Down at the Pitch & Pint

An army tent on wasteland in Manchester has become Britain's coolest watering hole. Is this the pub of the future? OLIVER SWANTON investigates
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The hippest place to be seen drinking this summer is Canteena, a large tent on a piece of industrial wasteland in Manchester. Don't expect tabloid favourites Meg Mathews and Co to be sipping Seabreeze cocktails though - mainly because the choice of refreshment is confined to two kinds of beer, one in a tin can, the other in a plastic cup, or if you really pester the staff, a vodka. Canteena is a strictly anti-fashion, anti-corporate affair.

As leisure companies the length and breadth of Britain squander millions trying to outdo each other's designer bars, a couple of jokers have thrown up a big green tent the Ministry of Defence didn't want anymore. There are no plush velvet drapes, no large soft sofas, no guest list. A big name DJ doesn't play the latest pumping house music and there's no dress code. Red Rope bouncers definitely need not apply - if for no other reason than there's no door either.

Canteena is a reaction to one too many top 10 house hits; a rejection of the girl with oh-so-ironic angel wings strapped to her back and the boy in shiny Prada shirt and Gucci shoes. The primary motivation behind what looks remarkably like the film set from M*A*S*H, say the owners, is that they didn't feel comfortable hanging out anywhere else. "It works," says Steve Smith, "because it's for us. We're not some big corporation coming in and telling the kids what they want." It has struck an immediate chord: last Saturday, despite the weather, more than 1,500 people turned out, while every day Smith takes at least five telephone calls from DJs and bands offering their services gratis.

Canteena finds Manchester's trendier youth desperately hungry for something - anything - different. The clubs have been dead on their feet for years, the copious designer bars so cognate that one pint too many and you'll forget where you are when you stagger out of the toilet cubicles. The corporates have stolen the underground. The fight back starts here, says Smith.

It's a total breath of fresh air (and not just because it's outside), says Anna Greenwood, who's been coming down, rain or shine, since it opened in July. Most of all it's a break from flashy tackiness, she adds. "The bars out there," she waves her hand around absent-mindedly, "are just about tits and arse. It's like some sort of nudist camp. People who come down here don't feel the urge to reveal their flesh because they've got something interesting to say for themselves instead."

The people who come down here are predominately 20-something creatives. That they live, work and die in their trainers is just as well because the cobbled potholes are not conducive to little stilettos anyway. They've been wearing the urban guerrilla skate clothes for years and now they've got somewhere logical to be seen in them.

Sat on a wooden bench tucking into the pan-Asian cuisine by caterers to the stars (well, U2 and the Chemical Brothers when they're on tour anyway) is Simon Woodroffe, the founder and managing director of Yo! Sushi. "Market research," he reckons, "breeds mediocrity. Provide what you want and people quickly realise that it's what they wanted all along, too - they just didn't know it. When I did the first Yo! Sushi, which cost pounds 300,000, I thought it was two fingers up to Terence Conran who'd just spent pounds 6m. Now these guys are doing it in a tent for even less."

Canteena fits neatly into a long and influential Mancunian history that includes the world's first superclub, the Hacienda, and Britain's first post-industrial pub, Dry Bar. Every city in the country now has a Dry Bar Clone.

This time the interior design theme is, er, sandbags. Stacked high on three sides like a gun emplacement around the DJ, supporting the crash barriers draped in camouflage netting, they hold down the makeshift flagpoles with Canteena hand-stencilled over a green cross on a white background. What started out as an entirely practical measure (where else can you buy a very large tent cheaply?) has been driven to its logical and extreme conclusion, right down to the matching military green dustbins and the handy armed personnel carrier.

Projected high up on to a viaduct to the left are slides of First World War British recruitment posters, Forties Japanese notices, Spanish Civil War murals, American leaflets from Vietnam. To the right, images of blueprints for guns and record decks alternate on a cast iron railway bridge. Plastered everywhere are tongue-in-cheek slogans: flyers entitled "Better Fed Than Dead", the DJ booth inscribed with the mantra "Peacecorp Not Hardcore", the caterer's hotplates labelled "Urban Griller".

The location is perfect. Not so long ago this area of canals, viaducts and railway bridges looked like a bomb site, a burnt-out relic of Manchester's industrial past. The Castlefield area has since been gentrified; Simply Red's Mick Hucknall has opened a bar and further up the canal Banks' brewery spent a whacking pounds 2.5m creating a mammoth restaurant and bar complex that sadly feels just like the departures lounge at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam.

This is, Irish novelist Glen Paterson argued, the birth place of the Industrial Revolution, the meeting point of the North's three most important canals and later three rival railway and tram companies. Long before that that it was the Roman heart of what was then a lonely military outpost halfway up to the frontier of Hadrian's Wall. Now it's the world's first Urban Heritage Park.

In the middle of all that historical imagery is either the most exciting thing to happen to bar culture this decade or a flash-in-a-pan, one-off, never-to-be-repeated phenomenon no one will give a monkey's about this time next year. "Canteena is not a flash in the pan," argues Smith. "In the past three weeks I've been in Dublin, Liverpool and London and everybody is talking about it. It will translate to every city in Britain." Next month Canteena will appear in Liverpool as part of the annual music industry conference In The City, after which it will go indoors for the winter in as yet unspecified warehouse venue in Manchester.

Then next summer the national campaign will begin. Details are currently sketchy but one thing is clear: the brewers are in love with the concept. "Everyone is desperate to get in at the ground floor of any new youth trend," said an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous ("because I don't want to alert the competition to our interest"). "All Bar One is all very well, but if you're not hitting the credible opinion formers you won't reach the mass market with any sort of longevity." Next summer will definitely see a Canteena in London, possibly two. There'll also probably be at least one in Ireland, Scotland and maybe even Bristol.

Yet despite its originality, Canteena, like the summer festivals and free parties from which it takes inspiration, is completely at the mercy of the weather. Smith is undaunted.

"Last Friday we had a downpour and everyone just picked up their trestle tables and legged it under the viaduct," he smirks. "We had 400 people squeezed under canvas... and another 300 drinking under the bridges."





Pork scratchings

Beer cans



Trestle tables


Your mates


Open house





Bowls of olives



Powder rooms

Velvet sofas


Bolshy doormen


VIP rooms