So, five years ago, I applied to work in the Philharmonic Pub on Hope Street in Liverpool. I got the job and so the best year of my life began. The Phil is extremely famous, especially in the North West but also around the world. I remember our old boss telling us that we’d be telling people we’d worked there for years to come and it’s one of my jobs of which I’m most proud, even if I did have to clean the loos nearly every morning.
The building was built at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century and is a real gin palace as synonymous with scouse drinking as the wails of karaoke wafting from all over the city on any given night. The pub had begun to look frayed and tired around the edges and for years, the brewery that owns the pub (Mitchells and Butlers, Nicholsons’) had been talking about doing it up. Finally the pub closed for three weeks for refurbishment. My new housemate, David, used to be an A.M at the Phil so we were both rather excited about what the changes could be!
It was with much glee, we discovered we’d been invited to the Grand Reopening at the beginning of this week. We met up with another ex-Phil bar staff member and arrived at the pub. Changes were clearly in place, the tills had moved (perhaps you’d only notice that if you’d worked there!) and there are new beer pumps. There are a couple of new decorations and some new carpet. There are some new chairs, which is a huge thing as previous ones had been collapsing every which way. The most dramatic changes had been made to the upstairs where we went later in the evening for a meal. More on that later…
The staff have had their black shirts turned back into white shirts and the new black aprons worn at their waists are extremely smart. They look like proper waiting staff but if it were me, I’m not sure how long mine would stay well pressed and not covered in white fluff from the washing machine!! We had a selection of the real ales for David and Jo and I had an Aspall’s Blush Cyder. The ales at the Phil are one of its best features, wide ranging and changed frequently, there’s something for everyone.
The Phil has an enormous place in my heart. Over the years when I have been seeking solace or comfort, I have come to the Phil and crawled into a chair in the corner or leaned on the bar drinking gin and it’s a real port in a storm to me. For this reason, I was a little afraid of the changes. Afraid that they would have got carried away and attempted to turn it into the ‘chain wine bar’ so popular in London and Manchester. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. The pub is integrally still the same place, still as comforting as ever.
So to the upstairs and this is where fans of continuity and conservative restoration will have the greatest shock to the senses. Whilst it can’t be denied that it’s a definite improvement to the drabness that used to exude from the walls, to me, I can only see the boudoir of a scouse WAG. That’s not to say it’s unpleasant and it’s certainly the taste of some people but there is just a little too much sheen on the faux flock wallpaper and the glass in the chandeliers is a little bit too silvery. I say all of this admitting that it is a million times better than was and I’m certain the good burghers of Liverpool will adore it but if it were up to me, I’d probably have attempted to restore it to look a little like it would have done when the pub was built.
We were jolly excited to have been invited to eat that evening so we pored over the menu for a very long time, trying to decide what would be nice and different.
I shall admit now that I didn’t have high expectations. My best friend was once the chef at the Phil and he would be quick to describe the old menu as ‘ping cuisine’, there wasn’t a huge amount that didn’t come in a bag pre-prepared, even the roast dinners which I would refuse to take out of the kitchen. The only things that didn’t come in a bag were deep fried within an inch of their lives. Then slowly but surely came the appearance of the odd parsley leaf, we felt that things were seriously on the up, after a short while came quite snazzy vegetables and then the last time I worked there shortly before going to Australia, there was actual, real-life rocket on the plates as garnish! Well this was quite the day! For this reason, I have always been a tad wary of food at the Phil, it certainly wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t special either and it shares a mile square radius with some seriously good restaurants. But and I shall say this now so that you don’t switch off, things are much improved! The menu is very much standard pub grub fare but it’s pretty good!
Jo and David decided to go for Deep Fried Camembert wedges which I really wanted as there aren’t many things as comforting as warm, oozing brie but I had found Prawn Cocktail on the menu and I would go a long long way for a Prawn Cocktail. There is just something about the Marie Rose sauce and the finely chopped lettuce and the brown bread. Heaven in a sundae glass. And it must be presented in a sundae glass.
We waited a while for the food to come out by which time, we were chewing a little on Jo’s arm. This wasn’t so much an issue with the kitchen but that we were exceptionally hungry and given it was a trial run wouldn’t be a source for complaint. When they did arrive, they looked nice on the plate. The wedges were crunchy, warm, oozy and cheesy which is pretty much exactly what you’d want from the little critters. They came served with a redcurrant-ish jelly and they were mighty fine. My prawn cocktail came as desired. The Marie Rose sauce could have been a tad thicker and I would hazard a guess that the sauce was bought-in but it was very nice and the lettuce was chopped very finely which is a must. There was plenty of brown bread and all in all, it got my vote.
For our mains, Jo chose the cod loin wrapped in smoked salmon with a bisque sauce, which sounded lovely and I half had my eye on but I can’t order the same thing as other people so that was off limits. We got entirely too carried away trying to decide where the loin might be and ended with cod groin. I ordered the ribeye steak, cooked exceptionally rarely, I know it’s not very exciting but I really wanted ‘red meat’ and sometimes a steak can be a good barometer for a kitchen. David chose the unimaginative ‘BBQ Chicken’, if you had the run of the entire new menu, would you choose something that had been on there since long before I first worked there nearly five years ago! But he did and we must support him in that.Our mains arrived and Jo’s cod was absolutely delicious, the bisque adding a lovely creaminess to the flaky and salty fish. Oooh and the chivey/lemony potatoes were super, I could have eaten them alone. Excellent choice! My steak was cooked perfectly and the chips were good. I’m not particularly swayed by the added poshness of leaving the skins on but they were nice and I sometimes find the skin adds a roughage that I don’t want or need from a pub supper but these didn’t. David’s BBQ Chicken was pronounced extremely nice by him so it was a three thumbs up!
Next came pudding and we really should have given up at this point. But we’re fools and we didn’t. David went for the fairly restrained Vanilla Cheesecake with a berry coulis or jus or compote or some term for an amalgam of squished fruits in sauce. Josephine and I should have followed his lead and acted delicately too but we didn’t. Jo went for the sticky toffee pudding and I chose the brownie with ice cream. They arrived quickly and were very nice, Jo’s sticky toffee pudding being the best in show. My brownie was nice but far too dense and a tiny bit on the dry side but the ice cream helped and somehow I got it all down.
Now I’m not recommending the Phil as ‘THE’ place to eat in Liverpool. There are many places I would go instead in search of good restaurant food but should you be looking for basic pub food and if you were drinking in there, it isn’t bad at all. It’s a pub and city pubs, especially, don’t suit complicated menus and over qualified kitchens. It serves good value, warm and filling food which goes well with a pint or a glass of wine. As for the refit, the downstairs is looking shinier than it has done in a long time which is important. It’s a beautiful old building, the Queen of Hope Street, and deserves to be treated as such. 100 years of history that seeps from every brick can’t be transformed into a ‘wine bar’ overnight and I hope the locals would be as apoplectic as they were when Tesco attempted to swoop in next door. It’s still somewhere you can shelter from the rain or somewhere you can sit and drink with happy faces.
John Lennon once said of fame that the price was no longer being able to go and have a quiet drink in the Phil. I like that quote. I like John Lennon. I also like the Phil.
It reminds me of the theme tune to ‘Cheers’:
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows