From grand openings to great losses - a review of Sunderland's arts, culture and hospitality scene in 2021

From the devastation caused by the pandemic and great losses to new openings and the rapidly-changing city skyline, it’s been a year of highs and lows in Sunderland’s arts, culture and hospitality sectors.

Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 9:05 am

Lifestyle editor Katy Wheeler takes a look back at 2021 in review.

January & February

With the country deep in lockdown, it became more important than ever to shop local and support city businesses, many of which became a lifeline during difficult times, whether it was keeping us well fed and watered with deliveries or being a friendly face when social interaction was limited.

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Sunderland art, culture and hospitality in 2021 - a year in review

To do our bit to help communities, we ran a series of spotlight features on local high streets such as Sea Road, St Luke’s Terrace and Villette Road interviewing businesses such as Müllers, who’ve been baking bread in the city for more than 60 years.

Meanwhile, beer deliveries thrived, with breweries such as Darwin Brewery and pubs such as The Saltgrass providing some much-needed lockdown treats.


Frank Styles’ striking murals have become a familiar, and popular, sight on Sunderland streets. In March, he captured the mood of the nation when he unveiled a rainbow artwork honouring Captain Tom, who had died the previous month after raising more than £30million for the NHS.

We ran a shop local campaign to encourage people to use local businesses such as Mullers. Pictured here is Max Muller at the Villette Road branch.

It can be seen on the side of a house facing into the garden of Gospel Church in Pallion and is clearly visible from Pallion Road, just before the traffic lights,

Although there was much devastation caused by the pandemic, it also saw some positives, including a wave of new businesses which were born from the lockdown. One of those was Midnight Pizza Crü and their Detroit-style pizzas which would sell out in seconds soon after releasing collection slots at the Ship Isis. It now has a permanent home at Pop Recs.


After what felt like a never-ending lockdown, pubs were finally able to open their beer gardens on April 12, after being closed since November 5, 2020, in the North East due to the tier system. There was a huge demand as people flocked back to outdoor spaces such as Stack, The Saltgrass, Poetic License, The Palm, The Stackyard, Victoria Gardens and more.

Artist Frank Styles unveiled his Captain Tom mural in Pallion in March


From May 17, people were finally able to enjoy a sit down meal as restrictions were lifted further. Hungry Wearsiders were able to visit city favourites once more, whilst also tucking into meals at new additions such as Spent Grain in John Street and Proven People which went on to open in the summer after transforming the old railway manager’s office in Burdon Road, which all brought some much-needed diversity to the city’s dining scene.

May 17 was also a key date for the city’s cultural attractions, such as the Museum and Winter Gardens, National Glass Centre and Arts Centre Washington who were all finally able to reopen their doors to the public.

The pandemic took its toll on high street giant Debenhams which closed its Sunderland store in May, one of 118 to close nationwide, resulting in around 12,000 job losses. The chain had been snapped up by online fashion retailer Boohoo for £55million in January after running into financial difficulties.

Many businesses were founded out of lockdown and have gone on to be a huge success including Midnight Pizza Crü. Pictured here is owner Dan Shannon.


After delays due to the pandemic, the £6million Seaburn Inn was finally able to open its doors. The pub with 40 rooms is a major landmark in the ongoing seafront regeneration scheme – and it’s proved a popular addition to the seafront after transforming the old Pullman Lodge site.

2022 will see it joined by a number of other new businesses as part of the regeneration scheme, including a Tin of Sardines gin bar in Roker and a seafood restaurant at Seaburn promenade.

June also saw the opening of the Vaux Taproom in Roker retail park, serving some of the freshest pints around, such as Alter Ego, Black Wave and Monk Street Brown, as well as six guest beers, straight from the cold store. Look out for more from the team in 2022 with plans to expand to Roker seafront.


July saw Turner Prize-winning artist, and Angel of the North sculptor, Sir Antony Gormley make his Sunderland debut with his award-winning installation Field for the British Isles, which went on display at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, within National Glass Centre.

June saw the opening of the £6m Seaburn Inn on the site of the former Pullman Lodge

Comprising 40,000 unique clay figures, representing a mass wave of humanity, the artwork was seen by thousands at the free display, which ran for nine weeks.

July also say the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament bring a huge boost to city pubs showing the games, much needed trade after the devastation of the pandemic. With the national team including Wearside lads and former Sunderland AFC stars Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson, the city went wild as England reached a nail-biting final against Italy.


The summer saw a wave of new businesses open their doors in the city centre. Among them was Victoria’s Loft, joining sister venue Street Bar, which transformed the old Revolution bar that closed due to the pandemic.

Another old building given new life was the Galen Building which became the new home for Hidden and its new, larger terrace.

In the retail sector, Master Debonair joined the businesses at Mackie’s Corner which, after years of neglect, has undergone a renaissance as a hub for creative independents.

August also saw tributes pour in from around the country for Frankie & the Heartstrings drummer Dave Harper who died aged 43. A loud and proud ambassador for Sunderland, his legacy lives on in Pop Recs, the culture hub he co-founded.


It’s stood proud in the Sunderland skyline for more than a century and survived two world wars, but Sunderland Empire had its longest closure to date due to the pandemic. After 18 months silent with just a lone ghost light shining on stage, the jewel in the crown of Sunderland’s culture scene was finally able to welcome back audiences once more in September with a performance of What’s Love Got To Do With It?

September also saw global star Ed Sheeran announce that he will be performing at the Stadium of Light in June 2022 as gigs return to the home of the Black Cats.


With life seeming to get back to normal, the city was able to host its annual Lights Out Halloween parade. The free event saw 400 performers from community groups weave their way through the city centre to thousands of spectators as they put on a fang-tastic spectacle.

October also saw new life breathed into the former Pallion Workingmens’ Club with the ground floor of the distinctive red brick building reopening as Pickled Radish. Serving a range of food and drink, the new bar has been brought to the city by the same team behind the excellent Spent Grain in the city centre.


After three years of painstaking restoration, a million pounds of investment and a whole lot of heart and soul, the new Pop Recs finally opened to the public in November.

It had been a long and challenging road for the team due to the pandemic and death of director Dave Harper. It now houses a coffee shop, venue and training facilities to foster future talent, community work all done in Dave’s memory.

November also saw The Point and Live Lounge join other major Sunderland venues and arts groups given a further funding boost by Government's Culture Recovery Fund, which has helped venues to reopen after suffering great losses in the pandemic.


The city skyline is changing daily at the minute, but one of the most anticipated new developments was the opening of the new £11m auditorium at the Fire Station on December 10, a mid-size venue and major asset to the city.

The first strum of the guitar at the new state-of-the-art venue was The Lake Poets with his hauntingly-beautiful Shipyards track, a lament of Sunderland’s lost industry which has been listened to across the globe thanks to Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die.

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Sir Antony Gormley's Field for the British Isles exhibition at the NGCA opened in July
It almost came home as fans flocked to STACK Seaburn for the England V Italy final in July
Sunderland paid tribute to musician Dave Harper in August
CEO of Master Debonair Simon Whitaker joined other independent businesses in Mackie's Corner in August
Theatre director Marie Nixon cuts the ribbon as the Empire Theatre re-opens after 18 months. Picture by FRANK REID.
Pop Recs was finally able to open in November. From left are Pop Recs directors Jo Gordon, Michael McKnight and Dan Shannon.
Inside the new state of the art Fire Station Auditorium.