Hosting Tarantino, giving Thatcher the boot: a toast to Liverpool’s best boozers
Do you believe in life after pub?
By Jack Walton
When I signed the contract on my first flat in Liverpool, I had one key motivation. Was it the spaciousness of the place — with oh so much room to lounge in after a long hard day? No it wasn’t, I’d seen larger cleaning cupboards. Was it the vibe of the place? Natural lighting flooding through the windows, allowing my little army of houseplants to blossom and thrive? Nope, not that, it had the general aura of a borstel and within two weeks my lonely monstera had collapsed in on itself like Willem Dafoe getting gunned down in Platoon. Was it my charming new housemates then? No, it wasn’t that either. They were unbearable.
No, it was a matter of geography. My flat was positioned at a unique point on Liverpool’s axis, equidistant (and no, I didn’t have a very long tape measure to hand, but I could tell), perfectly equidistant in fact, between two very special establishments. The first: Roscoe Street’s The Grapes (sub-£4 Tuborg). The second? Rice Street’s Ye Cracke.
Pubs are the most important part of any city — if not the only important part of a city. And for want of a tram network, positioning yourself within striking distance is really the only advice I could give when it comes to (renting) real estate. Location, location, location. With my trusted duo within reach I could lay in my windowless hovel at night and be largely at peace with the world.
Not everyone is such a shrewd operator in the property market. You’ll often hear — from the old guard at least — that pubs aren’t really pubs anymore, and often that’s literally true, a ton of them are closing. Elsewhere, once-great establishments have been mauled. In the city centre, where the BeeHive once stood — a relic marooned amid Liverpool One’s sea of JD Sports and WHSmithses — its new frontage (and name: The Futurist) has all the charm of a provincial town escape room. Its matte black exterior and red sign exudes a foreboding presence on Paradise Street. Paradise, it is not.
But it's not all bad — not every pub in Liverpool now looks like the innards of a Laser Quest. If you want a random assortment of favourite pubs from local names, it’s easy enough to collate one: John and Paul McCartney: the Philharmonic Dining Rooms. The Queen of Scotty Road — (he’s a viral Tik Tok star) — Rubber Soul (not on Scottie Road, sadly). Jodie Comer: Bunch Wine Bar. Council leader Liam Robinson: The Ship and Mitre (a busy man with two small children though, he rarely gets to the pub so has “been doing a bit of homebrewing for fun” he tells us). His Lib Dem opposite number Carl Cashman: Lady of Man. Playwright Lizzie Nunnery: Peter Kavanagh’s. And so on.
Peter Kavanagh’s is a popular choice; it's a name that seems to crop up time and again when conducting our search for Liverpool’s ultimate pub. Built in 1844, the place has long been a favoured institution in the city, in part thanks to its licensee and namesake — Peter Kavanagh — who spent a whopping 53 years manning the pub before his death in 1950. Books have since been written about his tenure.
“Nights [at Kavanagh’s] can be hard to recall, for all the right reasons, but one that sticks in the mind is when Quentin Tarantino wandered in,” Playwright Lizzie Nunnery says. “He ordered a pint of ale which he sipped gingerly in LA style, kindly signed autographs for everyone shameless enough to approach him, then wandered back out into the L8 night. Afterwards, Graham the barman kept Quentin's pint glass for posterity.”
Not that Quentin Tarantino should be getting too carried away with himself if he’s reading. Peter Kavanagh’s is where memorabilia goes to live forever. Everything is kept for posterity: puppets, crocodile skins, bicycle wheels. There’s not a knick knack on earth that couldn’t find a nook to call home in there. “I think their rule is that once something gets mounted on the wall it never comes down again,” Lizzie says.
On a weekday night in Peter Kavanagh's, a man called Kevin sits alone in the snug. It’s warm enough, but he wears a 1970s football manager’s coat. He leans in to make a joke about Everton’s recent poor form but it’s the same one I’d heard him make to another man sitting nearby two minutes earlier. When I tell him I’m here to talk pubs though he looks more enthused. This is a topic close to his heart, and unlike Everton forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin, something that never lets him down.
“The thing about a proper Scouse pub,” Kevin tells me. “It’s all about the stories. Places like this are full of them. You’ll never walk in here and want for some old boy telling some tale you’ve heard a million times. But you never get tired of hearing them either, that’s the thing. Pubs are about the people and the stories they’ve got to tell. The things I’ve heard in this place! You wouldn’t believe some of them.” He laughs a knowing laugh. What kind of stories, I ask? “Oh, wow. I’d struggle to say off the top of my head mate”.
At least Richard MacDonald, a local tour guide, can offer one up. "My favourite personal story is I was there the day Margaret Thatcher died,” he says. He explains that sitting high on a shelf was a rubber Spitting Image bust of Thatcher. When the news broke of her death (in 2013), it was dusted off and balanced on the bar, a charity box placed beside her caricature head. For just £1 a pop, punters could dropkick the doll across the length of the bar. All the money collected that day went to charity. (As if for a semblance of political balance, MacDonald’s other Kavanagh anecdote involves a row over the Socialist Worker newspaper one day, which one furious regular declared a “Trotskyist pile of shite”). Anyway.
Back to Kevin. The concept of authenticity when it comes to pubs — whatever you take that to mean — is essential to him. There are pubs and then there are real pubs. And if that sounds like a somewhat personal and subjective metric to be using, then Kevin will tell you you’re wrong and that it isn’t. He uses the term “Stag-doification”, and it's an accusation that gets levelled at Liverpool a lot. Coyote Ugly exists, after all. But really, is there anything less authentic about the influx of 18 year olds — descending on Concert Square at this most optimistic point in the calendar — hailing from Stoke or Scunny or somewhere even worse still, eyes wide at all the possibilities of the evening in store and the rest of their lives after that: a foam party, a fight, a fairly disappointing shag?
Is there a science to this? The ultimate pub? You probably have a vague concept of the base metals. You probably describe them in terms approaching cliche: warmth, authenticity, characters, somewhere strangers can talk to strangers without seeming, well, strange. You probably have an even clearer idea of what it isn’t: The Futurist.
In his essay ‘The Moon Under Water’, George Orwell tried to apply some form of methodology. He laid out 10 requirements and they broadly match the above (with a few curveballs, like “a snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels…cheese, pickles and large biscuits with caraway seeds.") — old style architecture, staff who know customers by name, quiet enough to be able to talk — and so on. Ask any of the experts, then capital-D Drinkers, and they’ll pick out such a place. Maybe the Philharmonic with its world-famous toilets (John Lennon once bemoaned the ultimate price of fame as being unable to enjoy a quiet pint in the Phil), maybe Peter Kavanagh’s with its melange of knick knacks, maybe another.
As the knees of the evening buckled, Abi and I headed to Ye Hole in the Wall on Hackins Hey. Why? Because it's very old — the oldest pub in the city, in fact. It’s much quieter up here. The stampede of student feet up and down Bold Street is faint in the distance. It’s a lovely venue — a little on musty side with those dark maroon carpets and velveted bar stools — but any fresher who suggested it to their brand new gaggle of mates would be staring down the barrel of at least one term’s social pariahship.
As Liverpool’s axis had shifted, so had its drinking habits. Dale Street on the ‘other’ side of town used to be bouncing, but a kind of gravitational pull has pulled many of its customers from under its feet. Last year, a hardy collective of its publicans decided to fight back, creating a “Beer Quarter” to promote the art of drinking (on Dale Street) in tricky economic times. The Denbigh Castle’s Fiona Hornsby told me she’d traced the history of her pub back to 1815, making it at least 207 years old. William Williams was the licence holder back then, apparently. “We hope he’s looking down now going: ‘ah right — that’s good that,’” Fiona told me.
But if the tides of time have left Dale Street in a pub-rut, Scottie Road in the city’s north has fallen head first into a gaping chasm. Once home to more than 200 pubs, last year its final bastion — The Thorstle’s Nest — shut down. The Thorstle’s barman told the BBC it had once been like “a poor man's Las Ramblas” along Scottie Road. Against this backdrop, many of the places that do continue to thrive are often working miracles. “It’s about saying to people, ‘look we’re still here,” Fiona told me of the Dale Street cohort. “We haven’t gone anywhere’”.
Back into town. A twitchy-eyed octogenarian huddles in the doorway of the Roscoe Head sucking a rollie. Some students in Palm Angels hoodies arrive and stand close by surveying the place. They loudly discuss how it’s probably not the place for them but decide to stay for a pint anyway, and the man looks huffed, as though they’ve bundled into his place of worship, loudly declared organised religion a farce, but stayed for the communion wine. I ask him what his favourite pub in the city is. “Here”.