Street spirit: How a famous old Liverpool road was reborn
'People said I was crazy to open here'
Good morning readers, and welcome to the latest edition of The Post. Today we have a great feature by Robin Brown, who moved to Liverpool from Hartlepool for university 20 years ago and has never left. In that time he’s established himself as one of the city’s best journalists — a writer who cares deeply about the city and chronicles its life and people in well-crafted prose.
Some of you will know him from his past project Liverpool Long Reads, but since he started teaching journalism he’s been spending less time writing about local stories. We are looking forward to publishing much more of his work in the months ahead as we ramp our operation and open up our paid memberships.
Today’s story is about the renaissance of Smithdown Road, near where Robin lives. Closed pubs and flattened buildings meant that a decade ago the road was a sorry sight, but a new generation of small indies, opening up former shop units and powered by a desire to enhance the high street, have made it one of the hottest properties in Liverpool. Robin takes up the story below.
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By Robin Brown
“We’re not open today,” says Luca Sanvittore for the umpteenth time to another disappointed customer, as he discusses how he came to open a shop for one pound on Liverpool’s Smithdown Road. He acknowledges, with a smile, that it’s nice to be wanted.
His Italian street food restaurant Fritto has been open just a few days but there’s a steady stream of hungry clients looking for panzerotti, arancini and cannoli from the smart new unit. Situated opposite a cemetery (“I like it!,” says Luca), surrounded by vacant shopfronts and with only a video electricals shop and house clearance outfit for neighbours, Fritto represents the latest vanguard in the extraordinary transformation of Smithdown Road.
Fritto is the first business to take advantage of a scheme by Liverpool City Council to open a shop for a nominal rent, following a well-publicised plan to give first-time buyers the opportunity to buy a house for a quid. Luca smiles resignedly when describing the five years it took for his shop to come to fruition and, as yet, his is the only one of the £1 units.
Still, he has high hopes that it’s the start of another chapter in the rebirth of a famous Liverpool high street. “People said I was crazy to open here,” Luca admits, “but if no one takes the first step, nothing would get started. Maybe in a few years time this will become a cool area that everyone wants to be.”
Luca’s journey to opening a restaurant is hardly typical. Having come to Liverpool to study a Masters in criminology and crime prevention through environmental design, he’s uniquely placed to understand the benefits of innovative schemes such as the one the council has attempted here. “Restaurants can help the regeneration of an area because they can create a little community,” he says. “It feels like the independents down here made the area more desirable and there are more families now.”
This two-mile stretch of arterial Liverpool connects the edgelands of the city centre and borders Toxteth at one end to Penny Lane and the leafy suburbs of Mossley Hill at the other. Split by the Pendolinos whizzing up from London, Smithdown is literally two sides of the tracks. In between, you can find homemade kimchi, a record shop, a cereal cafe, a vegan restaurant, a microbrewery, Lebanese street food and £9 bacon sandwiches — even a restaurant reviewed by Grace Dent in The Guardian (that’s Belzan, which is “brimming with Scouse swagger”).
Smithdown is the one place in Liverpool where you can get all these things alongside Caribbean takeout, tinned Polish meat from the supermarket and a Dutch cap. “It’s a good mix of people,” says Luca. “It’s a melting pot — a very democratic, inclusive place. Smithdown Road is for everyone.” Almost completely absent are the fast-food and coffee chains that are ubiquitous on most British high streets.
The area is mentioned in the Domesday Book (its history is so varied and rich there’s an exhibition in its honour) but the high street hasn’t been around quite as long. It’s a classic Liverpool urban fare, with high-fronted buildings containing flats above and shops below. For decades here there were artisans (the old-fashioned type): tailors, watchmakers, wrought ironworkers and leather-smiths. But the grim years of the 80s were no kinder to Smithdown than they were to Liverpool generally and set in train a long period of decline.
By the end of the Noughties, whole streets at the western end, where the twin cathedrals of the city centre start to become visible, were abandoned or flattened — not by the Luftwaffe, like swathes of Liverpool, but by “disastrous urban planning, stuttering regeneration and economic stagnation”. Dozens of shop units were permanently shuttered. The Smithdown Ten, once a rite-of-passage pub crawl for Liverpool’s students, was reduced to six as public houses faded away or were demolished.
Livers may have benefited but the closure of each pub felt like another nail in the coffin. Students and young professionals, despite being a significant presence on the high street for decades, were ill-served by creaky pubs and a pot-pourri of faded general dealers, no-star takeaways and two-bit salons.
“Fried chicken shops, hairdressers and estate agents,” is how Andy Scott describes the area a decade ago. “It was grim.”
“It was a bad time,” agrees Kevin Kelly, in a soft Scottish burr. “All you could see was shutters. It was depressing.”
The pair both own bars on the high street and are behind the ever-growing Smithdown Festival. The former, working from a laptop and sipping a coke in the dive-y, homemade Black Cat bar gives the impression that much about running a pub has changed over the decades. Kev, who previously ran the nearby Kelly’s Dispensary and now owns The Handyman Supermarket, a larger venue that brews much of the draught beer on sale, does not. He has a hatchback parked haphazardly outside, stuffed with drinks from the cash-and-carry and he’s short on time as he considers what has changed in the last decade.
“Evil Eye came along and it added something different,” says Kev. He credits the Mexican-styled dive bar and burrito shack, opened by Andy in a former butcher’s shop (now under new management), with kicking off a rebirth on Smithdown. Black Cat was a former car-parts outlet; The Handyman takes its name from the hardware store that preceded it. A trend developed.
“It did open up a lot of people's minds about how you could turn what had always been shop units into really good places,” says Kev. Andy is modest but acknowledges that Evil Eye was the start of something real that built on a growing sense of community in the area. Why couldn’t a butcher’s become a bar?
“We had no idea what we were doing at first — we were just knocking down walls and seeing what happened. But you could see there were loads of people around here who had an appetite for something different — students, young professionals, locals. We always talked about making Smithdown Road more of a destination. Now there’s something on every block; there’s a critical mass that draws people in.”
Kev also cites the opening of Belzan — a small-plate ‘neo-bistro’ that was crowdfunded into existence in 2018 and opened on the site of a former laundrette — with changing attitudes to Smithdown. “All of a sudden I could eat a fancy cheese toastie in the place where I used to do my undies!” laughs Andy. Or a tonka bean rice pudding.
Kev, the ‘Dad of Smithdown’ according to Andy, says the appeal of the street is that while the individual bars, restaurants and shops have been important in its renaissance, it’s more than the sum of its parts. “Whatever you’re looking for, you can probably find it on Smithdown Road.”
Other businesses on the road cite rates relief as a catalyst for smaller businesses coming into the area, feeling able to take a punt on opening up without committing to huge overheads. Peter Gleave, co-founder of Neapolitan pizza parlour Little Furnace, says the lower business rates initially made Smithdown appealing. However, once he and business partner Ryan Herr started looking at potential premises, it became clear something was afoot.
“At the time we signed our lease, there was very little happening on Smithdown,” he says. “But while we were identifying vacant lots we noticed they were getting snapped up. We learned of plans for several other bars and restaurants — so we could feel something was happening.”
Charlotte Owens, co-owner of vegan restaurant Meatless, says attitudes to food and lifestyle have made trendy new bistros and bars viable too. “My family have lived off Smithdown road since the 1970s and the landscape has changed so much,” she says. “Students and young people in the area are much cooler: they value healthy food just as much as greasy takeaways; craft beer and gins as opposed to quad vods; quirky places to socialise and shop.”
Charlotte thinks that with the city’s trendier hot spots — the city centre and famous ‘bo-ho’ retreat Lark Lane among them — becoming saturated, people are looking for cheaper housing, new places to shop and food-and-drink to discover. Smithdown may be the edgier, slightly rougher cousin but there’s more than a whiff of sophistication alongside the booze and fags. “The always-cool Lark Laners have spread into the surrounding areas,” she says. “I think the area in general is becoming so much more cosmopolitan.”
Something else that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago on Smithdown Road was a record shop. But when he felt priced out of the city centre Graham Jones, owner of the Defend Vinyl record store, turned his attention to a former tattoo parlour on the high street. He’s since moved across the road to a former butty shop, courtesy of a tip-off from the window cleaner who does all the frontages up and down Smithdown.
“He knows everything that’s going on down here,” laughs Graham, beset by mounds of vinyl, powered by a pot of coffee and observing the man who may be the real Dad of Smithdown trundling past with his ladders and bucket. “He’s always telling me the street is on its way out!” Graham says that seeing friends and acquaintances open thriving businesses was an inspiration, something that paved the way for others to snap up the road’s unused shop fronts.
“Seeing these people having achieved their ambitions to open their business made me feel that it was something that I could do,” he says. Graham says without help and support from the Smithdown community, Defend Vinyl may not have got off the ground. “I did a crowdfunder and the response was so enthusiastic. I thought even with the people I know here, they’d give me enough business.
When Covid-19 and assorted lockdowns struck over 2020-21, the community rallied around to support the restaurants, cafes and bars on the road, which became bottle bars, takeaways and delicatessens instead. As a mark of the collaboration and mutual support that typifies the area, the Handyman made a signature beer for Defend Vinyl to celebrate Record Store Day 2020. All have survived as society has gradually reopened, and locals are looking to the future.
Andy and Kev are planning the latest Smithdown Road Festival, the first since before the pandemic. 22 venues will be involved, including the local cricket club and church. Beer and food will be a part of it, independent shops too. Lots of music. And there will be wrestling, because… who doesn’t love wrestling?
“Smithdown Road is more than just a road,” says Graham. “It’s a place where big things happen.”