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Drinking cocktails at Manchester’s pinkest restaurant
Prioritising photos over food, vibes over value - what Boujee tells us about the direction of Manchester hospitality
By Jack Dulhanty and Mollie Simpson
It smells like roses that have been put in the microwave. A girl stands facing a wall stuck with what looks like a giant pink feather boa. “I’m desperate to get one of my…” she looks over her shoulder, at the camera, and kicks her leg up to show her shoe. I’ve been sat on a bench covered in flowers while my table is set. One of the girl’s friends comes over from the welcome desk, where she has been speaking with staff and, as if to temper the panicked photoshoot, says: “there’s more photo opportunities downstairs.”
I’m seated in what was once the Freemasons’ banquet hall – a grade II listed space and, at one time, Manchester’s most secretive. Which is wildly ironic, seeing it’s now a space tailor-made to be shared. Disembodied torsos of male mannequins dangle from the ceiling, while straight-spined staff with good teeth glide through the straits between tables. They deliver champagne bottles – lit sparklers lashed to the necks like bayonets – to eager huddles of iPhone cameras. Music pulses. Everyone’s shouting, then eating, then drinking, then springing from their seats for another photo. Everything’s pink.
Boujee Restaurant & Bar opened in May, a month after its sibling and neighbour – Terrace by Boujee, an all-pink pop-up space – opened on Bridge Street. The two ventures are co-owned and fronted by Real Housewife of Cheshire Lystra Adams, whose intro line on the show is: “Stay real. Stay loyal. Or stay the hell away from me.” Boujee typifies a trend in Manchester’s dining culture in which restaurants are simply a means to an end, the end being a well-composed Instagram post.
Other places like Dirty Martini, BLVD and Menagerie, the latter also co-owned by various Real Housewives of Cheshire, have similar strategies: take a pithy quote or lyric in neon; add a space to stand in front of it. But Boujee has taken this a good few steps further, with photo-ops strewn throughout the restaurant, changing with the seasons.
Boujee’s personality – which Adams freely admits is an extension of her own – is one of almost steroidal glamour. It asks to be matched. Matching it would mean becoming the apparent life and soul of the party. It teases at celebrity – you are a star! You should be photographed! – but proceeds to sell the Diet Coke version of the full-calorie deal. Unlike an actual celebrity, you will play both star and unpaid location scout; makeup artist and photographer to your brunch companions. And, unlike an actual celebrity, the more you get photographed amidst the mass-photographing, the less you stand out.
My server, Manu, tells me he’s only been working here a month. He used to work at Chinawhite, a club of a similar ilk to Boujee – think: more sparklers affixed to exorbitant bottles of champagne, people smiling for flash-lit selfies before their faces droop back to their knees. He hated Chinawhite. Surely this isn’t all that different? He assures me it is, the customers are nicer, politer, and he has friends working here. He asks if I’m waiting for anyone. Mollie is late. I’m sitting alone at a table for four, still wearing a jacket, in an entirely pink restaurant in which I am one of three male customers. I say I am waiting for someone and order two drinks to try and reassure him I’m not someone he needs to keep an eye on.
Mollie arrives and we take a moment to gaze up at the mannequin torsos. We order and Manu lets us know where the nearest photo opportunity to our table is, as if it were an emergency exit on a plane. Small streams of children scurry through the dining room, other tables are full of kids accompanied by sunken-eyed chaperones – an FAQ about Boujee on Google asks how old you have to be to be let in.
At this point, I should stress that Boujee is not really my thing: my Instagram profile has one post, which also serves as my profile picture on all my social media accounts (and Mill byline). I take pictures of food but don’t share them: they’re for me. I hate having my picture taken. This said, I can see that Boujee acknowledges a truth of life for a younger demographic: there are almost always going to be photographs and videos, most of which will make it onto social media.
And if there are going to be photographs taken, why not take them in a welcoming environment? It would be hugely diva-ish to request a sparkler with your bottle of Bordeaux blanc at some understated bistro, or request the music be turned up so you can share a video of you and your friends singing along. At Boujee, this would be business as usual — the restaurant essentially offers a place to behave as outrageously as you like, and is that really such a bad thing?
On us discussing this story, my colleague Sophie mentions that one of the things she hates most in this world is taking a photo of a friend and hearing a voice - usually male - of a passerby ask: “Is that for the gram?” The question’s innocuous enough, but the subtext isn’t: you’re ridiculous, you’re superficial. But what, she asks me, is so terrible exactly about taking a photo or two when you’re out with your friends?
Looking around, it’s undeniable that the people who have elected to be here love it: they stand up, dance, take selfies. I tell Mollie I think it’s like a Wacky Warehouse for Instagram-lovers. She thinks this over: “Yeah, a bit. I think it’s also like the warm fuzzy feelings you get when you’re in a club toilet and another woman starts complimenting your outfit.”
This said, I cannot claim to be entirely on board with all of this. The problem with restaurants whose primary export are vibes is that it can become a race to the bottom. If their main draw is a pretty background and some good lighting, they’ll put more into selling the appearance of a good night rather than the actual composite – and seemingly antiquated – parts of a good night. Like good food, for example.
The menu is scattershot. There’s sushi and also gnocchi, spiced lamb chops with mint yoghurt and then hoisin duck. The salmon sashimi – sliced raw salmon – definitely shouldn’t be phosphorescent but in this case, is. Triple cheese bon bons, the recommendation, are just Greggs cheese and onion pasties scaled down to a quarter of the size for triple the price. Prosciutto and mozzarella sushi rolls sound like the product of a secondary school food tech lesson and taste like it too, served over a cough-spatter of pesto. The fries are okay, though, honestly: is anyone really heading to Boujee for the fries?
It certainly doesn’t look that way: downstairs, the section of the restaurant most saturated with photo-ops, groups pose on pink aeroplane seats. There’s a vending machine full of Ciroc vodka, and a carousel horse. I ask a girl lounging in Boujee Airlines what brought her here, she simply says: “it’s pink,” without breaking her pose. By the carousel horse I ask Chanelle and Lauren, who are here from Oldham, what brought them to Boujee: "Instagram. The pictures, isn't it? Like, everyone having pictures, you just see it all over social media.” says Lauren. “It’s a bit sheepish, but, if it’s got good reviews.” says Chanelle, with a shrug of her shoulders. I head outside to Terrace by Boujee.
Terrace has become the restaurant’s de facto informal alternative. It’s far more relaxed, far less faux-grand. The DJ pulls off one side of her headphones to take a phone call mid set. It’s still replete with photo opportunities, the toilets are festooned with pink roses and there are two vintage hair dryers. There’s a miniature, ’50s style Shell garage and another flower bench with “Boujee,” again, etched in neon above it.
I sit with Zoe, Rowan and Sophie, who are here for pre-drinks before Rowan’s birthday night out. "I love the photo opportunities. When you first come out, before you get a bit too drunk, you want to get a nice photo. Like over there has nice lighting." Zoe says as she points towards the micro-Shell garage. She explains their scheduling strategies for a night out: "You start here, when you’re sober enough to take nice photos, then you can end up somewhere else, where you don't need nice photos. Where it's dark, so no one can see you dying in a corner."
"You can tell they've thought it through, like, they've got the beds from Love Island. It is a vibe." says Sophie, gesturing to the day beds out on the terrace. Rowan and Zoe nod thoughtfully and chime in with “yeah.” In the past week, hundreds of people have tagged themselves at Boujee’s Manchester restaurant on Instagram, as seen above. This is the subversive genius of the place: customers dashing around the premises like coked-up ad men, promoting, tagging, sharing, liking – all with an efficiency no marketing company could dream of replicating – forking out for £12 pornstar martinis as they go.
The liveliest is a table just across from us, which is filled with tall girls swanning around and talking animatedly with each other. “It’s a bit tacky, isn’t it?” Georgie tells us. She has freshly manicured nails and intricate make up. Her hair is perfectly straight. Georgie works as a teacher in a primary school, and on the weekends she likes cocktail bars in the city centre — usually as a way of pre-drinking before a big night out. “But it’s a good place to have a laugh with your mates. God, Sarah, can you help me with this journalist? I’m really pissed.” Sarah reads texts on her phone and says something about getting an Uber to the next place. They take a selfie before they go. It comes off rose-tinted, with the Boujee sign in the background, Georgie’s tongue firmly in her cheek.
The pink stuff is interesting, Mollie says, settling back in her seat. When she told some friends where she was coming today, they all groaned. She says sometimes she’ll deliberately act coy about liking girly things, whether it’s makeup or flowers, and sometimes she’ll swap out a skirt for jeans. There’s this thing in leftist spaces where you’ll dress down because you want everyone to think you’re progressive, you’ve got a brain. “But isn’t it kind of depressing that women sometimes feel like they can’t be both feminine and taken seriously? As though listening to Ariana Grande and wearing lipstick is an instant admission of superficiality.” She stresses she is not saying that Boujee is the vanguard of the revolution, obviously. But this knee-jerk contempt for it? Worth thinking about.
Back inside, I thumb a cocktail menu and think about my life. At each end of the menu are pages printed with cliched slogans: easy tiger, try your luck, less bitter than your ex. Lauren, on the table beside Mollie and I, sways rhythmically while deciding from what angle to approach her steak slider. The mac sauce looks to have developed a congealed sheen while she was downstairs. She sings along to a Drake verse, then takes a bite.
The people who stand out most in this crowd are the overwhelmed. Like the group who were way out of the restaurant’s average age range – and called me a cheeky bastard for suggesting they were – and came down from Scotland after their friend, Yvonne, had seen Boujee on TV. “We wanted to go and play bingo,” one of them tells me.
To not rise to Boujee’s expectations is to unmask its absurdity. On a separate visit on a quiet Friday lunch time, as we were telling Manu we knew where the photo opportunities were but we just wanted to pay our bill, an ice bucket of Prosecco arrived along at a nearby table. It was delivered gracefully to two women, who looked as if they might be in their fifties. They took a picture of the sparkler, with the tips of their index fingers, then put their phones aside and waited, awkwardly, as their sparkler began to die down. Their eyes were a tad glazed, smiles waning, the sparkler began to sputter. The whole restaurant seemed anxious for it to stop. Then it did.