Manchester is an iconic clubbing city. Watch any one of those BBC back-in-the-day shows, where they wheel out Pete Tong and Sarah Cawood to get misty-eyed about smiley face T-shirts, and you'll hear how the place is still inextricably linked to acid house, The Hacienda and people taking just an extraordinary amount of MDMA. That scene went on to breed an optimism that would eventually inform festival, youth and nightlife culture around the world.
But a lot has happened to the city between then and now. It's fitting, for instance, that the red-brick building that used to house The Hacienda is now home to flats, candidly being sold using the slogan, "Now the party's over… You can come home."
Of course, the party isn't over: there are still tons of great bars and clubs in the city. However, by the looks of the reviews on the "Mancheser Nightlife" section on TripAdvisor – the most reputable of all city guides – there are also a whole bunch of very bad ones. To see them for myself, I hop on a MegaBus to visit some of the city's worst-rated clubs. And where better to start than the place you've heard your mate at Manchester Met earnestly and repeatedly compare to Williamsburg over 15 times: The Northern Quarter.
MILLSTONE - #733* of the 2,312-strong "Restaurants in Manchester" list (via TripAdvisor)
First, let's see what people who take the time out of their day to write online reviews of pubs think of the place:
"The place wasn't the cleanest of pubs, other drinkers weren't friendly and the toilets could be ranked the worst ones in Manchester."
"It attracts the nastiest, badly dressed, aggressive and rudest people in the otherwise amazing Northern Quarter. Bar staff are miserable and rude and not particularly easy on the eye when dressed totally inappropriately. Unhygienic too. The toilets I can only presume are for those that have to be punished. I put a shirt across my face when I went as it stank, was filthy, floor wet with urine due to idiots [not] knowing how to urinate and also not been cleaned in months. Shocking."
"The doorman completely lost it and was vile to us, reacting like some kind of grizzly bear on speed, pushing my sister-in-law, spouting some of the the most gross language you have ever heard to my husband."
So the toilets apparently leave a lot to be desired, according to these oracles of Manchester toilet culture. Better check them out.
Oh, they're literally completely fine. Who knew Manchester was home to so many anal toilet puritans.
As for the ""inappropriately" dressed staff, though it sort of looks like I've arrived at an open casting session for Dirty Den's replacement, there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. I don't know what "inappropriately" dressed in a pub even means – a suit of armour? A wetsuit?
Whether this is a coke gag or a forgotten Christmas decoration, it has me feeling the chill. Then I feel a warmth permeating the room, coming directly from the guy behind me.
"Are you the DJ?" I ask.
"Yeah. Anything you want on, pal?"
"Mistletoe & Wine?" He laughs and nods, smiling. Does he think I'm being serious?
Either way, my interaction with the guy has done wonders for my PR.
I ask my new friends for the most memorable thing about this place and a guy says, "The stench!" The vibe is good, so I decide to leave on a high.
It's 11PM and I'm walking through an alleyway that contains the Hard Rock Café, Tiger Tiger and Yates. People shout "Lego head" at me and ask for my ID. It's like I'm 14 again.
THE BIRD CAGE NIGHTCLUB – #34 of the 206-strong "Nightlife in Manchester" list (via TripAdvisor)
Let's hear from those online reviewers again:
"If you do happen to find a table, chance are you will get yelled at to move by 'Michael the Manager' (quite possibly the rudest man I have ever had the misfortune to meet)."
"We queued for 10 mins, all security staff were friendly and pleasant – but when we arrived at the till we were informed by a young gentleman (over 25 yr old though) that we were too old to enter and the night would not suit us!!! How very rude, yes we are all over 25 even over 35yrs of age but still enjoy going out and having a good night. We will not be visiting this ageist venue ever again – I do wonder if they have 35-45 nights? Probably not it wouldn't be politically correct to do that I expect, but ok to have 18-25 nights!!! Shocking"
Pushing through the large glittery doors, I pass dancing shapes in the pitch black. Crowd noise is being pumped out of small speakers in every corner, which strikes me as strange, but whatever; I guess this is the nightclub equivalent of Sainsbury's pumping out synthesised bakery smells.
I order a pint of Rekorderlig – a party drink, yes, but I have business to get to first, and that business is named "Michael the Manager", the apparent tyrant in charge of the place.
After a bit of back and forth with the bar staff, Michael the Manager makes his way down from his office.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes. Are you Michael the Manager?"
"I'm Oobah the customer. I read on TripAdvisor that you weren't a nice guy. I just wanted to see if that was true." Michael looks at me, numbly, takes a deep breath, holds his hand up and offers it for a shake. Seems alright.
Waiting for a second Rekorderlig, I feel a hand on my arse. A lady, dressed as Snow White, hugs me, giggles and puts a sash around me.
All of a sudden, I've joined a hen party.
I'm welcomed with open arms and led to the dance floor.
Inexplicably getting in on rounds of shots, having people clap me as I dance inappropriately – I'm beginning to enjoy myself. Then, all of a sudden, I'm collared by a bouncer. What on earth have I done? I see a gaggle of my fellow hens being ploughed off the dance floor. Then this happens:
Which, again, is odd. After three minutes they're done and come off stage, and we're allowed back on. I don't get it, and nor does anyone else. Looking around the room, I realise it's split down the middle – half of us who want to dance, half who are just here for the cabaret. So we're essentially playing a game in which 50 percent of the participants are pissed off at all times.
Sensing bad vibes, I flee.
BAR POP - #961 on the 1,829-strong "Restaurants in Manchester" list (via TripAdvisor)
"Walked in and walked back out. Bar staff to bust talking to their friends to serve. If more staff worked during the day it would be better. Toilets smell awful."
"The security would not let me and my husband in on a Friday night at a gay bar he said it was a regulars bar. He was very rude no sweat won't go back there are plenty of other places that we can spend our money down here."
"They don't take cards which kind of sucks. But I was impressed by the clubs tuck shop upon entering the main entrance, maybe all clubs should have them."
My pockets filled with coins, I burst into Bar Pop: I need to check out this Tuck Shop.
Flamin' Hot Doritos, Fruit Pastels, Boost bars – it's like being in a corner shop, with the added benefit of being able to buy a vodka-slushie at the bar. I know people might use this to complain about the whole "infantilisation of culture" thing, but they can honestly get to fuck.
Soon, I'm screaming along to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now", falling back into trustworthy arms.
They've got me. I feel incredible. Night club tuck shops are the shit. Another vodka-slushie and a Boost bar, please.
Hold on – I feel a sickness in my stomach. This must be one of those famous sugar crashes.
Why on earth would you provide a tuck shop in a club? Have you seen the way drunk people behave? I saw a guy eat four chicken fillet burgers in the Morley's on Peckham High Street at 2:30AM last week. We're fucking animals and we will eat too much sugar if it is available and then we will feel physically ill.
I stumble out of the door and into the night.
Lower than ever, it's time to go to ground zero: the Valhalla of shite.
FIFTH (FORMERLY KNOWN AS 5TH AVENUE) – The Worst Nightclub in the UK (vote conducted by The Tab, 2016)
"By far the worst nightclub in Manchester, actually I'll rephrase that…in the world, won't be showing my face there again, just how the whole place is run is terrible extremely rude staff and door team"
"This club is banging! The good tunes, the good girls, the cheap drinks (me likey). but i try and roll up a joint and the whole place goes crazy. fuck you fifth!"
"Extremely disgusted your bouncer has just tried to touch my willy. Please report this. It was the fat one who's wife has clearly divorced him"
After five checks of the content of my bag, the redness of my eyes and the pertness of my back pocket, I feel like I'm boarding a plane to a secure military base. But eventually, I'm wavedthrough.
Gigantic columns, jet black walls and thick smoke disguising any form or shape to your surroundings, it's an architectural anomaly. Kind of like Berghain if it had been designed by Mudvayne. Sipping £2 vodka-Red Bulls, I study the smattering of students posing for photos with people they've been leaving passive aggressive notes for over the past seven weeks.
Hours fly by, multiple vodka-Red Bulls go down.
Eventually, we're prodded out into the streets. Feeling glossy, I look around to see where the party is headed, but no dice. It's weird: unlike in London, I don't see any furtive after-party supply calls being made, any NOS sellers, or any pilled-up dickheads trying to talk to you about a podcast that changed their life. Instead, the cabs pull up, the takeaways fill and the streets empty within minutes.
Maybe I've just been in the wrong club – and if the reviews are to be believed, I definitely have been. Mind you, the online reviews – like always – meant little: the good thing about Manchester is that even in its "worst" bars and clubs, you're still guaranteed a decent night.