Not being a permanent resident of Liverpool these days, but instead a regular visitor on a roughly bi-monthly basis, I get to see the radical transformation of the town centre in a series of static snapshots. In October last year, Chevasse Park was nothing more than a bulldozed mound of earth separating the waterfront from a vast sealed-off building site. By February, mysterious nameless buildings had risen out of the rubble, but the area was still a no-go for curious onlookers and navigating your way from the Albert Dock to the town centre involved a convoluted and noisy diversion beneath cranes and dodging grumpy single-file traffic on Strand Street.
Last week was the grand opening of Phase 1 of the Liverpool One complex, and Merseysiders finally had the chance to see the result of so many years of expense and upheaval. I'm no architectural expert (obviously), but it seemed alright to me. It's not a great work of public art, it's not 22nd century, but it's clean and modern and there are nice toilets. I was happy.
For food lovers, however, progress moves at a different pace. Thanks to Liverpool One, the city now has it's first Pret a Manger sandwich shop, and while London is now quickly tiring of the ubiquitous aluminium-plated gaffs with their overly-mayonnaisey avocado wraps, the novelty is certainly on the side of the Liverpool branch judging by the crowds queuing up on Saturday afternoon. More exciting is the imminent arrival of a Gourmet Burger Kitchen when Phase 2 opens in September; every city deserves a decent beef burger, I always think - I'd like to give Natasha Hamilton's place in the Met Quarter (yes, her of Atomic Kitten fame) the benefit of the doubt, but I'm afraid the history of Z-list celebrity endorsed cafés isn't on her side, and I'm in no hurry to try her 'gourmet' offering. And for the record, if Gordon Ramsay ever releases a pop single, I won't be buying that, either.
Instead, after a couple of decent cocktails in a cuban bar called Cubanita near Duke Street on Saturday night, we thought we'd try a new Thai restaurant called Sabai, located just opposite the new Beatles-themed Hard Days Night Hotel on North John Street. A word on Hard Day's Night before we go any further. It's huge, imposing, crass, flashy, trashy and expensive all at once. The statues of the four Beatles that adorn the plinths outside the first floor are absolutely terrible, but they somehow make sense as part of the ludicrous whole, and the buzz of activity through the shiny swing doors (guarded by mean man-mountains with Bluetooth headsets, of course) suggests an instant hit with the locals. In fact, I have a sneaking feeling that the HDN is a Liverpool institution in the making - shocking, arrogant and hilarious, it's a metaphor for the city itself.
Meanwhile, Sabai is a contemporary, airy space with friendly staff and which serves middle of the road Thai dishes priced reasonably and presented without fuss. It's not earth-shattering, it's not even particularly authentic, but in a city where the height of sophistication was once a Bacardi and Coke in the Arena Bar, this is a thing to be cherished. Starters of vegetable tempura, king prawns and Thai sausages were tasty bitesize fun, and my deep-fried marinated poussin (advertised as barbequed on the menu, but never mind) was succulent and full of flavour.
It goes without saying that somewhere like Sabai would struggle to get noticed in the capital, but even so it's a pleasing example that even the mid-range Liverpool places are starting to 'get' the restaurant thing. Liverpool's priorities have always been shopping first, eating second, and that isn't about to change. But is it too much to hope for that along with the raft of new designer shops in the 'new' Liverpool, we might expect to see some more designer food outlets to go with them? Fingers crossed.