The Sunderland Empire is ushering in a new era with a half a million pound investment which will see the creation of an on-site bistro.
In the biggest development at the High Street West theatre since the addition of the fly tower in 2004, a bistro called The Garden Place will open in the former Back Bar alongside a major transformation of the Dress Circle Bar.
Scaffolding has been in place on the venue’s iconic tower for the past 12 months as part of the major investment by operators ATG in partnership with Sunderland City Council.
Builders worked alongside English Heritage to repair the Grade II* listed building, while also reinstating the Terpsichore statue atop the 90ft tower which was damaged in high winds.
The scaffolding will be removed in the next fortnight, showcasing the refreshed tower as well as the addition of a new advanced lighting system which allows the theatre to be lit in the colours of its West End shows.
It’s hoped The Garden Place, named after the side road which runs adjacent to the venue, will be open for a soft launch in time for Wonderland which opens on January 30 with plans for a full launch in place for The Wedding Singer, which opens on February 21.
Sunderland Empire general manager Ben Phillips said: “The Sunderland Empire has been performing incredibly well for some time now, which means the owners are prepared to invest in its future.
“It’s been looking tired for a while, with the bar areas not being renovated for at least 20 years, so it needed refreshing. The idea is to get customers here for longer and for them to dwell here longer.”
Ben says one of the main issues theatre-goers struggle with is where to dine for a pre-theatre meal.
“People are constantly asking us where to go and we struggle to recommend somewhere that’s consistently good,” he said. “Places like Revolution and The Lambton Worm do very well before our shows and we want some of that custom.”
The new 45-seater bistro will offer pre-theatre dining from 5.30pm on show nights, with a range of burgers, pizzas, sharing platters and more. Prices include two courses for £12.95 and a pizza and prosecco offer for £10.
Ben added: “People think the premium experience won’t work in Sunderland, but it has. The creation of our Ambassador Lounge premium offering has proved very popular, as have the Ambassador boxes, people want that experience.”
Over the years, Sunderland Empire has risen to become one of the premier venues in the ATG stable attracting major shows before any other theatre in the region, including The Lion King, War Horse and Billy Elliot.
The Empire is also seen as a major player in the emerging Culture Quarter which is centred around the transformation of the Old Fire Station and Londonderry pub.
Ben said: “It’s a really exciting time for us, it ties in with the developments happening around us and we very much welcome our new neighbours. We don’t just see ourselves as Sunderland venue, but a North East venue, and we attract audiences from across the region. It’s important to attract people into the city, especially as we work towards the City of Culture 2021 title.
“We are just one cultural element, but we believe these new developments will help drive footfall and people into our city.”
Whilst work is ongoing in The Garden Place and the new Dress Circle Bar, pop up bars will be in place for Jack Whitehall next Friday and the venue’s other bars will be operating as normal for the duration of the work.