In something a little different for the long weekend, Alex Larman and his travelling compeer, Boothby, set off north to discover Lancashire’s finest; a port city emblematic of Britain’s industrial past, the World Capital of Pop, a cradle of UNESCO sites in one city centre and a former European city of culture. Can they do it justice…?
I visited Manchester last year and very much enjoyed myself. It seemed to be the very model of the modern ‘Northern Powerhouse’ that George Osborne so proudly eulogised at the party conference later that year, full of sleek new restaurants, bars and hotels. However, it seemed wrong to overlook its neighbour and great rival Liverpool, a city which I’d always believed had the edge in terms of architecture, history and general disposition of its people. There was only one way to find out, and that was to head there, along with my friend Boothby, who knows a thing or two about well-disposed people.
After the comfortable two-and-a-bit hour journey from Euston, pleasantly lubricated by a couple of gin and tonics (‘Ice and a slice?’), we arrived at Lime Street, just next to one of the country’s great art galleries, the Walker. Unfortunately we didn’t have time on this occasion to linger, as we had more important matters in mind, which included checking into the city’s pre-eminent boutique hotel, the Hope Street. Charming and sophisticated in equal measure, it is located on a road that’s regularly voted England’s best. If not the country’s most beautiful, then it’s perhaps its best served; it’s hard to think of anywhere else that boasts a leading theatre (the Everyman), major concert hall (the Philharmonic), two cathedrals and a plethora of upmarket bars and restaurants.
It was to one of the latter, 60 Hope Street, that we ventured on the first evening in the city. It has regularly been described as Liverpool’s best restaurant, and the cosy-smart setting – half Georgian house, half upmarket dining experience – was hugely impressive. Perhaps slightly less impressive was the terseness of the welcome that Boothby and I received, with the table d’hote menu put down in front of us and a request to see the a la carte denied ‘as we’re changing it tomorrow’. After agreeing to a compromise of sorts between the set menu and the daily specials – although we were bemused by the response, when asked if the steak was good, ‘it’s steak, so you know what it’ll be like’ – we were at least beguiled by most of what we ate, which included excellent potted beef and clam pasta to start and then a top-notch cannon of lamb with Indian touches such as a bhaji and spiced potatoes, accompanied by a decent-value Pinot Noir. The only real let-down was Boothby’s strange dessert, a marshmallow cake that was too sickly-sweet; my Eccles cake, while hardly sophisticated fine dining, was a safe bet in comparison.
Retiring early after a sing-song to Gilbert and Sullivan, we headed down in distinctly inclement weather (‘remember your windcheater, Boothby’) to the Albert Dock, there to take in various cultural highlights including the Tate and the Beatles Story. The former, unfortunately, was devoid of an interesting temporary exhibition, whereas the latter treads a fine line between fascinatingly recreated evocation of 60s Liverpool and bizarre tourist trap. We particularly enjoyed the terse descriptions of the members of the Fab Four; Lennon was a ‘poet, visionary and politician’, McCartney a ‘philanthropist, family man and artist’, Harrison ‘a film producer, sitarist and gardener’ and, as ever, Ringo took the short straw with ‘joker and stylist’. Although I’d have thought that looking menacing through tinted shades while saying the words ‘peace and love’ with more threat than any man has ever put into them might have qualified.
We needed some refreshment after this, and firstly popped into Liverpool’s most ambitious recent opening, the NYL in the former Royal Insurance building. Reminiscent of the City’s most grandiose spots, it has clearly been conceived on a vast scale, offering space and size in abundance, as well as, thankfully, some delicious cocktails. My notes reveal that we enjoyed ‘the colonel’s Julep’, a Jessica Rabbit, the Red Lady Twist and a so-called Prin Juice, all of which were delectable and beautifully made. Thence it was off to one of the city’s most popular tapas restaurants, Lunya, which lurks within the ‘shopping and leisure district’ of Liverpool One. We’d heard good things, and we were determined not to be disappointed.
Thankfully, we weren’t. Winner of many awards, including North West restaurant of the year, it offers top-notch tapas at extremely reasonable prices, encouraging (tacitly or otherwise) diners to treat themselves to an extensive variety of treats, many of which can also be purchased in the downstairs deli. The meat, of course, is exemplary – Iberico ham, chorizo, secreto Iberico and a Catalan take on the local dish of Scouse are all top notch. But it’s a foolish visitor who doesn’t go off piste and tries such things as the deep fried Monte Enebro goat’s cheese or the clams steamed with Manzanilla and pancetta. Service is friendly and extremely accommodating, and one of our waitresses was someone who had been a journalist in Spain ‘but I gave it up because the money was so bad’. We nodded in sad affirmation of the truth of this claim, and Boothby gave a little sigh. Then he perked up when a glass of excellent Rioja wended its way into his palm.
In the interests of journalistic research, it was time to wend our way to a couple of the city’s most exciting nightlife spots, namely Motel and Santa Chupitos. Both offer a fairly similar experience; bare brickwork, a casual and friendly atmosphere and really exceptional cocktails, devoured with glee by the locals thronging the bar. Each had its own quirks and strengths; Motel screens films in their entirety, albeit silently (on our visit, Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors) and has a Sopranos pinball table glowering in the corner, while Santa’s, as it probably isn’t known, has little to do with the Tex-Mex horrors that its name implies by offering cosy leather booths that make it feel like a speakeasy. Each boasts its own signature drinks at remarkably kind prices. Motel dazzled us with a Rhubarb and Custard concoction before seducing Boothby with a ‘Smash My Rum Up’, while the 5 Dollar Shake in Santa’s – a sort of alcoholic milkshake – made us both come over quite skittish before remembering where we were. We wended our way back to the Hope Street, singing a tuneful medley of Beatles B-sides as we went.
On our final day, there was a sense of regret that we were leaving, but also the happy knowledge that we had saved the best until last. After a brief saunter round the university’s art gallery, where Boothby was much taken by an Audubon picture of an otter caught in a trip (‘you can see the blighter’s fangs!’), we headed towards what had been called the crown jewel in Liverpool’s dining scene, the Art School Restaurant. Run by the charismatic and almost obscenely talented Paul Askew, it’s quite clear that the vision here is not simply to offer top-notch food that ought long ago to have been rewarded with a Michelin star, but to engage with the local community by offering menus that cater for all budgets, from those who want a classy but inexpensive pre-theatre set price menu to the gourmands who are more interested in settling in for a tasting experience that will last for a good few hours.
No surprises for guessing which one we plumped for. However, even for a pair of sybarites such as us, there were innovations and treats on offer that make this a really splendid experience; there are virtually no other places I can think of that include a complimentary glass of vintage Charles Heidsieck champagne at the start, nor that have such splendid rooms, complete with enormous ceiling skylight that leads to a lunch soaked in light. Of course the ever-changing menu offers treats and fine cooking aplenty; when we visited, the season demanded fish and game, so fine lemon sole and seared scallop with stunning morcilla blood sausage were followed by breast of partridge and loin of venison with parsnip four ways, one of which was an ice cream of sorts. Matched ably and distinctively with wines for each course (‘not too much, as otherwise you’ll be drunk, but not too little, otherwise it won’t work), it offered a snapshot of all that’s best about 2015 Liverpool. Only the certain knowledge that we’d miss our train stopped Boothby and I from relaxing into a happy mid-afternoon stupor of coffee, petit fours and perhaps even a light cognac. Or three.
As we departed, we mused on whether Liverpool in 2015 is as slick or metropolitan as Manchester. To be honest, it probably isn’t, but then it doesn’t have to be. The areas in which it excels – hospitality, warmth, friendliness, the Beatles – are characteristics virtually unknown in any British large city, and if it can combine this with top-notch food, drink and accommodation, then it becomes an easy case of approval. Ringo Starr, on one of his comeback singles, sang ‘Liverpool I left you, but I never let you down’. If the city could speak, the Liver Building might declare, gruffly but with tenderness, ‘Feeling’s mutual, mate’.
For more information on what to see and do in Liverpool, head to www.visitliverpool.com.