A few bars and venues in the wonderful city of Manchester, England
by Slug on September 28, 2013
Feeling a little peckish after our wander around Manchester and the Northern Quarter and with a long gig by Leonard Cohen to come, we happened upon a restaurant on the backstreets called SoLita (or South of Little Italy as the sign inside informed). Given that Manchester isn’t particularly renowned for having an Italian quarter I wasn’t sure that the New-York-theme particularly sat that well. If you have to explain an abbreviation then it doesn’t particularly work in my book; however the inside of the place looked nice and inviting, and it was fairly busy with people. The restaurant is one of those places where you can only book a table if you are in a party of more than 6. This always feels a little lazy to me, and I don’t usually go to places where they expect you to discover at the door whether you can have a table and where they expect you to wait for being seated. However, as it happened they had a table albeit upstairs. While the ground floor eating space looked nice, bright and lively with a lot of open space, brick walls and a lot of light, we were led into a quiet rather dark and small room upstairs. With its rather strange lacy wall covering, it rather looked like a place a sleazy nightclub owner would call his VIP room and invite a few innocent girls to party the night along to. When we left, we discovered a half empty basement which also looked rather nice and open, so it was a bit of a mystery why we had been banished to the sleazy dark part of the restaurant (with a couple of friendly lads who it turned out were waiters and with whom we had an interesting conversation about food). The restaurant boasts that they cook their burgers with charcoal making them sizzle at a particularly high temperature. While burger isn’t my favourite kind of meal, I decided that I just had to try out the speciality of the house. I went for the Catalan burger, which had a patty of meat slathered in cheese, red pepper, sausage and a tomato sauce. This being a New York speciality theme restaurant there were lots of ingredients on each of the meals, and if I’m honest it was a bit OTT with the net result that it all tasted a little cheap despite it obviously having good quality ingredients. On top, the burger was good quality, but they add marrowfat to it to stop it from drying out (kind of indicates to me that they cook it too hot!), so it tasted a little slimy and almost like it had been boiled in hot water rather than hot cooked. It did all kind of work but it all left me with the impression that they had made a little too much effort. My beloved for once chose rather better than me; and her simple Mackerel Salad was nice looking with a nice chunk of fresh fish, unadorned salad (she hates it when people assume she wants salad dressing on a healthy salad), and a perfectly cooked egg. The menu also offered plenty of sides, and in a "when in Rome" moment, I chose a side of peppers cooked in corn. I liked the contrast between crunch and soft cooked peppers, and the dish gave off a pleasing slow burn. I’m not sure how many extra calories I consumed but the side dish was very nice. We also had a couple of bottles of beer with our meal. To sum up, our meal didn’t cost the earth (I think the main courses were around a tenner each), but I found the experience a little too fussy and couldn’t help but feel that if they simplified things a little that the dining experience would be better. Just as a matter of interest, I was invited to buy some cocaine by a passer-by while I was on the doorstep of the restaurant waiting for my beloved to emerge from the washrooms. It’s not too often that kind of thing happens in the UK. I didn't take up the offer, but I guess it might add/detract to the restaurant depending on your opinion on such matters.
For many years the Manchester Arena was known as the MEN Arena as it was sponsored by the Manchester Evening News; these days it is the Phones 4U Arena, as the mobile phone company have obviously made them a better offer. The Arena is very near Victoria train station on the edge of Manchester city centre. The arena has a capacity of 21,000 and is one of Europe’s largest indoor arenas. Although the construction of the building is the standard breeze block and concrete, the venue rather reminds me of a Roman Amphitheatre in layout (don’t get excited, it doesn’t look like one). There is an outer ring on the ground floor from where corridors and steps up to your seat are placed. The bars (such as they are) and the toilets are located along this ring. In terms of food and drink then please don’t get excited; the place serves horrible cheap beers, lagers, ciders and wines. All of it is the basic of the basic, and they charge £4 a pint for it. Food likewise is of the hotdog or slice of pizza variety, and again is expensive and basic. There are no seating areas outside of the arena, so you end up leaning against a concrete wall in the drafty corridor huddling your plastic glass. Not fun, and so if you have chance, then go to a local bar until the band are about to emerge, rather than having to spend an hour or so in that soulless place.Fortunately, the venue itself is rather better for live music and the sound is surprisingly good for such a large venue and open oval space. Likewise the stage is movable, and so the venue makes efforts to make the place look busy; they just pull the stage forward and remove the seats that are behind it. That gives the place a little atmosphere. For our recent Leonard Cohen gig experience, we had cheap seats high and straight onto the stage. At around £25 each we felt we had paid enough and given that Cohen doesn’t offer too much of a stage spectacular (he is 79 so the most dramatic thing he does on stage is sink to his knees) we didn’t need to pay the £200 for a close up seat.The sound as I say was very good and clear, and the screens were OK, although they seemed a little smaller than some venues provide. Be warned that the steps up to the high seats are pretty steep and there might be a row of 15 people to walk past if you are late or have drunk too much than is sensible. We usually try to nab a seat that is at the end or close to the end of a row. It might mean you are disturbed a little more as people pass by, but I hate that "trapped" feeling of being in mid row. The seat size is adequate, but I did see two 20 stone gentlemen that had the misfortune of being sat next to each other and they did look something like a couple as they were squished pretty closely together. If you are a fatty, make sure you sit next to a slim friend. Summing up; I find the Manchester Arena convenient to find and get to, and the sound quality at the gig is very good and the place fairly comfortable. Just don’t arrive at the venue too early and so avoid the sterile rip off of the bar and food concessions.
by Slug on September 29, 2013
Rather than mention the city of Salford, most hoteliers prefer to use the words Manchester West. Even the Travelodge Central Manchester is technically in Salford, and the Manchester West Holiday Inn is actually to the West of Salford city centre. Unfortunately Salford is one of those cities that is difficult to love, despite the grand original Victorian buildings that abound. These days, the place is run down and our journey into central Manchester from the hotel took us past burnt out pubs, closed down and fenced off shops and scary looking railway bridges. While I’m sure we would have been safe after dark, we decided it was not worth the risk and paid £8 from Manchester city centre for a taxi to take us back to the safety of the hotel car park. Getting to the hotel by car was easy, it’s about half a mile from the motorway junction. However, as you might anticipate the hotel location is not particularly inspiring; a set of car showrooms, vacant lots and roads. There is a breakfast cafe opposite, which looked "honest" but which was closed on the Sunday morning we might have stuck our head through the door. It is the type of place where you would see a lot of truckers. There is also a dodgy looking pub up the road which did not look inviting. It amazes me that places like that stay open. The walk into Manchester city centre is about a mile and a half. Our room was actually quite comfortable and fairly recently done out by the looks of things. A red feature wall moved the room out of the bland category, and we were happy with the facilities bar the one tea bag that had been left (I actually don’t drink tea or coffee so it was actually adequate for us). The room smelt smoky which didn’t fill us with deep joy, but the smell had dissipated when we returned after leaving the window open. There was plenty of wardrobe space, a flat screen TV and the shower was good. There was a lux soap dispenser which was useful if hardly luxuriant. Check in and out was polite, quick and efficient. We returned to our hotel a little early, and so had a beer before bed. The hotel bar was really just part of the lobby area, and the hotel didn’t really make that good use of the space. There really was no atmosphere. Considering that the clientele is rather trapped in the hotel, I thought they might have made a little more of the bar, and we left after one fairly rapid drink. There was no one else in the space. We booked our night at the holiday inn as a bit of a treat as were out to see Leonard Cohen and couldn’t be bothered to get the late night train home. Our hotel room cost us £42 as a lastminute.com secret hotels deal, and to be fair for that kind of price we were perfectly happy with the arrangement.To sum up, the hotel was perfectly respectable and our room pleasant and clean. The location rather let the side down being a bit in the middle of nowhere but it suited our needs.
by Slug on October 5, 2013
One of my favourite traditional Manchester bars is the Castle Hotel based in the heart of the Northern Quarter on Oldham Road. There is always a lively atmosphere at the Castle Hotel and a huge range (and when I mean huge, I’m talking about a dozen) of well kept real ales on tap. Obviously, there is also the standard lagers (again actually there is a good choice), wines, spirits and a good range of herbal teas. The Castle Hotel has a mixed age range and so no one feels uncomfortable in the place. One beer that they always have on is Robinsons build a rocket boys! which was brewed by local rock band Elbow. If you are stuck for choice then it is a good stand by. The place has been open for 200 years, and it has a very Victorian feel. Although it is called a hotel, these days it is simply a pub with a function room upstairs. There are bands and Comedians on at the Castle from time to time and sometimes they are quite up and coming; make sure you arrive early, as the place isn’t that big. You can take a look to see if anything takes your fancy at the Castle Hotel website. The crowning glory of the pub must be with its original Victorian tiles. The outside has some, and the first small tap room has a wonderfully decorative bar. Unfortunately, it has never been empty enough for me to take a good photograph. In the little tap room is a juke box with many a hidden musical treasure. I made the mistake of putting a Blur track on forgetting the feud between Oasis and Blur from the mid 1990’s. Of course, this being Manchester there were a few grumbles and disparaging remarks against Blur as the music was being played. I do like a place where Music matters. Towards the back of the pub and behind the bar is a little dark and gloomy room which looks like it has never changed in the 200 years the pub has been open; it’s worth diving in here just to see if there is an abandoned table. It seems as though regulars would prefer to prop up the bar or stand in way of the corridor rather than sit in this room. Behind this room is another room with wooden floorboards, and which for some reason rather reminds me of an old school class room. It’s a very basic kind of place but with heaps of charm. The washrooms are at the back of the pub. To sum up, the Castle Hotel is nothing too special in one sense but it has that old style quality that I love and that nobody can create. The Castle Hotel is a friendly lively bar and we usually manage to sneak in here each time we visit the city of Manchester.
For a change we ignored the Northern Quarter of Manchester our regular haunt, and were on a hunt for a suitable lunch venue in the Spinningfields area of the city. Wandering though what looked a bit like a little shopping centre, we were lured into a small lobby area of a restaurant, Artisan, which sold pizzas, burgers, salads and the like. As weren’t in the market for anything too fancy, the place looked rather stylish and the pizzas were coming in for a tenner a head it looked a likely place to dine and we climbed the steps to upstairs. A rather stern woman sitting in a lobby area checked the reservations and decided there was space for us to dine. At this point, we still imagined the restaurant to be quite small, but as we rounded the corner, we found a whole floor of a stripped out office block awaiting us. The look and feel of the restaurant was very nice with lots of little bits of art to look at, and the stripped back look of the office being rather pleasing to the eye in a utilitarian way; it rather reminded me of the art gallery placed into the former East German parliament in Berlin for a few years after the Berlin wall collapsed and before the site was redeveloped.Service was very quick and friendly; my mother in law was in something of a dither about what to eat, and the waitress patiently waited for her to choose and giving helpful suggestions from the menu. The girl explained she had only secured part time waitressing jobs since leaving University a couple of years ago, although she did admit her degree (contemporary history) was really only a qualification for the service industry. One thing I really didn’t like was the rather groovy and huge 1970’s lamps above the dining tables; everyone banged their heads on the thing each time they left the table. It was a classic case of style over-riding function.The pizzas were perhaps a little too different for my preference, so I chose the donnar kebab pizza, while my beloved chose the American deli lunch pizza. We were both a little nervous about what we would receive, as these fusion food thingies rarely come out as well as the restaurant hopes. In the end, we were very impressed; the pizza base was as thin as a pancake and nice and crispy; the tomato sauce light and tasty and the ingredients not as heavy as we feared. In particular my kebab pizza had a lot of nice home cooked tomato sauce within it, and both had ample salad added to the topping. I had ordered a side salad (which was actually very heavy on the carrot and a little disappointing) but I needn’t have bothered. My parents in law had salad; the tuna was nice and fresh and very lightly seared only, but there wasn’t a great deal of salad with it, so my father in law finished his very quickly; fortunately we were able to donate a little of ours as it was generous. I was pleased to see a bottle of premium ale on the menu, although at over £5 for the bottle, the restaurant had placed a fairly hefty premium on it; we were only having one anyway, so it didn’t unduly trouble us. The wine seemed a little more reasonably priced. To sum up we enjoyed our visit to Artisan, although there wasn’t that much on the menu that I would have chosen to eat meaning that we wouldn’t visit the place very regularly. We liked the atmosphere and lay out of the place, the food was good and reasonable value and we had a nice time.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009