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Surge Of New Northern Quarter Bars: What's The Problem?

David Blake with who's opening where, how it came to be and why it's not a problem

Written by . Published on April 17th 2014.


Surge Of New Northern Quarter Bars: What's The Problem?
 

IT'S SAID that if you stand still in the Northern Quarter for long enough a bar will form round you.

Where once there were vagrants, ‘mixologists’ now roam the streets, primed to plunge into the next new cocktail-cum-‘speakeasy’ venture. They don’t have to wait for long. Probably about four minutes.

You don’t hear people sipping martinis in The Alchemist lamenting on how good Spinningfields ‘used to be’, or Castlefieldians sat in the sun on the terrace of The Wharf crying ‘I wish this was all still a festering shit tip’.

Ok, that’s a bit much. It’s more like every four days. So is the area overheating, are there too many watering holes saturating the area? There is a standard assumption that this is the case (not least on Confidential last year), certainly with the more vocal locals.

Tib Street, Northern QuarterTib Street, Northern Quarter

So are the majority of those living and working in Northern Quarter day-in and day-out raging, steaming at the ears with every new bar opening. Well they’re not. Quite the opposite in fact.

“It’s getting busier yes,” says Helen Hipkiss, PR Manager at the Lowry Hotel and Northern Quarter resident for eighteen years. “But it’s also getting better. Just ask the people who have lived in the Northern Quarter for a long time.”

Northern Quarter resident Amy Phillips agrees, "It's true that there has been a huge increase in bars and restaurants here in the past few years, but I think the main impact has been to drive out the ones doing it badly and encourage those doing it well."

Cane and Grain, coming to a Thomas St near youCane and Grain, coming to a Thomas Street near you

Who's opening where?

Let’s start with the flurry of new Northern Quarter bar activity in recent weeks. Like hedgehogs, they’re all crawling out for the warmer months.

Breathe in.

April 2014 has seen the opening of El Capo, a new ‘tequila and tapas’ bar on Tariff Street from the team behind Whiskey Jar (which is next door), the launch of Wood, Wine and Deli from the House of Adventure Group (Simple, Cord), and the opening of Last Stop (or LS:NQ) next to Lammars on Hilton Street.

There’s more…

The team behind NQ favourite Kosmonaut are set to open a new bar and restaurant, PLY, just off Stevenson Square at 26 Lever Street in the summer. While, beneath the new PLY, comes a new bar from the chaps behind Liquorice on Pall Mall and Damson restaurant in MediaCityUK, Guilty By Association in May.

And finally…

From the people who brought you such venues as Black Dog Ballroom, Liars Club and Dog Bowl comes Cane and Grain, a two-floor ‘rum, ribs, bourbon and beer’ venue in the old Thomas Restaurant and Bar site on Thomas Street.

That’s it for the newbies. At least, we think that’s it. It's hard to keep up.

The shift east: Whiskey Jar, El Capo and KosmonautThe shift east: Whiskey Jar, El Capo and Kosmonaut

Back in 1989 there was only Dry Bar on Oldham Street (and increasingly rundown boozers), the first bar of the new generation, Dry was opened by Factory Records and the group, New Order, as a pre-Hacienda club fuel stop.

Presently, there are approximately 53 bars in the Northern Quarter - 50 open and three on the way - we know because we've just been out to count them (By the way we're defining the Northern Quarter as the area from Shudehill to Ducie Street and between Piccadilly Gardens and Great Ancoats Street).

The area has undergone some heavy cosmetic work in the past decade or so, cultural stock has soared.

Like Hoxton or Brooklyn that have gone before, the Northern Quarter has about-faced, gentrified, mutated from accelerating decline in the 80s and 90s into an an area of Icelandic coffee houses, ‘multi-platform’ underground-bars-cum-galleries-cum-stage-cum-ping-pong-halls and Actuaries called Andrew paying £2000 a month for a penthouse loft in a once knackered old mill.

Stevenson Square building, earmarked for the new PLY and Guilty by Association barsStevenson Square building, earmarked for the new PLY and Guilty by Association bars

But how did this come to be? The narrative of zero to excess. 

How do you go from one modern bar in 1989 to over 50 in 2014? Well, the tale of the 'hip' city neighbourhood goes something like this…

The arty types come first. Mainly because rents in dodgy damp buildings are low and art doesn't pay. But arty types require soul, they want heritage, character and a touch of grit. Alleyways, graffiti and crumbly old stuff. Northern Quarter ticked the boxes.

Arty types need cafes to hang out in, this draws the others: poets, musicians, writers and socialists wearing hemp. Then come the studios, galleries and small indies selling easels, quills and vinyl. Before you know it, the rum old boozer on the corner has a new crowd, so the musicians start gigging there.

(Ok, this is a bit of fast forward exaggeration, some of those easel and paint pot sellers have been there since the nineteenth century: Fred Aldous dates back to 1886.)

It only costs thruppence a weekIt only costs thruppence a week

Restaurants and bars pop-up, but the walls aren't peeling because they've spent more on design than food. The old guard twitch. Pints in refurbished pubs climb over £4. Before you know it, it's £15 for a main course, it's seventeen deep at your local which you can't get into anyway and as you mope home past another 53 bars there's a hen carrying a huge inflatable dong squatting behind a Biffa.

It's all gone to shit. The area is now 'bar street'.

Or so the naysayers would have you believe.

Northern QuarterNorthern Quarter

So what's the problem? Well, there isn't one...

At least, not at street level, from the folk that actually live and work in the Northern Quarter. Not residents, not business owners, not councillors, not shop workers, not bartenders, none believe the area is going to the dogs. So where’s it coming from?

“Probably from the Chorltonites who taxi in at the weekend,” says one record shop worker, “They come in Saturday night, get scared of people and run back to the safety of the ‘burbs telling everyone the Northern Quarter has lost its way. We don’t think it has, and we’re here all the time.”

“What do people want?” asks Hipkiss. “The area to return to a time when you couldn’t even get a pint of milk? It has totally changed for the better. Okay it can be too noisy for some but it’s great to be able to step out of your door and have so many options.”

Amy Phillips, Northern Quarter resident agrees, "Most residents love how it's become. Lively, vibrant, varied. For the most part, the people that live here aren't going to complain about new bars, because most of them are here for that very reason."

Thomas Street, Northern QuarterThomas Street, Northern Quarter

Cleo Farman, owner of Odd Bar and the Blue Pig restaurant has been in the Northern Quarter for nearly a decade. “It’s changed immeasurably since we opened in 2005. There was only Dry, us, Common, Bluu, Centro, Cord and the Bayhorse. There were hardly any residents or trendy flats.

"Ok it used to be more laid back, more undiscovered, but I think the area has retained its creativity and character, the creatives, artists, designers, photographers and musicians are still here.”

So she's not worried about the influx of new bars?

“I think all the different bars and businesses moving in are a good thing. They’re reviving old, unused buildings. Breathing life into the area and creating a ton of variety. It’s boosted the identity of Manchester no end. London has Soho, we have the Northern Quarter.”

Untapped Thomas StreetUntapped Thomas Street

Franco Sotgiu, co-owner of Solita restaurant isn't too worried either, "I'd like to see more restaurants, but more bars aren't necessarily a bad thing, quality independent venues add to the mix.

"Some purists worry about spoiling the character," continues Sotgiu. "But there's still huge room for development."

He's right. Even on Thomas Street, the aorta of the Northern Quarter, there's a good chunk of dirty, knackered, shuttered potential. So too on Oak, Salmon, Turner, Little Lever, Back Turner, Faraday and Dale Street.

In fact, if you scratch beneath the surface (or take a long stroll around), you'll find as much untapped space in the Northern Quarter as tapped.

More prime undeveloped spaceMore prime undeveloped space

Surely then, if there were to be any concern, it should come from a local councillor. Well no not really.

“I’d like to see more retail but I’m not worried about the numbers of bars as long as we’re attracting the right kinds of operators and they’re communicating with residents,” says Kevin Peel, City ward councillor and Northern Quarter resident.

“It’s about diversity," he continues. "We don’t want a whole street lined with bars, we want independent retailers, restaurants, coffee shops. But I think currently there’s a good mix.

We're some way off 'bar street' yet then?

"Try to get in Home Sweet Home or Teacup, they’re busier than most of the bars. Go for a walk around Affleck’s Palace or drop into MadLab and you’ll see that the Northern Quarter isn’t solely a night time economy.”

There must have been a severe rise in residential complaints though? "Not markedly so. Yes there's been an increase in complaints but not relative to the number of new openings. The key is to attract conscientious operators, involve residents and compromise."

The retailers plough onThe retailers plough on

That's residents, business owners and councillors unworried. There's more unruffled feathers too. So many unruffled feathers, we didn't have space for them here.

Surprisingly, crime, an issue much discussed in the direction of the Northern Quarter, has not shown any significant increase in recent years (according to police crime mapping). Actually, the 'problem area' of the corner of Thomas Street and High Street has seen a dip in crime rates.

Shudehill tells a similar tale. Tariff Street, which has seen a 300% increase in new bars in the past year alone, shows a drop in incidents.

All things considered, apart from a spot of noise (and a Night and Day debacle or two), it's a very safe and gratifying place to live and work.

So what's the problem? Crime rates are low, the area is a hotbed of culture employing thousands of people and unlike King Street and Spinningfields, very few shops are closing down.

It's important to remember that cultural life breeds off economic success. As one sage and long-standing Thomas Street business owner remarks, "Do you think the area would have such character and variety if not for investment and development? Would it bollocks."

The area has changed. Of course it has. Hasn’t everywhere? You don’t hear people sipping martinis in The Alchemist lamenting on how good Spinningfields ‘used to be’, or Castlefieldians sat in the sun on the terrace of The Wharf crying ‘I wish this was still a lumber yard'.

That’s because before all the regeneration, quite frankly, it was rubbish.

Follow David8Blake on twitter

Wood, Wine and Deli on Tib StreetWood, Wine and Deli on Tib Street

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

Poster BoyApril 17th 2014.

Thanks for the lesson on gentrification...

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousApril 18th 2014.

Oh hush, it was an interesting read.

AnonymousApril 17th 2014.

Stopped being interesting at least 5 years ago...

Wayne PhillipsApril 17th 2014.

Lamars = Discoteque Royal, Tib St Tavern = Picadilly 21. There not all trendy and bohemian!

Mike ChannonApril 17th 2014.

That's just how life is. The "hen carrying a huge inflatable dong squatting behind a Biffa" is unfortunate, but just a price NQ must pay for its success. Pioneers have probably already started searching out new 'emerging' area. North or Great Ancoat's, west of the Irwell, one day Deansgate may host the hot new bar of choice. As for independents, when does an independent start being a 'chain'. Zecol (Trof) probably have more floor space in MCR than all bar Weatherspoons and Living Ventures. I think it's more about the quality that than the independence. That said when the first Starbucks opens we're all doomed!

Dave TaylorApril 18th 2014.

NQ is a top place to take any out of towners for a good day/night out. The new back street bars are awesome, with the likes of Montpelliers, SoLita etc. As you mention there is also a huge potential for loads more new ventures. The more the merrier, keep em coming !

mditaApril 19th 2014.

The Northern Quarter is simply the best place in Manchester day or night. The whingers on here will always whinge about it as they always do whenever an article about the place is posted. Celebrate it!

ColApril 19th 2014.

As a Northern Quarter resident for over 3 years I have seen a massive change. Seeing the mass of derelict mills buildings on Dale st turning into car parks or rubble piles makes me sad. I welcome the hip venues and quirky retailers. But I miss the days when the Northern Quarter was Manchester's hidden gem. The popularity of the NQ comes with its own problems. Now a days I come out of my Dale St flat onto streets that are paved with trampled rubbish and bin bags that lay all around. There is also still a way to go to clean up the drug dealing and seedy side of the NQ that overflows from Picc Gardens.

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