Thirsty work

A good night out can be measured by more than just the quality of the drink. Design Week checks out some of the nation’s freshest watering holes in search of an antidote to stagnant pub design

Glasgow by Ross Hunter, Graven Images

Drinking culture in any city is influenced mostly by habit. Those habits are modified by fashion, by legislation and by climate. But mostly it’s in our genes and it’s in our heads. It’s that culture/nature thing. There is something instinctive about just knowing that Thursday night is the start of the weekend. In some cities they like to sit and sip, but standing and swallowing is altogether more thrilling. Bizarre opening hours, curfews, and laws against drinking in the street are usually just heavy-handed ways of interfering with nature.

Drinking in Glasgow can be characterised by three distinct types of bar.

First, there are the great boozers, men’s pubs, designed for standing, unchanged for decades and often defined by the Rangers/Celtic divide. The best are The Horseshoe, The Mitre, The Steps and the Old Toll at Govan. Every so often one of the stragglers gets devoured by a gluttonous brewery to be made-over in cheap brass and velvet, fake tiffany or stained glass. Once they have gone they never come back. Characteristic features are lots of standing room, sometimes a lounge for the ladies, no view in from outside (it’s usually obscured by high sills and etched glass) and narrow tables fixed to the floor. These kinds of bars don’t do much in the way of tapas, but they probably do a microwaved pie or a pickled egg.

Second, there are breweries. It’s a duopoly – Scottish Brewers (S&N) and Tennents (Bass) rule. In spite of efforts from Alloa and Belhaven, the big boys have such deep pockets that they don’t need to care. They love nothing and are slaves to barrelage. JD Wetherspoons has made it to Glasgow in the last year with its huge Counting House – English beer for 70p a pint and food that’s cheaper then the chippie. Its conversion of one of the city’s finest banking halls is a tawdry violation. It’s carpeted with cheap furniture, brassy tack, chirpy sayings and bankish memorabilia. A few years ago churches were being hurriedly made into temples of sin, now it’s banks. Will it be schools next?

Bass did a Pitcher & Piano thing and it is beautifully made, but seems very quiet. So is Branson Coates’ Bargo – a spectacular space which is still waiting for its moment in spite of Nigel Coates’ beautiful furniture, silver leather and a bar structure reminiscent of the shorings which support subsiding tenements. Across the road another Bass concept will polarise Albion Street. And it was all started by little Café Gandolfi and furniture designer Tim Stead’s inimitable chairs.

The worst aberration of the year has been the replacement of Big Beat’s flagship, Maxaluna, with a nasty southern concept called Edwards. Self-consciously trendy at first, Maxaluna was, after three or so years, just starting to become more interesting. Edwards represents a kind of drinking culture imperialism which is every bit as pervasive as McDonalds. An overgrown home-counties cuckoo, it’s even worse than the fake Irish bars. Down with the English theme pubs! The grapevine says that Big Beat is on the move, with a big new site nearer to the city centre. If it rises to the challenge then we have something juicy to look forward to.

And last, the liveliest, likeliest lads in the drinking sector are, of course, the independents. They range from super dodgy to quite rich and, with their ears pressed closely to the bar, are constantly jostling for position. They are the barometers of mood, economy, aspiration and style. During the last couple of years nothing very much has been happening in Glasgow. Edinburgh (and Bathgate) has been making the running, catching up quickly after decades in the style wilderness.

Budda, designed by Quinn McMahon Design is new, comfortable and Monkey Bar-ish. It nestles under the Hatrack Building and promises to be the last in the five-year vein defined by Mojo, the Lounge, Bar Miro and the Kama Sutra curry house. The finishes are timber, stone and render, with candles, deep maroon and pink, and a Flintstones-esque bank gantry.

Café Latte almost carries off a good clean idea, which is a simple local off-pitch café. But the first impression of fresh food and great coffee is tainted by some made-up story about the founder. From the same people, Babaza is more of a late night drinking place than a nightclub and does a moorish whorish thing, like a Moroccan brothel. Coffee has made more ground than beer in the last year. More punters now ask for latte than cappuccino at the kiosk in St Enoch’s shopping centre. It must mean something, but I don’t know quite what.

Something big is about to happen in Glasgow. Our CAD system, at least, is white hot and by the end of this year, there will be half a dozen new places which should test the legendary Glaswegian taste for the new.

Manchester by Judge Gill Associates

Over the past three or four years Manchester has witnessed an explosion of new bars and restaurants. The city’s socialising areas are becoming more defined as the bars and the areas develop. The foremost example of this is Castlefield, “Britain’s first urban Heritage Park”, as it has been labelled, lying on the periphery of the city centre at the intersection of the Bridgewater and Rochdale canals. Castlefield was, until three or four years ago, a derelict area of town consisting of disused railway bridges, burnt out warehouses, areas of wasteland and a filthy canal and towpaths.

The regeneration began in early 1991 with the opening of Dukes 92 (so called because it sits on the Rochdale Canal’s 92 lock), a beautiful conversion of a two-storey Georgian brick stable that was intended to appeal to a broad cross section of people. Designed by Stephenson Bell, Dukes remained in isolation in Castlefield for several years until a second bar, Atlas, designed by Simpson Associates, opened in Christmas 1993. Since then Castlefield has undergone major rejuvenation with the council reinstating towpaths and bridges and the number of bars increasing to four – all owned by independent entrepreneurs. The result has been an array of design-led bars all by Manchester architects and designers. Each bar is quite different in style but all are contemporary in manner and detailing and each attracts a varied crowd from a slightly older, arty/media type in Dukes and Atlas, to a younger/pre-club crowd in Nowhere, designed by Judge Gill Associates, and Barca, by Harrison Ince.

The number of bars in Castlefield is set to double with a further four due to open this year. Quay Bar was the first of the new batch to open its doors on 23 April. Designed by Stephenson Bell Architects for Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery, the new-build bar is not a typical brewery pub. Instead, it is a striking piece of modern architecture partially visible from street level (a tasty little flat for the bar manager is all that can be seen from the main road – makes you want to give up the day job!) with the bar area located down on quay level.

Judge Gill has just undertaken a commission for a bar, to be adjacent to Quay Bar in a converted warehouse, Castle Quay. This warehouse was, several years ago, the first to be converted into luxury flats but the basement remained empty. The bar is intended as a relaxed drinking place, not a pre-club venue, aimed at the 22-30 age range. Like most of the Castlefield bars, Abaco (as it is to be called) has a generous external terraced area leading down to the canal side – a perfect summer hangout.

The Gay Village, also located just out of the city centre, has seen incredible change over the last few years. Once a predominantly gay area with the majority of the buildings in a state of dereliction, the area now has little available space left. The first bars to open were owned by gay people for gay people; but news travels fast, and the most recent ventures are part of larger non-gay organisations, the latest being the London chain Slug and Lettuce and Oliver Peyton’s Mash and Air – each attracting quite different clientele.

Offices on Canal Street in the Gay Village have just been sold to a London company believed to be a Belgo-style restaurant operation. Continue to the end of Canal Street and you find the latest offering from Malmaison. Bigger and slicker than Glasgow and Edinburgh, the newly opened hotel offers affluent Mancunians a secluded watering hole.

Throughout the rest of the city centre, big chain bars can be seen opening up. Over the last year several chains have moved in: Pitcher and Piano, JD Wetherspoons, Edwards, Dome Café Bar, Huxters, Pierre Victoire, Hogshead, and Slug and Lettuce. Many of these brewery chains have undergone face-lifts pitching them closer to the “designer bar” but making them more acceptable to the unadventurous mass market.

So can Manchester sustain this number of bars and restaurants opening? With the explosion of warehouse conversions to trendy loft apartments, the number of residents moving into the city centre is increasing dramatically. These residents are image-conscious, affluent young professionals who want to socialise in quality environments, so the boom of design-led bars and restaurants looks set to continue. A possible problem lurks with the big chains recognising the potential within city-centre locations and driving up property prices out of reach of the independent entrepreneur.

London by Matthew Valentine

The London drinking scene is, like everywhere else, becoming dominated by pub chains – Slug and Lettuce, with its format recently tweaked by Agenda Design; Bass-owned All Bar One with original format by designer Philip Harrison; and Pitcher and Piano by The Design Solution. All provide a familiar environment with long bars and plenty of specially designed timber chairs and tables to accommodate the clientele.

At the other end of the scale, many of the high-profile restaurant openings of the last couple of years have made an effort to include a decent watering hole – Circus in Upper James Street and Covent Garden’s Livebait are just two. And, of course, there are the private members clubs which have been a fixture for some time.

Following the public taste for modern design, illustrated by the boom in design and lifestyle magazines and television programmes, the latest generation of bars provide an environment poles apart from the traditional British pub.

While often independent operations, many of the bars are following similar design themes – clean lines, white walls, plain tables, sofas. A scattering of art, some interesting chairs and the quality of the cocktails on offer may be the only way to tell one bar from another.

The laid back atmosphere is popular. Alphabet, in Soho’s Beak Street, won the Evening Standard’s Bar of the Year award last year for its environment. You need to arrive early to bag one of its sofas or even one of the armchairs, made from old car seats, in the basement. And Soho is dotted with similar venues, all full of staff from ad agencies, design consultancies and publishing groups. The rest of London is catching up, with formerly neglected areas of the capital, such as Shoreditch and Holborn, sprouting bars at an alarming rate – and a different clientele appears happy with the same style.

Further from the centre of town residential areas such as Clapham are getting in on the act too. The move highlights the lack of originality in the bar scene – one as yet unopened bar I found on Clapham’s Northcote Road last weekend even had the same pictures on the wall as Soho’s Alphabet. But it is not all doom and gloom. Bar Coast on Lavender Hill, is aimed at 20-30-year-olds and was the first of what is now a chain of 14. Bold colours, strong images and special lighting effects add interest to this contemporary interior while soft seating and bar stools cater for customers either wanting brunch or simply a late night drink.

As sure as a hangover follows a good night, coffee shops seem to follow bars. There is increasing competition for the punters’ coffee-break money – and who can be surprised when people will fork out 2 for a cappuccino just because it’s in a well-branded paper cup?

It seems that every street in London has a Pret Manger, with design by The Formation. But while the number of outlets suggests it to be the market leader it could be accused of lagging behind in design terms. The facia of the chain is starting to look tired compared to some of its rivals. And those rivals – Aroma, with its format by ORMS, Seattle Coffee Company by Arthur Collin Architect, Coffee Republic with original design also by The Formation, et al – are in expansive moods too.

In fact, nobody in the coffee shop sector is sitting still. There seems to be a competition in Soho for the silliest named beverage Рleading to a proliferation of tall, skinny mocha de-caff lattes with hazelnuts and vanilla. But, on a wider note, many chains are rumoured to be reviewing the design of their caf̩s.

Time will tell which will make the grade. In a competitive market-place there is bound to be some fallout, even if the apparent trend for an entirely liquid diet ends.

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