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Hard Rock Cafe vs Big Hands

Sarah Tierney tries out two extremes of the rock'n'roll bar

Published on February 24th 2010.

Hard Rock Cafe vs Big Hands

About a decade ago, Manchester got itself two new rock'n'roll bars of two very different ilks. In the just opened Printworks, multi-national giant Hard Rock Cafe opened a smart, three-floor restaurant complete with an impressive collection of music memorabilia. And in the student hinterlands of Oxford Road, a skinny, home-grown bar called Big Hands was born. Ten years on and they're still going strong, which suggests that they're both doing something right. I was dispatched to find out exactly what that 'something' is, and to see which one is the best bet for a rock'n'roll night out.

First off, Hard Rock Cafe – a big, bold restaurant and bar with a big, bold neon guitar glowing outside. On the Friday night we go, it's packed out with a clientèle that can only be described as eclectic. Fresh-faced emo kids stand nervously by the bar, Japanese girls in lycra and stilettos sip pink margaritas, middle aged blokes sup pints in jeans and leather jackets. Nobody looks like they quite belong, or like they even planned to be here. Apart from the bar tenders, that is. They rock.

One sports an excellent Mohican, the likes of which haven't been seen since Piccadilly Gardens was a sunken pit inhabited by cider-swigging punks. Others have multiple piercings and dreadlocks, and they all wear roadie-style passes around their necks. In the employee handbook, the dress code page must direct them towards a copy of Kerrang! magazine. And this is the sort of place that would have an employee handbook – it's professional and slick with customer service to match. The clientèle might look thrown together by chance but the Hard Rock brand isn't.

Alright veggie burger in Hard Rock Cafe

The concept is simple: food (or 'eats' as they call it), drinks, and rock music. The cocktails have names like Purple Haze and the walls are decorated with pop memorabilia from rock'n'roll legends – Liam Gallagher's guitar, Elvis's shirt, a letter from George Harrison to Stuart Sutcliffe. And some less than thrilling items, such as Natasha Bedingfield's dress – they need to get that one on eBay pretty quick.

As we wait for a table (we're told it'll be about an hour) we sample a few of the cocktails: an ice-heavy Mojito at £5.65 and a fruity, strong mix of bourbon, peach schnapps and orange juice called Back Stage Pass for £5.95 – both well presented and well blended. We're entertained by videos and concert footage from artists like The Who and The Cure. Then a band featuring a Brian May lookalike starts doing a sound check in the middle of the restaurant and we spend the rest of the evening listening to sporadic drum rolls and sudden, ear-splitting guitar solos. Sound checks are one part of the rock'n'roll experience that shouldn't be forced on the audience, especially when they're having a sit-down dinner.

Big Hands, Big sandwiches

On the menu, the entrees (confused American speak for main courses) include burgers, steaks, fajitas, grilled chicken and so on. My non meat-eating friend has a choice of a veggie burger and veggie fajitas – the music policy isn't the only thing that needs dragging out of the 1980s. I have hickory-smoked bar-b-que chicken which is pretty awful considering how much it cost - £13.75. The chicken is dry and the chips are warm not hot, as if they've been reheated. My friend's veggie burger (£12.45) is 'alright'. I feel like we're paying for the label rather than for decent food, which wouldn't be so bad if the Hard Rock brand wasn't so dated and naff.

We finish our eats in a glum mood. On the wall next to our table, a TV screen is broadcasting what looks like live images from other Hard Rock Cafes around the world. I've seen livelier scenes on car park CCTV.

We leave before the band gets started but make sure to visit the swish bathroom beforehand – if there's one thing that Hard Rock Cafe is bound to do better than Big Hands, it's this. Still, it's not a great state of affairs when one of the highlights of a bar is its Dyson hand-dryer.

Friday night in Big Hands

Big Hands

It's about 10.30pm when we arrive at Big Hands and it's nicely busy but not rammed. It's an altogether darker, grungier experience in here than in the brightly lit HRC. Red walls are lined by scuffed, red vinyl seating and the tables are dotted with candles. If Hard Rock is over-produced, corporate rock, this is low-fi indie. And although there's no framed guitars, its rock'n'roll credentials are a little more convincing.

The staff aren't wearing pretend back-stage passes but there's plenty of genuine ones stuck around the DJ booth. Big Hands is next door to Manchester Academy so it gets business from the crowds, the crews, and the musicians themselves. It doesn't do rock'n'roll memorabilia as such, but Elbow fans might like to know that Guy Garvey's sofa is in the corner opposite the bar. Have a dig down the back – there could be some seldom seen boxer shorts lurking between those cushions.

There are DJs on most nights and regular live music. When we arrive DJ Steve Manford is playing what's described on the posters as 'shoe-gaze, punk, god' – The Ramones, LCD Soundsystem, a mishmash of music that nonetheless sounds right together. We skulk against the walls with a rum and coke and a vodka and diet coke (£2.80 each) but aren't really in the mood for a big night out in Biggies. I've had some great evenings here in the past but the HRC experience has left us feeling a little drained.

Fresh salad but dried herbs at Big Hands

Cut forward to a week or so later and we try again. This time it's 5.30pm on a Monday and what's supposed to be a few quiet beers ends up being a five hour drinking session, proving the old adage that you can't plan a good night out, they just pounce when least expected. (And more often than not, when you've got to be in work the next day.) This time we have shots of Krupnik Honey Vodka (£2.60) which goes down a little too easily, chilled glasses of Chablis and a few bottles from an extensive range of foreign lagers (Thai Singha £3, Polish Tyskie £3.40).

Some of these concerts haven't even happened yet

With glasses in all shapes and sizes, hard-to-find beers, and a mean line in espresso martinis, the bar at Big Hands has something of the apothecary about it – some dangerous combinations have doubtless been concocted from those fairy light-lit liquors. The place might look worn around the edges but someone's obviously paying attention behind the scenes. It's probably why it is attracting plenty of customers at this time on a weekday as well as on a Friday night. And at lunchtime the next day when we visit to try the food, which is served from midday-3pm.

Rock memorabilia at Big Hands

This time, the tables are taken by students filling up on baguettes, toasties and salads. Lynda Moyo, Confidential's queen of OCD cleanliness is wary about eating in here – grungy bars and food preparation can be a dicey combination. But she is pleased to report that there are no hairs in her chicken and goats cheese baguette with salad (£3), and more than that, it is actually very good. Barbican bread, chunks of chicken rather than pre-cut slices, lots of fresh salad. I have a cheddar, mozzarella and tomato toastie with salad for the bargain price of £2.50. They should get rid of the dried herbs sprinkled on top but other than that it's great.

Friday night in Hard Rock Cafe

Big Hands was always going to triumph on the authenticity stakes in the comparison with Hard Rock Cafe, but I didn't expect it to win on the food front as well. Its menu may be small scale but at least you know that the meals here are prepared to order, and you don't feel you're being ripped off.

The defining difference between the bars isn't the obvious contrast between small independent and worldwide chain, or even that one is a real rock star hangout and the other is just pretending to be. Big Hands has sound rock'n'roll credentials but more importantly, it's not resting on them. Not something you can say of Hard Rock Cafe.

Rock hard chicken and chips
Rating: 16/20
Breakdown: 4/5 food
3.5/5 drinks
3.5/5 service
5/5 atmosphere
Address: Big Hands
296 Oxford Road
0161 272 7779

Rating: 11/20
Breakdown: 1.5/5 food
3.5/5 drinks
4/5 service
2/5 atmosphere
Address: Hard Rock Cafe
The Printworks
0161 831 6700

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

JenniferFebruary 25th 2010.

I'm not exactly a delicate flower but I stopped going to Big Hands because it was getting filthier with each visit. Have the loos improved at all?

Still, it's got to be worth a visit if Steve Manford is DJing.

David CardenFebruary 25th 2010.

Big Hands is the best bar in Manchester. Fantastic jukebox, pretty (if occasionally aloof) barstaff, sticky floors, live music, and skanky toilets. Its what this city is all about! Hard Rock Cafe on the other hand, couldn't be further detached from Manchester (despite having Noel Gallaghers guitar on its wall)

NorthernStageFebruary 25th 2010.

Barbican bread? Brought all the way from the Barbican Centre in London. How novel.

Lovely write-up.

I used to work for HRC. Us staff said we always knew a sure-fire way to empty the restaurant: show them the way the food is cooked, prepared and handled, and by whom. Your chips will almost definitely have been re-heated. It's over-priced pap.

NortherngeezerFebruary 25th 2010.

One wouldnt actually go to either venue for the food now would one.

Kevin McNicholasFebruary 14th 2013.

My son's band (Victorian Dad) are having their album listening/ launch party at Big Hands this Saturday night.

Given what's been said about the cleanliness of the place, would you recommend I wear wellies?

I LOVE rock'n'roll... but I don't do scuzz.

paulsouthernFebruary 14th 2013.

Kevin, my lads band are playing The Roadhouse Saturday night, it's all about the sticky floors! Plug alert http://tinyurl.com/bf5yvgc The Rocket 7pm

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