What’s the story?
The Liver Building, celebrating its 100th birthday this very year, is known the world over for its striking design. But a decade before it was constructed, its Birkenhead architect, Walter Aubrey Thomas, was sitting there dreaming.
Not of the day that his building would be immortalised in a spectacular, 100th birthday lightshow on a World Heritage site (currently), but of the day he would be erroneously and widely credited with desiging that most beautiful of Liverpool boozers, the art nouveau Philharmonic Dining Rooms.
By the 1960s, the hotel, drawn up by Walter J Thomas had become a Liverpool institution. John Lennon is said to have complained that one of the prices of fame was "not being able to go to The Phil for a drink", although, as he was on a yacht in the Bahamas at the time, we shall take this with the pinch of salt it deserves.
The Phil is Grade II listed and boasts an interior long regarded as one of the most ornate in the country.
It has dark, wood-panelled walls with copper reliefs, art deco lighting and a beautiful mosaic floor and bar. The pub also has the spacious Grande Lounge at the rear of the building, which has just been restored to its original look as part of a multi-million pound refurb of the whole building. Then there is the first floor Dining Rooms. Closed or restricted for many years, it sees the biggest transformation of the makeover and is now open and operating full-time.
The compilation is on a loop, we learn,
put together by executives at the M&B
head office, located in that last bastion
of the good times: Birmingham
There are two smaller drinking snugs named Brahms and Liszt, which is not so much a homage to the musical pedigree of the Philharmonic Hall opposite, but, of course, cockney rhyming slang for being inebriated. Whether Walter Aubrey Thomas chucked this on for a laugh or whether it was it added later, we cannot be sure.
The gents“Please drink responsibly”, it says on the pub website, but if you don't you can always go for a rusty lee in what have been deemed the grandest gents urinals in the world. Women are only permitted to visit as part of organised tours, if they can hang on that long.
Walter didn't factor lady boozers into his grand design and the afterthought female toilets are, well, merely bog standard.
Who goes there?
Souls who don't go drinking regularly in pubs. Students on a date; tourists who are being guided around the city by brochure or a Blue Badger; construction workers, alone, having a swifty for the road. People meeting up at the start of the evening en route to somewhere else. Orchestra concert-goers looking for a more raffish interval experience. All quick in-and-out jobs.
Why go there?
You are one of the above, or you are hungry (see below).
More likely, you have met somebody on the internet who, according to their Skype avatar, is a dead ringer for Leonardo di Caprio/Cheryl Cole. You now feel it's the moment of truth and The Phil looks as safe as houses. It's big and public – and what it lacks in intimacy it makes up for in the pleasant dark shadows it throws over your multiple chins. Also, none of your mates will be in there.
Good, proven place to dump someone too.
What’s the craic?
You don't go to The Philharmonic because “Everybody knows your name/and they're always glad you came”, like in the Cheers theme tune.
The Phil has no discernable regulars propping up the bar exchanging witty banter. It is as anonymous as they come.
This was not always the case, before the smoking ban, before the competition from places like The Baa Bar and the Flute and Firkin - and certainly when the pub was in less corporate hands (it is owned by the Mitchell & Butler Nicholson brand).
Once upon a time they had a go at events. The karaoke in the back room - when it was still a tolerable novelty; the quiz which used to pull over 100 people in midweek. The Lounge was also once a live music venue, but now it is tables and seating, lacking focus, the long bar having been removed a few years ago. And, at the moment, there are no plans to change this.
In case this all sounds like a night at the museum, we must point out that there is constant music in here to lighten the ambience. It's soft rock mainly, but the choices are seemingly nothing to do with the staff.
No, the compilation is on a loop, we learn, put together by executives at the M&B head office, located in that last bastion of the good times: Birmingham.
A pint of premium strength lager in here will cost you a pretty steep £3.85, although they do keep a good range of cask ales which change regularly. If you are going to drink anything in The Phil, the money (£2.60-ish) is on these.
A glass of house wine will make your eyes water in both taste and price, at £3.90 for a large one, but you can purchase a bottle from a tenner.
This is where the the bulk of the corporate cash has been spent, on doing up that first floor dining room. Swishy pink wallpaper and matching pink curtains and a modern swirly mauve carpet. It's pleasant, light and bright. Pub tables give the game away that this is not going to be fine dining. That's ok, so what then?
A spokesman for the chain was keen to keep the word "gastropub" out of the conversation last month. Would a bold gastropub not have been a good idea?, we wondered. A new direction?
However it now emerges that, in common with many chain pubs, most of the food is prepared elsewhere and merely put together on the plate, on site. Steaks, burgers, sausage and mash, Nicholson-brand pies and and several fish dishes
We tried the popular lamb shank pie (£10.95) and cod in smoked salmon (£10.95). There was nothing wrong with either, and had we just come down from a mountain in Windermere, or arrived accidentally, late at night, in Northampton or some other terrifying place, we would have relished them.
But let us not forget, we are on Hope Street here which boasts some of the best restaurants in the North West, with many fine establishments serving cod for £10.95.
The Phil, on paper, is no common or garden chain pub. M&B do know this, and, on the up side, have been sensitive and courteous with the restoration. And on the very up side, Wetherspoons don't own it.
The safe choice for strangers in the city.
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