12th November 2015

Review: The Pen and Pencil

Just another bar, or a good hangout with easy food? Felix Sanders explores

I’ve only been living in Manchester for five weeks, and before that I had little or no preconceived idea about what the food would be like. I had read one review that dubbed Manchester “a city that drinks first and eats after, with its mouth open.” To generalise a whole city’s cuisine is perhaps unfair, but I do not think it unreasonable to first call The Pen and Pencil a bar, and in distant second, a restaurant.

It gets its name from the now defunct New York steak house and hangout of Mad Men’s Don Draper. One thing that sticks in my mind about the series was the protagonist rarely being without a drink in his hand.

A wonderful old friend and I went on a Thursday lunchtime to assess the latest addition to the Northern Quarter. When you walk in the door it’s the bar that takes pride of place, with a sleek metal countertop and tiled lining. The seating is informal; benches and tables.

We found ourselves a table and after about five minutes were offered drinks. The strawberry and basil smoothie my friend ordered proved that, when it came to drinks, the barmen knew what they were doing. A coupling of flavours that made you simultaneously think tomato sauce and British summer. My coffee was as good—decent beans and it arrived at sipping temperature.

The daytime menu is an all day brunch, with sandwiches, in the style of modern American comfort food. The corned beef hash came with two fried eggs. Test any chef by his eggs—they’re simple, nothing to hide behind. Mine were good with sufficiently runny yolks.

When you order a Philly cheesesteak sandwich for £7.00, it’s a given that its going to be a little chewy, but when you put on the menu “tender strips of steak,” you run the risk of being done for false advertising.

The one surprise was the taco salad that we shared. The pico de gallo was delicious, so was the shredded beef. But the best part was the taco basket the salad sat in. A battered dome that provided an indulgent addition to the salad.

Despite the trend having stuck with the catering industry like a bad smell, I still hate eating off anything other then a plate so, when two of the three dishes came in wooden boxes I heaved an internal sigh of despair.

One thing my friend and I did notice was the quality of the music. We both have a place in our hearts for Wilson Pickett so were instant fans of whoever put together that playlist. The music in a bar or restaurant can sometimes be completely inconsequential, but in this instance it provided a nice touch.

On my journey back from the Northern Quarter to Fallowfield I noticed that amongst the posters at the Lidl end of the curry mile, Pen and Pencil have one offering “DJ’s ‘til 2am Friday and Saturday nights”. There’s nothing essentially wrong with a new establishment trying to deliver on all fronts—look at Soup Kitchen—but Pen and Pencil runs the risk of stretching itself too thin, and the food will end up suffering.

Also does Manchester really need a another DJ-centric bar?

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