section), there is a spacious lounge area on the left as we amble down the stairs to basement level. We are asked if we are eating as we come in. We clutch our stomachs, briefly tempted, but turn them down and head for the bar. The only draft lagers in here are Stella and Hoegaarden, so we wimp out and go for bottles (spaceman has an early morning the next day). Bottles of Kronenbourg and Becks for £5. It's very brown in here - all leather sofas and stuff, and it's a very cosy resting place after our physically demanding evening. The menu looks tasty, but confusingly says 'Spring Gardens' at the top. There's quite an extensive happy hour here, but spaceman forgets to take the details down. The toilets are down a spiral staircase, and there was an irritating slope that barney tripped over. There are fancy hand basins (stainless steel with some transparent blue stuff) with "standard piss-poor urinals" (so to speak) - one is blocked, and it smelt of urine (surprise!). The barmaid asks if we would like anything else - we decline and think "husky". Further up King Street to, coincidentally, Spring Gardens...
Pub 17 - Reform Restaurant & Bar (Spring Gardens, top of King Street)
The Athenaeum is, frustratingly, shut again (spaceman has seen it open at some point during the previous week), so we turn instead to Reform. It's quite a posh place (we had previously thought it a private members-only venue, but this is not the case), but there's no-one here really - 2 members of staff versus 4 people eating (or at least, chatting at tables) and us. Spaceman is immediately impressed with the choice of music - Radiohead is playing as we head up the big staircase at the entrance. We choke a little on our drinks as it's £6 for two bottles of lager - one Kronenbourg, one Budweiser. The décor is very grand - huge curtains adorn the long windows. The lights are fancily impressive too, and one is encapsulated by a disco ball. (Barney has one too, apparently, but a lot smaller.)
We sit at the bar in the middle of the room, which serves to split it into a restaurant and a lounge area. We feel out of place. Still, the music keeps seemingly flitting around spaceman's music collection, with more Radiohead, some Kings of Convenience, and also Coldplay. (But not David Gray - not a chance.) We chat with the barman quite a lot (he has nothing else to do). The swing doors providing access to behind the bar are very squeaky, we note - they need oiling. It turns out that the music is all part of the barman's collection, which he has brought in because he can play it when there's no-one about (now that's hindsight). The other member of staff skulks in the background. The barman tells us that the place has been open about a year and that most people think it's members-only.
He wants to know how to attract customers without making it turn into Rothwells. It's a listed building so they can't put anything on the outside of the building, and the pavement outside the entrance is too narrow to put any placards there. They do, however, attract the odd celebrity - Kirsty Howard, the young, very ill girl handed the Jubilee baton by David Beckham at the opening ceremony of Manchester's Commonwealth Games 2002, is to have her birthday bash here in a few weeks. There are no celebrities in here today, though, unless they're hiding. Barney discusses the possibility of having a work Christmas meal here. Barney very much likes the look of the menu. Although barney fancies drinking on into the night as there's a little while before last orders (spaceman swears barney only wanted a quiet one beforehand), spaceman feels it is time to retire. We've done eight pubs - that's enough for a Tuesday night. Time for bed...