Poor old Stoke. The North-West doesn't want it, and neither do the Midlands. So, since the fall of British industry, it's been left to fester in a sort of no man's land, known only for Robbie Williams, being sort of near Alton Towers and the fact people there call each other "duck".
But there has to be more to it than that. Some shit clubs, say? Let's find out, by touring the worst-rated nightspots Stoke has to offer, according to the actual humans who spend their spare time writing TripAdvisor reviews (all reproduced here verbatim).
The Reginald Mitchell, Wetherspoons - Ranked #376 of 469 Restaurants in Stoke-on-Trent, via
"One Wetherspoons to avoid. First impressions are of a typical wetherspoons however it soon became apparent that tables were not being cleared and at least 2 beers were off line but the gents toilets were stinking of urine and clearly had not been serviced for some hours."
"Worst Pub Ever!"
"Poor Reginald Mitchell would be truly mortified."
I mean, yeah, it's quite a dull place for an adventure into the unknown to begin; a place anybody in the country could draw from memory, despite having never stepped foot inside. But according to the reviews, this is a remarkably bad Spoons.
Standing at the bar, though, this could be any Wetherspoons in the country: objectively average. There has to be something wrong with it; people on the internet don't just lie. I need to look closer. I pace around, searching, and return to my seat to find something worrying.
What is this? The world's most slapdash whoopee cushion? Is someone trying to stitch me up?
Everything feels a bit iffy – I'm starting to see what all those anonymous keyboard smashers were on about – so I make a move for our second location, which is exactly 60 paces away. Say what you will about Stoke, but there's something beautiful about not having to get two sobering night buses to reach a place you half want to go to.
Chicagos – #4 of 11 Nightlife in Hanley, via
"Selling watered down Stella Artois. £4 entry fee followed by £1.90 for a Stella in a plastic piss pot. Friends also claimed Vodka was also watered down. Avoid."
"Disgusted by the poor service with security on Saturday night when I went for a nice night out with my friends after a busy week, when a girl started a fight with me for no reason what so ever, and the security men didn't even come over to get her off me. Disgusting!!"
"The place needs shutting!!!!"
HELLO, Chicago! What have you got for me, baby?
A bride to be and a dick straw. Good start. And from what I'm tasting through this plastic bellend, the drinks are absolutely not watered down.
As for the fighting, I can't spy any trouble, but I can spy something else.
You know how, in London's clubs, everyone dresses and acts like a teenager, but they're always just a severe camera flash away from looking like Eamonn Holmes, because actually-young people can't afford to go to clubs?
In Stoke, young people really are young. Stood next to them, I look like microwaved bacon.
Furthermore, these Bono, Springsteen and 2009-era Jesse J tapestries hanging from the walls prove that Chicagos Stoke really is a bastion of youth culture.
But it's midnight, and I'm up for a snack, so I'm off to the next spot on the list.
Reflex - #303 of 469 Restaurants in Stoke-on-Trent, via
"Listed on Trip Advisor as a Japanese Restaurant"
"A mix of neanderthal teens, inbred bottom dwellers and lecherous middle aged men tended to be the compliment of this fine establishments clientele"
"I was going to the toilets some one had smashed the glass on the door on the way to the toilet to fix this they just put a bit of cardboard on it there was dried blood on the cardboard, toilets very dirty discussting one toilet had a huge hole in the wall inside there was brown toilet rolls and very very dirty, urinals"
"Dirty filthy toilets stunk as soon as we walked in our feet stuck to the floor why environmental health have not shut it down I never no disgusting place"
I'm at Reflex, which, according to TripAdvisor, is a Japanese restaurant.
With its A-Team DJ booth, Solero Shots colour scheme and visibly extremely drunk patrons, however, it's unlike any sushi joint I've ever seen. Mind you, who am I – a man gagging for a midnight miso soup in Stoke – to be picky about where I find it?
"Evening! Can I get some miso soup please?" The bar lady looks puzzled, so I repeat myself. She nods, before pouring me a cup of something.
Maybe it's just my unsophisticated palette, but this tastes more like Febreze than miso. I'm now fairly certain this isn't a Japanese restaurant, but instead an 80s-themed club with a Christmas twist?
As the night plods on, I shake my hips to the tick-tock of "Barbie Girl" and "Cotton Eye Joe". Which, obviously, is fun – but I can't get the idea of the floors being sticky enough to warrant a visit from environmental services out of my head. I simply must sample them!
DEBUNKED. Besides the whole broken arm thing and the teeny receipt stuck to my elbow, having very little problems getting up here, and the locals are happy to give me a hand.
On top of that, the people in this place are generous with their booze and happy to let you ahead in the toilet queue if you're desperate. That "neanderthal teens, inbred bottom dwellers" comment clearly just came from a killjoy Tory.
In fact, maybe we could all learn a lot being a little bit more like the people of Reflex?
Sugar Mill - #20 of 64 Nightlife in Stoke-on-Trent
"It's new like a nursery than a night club, drugs are been sold every time there is a club night on, people been sick on the floor people fighting other people getting hurt. Dirty place clothes get ruined. This place needs closing down"
"You'll return home with a combination of booze, piss and if your luck maybe a little bit of sick on your shoes. If your a male out on the pull and looking for a girl who's pretending to be 'Indie' because she likes 'I Bet That You Look Good On The Dance Floor' by Arctic Monkeys then you'll be like a kid on Christmas morning in this place. There is a really hunky DJ in the main room though, he looks a bit like Steven Tyler from Aerosmith in his prime."
With the blend of miso soup and TVX Blue edging me higher, I'm ready to try the spot where the most hardcore Stokies do their partying. I'm ready for Sugar Mill.
Inside the toilets, there are no locks, but it's not the sniffle symphony of every Zone 1 or 2 pub loo from Thursday through Sunday. Just upset stomachs and arguments about who the stinky fucker is.
Beyond that, this is like being caught in a Kopparberg advert from 2006; Fratellis on the speakers, heavy shearling coats on the dancefloor, a happy place for anyone who spent their youth drinking Foster's and playing Ring of Fire to those Best New Bands CDs the NME used to give away.
And if there's one person responsible for creating this vibe, it's a man mentioned in a number of reviews: a man who needs no introduction.
Stoke's premier "Steven Tyler lookalike" DJ! As it reaches 2:30AM, Stevie has got me buzzing, ready to tackle what is apparently the Final Boss of any Stoke night out worth its salt.
Fiction (formerly known as Liquid) - #7 of 11 Nightlife in Hanley
"I'm currently stood in the que I was told I would not have to stand in as I payed £20 earlier, total joke I'm freezing and will miss the midnight countdown…. Wankers…duck"
"The staff are demotivated and unenegaged. They don't make you feel motivated for a good night at all haha."
"Absolutely atrocious. Avoid like the black plague"
First off: very into the fact someone was so incensed with this place that they logged into – or, better, created a new account for – TripAdvisor while still in the queue, and left a scathing review. Also into the person who signed off a roundly negative appraisal with "haha".
Anyway, the first face I meet as I enter proves that this, without doubt, is my kind of place.
Each generation of university goers has a middle-aged man with whom they associate drunk-to-the-point-of-liver-failure student union piss-ups with. For anyone who went to uni from about 2003 to 2010, it's Pat Sharp, Dave Benson Phillips or Chesney Hawkes. These days, weirdly, it appears to be Phil Mitchell.
Inside, it's half-first night of a lads' holiday at elrow, half end-of-year school disco, full of people living like they're never going to set foot in this place again.
And this, I feel, captures Stoke pretty well. A mish-mash of a city that embraces the weird and – whether you're a rock bar, student bar or an old man pub – lets you get on with it. At 3:30AM, that's exactly what I'm going to do.