Last week, Manchester's Northern Quarter was accused of reaching new levels of gentrification when it welcomed the city's first cat cafe.
The new, feline-friendly addition came as little surprise. In recent years, the formerly run-down area of the city centre has seen artisan coffee shops and trendy clothing stores open in place of the sex shops, back-alley dive bars, and daytime Indian takeaways that used to line its streets.
Which is one of the reasons why Q Cavern, a small business selling Caribbean food by day and operating as a club by night, now stands as such an anomaly in the Northern Quarter. Situated around the corner from the legendary Roadhouse venue, which closed its doors last year, Q Cavern is possibly the last place in the NQ selling good, home-style food at dirt cheap prices.
"The food's bangin'," declares August&Us, telling me he was first enticed by Q Cavern's £3.50 meal deal. "The owner is super friendly. When I asked for a pineapple juice, he made me a pineapple and raspberry juice cocktail and added a fancy straw for decoration."
Jazz Purple puts it simply: "It's just great food."
Other musicians, including Matthew Earnshaw, a Manchester-based DJ who has thrown parties in the city for the last decade, are drawn to Q Cavern for its intimate size, which suits underground nights that shun the rigid policies of bigger venues.
The place has an anything-goes quality about it, too—from the decor (a picture of Muhammad Ali hangs opposite a widescreen TV showing daytime talk shows), to the booking policy, which ranges from disco to house and garage nights, with headliners as wide-ranging as Alexander Robotnick and Heartless Crew.
"It's a bit bananas," Earnshaw surmises.
But before Q Cavern became a favourite of Manchester's underground music scene, it was a grocery store.
"We were called African Emporium back in 2004," recalls owner Nimba. "Then we became Tropical Taste in 2008, when we turned that into a restaurant."
The new name referred to the variety of cuisines that influenced the food Nimba wanted to offer, taking in West and North African dishes as well as Jamaican flavours.
As good as the idea seemed to be, Tropical Taste was a short chapter in the venue's history. With the recession came a need to diversify to survive, meaning that the restaurant soon became Q Cavern. Today, the menu has been streamlined, with a focus on classics like jerk chicken and curry. The recipes are ones Nimba has developed, proudly referring to himself as the "spice man."
He concedes, however, that the last few years have been tough for Q Cavern, both because of competitors such as Caribbean restaurant chain Turtle Bay and and the downturn in Manchester's city centre clubbing scene. The fact that Q Cavern is situated towards the tail-end of the Northern Quarter means many people just don't know about it, something Nimba attempts to remedy by personally advertising the restaurant's daily deals on the steps outside before the start of service. With its dark interior and lack of natural light, the restaurant is also a bit of an odd venue for a daytime meal—if just the right place for a nightclub.
Nevertheless, Q Cavern signifies a vital part of the Northern Quarter's identity—the part that now finds itself fighting tooth and nail to attract a crowd for whom £3.50 represents an espresso, rather than a filling lunch.
But it's this part—not the cat cafe—that I'd rather go to for lunch. Even if the lighting is on the dim side.
All photos by James Ramwell.