The popularity of Newcastle Quayside has always been cyclical.
Fourteen years ago – February 2, 2000 to be exact – the area from the Pitcher & Piano to Swing Bridge and beyond was highly commended in the Royal Town Planning Institute’s national awards ceremony, where the project was a finalist among more than 100 entries across the country.
But a few years later the Quayside’s once vibrant night scene was beginning to wane.
Drinkers had found a new weekend playground in new bars lining Collingwood Street – the so-called Diamond Strip – and one-time busy hostelries like Casa, Offshore 44 and Julie’s suffered.
Now, however, the tide has turned and The Quayside is enjoying what many consider to be its third phase of revival.
But the new personality that is emerging is a much more mature version of the excitable party animal, hellbent on consuming countless trebles, it once was.
Many stalwart restaurants, such as Cafe 21 and Sabatini, survived the tide of change, and it would appear that it is the more discerning foodies and older clientele that are driving the current renaissance.
Forward-thinking developers have brought bars out of hibernation and the last year alone has seen openings for Kenny Atkinson’s gourmet restaurant House of Tides, Ladhar Leisure’s Hop & Cleaver – formerly Offshore 44 – and Redhouse, Popolo’s and The Bridge Tavern. Tiger Hornsby, formerly Julie’s nightclub, opens tomorrow.
Coming months will see Gainford Hotels’ opening of the luxury Vermont Aparthotel on the site of Chase bar and the adjoining building and discussions are ongoing at two former restaurants.
Developers’ plans are clearly having a domino effect, with one exciting project instilling the confidence to trigger another – yet why now? And can their popularity be sustained this time?
Rachael Frame, who has invested a considerable sum on turning former nightclub Julie’s into a new nighttime venue, Tiger Hornsby, believes its rising economic confidence and people’s general desire to explore something new.
“When I started planning Tiger Hornsby there was definitely evidence that people were starting to go out more and spending more,” said Rachael, 35.
“There has also been a trend for Quayside outlets to try and go that extra mile for customers, such as The Bridge Tavern and Hop & Cleaver introducing on-site brewing and Popolo’s specialising in cocktails.
“The Quayside had always been a good circuit within Newcastle but because of the recession, the smoking ban and the rise of the Collingwood Street and Grey Street circuits it died a death.
“However, those circuits are well-trodden now and people are looking for the next thing. That’s why, when I saw other operators were going in, I thought it was a good time to get something open.
“As an operator I wouldn’t want it to return to how it was 10 years ago – I’m looking at a different kind of clientele.
“A lot of damage can be done to outlets and much spent on maintaining premises when you have large crowds of drinkers, so I would rather it was a quieter circuit for the more discerning customer.”
Pub operators Greenan Blueaye were one of the first to reinvigorate a formerly derelict pub on the Quayside.
The firm spent £750,000 turning a formerly derelict pub into the city’s first brewery tap, in a successful partnership with Wylam Brewery.
The pub’s opening last summer came two years after the opening of the Town Wall in Newcastle’s historic Bewick House, and the firm used to run many a popular club night in the city, including super-DJ vehicle Shindig – but director Dave Stone admits it was pure chance that the venue forms part of one the most exciting regenerations the city has seen in a decade.
“It is great that the area has become a destination but we didn’t plan to be a part of the regeneration,” said Dave.
“It wasn’t particularly vibrant there when we opened last year. We just saw a great building beneath an iconic bridge and wanted to turn it from a pub/club into a brew pub – and if you do something good, people will come.
“So it was done very single-mindedly - and everything that has followed has been great.”
Their plan has evidently worked. At the recent Great British Pub Awards 2014 the pub won best newcomer for Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland – and goes up against five other regional finalists on September 11 for the UK crown.
Dave very much believes it’s the older clientele who are driving the area’s re-discovered popularity.
“I think it’s really beneficial that there is a lot happening – and there are some great offerings,” he said. “We don’t let in stag and hen nights – there is definitely a place for those crowds in Newcastle but it’s not the Quayside now.
“Let’s face it, a lot of people who are drinking in these establishments used to come to nights we used to promote.
“We’ve aged gracefully, there’s been a maturing of the palate. And we want somewhere to go out, that doesn’t necessarily mean wearing high heels and tottering along Collingwood Street.
“There is also a massive movement to pair food with artisan beers and people are starting to go off piste in terms of finding what they like, being more adventurous, and people know they can find that on the Quayside.”
One of the first venues to re-born was Redhouse. Barry Ladhar, whose Ladhar Leisure group oversaw the project, said: “We have never sought to recreate the Quayside of old.
“We see the regeneration as the development of a much more traditional pub and restaurant offering. Newcastle’s leisure reputation has been built on the individual styles of local operators and not on the national brand names that dominate other city centres. We want to retain that uniqueness on the Quayside and develop, with other local operators, something that is individual to this city.
“We envisage the area becoming a hub of casual, late night eateries offering top quality food and drink to those looking for a more relaxed but vibrant night out. As we have experienced in the past, in order to be successful, risks need to be taken and to some extent it was a risk to invest in the area at this time.
“However, we had a long term plan and know from experience that if investment is made in an area it attracts investment from other operators.”
Ironically it appears the heritage experts who once feared the Quayside’s image was being destroyed are finally getting their way.
This time 14 years ago the Journal reported how heritage experts, locals and councillors were worried the “growing number of pubs and leisure outlets on the Quayside are taking over one of the most historically-rich areas of the North East” and called on developers to call time on any further plans.
The Quayside that is emerging most certainly fulfils their vision – but it cost many businesses at the time, says Bob Senior, managing director of Utopian Leisure and one of the men credited with creating Newcastle’s party city reputation in the 1990s.
“I remember the Quayside from the 1960s when it was a place you wouldn’t park your car – let alone expect to find it intact later,” he said. “Back then the Riverside building was the fish market and Chase bar was an old garage – but then the town grew and circuits emerged.
“At its height, three of the biggest bars – Buffalo Joe’s, Baja Beach Club and Sea – were turning over £12m a year between them, but then it all turned south when two things happened at the same time.
“Firstly, the council pedestrianised the route down Dean Street, which stopped cars going down there so freely, and meant lasses in their high heels couldn’t get taxis there. And no new licences were given out down there, allowing the Diamond Strip bars to open.
“That, as well as the smoking ban, killed off the Quayside.
“The rules have been relaxed on cars going down there now, which has helped, and I think every building down there will be full before too long. I think it’s a good thing for the town but I don’t think it will go back to being as popular as it was.
“The customers are mostly over 35s and the problem with over 35-year-olds is that they don’t come out as often as then 18-25-year-olds. They come out early and keep going but they’re don’t venture out as frequently.
“I’m always ready to be wrong but it all comes down to supply and demand.
“That said, the one thing that has changed over the years is lack of investment on smaller towns’ drinking circuits, where the only people out are drunken kids.
“Newcastle is a regional capital and the amount of investment that’s gone into the city will attract people from further afield.”