Now, here’s a thinker: What’s the most peculiar pub you’ve ever seen, visited or heard about in Manchester?
Temple Bar – the former Victorian toilet that turned into a the drinking den of choice for the city’s creatives – is a candidate.
The diminutive Circus Tavern on Portland Street, which boasts about being “The smallest bar in Europe [with] the biggest welcome in the world” is another.
Behind Closed Doors (which has 90s p*rn screening on the teles inside) and The Washhouse (which masquerades as a laundrette right up until the point where you manage to gain access indoors) are two other contenders.
But if we go way, way back to the 1970s, there’s a clear winner.
The North Westward Ho! was a boozer on board a ship at Pomona Docks – fitted with seven bars and a wardroom ready for private shows and functions.
The ship was originally moored down at Cornwall for years, but was purchased and moved north during the seventies before being given the green light for an alcohol licence.
According to Pubs of Manchester, it got a 12-month makeover that fitted the boat with a “plush bar and restaurant, offering six bars, bass ale, late licence and disco.”
Even more extraordinary was the fact that an RAF jet was “parked next door to act as an overflow venue, complete with dancefloor.”
North Westward Ho! was representative of an era where experimenting with new, unconventional nightspots was proving increasingly common. Even the football league was doing it; assembling a specially-made disco train and hiring it out club supporters so they could bust shapes to loud music en route to the match.
Piccadilly Radio youth presenter, Rikki Wright, published a book back in 2017 that celebrated some of the city’s classic venues – and North Westward Ho! made the cut.
“The ship’s steps were tricky for women in heels or platforms to negotiate, and it wasn’t unknown for those having had a good night on the Cherry B to fall from top to bottom, and yet, the drunken body bounces, so most of the fallers seem to have walked away with nothing worse than a bruised bottom” Rikki writes.
“Bruises were sometimes also the result of sliding down the banisters, in moments of wild abandon, and for the taller clientele, the result of heads coming into contact with low beams. The gangplank was likewise not easy to navigate after one too many Babychams…”
It’s hard enough to remember what a night out in Factory looks like right now, so the prospect of boogying aboard a ship is absolutely mind-boggling.
The bobbing nightclub lasted several years before closing in the early eighties.
Pomona docks have since been filled out by the twinkling skyscrapers of Media City, whilst the island itself is undergoing development – with plans to create 2,500 homes across 26 acres.
Inside the underground Manchester noodle bar serving Chinatown’s spiciest scrans
Over in Chinatown, there’s a relatively new little noodle bar that’s been making a big, spicy stamp on the city’s dining scene.
Its owner, Wendy Ren, hails from the Chinese province of Sichuan – a region that’s home to giant pandas, traditional Sichuanese opera, and some of the spiciest food going, thanks to its famous Sichuan pepper.
Also known as the Chinese prickly ash, the citrus-like peppercorn leaves a tingly numbness in the mouth and on the lips that you’ll either love or hate.
It’s an acquired taste, by all accounts – but those who love it can’t get enough. In fact, on my visit during a packed-out Wednesday lunch service, Wendy stopped to chat with an Italian family holidaying in Manchester who had been in to eat three days in a row. Now that’s an endorsement if I ever heard one.
She’s opened the restaurant alongside her Cantonese husband, Ken Chen, but the recipes are all hers – and on our visit she laughs with us about how it has taken him some time to get on board with her spicy food, saying: “he found out pretty quickly that he either eats it or he doesn’t eat at all.”
For big fans of spice, this is fast becoming the absolute go-to spot in Chinatown – and for those who aren’t so tough, don’t worry, because Wendy’s put some things on the menu for you too (and possibly, also, for Ken).
Called Noodle Alley, the restaurant is tucked away underground on Faulkner Street and beautifully decked out in red and green with little nods to the famous wide and narrow alleys of Chengdu.
Formerly home to China City, a real old-school Chinatown legacy restaurant, the space has a special place in Wendy’s heart.
She tells me that she and her husband used to come and eat here “all the time” when they first started dating, so the location really means a lot to both of them.
Chinatown restaurants aren’t exactly known for their glamorous interiors, and China City, Wendy jokes, was one such place – with the same old carpet, and the same old tables that had been used for the past twenty years.
Now the space is her own, though, it’s markedly different – lovingly decked out in cheerful colours, with little green windows, hanging lanterns, and bamboo rattan paneling on the walls.
Her story of getting into the restaurant business is something of an unusual one. Prior to opening Noodle Alley, she tells me, she spent nearly two decades working at The Marriott Hotel.
After seventeen years of service and the birth of her second child, she asked to go part-time but her request was refused – so she quit the very next day, and began building her own route to independence.
It was during the Covid lockdown, she says, that she really got into cooking group meals – making meals for her friends and spending hours in the kitchen busying away happily over her stove.
A friend with several restaurants in Chinatown suggested she start her own business, and the rest – as they say – is history.
Dish-wise, her menu spans a mouthwatering selection of dry noodles, soup noodles, street food, and small plates, including the likes of deep-fried wavy potato chips with chilli and Szechuan pepper and steamed beef strips wrapped with chilli paste, numbing Sichuan pepper, and five-spiced rice powder.
Dan Dan noodles, the Sichuan dish we probably all know the best, don’t feature – they’re a bit old news now, apparently, and Wendy has some cooler alternatives for us to try.
One is her Su Jiao Mian, a mixture of minced pork, sesame sauce, and house chilli oil, the other is the Wan Za Mian, a fiery mixture of spices combined with minced pork, soft yellow peas, and more chilli which Wendy says is “one of the most popular noodles in Sichuan.”
Apparently, if you’re eating with the cool kids in Sichuan, you should order this. Not one to argue, I dig in – and it’s safe to say her food is pretty damn exceptional. Almost immediately, I’m planning my next trip back.
Other signature dishes here include Wendy’s steamed beef strips, which can be eaten alone or dipped into one of her noodle soups, and a dish of ‘saliva chicken’ – a crunchy, cold, textural dish with steamed chicken, fresh chillis and ribbons of cucumber that sit swimming in a bath of homemade Sichuan chilli oil, so named because it literally makes your mouth water.
We also opt for a dish of pork knuckle with butter beans in an umami-rich pork bone broth. Not one for the faint-hearted, even Wendy seemed a little cautious to recommend this one, but as fans of ‘the weird stuff’ we insist – and it really ends up being a highlight of the meal.
We end up needing a little help with it. It’s a slippery bugger and I end up wearing a fair bit of the broth. before she returns with a knife and fork to cut it up properly for us.
That broth it’s in, though, is so beautiful I could happily bathe in it. Some might say I did, to be fair. As for the soft, succulent pork meat? When sliced into tiny morsels and dipped into an extra special Sichuan chilli oil she retrieves from the kitchen, is something else entirely.
If this is Sichuan heaven, then I’ll happily stay here forever. From plump hand-made dumplings stuffed generously with flavourful pork and drenched in chilli oil, to chicken giblet soup noodles, there’s so much on the menu I will be coming back for.
And for those who really can’t handle the spice, I guess I’ll be recommending the scallion oil noodles with soy sauce and crispy egg. No matter what you order here, I don’t think you can go too wrong.
Featured image – The Manc Eats
The Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons on upcoming arena tour, forming in Manchester and how the city influenced them
The Chemical Brothers are back and life is good. They never really went anywhere, per se, but they have a new album and a fast-selling UK arena tour, including a date right here in their musical home.
It always surprises us how many people are still unaware that the legendary electronic duo formed right here in Manchester and just how much of our city’s music influenced their unmistakable sound.
Having just released their new record, For That Beautiful Feeling — the tenth studio album in a career spanning nearly three and a half decades — it’s great to know that no matter how much they evolve, you can always spot their signature and that the Manc music scene an integral part in it.
Soon to embark on a fast-selling UK tour with a glorious homecoming at the AO Arena on 27 October, we had the immense pleasure of sitting down with one-half of The Chemical Brothers, Ed Simons, to chat all things past, present and future for one of Britain and the big beat genre’s biggest exports.
Back with more block rockin’ beats and another massive UK tour
So, how much are you looking forward to being back touring new music?
”It’s good to be going back indoors — it’s a big thing, you know, we play a lot of festivals; most of them are good but you get a much better sound [inside] and everyone’s in the same place and, hopefully, in the zone.
“[Post-Covid] A lot of people have still missed out on their first experiences of big loud music and big raucous crowds. Maybe some people are waiting to let go again and thrust into it.”
As for the album, first since 2019, what can you tell us about the direction you’ve gone in?
“Yep, well with performing live we really want to play the new music and just rest on what we’ve done before, we want to incorporate the two. It’s exciting for us. People have heard some of [the record] at summer festivals but now it’s is out there are lots of people that want to experience it for themselves.
“There’s always a core thing: some kind of secret thing between us about what we like about our music. It’s not so much a secret as it is the effect it has on other people but, hopefully, it’s evolving and the sound is still fresh. We don’t ever want people to say, ‘Oh, it’s just another Chemical Brothers record’, there has to be some quality to it.
“It’s a pretty rousing album and has the sense of people waking up again out of a long period where things still are difficult for a lot of people, but that sense of fragmentation that we went through in the lockdowns and what it’s like to come out of that.
“We made a lot of music in that period, but we’ve kind of concentrated on the stuff that feels the most rousing and has a bit of get up and provocation to feel alive again.”
Absolutely — the new singles like ‘No Reason’ definitely tap into that energy. What’s the reaction been like so far?
“Yeah, it’s been good. We had bits of and then had a sort of pressure to put it together into something we could play because we were about to DJ at fabric [in London] a few years ago at a charity gig for a friend of ours and the first time we played it at a club, even a really early version of it, you could feel it had an energy and sounded different. Great bassline too.
“It’s been rewarding and it’s been a really big live track for us this summer and we do a kind of live edit of it, which is fun and fresh.
“The track ‘Tell Me I’m Dreaming’ has also been a really big track. The visual that Flat Nose George [real name Adam Smith] and Marcus [Lyall] put together for that is really crazy, and, yeah, that’s been going down really well. I think that could be pretty huge when played indoors.
“We’ve had versions of it for a long time, but I think the first time we played it was actually at The Warehouse Project in 2021, I think? You know, when things were picking up again and it just immediately had that impact with the loops and the vocal.
“I just associate it with that WHP party in Manchester now and a few DJs have been playing it like Erol Alkan now too, so yeah, it’s kind of a big club track — a strange one but it works.”
Foundations in 0161 and how 90s Manchester influenced The Chemical Brothers’ sound
Definitely, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the AO Arena but what other venues have got fond memories of?
“Well, I know there’s a lot of new venues but given that we’ve been playing Manchester since 1990, we’ve done most venues. We even used to DJ at the Old Steam Brewery [later became ScuBar] which I don’t even know if that still exists [it doesn’t] but yeah we’ve played the Arena and both Warehouses over the past few years and we just love them.
“Victoria Warehouse and WHP are just amazing, you know. Manchester is our second home; we were students there and we’ve still got a lot of friends there.”
“I guess the best memory of the Arena”, Ed chuckled, “was when one of the security guards was walking us back after a said, ‘Corrr, I’ve not seen a crowd like that since Ricky Hatton was here”, adding that it’s a wise-crack that still gets brought up on tour and that all the gig staff here have a “proper good attitude”.
Not too bad a compliment, haha. What about other venues then? Any you’ve still got a soft spot for or have any lasting Manc music memories?
“Well, we were there with all the students and the early ‘Big Barn’ days at Manchester Academy, the indie disco, the house night in a house Thursday; the Wiggly Worm which Justin Robertson ran [went on to become the Millionaire Club] — we were just in and out of all those places and then ended up holding our own club nights.
“We’d hire everything from a swanky bar in town where we’d have to move all our speakers in, to setting up in Pizza Express in Didsbury where we used to go on and party as well.
Amazing. Tell us a little bit about the early days and how you and Tom [Rowland] came to meet at uni.
“Yeah, at the University of Manchester in 1989. We met really early on, pretty much the first week through a mutual friend. We were on this tiny little course on medieval history, so there weren’t many of us, and then I think we were talking about wanting to play the Haçienda, which at that time was the big thing and we’d all heard about it.
“So yeah, we just kind of became friends because we were the only people in this course and we just wanted to go to the Haçienda and I think we ended up going every Friday from September to Christmas. We were just so into the music that Mike Pickering and Graeme Park were playing, and just the whole atmosphere. We also loved buying records together.
“Tom was actually in another band at the time called Ariel, so our thing was just DJing together at first and then after making some more friends about a year into our course we started putting on these nights around town and we got really friendly with a lot of DJs who worked at Eastern Bloc like Robertson and [Richard] ‘Moonboots‘.
It always comes back to Manchester
Ed ended the chat by reiterating that, like many artists who come through here either as natives or otherwise, “there’ll always be a big Manchester connection.”
“We used to buy some really brilliant records that Moonboots would put aside for us and then when we came to London, we were suddenly DJing and playing all these cool records that no one else had heard.
“A really big part of our early career was building that bridge between Manchester and London, and, you know, we were around at the same time as The Stone Roses and we absolutely loved them — that first album had a huge influence.
“There was just that sense of if you’ve got an idea, just try and record it and get it out; there was a sort of can-do feeling about everything and we always feel indebted to that time we spent there. I think without being around all these people and artists printing a thousand white labels, we never would have been exposed to the culture and wouldn’t be coming back to the Arena 34 years later…
“Apparently the lecturer who did that medieval history course still starts his years by telling his students that they’re following in mine and Tom’s footsteps…”