This year marks 25 years of the world’s first TV and movie theme bar
12 minute read
“If I’m honest, when I first came over here I was trying to modernise certain elements and do certain things and it took me a bit of time to realise that it is what it is,” says Fab Café staff member, Dom.
“It works for a reason.”
Fab Café has been working for the reason others haven’t for almost a quarter of a century. June this year will mark the cult bar’s 25th birthday. You’ll be happy to know that it remains largely the same as when it first launched. A moment in time. Quiz nights, memorabilia galore, cult celebrity meet and greets, pints and packets of Space Raiders.
Speaking of Space Raiders, there’s currently a challenge running at the bar whereby if you can eat a packet of the tangy crisps in under 43 seconds you get a free drink.
“It’s done surprisingly well,” says Dom. “Pissed me off on Saturday night though when it was four deep at the bar and everyone wanted me to time them eating crisps.”
Premium Fab Café.
The origins of Fab Café but not as you know them
Portland Street now is not what Portland Street was like then. When Fab Café founder Jordan Royce launched his film and and TV-themed bar on Monday 29 June 1998 when the area was mostly derelict.
“It was a wasteland. This bare area between Piccadilly and Oxford Road. Oxford Road used to be what a lot of people referred to as the bright lights. Rotters, Fagin’s, then later Jilly's Rock World. All the clubs were along that road. We were in this weird area where there was nothing,” Jordan says.
“It wasn’t terribly far away and too difficult for people to change their route [to the clubs], so if they were going to Rock World they’d pop into Fab for a drink on the way. Then slowly it became part of the route and the city built up around us.”
[Michael Caine voice] Not a lot of people know this but Portland Street wasn’t the first Fab Café.
“The one that you go in now isn’t the first one. The first one never opened because it was blown up by the IRA bomb in 1996,” Jordan says.
“I designed it, built it, got it ready and it was set to open a few months later. We’d almost finished it and it got blown up. It was in the Corn Exchange and when the bomb went off I didn’t know it’d been blown up because I thought it was a bit of a distance away. But I saw it on the news, wrecked.”
A year later Jordan found another site on Portland Street. He had £350 left in the bank (the previous site was uninsured), a few salvaged models and a bunch of close friends who agreed to rebuild it with him.
“A famous DJ in Manchester called John Gannon, who sadly passed away during the pandemic, was there with me. He was one of my close mates. He was building models with me. We sort of did it as a weird model kit,” Jordan says.
“Then we opened it and, unexpectedly, it became a massive hit with queues round the block. It was really just supposed to be an overblown 14-year-old’s bedroom. I would love to say we expected it to become a huge institution and to be around in 25 years but I was just building it for me and it just exploded.”
Fab Café was officially opened on Portland Street on Monday 29 June 1998 by the actor Gareth Thomas, best known for his role in the BBC TV series Blakes 7.
Enough memorabilia to fill three Fab cafes
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Fab founder Jordan Royce got himself a lockup. The location of the lockup is a secret but to this day Jordan’s mate still dips into it, every four to five months, to refresh Fab Café’s legendary collection of memorabilia.
“My friend Tony looks after the place. He’s the same person who has always looked after the place from the very beginning. We’ve got tens of thousands of pieces of memorabilia, from huge space stations, like the one that used to be on the ceiling in Leeds, to little annuals and action figures.” Jordan says.
“A lot of it was mine. I just was a fan of movies and cult movies and I collected a lot of props and stuff over the years. The house was getting over-filled with it so it was a good idea to get rid of it and put it all in there. We get a lot of stuff donated and over the years we’ve had a lot of famous people visit and they’ve brought stuff. People seem to want to give you stuff to put up in there. It doesn’t happen with Wetherspoons, that.”
If you were to ask Jordan for his favourite moments at Fab over the years, there’s plenty. Gerry Anderson, the creator of Thunderbirds, visited the café a year after it opened and the two became close friends. The café’s name, as well as a generic 60s buzzword, is a homage to the series. The biggest standout moment however is a little closer to home.
“I have to mention I met my wife there on my birthday. Five weeks we’d been open and it was 15 August 1998, I met my wife and I’m still with her. So that’s something nice to come out of it,” Jordan says.
The popularity of the bar led to regional spin-offs. Fab Cafés opened in both Liverpool and Leeds with both sites eventually bought out as the respective cities developed.
“The one in Liverpool was successful but it was in the wrong area. We got bought out by Tesco. They offered some money and we decided to wait until something closer to the Concert Square came up and they don’t come up very often,” Jordan says.
“Leeds was a massive success. We were there for about 15 years. And they wanted to build that Arena on the side of it and we were in a key location so they bought us out. We had to leave unfortunately. We’re still looking for premises and I’d go back to Leeds if there was anywhere suitable.”
Jordan, whose small company also owns rock bar Satan’s Hollow, Starburst magazine and Fab International Radio, is very particular about the spaces he chooses. Dom on the bar recalls Tiger Lounge, a previous member of the stable.
"It was an underground 60s swing sort of place. I loved it there. Not a soul would come in during the week and then at the weekend it was absolutely booming."
“I like basements. They lock out the daytime and it’s good for the suspension of belief,” Jordan says, when we discuss Fab's unique interiors.
“I’d never open a Fab with windows. We haven’t found a big enough basement yet so we’re still looking. We’ll be back in Leeds one day. It’s inevitable. Especially now, there’s quite a few places becoming available. We’re still looking into that.”
Quiet Mondays bankrolled by busy weekends
When I visit Fab Café on a Monday afternoon in January I’m surprised to see it open.
As I walk down the stairs and open those Wacky Warehouse-esque doors I’m greeted by flashing lights and the 1994 TV theme “Go go Power Rangers” by Ron Wasserman. A tune, I’m glad to report, that still slaps. Dom and Jamie are setting up the bar and I’m the first punter in.
“It’s tricky in the week if we’re honest. The weekends in here have always been mad and that keeps us going for the rest of the week. Which allows us to do what we do. Getting the consoles out, stuff like that,” Dom says.
“It’s a bit of a safe haven in the week for your geeks, nerds, whatever you want to call them. Whereas it’s a bit more like a wild Yates’s at a weekend if I’m honest. Just because of where it is. You’ve got your regulars but you’ve also got people stuck in the rain between the Northern Quarter and Oxford Road. They’ll come in here and they don’t leave.”
Fab Café is and always has been a community space. A haven. A place for people to escape from the outside world. Groups come to play Dungeons and Dragons and the space is often frequented by university societies. There’s a weekly quiz every Tuesday and there’s also the chance to play vintage console games on the projector. Beat the staff high scores and there’s a free drink in it for you.
Sadly, the infamous Fab food menu is no more. Curtailed before the pandemic. Despite still being available to view online, the owners of Fab Café have lost access to the website, the list of foods now a relic floating around in cyberspace. Fish fingers with custard anyone? Or perhaps Heinz breakfast in a can with two slices of toast for £2.50. Bargain.
Comic-Con is a big one on the calendar. As are wrestling meet and greets. If a 70s or 80s band plays in town, the afterparty will likely be at Fab Café. Suede are playing Albert Hall soon, everyone over to Portland Street after.
Fab Café opens every day without fail. 4pm until 2am Monday to Thursday, until 3am Friday and Saturday and 11pm on Sunday. The team want it to be somewhere you can count on, no matter what. Whoever walks past knows they can bob in out of the rain. Jamie tells me that at 11pm it’s as if someone has flicked a switch as people pile in.
These late-night periods support the quieter hours. The times when you might find people in corners reading books or playing a board game.
The changing face of retro and the key to longevity
“We do a lot of themed quizzes. Rick & Morty, The Simpsons, South Park. The first time we did the Rick & Morty quiz it was crazy. It was such a sell-out that we had to re-write it and put it on the next day.” Dom says. A knowledge of TV and film is a must at Fab Café. If only to keep up with the punters.
“I’m pretty up to date with all of the Marvel stuff now. Almost up to date with DC. It’s weird because when we started it would’ve been niche, whereas now comic book films are mainstream. I don’t think these guys saw that coming,” Dom says.
Fab has always been good at mixing new and retro. Reflecting, as Jordan puts it.
“It just reflects what people who go in are into. It’s totally retro. When we opened in ’98, something like Thunderbirds was only 20 years old. You had stuff from the 70s like Doctor Who, Blake 7. All these old TV shows. They were on when people who were going in ’98 were at school so the nostalgia’s there now,” Jordan says.
“The same example now that we would cater for is Buffy The Vampire Slayer. We have Buffy singalongs. We have quizzes. We have cast members come along. That reflects rolling retro. Whoever is going into Fab in 20 years’ time will be into what is on TV now. Some things disappear and some things over time become nostalgia and there’s a fondness attached to them. I think that’s the key. We are good at knowing what those are.”
Dom and Jamie joke that it’s the Monday playlist that has kept Fab Café going all these years. Or the tunes pumped out from the unique DJ pit, positioned slightly below the dance floor, whether on the Popscene Britpop-themed nights or retro sets at the weekend.
Jordan has a personal reason.
“I’ll never change it. That’s the key. The music policy, it’ll be updated but it’ll never change. I don’t bend to any current trends or fads that are around. It will remain exactly the same as long as I’ve got it. That’s the thing. You’ll go in there and there’s a continuity. You always feel like it’s the same place you went to 20 years ago and not in a bad way.”
“We won’t ever change it. We just slowly evolve with the times. Some of the props may change. But the ethos and music will always be similar. I think that gives people something that’s always there for them. They could be having a terrible week but they know that bar is still there, they can go in there and remember that night, ten years ago, twenty years ago,” Jordan says.
I mention the first time I ever went to Fab Café in Leeds. Having a pint with a giant spaceship overhead and life-size props in the corner. A lasting memory of a trip that celebrated finishing Sixth Form.
“That’s why I do keep it going. There’s times when you think why am I doing this? But it doesn’t take long. We usually get an answer.”
Fab Cafe, 109 Portland St, Manchester M1 6DN
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