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Experiencing European Culture in Liverpool

Albert Dock

Photo: Lisa Linder

I’ve been eating well in Liverpool, including a dense but delicious pork sampler at Spire Restaurant, just off Penny Lane, and a particularly fine piece of calf’s liver at the unassuming Side Door. But my most compelling find is Paul Askew’s London Carriage Works. Askew lived here for much of his childhood, then followed his seafaring father to Asia. Now he’s determined to earn Liverpool’s first Michelin star, even if that means creating a more sophisticated dining experience than many customers desire. Some arrive at his handsome restaurant of two-colored brick, step past a striking glass sculpture, and have the temerity to ask for scouse, the local staple.

Askew’s cooking is country French layered atop traditional English. I ate a rabbit terrine larded with foie gras, then an exquisite slab of rare venison with braised root vegetables. It seemed Michelin-worthy to me. But the wine list was full of bottles that didn’t exist—not there, anyway—and service was timid and distracted. When I told Askew, he nodded sadly, well aware of the pitfalls of almost singlehandedly attempting to lift a city’s cuisine. “It’s the old Field of Dreams, isn’t it?” he said. “Build it and they will come. Or maybe not. But if you don’t build it, they’ll never come.”

The chef proposes to show me a traditional Liverpool lunch, done up right. Askew arrives with his seven-year-old, Harry, and a long face. He’d wanted me to see an oyster house he’d known in his youth, a long-forgotten landmark, but it turns out to have been sold and rebranded. Instead, we head to a pub said to make regional dishes with flair, only to find it hawking Mexican barbecue. Yet another has become part of a brewery-owned chain.

It’s three o’clock by now and I’m due at a soccer match, so we route the taxi to Anfield, where the streets are overrun with fans. We end up at a crowded pie shop eating, of all things, scouse, which—in this version, at least—tastes almost exactly like a can of Dinty Moore. “I guess it was fate that I confront my nemesis,” Askew says, spooning up the gelatinous mass with a determined face while Harry looks on in horror. “It’s the local culture, right there in a bowl.”

Somewhere high on the very short list of objects and entities even more beloved by Scousers than scouse is the Liverpool Football Club. From 1975 to 1984, Liverpool topped England’s Football Association seven times, and captured the European Championship—contested annually by the Continent’s best clubs—four times. These days, the Reds don’t have the resources of the London and Manchester behemoths, yet they nevertheless made a stunning run to the top of Europe in 2005, and another to the European Cup final match in 2007.

Anfield has been called soccer’s Fenway Park, though from the outside it seems a particularly unlovely factory. The field is an otherworldly green, all that moisture put to good effect. The scale is intimate, and everyone in the tightly packed stands wears red. Before each match, they rise in unison and sing the Rodgers & Hammerstein standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” once recorded by Liverpool’s Gerry and the Pacemakers. The song is syrupy, but as rendered by 40,000 true believers it sounds poignantly heartfelt. Even rival fans have been known to cry.

Last year, two American businessmen bought the Liverpool team. They’ve received permission from the city council to construct a $600 million stadium full of luxury boxes and other baldly capitalist amenities. I assumed Liverpool fans would be alarmed, bordering on rebellious, but the prevailing emotion seems to be a fatalistic kind of optimism. “It has to be done,” explains John Aldridge, 49, who grew up shouting for the team from the stands, then played for it, and now serves as a broadcaster. “It will be a sad day, but you have to be thick-skinned. A club has to vie on the money side today or it can’t compete.”

Aldridge and I see Liverpool win an impressive match against Fulham. Then he takes me for a drive. We head past Dingle, the squalid South Liverpool neighborhood where Ringo Starr grew up, to Garston, where Aldridge spent his childhood in even less desirable circumstances. He lived beside a tannery, the smell of which, he says, was almost unbearable. “And I didn’t have an indoor toilet until I was 21,” he says. “That was 1979. Not so long ago.” We pass the famously rough Mariners Pub—known for the one-liner: “I went to a fight at the Mariners and a pub broke out”—and Cast Iron Shore, the muddy riverbank where Aldridge and fellow urchins picked through the remains of beached ships. It all looks burned-out, hollow, depopulated. We can’t visit his home, or even his street, because the neighborhood has been razed. “European Union,” he says. “They gave us money to knock down the whole place and start over.”


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