Mothballed for nearly two years by the pandemic, Manchester’s legendary Sam’s Chop House re-opens on Valentine’s Day 2022. If corned beef hash be the food of love? 150,000 thousand dishes sold in the last five trading years, that may be the signature dish at the Pool Fold comfort zone, but my favourite has always been the steak and kidney pudding, washed down with something Burgundian and red recommended by epic sommelier George Bergier.
My most memorable lunch there some 15 years ago involved two bottles of Gevrey Chambertin in the company of one Fergus Henderson, whose ‘nose-to-tail’ proclivities were sated by devilled kidneys after a soothingly rich starter of Omelette Arnold Bennett. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival had appointed me his minder ahead of a personal appearance. I was left wishing I could carry off an ‘Old Soho’ wide pin-striped suit the way he could. And remain as sober.
In a previous Sam’s era Laurence Stephen Lowry always lunched in a suit, now immortalised by the life-sized bronze statue at the bar, inspired Instagrammable homage commissioned by current owner Roger Ward. The re-opening is testimony to Roger’s infatuation with the Manchester institution he first brought back from the dead in 2000. His then partner Steve Pilling established the retro Victorian culinary ethos we hope will continue in its renaissance under new head chef Scott Munro. He did an internship at cutting edge noma in Copenhagen, which is a bit worrying.
Still a sampling of Scott contribution to the relaunch menu, intense Guinness braised beef short rib with a Roscoff onion stuffed with tarragon, Gruyere and mushrooms (£14) convinced me it might nudge aside a Sam’s Classic or two. Looks a safe pair of hands… and maybe much more.
A fellow newcomer in this dog-friendly establishment is Mooch the American bulldog, acquired by Roger during lockdown. I’m sure he’d enjoy the ribs, but the big lad is on a diet!
As a long-time associate of the Chop Houses, I’ve seen a lot of chefs come and go. Just as I’ve never seen the interior look better now after some meticulous tlc that has restored faded decor without sacrificing the quirks. There remain gargoyles guarding the main fireplace and scrawled messages of bonhomie from Samuel Pepys still adorn cornices.
A vital fixture has agreed to return, too. Just for Thursday and Friday lunchtimes the inimitable Bergier will be on hand if you need any wine matching recommendations. The word legend gets flung about too much; in the case 75-year-old Pole/adopted Mancunian it is fully justified. Watch out for his canny bin-end recommendations on the dining room blackboards, which have helped win the Chop Houses three top awards from America’s influential Wine Spectator magazine.
It feels like I’ve known George (above) for the lion’s share of his 54 years serving the Manchester public from his halcyon days at The Midland. For a while I was ensconced in an upstairs office at stablemate Mr Thomas’s Chop House, researching a book on the group with more than a little nod to the Manchester culture that spawned the chop houses in the 19th century.
In 1868 there were 13 of them in the city when Samuel Studd launched Mr Thomas’s and Sam’s (which has occupied three separate sites). The book, for a variety of reasons, never saw the light of day, but no hard feelings. The research was revelatory, not least about Sam’s most famous customer.
This was my take on the remarkable venue…
“A Street is not a street without people – it is dead as mutton,” Laurence Stephen Lowry once said in justification of populating his canvasses with the so-called matchstick men.
Mutton was not his dish of choice, however, when lunching, as he habitually did, in Sam’s Chop House. A soup, a sandwich, half of Wilson’s bitter, with perhaps his beloved rice pudding to follow. Such a frugal repast, at odds with the trencherman habits of other habitues, served the great artist well before he resumed his day job as a rent collector.
Only a short walk away were the Pall Mall Property Company offices he worked out of from 1910 until his retirement in 1952. Today the Market Street site is occupied by a Tesco Metro. It was a very different Manchester centre before the ravages of World War II bombs. Born observer Lowry used to firewatch during the blitzes. Until his death in 1975 he continued to frequent his favourite Chop House.
Lowry may have enjoyed painting human beings, but he was not always happy in their company. His protege, the young Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell, described him as “a great humanist. To be a humanist, one has first to love human beings, and to be a great humanist, one has to be slightly detached from them.”
So it was, you might often find him alone in Sam’s, folk reluctant to approach him; at best they might be on nodding terms. Ian Sandiford, a young artist, was one of those. Looking back in 2011, he recalled being invited into the inner circle, the Sherry Bar, where Lowry often sat drawing. “Money came to him very late in life, and you’d never have known it from his manner or his dress. I only ever saw him in his trilby hat and his gabardine raincoat – always with a very ordinary, slightly rumpled, collar and tie. They were the clothes of the Fifties. It was a decade he never really left – much like his work stayed rooted in an even older era.”
Lowry wasn’t universally popular with the waitresses, for he didn’t tip. Instead he would sketch their image on a napkin and leave that. In return, they would heedlessly scrunch them up. On the walls you’ll find plaques in homage to these long-serving ladies. Less obvious than the talking point Lowry at the bar, they still bear witness to a bygone era, too.
Always immaculately dressed and knowing every client’s name and culinary preference, the likes of Flo, Edna, Margaret and Barbara defined service and were duly rewarded with generous tips. On the back of them, a waitress could afford two or three weeks continental cruise holidays. In the Sixties!
George Bergier first visited Sam’s in 1968 when he was working as a new boy at the Midland Hotel: “My customers took me there. It was like a private club. If you stood in the wrong place or sat on the wrong stool they’d move you. I couldn’t believe the number of bowler hats or the amount of port and brandy being drunk.”
Sam’s then was one of four clublike haunts for the business and law fraternity. The others were the Reform Club, St James’s Club and the Raquets Club. Unlike them, Sam’s was only open during the day, closing at 6pm when the clientele deserted the city for the suburbs and their wives. Unless, of course, they were lured to one of the other establishments for further refreshment.
Foodwise, Sam’s was a different sort of set-up. There was a bar selling fish and chips. Salt beef sandwiches were a speciality. Steaks were a big thing, too. Willoughbys Wine Merchants, part of Lees Brewery, supplied the reds to accompany. If they ran out, it was a short schlepp over to their Tib Lane cellars to replenish stocks. There’s still a portrait of Mr Willoughby in the corner of Sam’s dining room – the Chop Houses like to pay their dues.
This clannish regime was all down to one AH “Bert” Knowles. Like current Chop House owner Roger Ward, Bert came from an advertising background. The media elite of the day met at Sam’s for the First Friday Club, proof even in those days that brand and image counted. And what a brand he created when he revitalised the place after the Second World War
Sam’s already had a distinguished track record. It was established in 1872 in a basement on Market Street by Samuel Studd, brother of Thomas, who founded Mr Thomas’s at the same time. Thomas ran both in the late 19th century when Samuel returned to London.
Bert switched it in early 1950s to the the current premises at Back Pool Fold off Chapel Walks. The Lowry link goes back to before the Great War, when both men were at art school together. Bert Knowles died in 1988 and Sam’s changed hands until it finally closed in 1996. It lay dormant for five years until Roger Ward, energised by his stewardship of Tom’s, took on its equally striking sibling.
It is in a basement that feels like a cosy lair, mix and match chairs and settles for the front room you come upon at the bottom of the stairs. Passing the bar, don’t forget to nod a greeting to “Mr Lowry” (that was how he was always greeted), then up a small flight to the casual tabled area at the back. You notice the classic Sefton Samuels photographs of the artist dotting the walls and the absence of music or a telly, setting it all aside from all the other pubs and bars around. Thanks to this you can’t help eavesdropping on animated conversation all around. It’s a democratic kind of place these days.
Turn left past the bookings “pulpit” and you enter the inner sanctum that is the dining room. All booths and tiles and screens and cosy nooks and in the far corner, George Bergier’s legendary wine bin-ends blackboard. Pure cellar seduction. With your Chop House Steak And Kidney Pudding, Chunky Chips, Mushy Peas and Jug of Gravy might we suggest a Rioja Gran Reserva… and if you make it to Mr Lowry’s Rice Pudding and Mixed Berry Jam, maybe a glass of Sam’s most excellent Port.
In 1916, LS Lowry had missed his train from Pendlebury, the Salford suburb where he lived, into Manchester:
“It would be about four o’clock and perhaps there was some peculiar condition of the atmosphere or something. But as I got to the top of the steps I saw the Acme Mill; a great square red block with the cottages running in rows right up to it – and suddenly I knew what I had to paint.”