Somewhere in this post, I feel the need to place the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The real truth is that the heading for the revitalisation of the already-great Common Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter should be “Evolve or Die.”
Since its opening ten years ago Common has provided a unique space that has defined the Northern Quarter's evolution into infamy. Common’s quirky layout, ever-changing dedication to wall artwork and impressive line-up of drinks has made this a favourite for beers on a lazy Tuesday afternoon or cocktails on a Friday night. It had perfected that rare mixture between creating an area that satisfies beer enthusiasts, post-work drinkers, night-out party people, solo Mac Book wankers or cocktail-wanting socialites. Common that was as uncommon as they came.
My mate Lewis would often say, “It’s not my favourite bar – it’s my favourite place” and thus we visited Common often.
Hence the fear when Common announced it was to close it’s doors for a few weeks for a refurbishment. The idea of change usually brings out the cynic in me, but this was a team that knew how to get it so right that they couldn’t get it wrong, could they? I tried to fight the cynicism when it came to visiting the “New Common” a few weeks ago.
Evolve or Die. The team behind the changes certainly didn’t seem afraid of the idea of change and are not afraid of dividing opinion.
Along with Lewis and our friend Chris, we arrived mid-Friday evening. The change hits you immediately upon arrival. The dreaded table service concept is here – the kryptonite of watering holes that turns them from social drinking venues to restaurants. As it was, we did want to eat here so we waited patiently to be seated.
And then began to feel foolish as we obeyed the sign like hypnotised geese. My mate Lewis slunk off to the toilet whilst I took in the new decor. It’s clean, it’s wooden, it’s fresh, it’s.... well, I don’t want to use the word soulless at this point before I’ve given it chance. But the quirky, ever-changing, vibrant artwork that gave it charcter has been replaced with council housing magnolia walls and a lot of wood. Somebody also decided an open kitchen was a good idea. I’ve never understood the idea behind open kitchens. Personally, I don’t require to see the chefs at work, nor do I need the bar to quickly fill up with the scent of sizzling pans until it infests my clothing.
“Sorry, are you waiting to be seated?” asks a worker whose walked passed these two bemused wanderers several times already. The staff haven’t got to grips with the idea of seating people as much as I’ll never adapt to being seated in Common. Still we are seated in the once main bar area. As I decide to wait until I’ve been in longer before forming opinions, Chris says to me as he surveys the open kitchen from our seat and before Lewis has returned, “It’s like it’s had the soul ripped out of it.”
Still, there is one remaining constant: a good looking beer choice that is housed on a temporary board (I’m assuming temporary anyway.) I have a Cloudwater Bergamot Hopfenweisse and peruse the food menu. There are some familiar and old favourites as well as new dishes, including a tempting Small Plates section – 3 for £12. Lewis and Chris opt for this offer whilst I have to choose my old favourite in the Maple Bacon Burger, just to make sure it can still match up food wise.
The place is still busy, vibrant and, now that we are seated, the staff are very helpful. It’s just like being in a good food bar, any good food bar, in any part of the country. One you could be visiting for the first time anywhere and thinking that it’s not too bad at all. It’s good. It just doesn’t currently feel like it used to.
The food arrives and we are all fairly impressed. The Maple Bacon Burger is still tasty though seems slightly healthier than I recall. The Small Plates all receive praise, with the Korean Chicken, Salt & Pepper Squid and Aubergine Baba Ganoush garnering the most plaudits. There’s a sense that these small dishes could become the signature of the place, with the opportunity to add, change or do specials to the line-up whenever they choose.
Once everything has finished and we’ve enjoyed the beer and enjoyed the food the outlook is positive. The space in the other rooms is used well with plenty of seating. They have plans to use the new spaces for different events and it will be interesting to see what happens. There’s still time to develop; for Common to find a new identity under its refurbishment whilst keeping its same popularity and old clientele. I'll be back again and again to see how it goes - or at least to still enjoy a good beer - so let's look at the positives.
I look at Lewis – Lewis who brought every guest, visitor and tourist to Manchester to Common because it was his favourite place – and see him staring at the understated wall art with a look of slight disappointment. I ask him his opinion, remembering that he was in the toilet when Chris gave his verdict earlier.
“It’s like... it’s like it’s had its soul ripped out.”
Let’s hope they find it again.