A CATEGORY in the Manchester Food and Drink Awards that’s often contentious is Pub of the Year, where it's rare to find new hostelry openings. It’s a bit like the classical music repertoire – they just don’t make them like that any more. Our stereotypical vision of a boozer is a Victorian edifice, marble and tile magnificent or street corner bijou. Ignore the Thirties roadhouses and Sixties estate pubs, we know what we like, even if many beloved local is now boarded up or demolished.
Stark figures out this week from the British Beer and Pub Association tell us that sales of beer in Britain's pubs, bars and restaurants have fallen by the biggest margin for five years. Around 35 million fewer pints were sold in the three months to September compared with the same quarter last year.
So it takes a brave team to rescue an ancient hostelry, their mission “to bring back the local boozer”. The words of Lyndon Higginson, whose forte has been rum cocktails, tequila and all things Crazy about Pedro pizzas. That he bills the revamping of the Bay Horse on Thomas Street as ‘The Rovers Return meets Soho House’ does give a clue that a pint of mixed and a bag of soggy cockles will not await you at his latest quirky collaboration with long time Northern Quarter business chums Ross Mackenzie and Jobe Ferguson.
The Bay Horse has been a Manchester institution since the Georgian era. It was once The Bay Horse Hotel and a common drinking ground for factory workers. Alas, its period features went up in smoke in a 1990s fire, after which it was rebuilt and became The Bay Horse Pub, which never felt like a pub, which it does now. Quite surprisingly, even if the cramped dart board does smack of tokenism (stray arrows are already peppering the plasterwork).
The Abel Heywood pub, created from scratch round the corner by Hydes Brewery, feels like a pub by numbers. The boutique hotel rooms upstairs don’t help, while the ‘Not Your Ordinary Pub Food Menu’ is, well, just ordinary.
That’s not the case at the new geegee on the block, whose menu at first glance leans on pie crusts and the basement rotisserie. But the presence of suckling pig signals intent and the small plates menu beyond mini fish and chips and quiches offers some lovely surprises. We ordered just six dishes, £4 to £6 apiece. We asked for them not to come out ‘when they’re ready’ but paced. That happened and each was quietly accomplished – beyond the reach of any other pub menu in the city centre, the Chop Houses and The Wharf aside.
Eye-opener among them? Undoubtedly the duck heart with blackberry puree (above), a first for me with or without the sharp berriness. Crumbed, fried, gamey, slightly chewy, perfect with a Chapel Down English Pinot Noir (oh yes, there’s a small but interesting wine list, too).
We’d downed dimpled tankards of Runaway IPA with ham hock terrine, pease pudding and piccalilli – a Rabelaisian bruiser of a hock in truth. Tasty dark, sweet glazed ox cheek on sourdough toast also felt a heavyweight contender – for the full set go for pig’s cheek, faggots and black pudding and cider sauce (was that really Bill Sykes towelling his greasy jowls in the Dickensian snug?).
In contrast, toast again, from bread baked in house, was the base for wild mushrooms and goat cheese, earthy and light at the same time – our main image, quite lovely with the velvety Pinot Noir. As was an ethereally light trio of beef and cheese croquettes a Spaniard would be proud of.
The beer long sunk, the Kent Pinot was a surprise match for the pick of the lunch bunch _ a warm Scotch egg, the yolk oozing sumptuously, the sausage casing frisky and herby, not the usual leaden carapace.
There’s no dessert menu. You have to ask on the day. We both couldn’t resist a mixed berry crumble with the one true custard. A delicate serving again. A hearty on the surface parade of dishes but we left feeling light.
So a perfect ‘new’ pub? An antidote to lots of identikit NQ bars? Close. I’d like to see how quite a tight space copes on a busy evening. And more imagination on the beer side would be good. Yes, they’ve a fridge featuring a range of local microbreweries, some great, some less so, but the four handpumps are currently dispensing the likes of Lees MPA and St Austell Odd Job. It doesn’t set the pulse racing. The food certainly does in a soothing real pubby way.
The Bay Horse Tavern, 35-37 Thomas Street, Manchester M4 1NA. 0161 661 1041. Open daily from 11am to 1am Sunday to Wednesday and 2am Thursday to Saturday.