The Keys unlocks historic town-centre site in Darlington

keys darlington

An historic building in Darlington town centre has been transformed into the third site for bar and club concept The Keys

After more than two years and an investment of around £2million, an historic building in the centre of Darlington has been brought back to life as a bar, restaurant and nightclub. Dating back to 1854, The Mechanics Institute in Skinnergate was largely derelict after Retro nightclub closed in 2012, but multiple operator Mistell has unlocked its potential by converting it into its third venue under the name of The Keys.

The company, run by Alastair Powell and his children Michael and Vicky, opened the first site called The Keys in Yarm in northern Yorkshire in 2002 followed by a second in Middlesbrough in 2009. For The Keys in Darlington, they have created an elegant new bar on the ground floor and a nightclub upstairs, serving coffee and pastries in the morning through to a late-night party with the latest sound and lighting technology.

keys darlington

Mistell worked with The JS Design Partnership, based in Shipley, West Yorkshire, to sensitively and inventively restore the building that was originally an educational institution and then a bank. “The internal design of the Mechanics Institute plays upon the rich history of the building and its location,” explains Simon Bottomley from The JS Design Partnership. They set out to provide a mix of modern and classic design on the ground floor which, with careful use of lighting, allows the venue to gradually change through the course of the day. “The sophisticated elegance of the bar is designed to be inclusive to all, from the mid-morning coffee and cake trade to the post-work socialites and beyond.”

In contrast, the nightclub on the first floor has a more industrial design, inspired by Darlington’s heritage. Exposed pipework litters the high ceiling while the walls are clad in a mix of reclaimed bricks, timber board and concrete. “Externally, the building has been lovingly restored to its former grandeur,” Simon adds, “reclaiming its pride and dominance on Skinnergate and ensuring its longevity as a public building of civic pride and as a business.”

keys darlington

A sophisticated lighting scheme has been installed both inside and out by lighting and DJ equipment specialist Phase One of Darlington, working with local suppliers Phase DJ and Riverside Promotions. It includes a new Pioneer sound system and an AVR LED dance floor in the club. “It has been a long time since Darlington has had a venue that really is going to set the bar,” says Mike Stead of Phase One.

The Keys in Darlington is also out to set new standards with its cocktail lists in both the bar and the club. “We plan to reignite the true classic cocktails, from a Sidecar to an Old Fashioned, as well as our own marvellous and truly original concoctions,” explains bartender and general manager Chris Garner.

Options range from alcoholic milkshakes to a drink flavoured with peanut butter and jam that is served with a toasted brioche for dunking. In the club, guests can order spirits by the bottle, from Russian Standard vodka and Luxardo Sambuca to a three-litre Belvedere vodka at £400. Alongside a regularly updated cocktail and wine list, the bars also offer a broad range of draught and bottled beers and ciders, including locally brewed ales. “The Keys in Darlington promises to deliver a truly unique drinks experience which is definitely not to be missed,” Chris says.

keys darlington

Food is just as important, with a menu developed under executive chef Paul Rowntree, who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants, alongside head chef Paul Parkhill who has worked at restaurants in London and the north. Focusing on locally sourced ingredients and dishes at affordable prices, they have developed a menu based on the latest trends and concepts around the country. “From the beginning of our project, we really wanted to be creative and innovative with our menus, bringing something new to Darlington and surrounding areas,” explains Vicky from Mistell. This is supported by a modern French-designed Rosinox kitchen with the latest equipment including a commercial Big Green Egg charcoal-powered grill and barbecue oven. Paul is also planning to introduce a cookery school so that local people can improve their skills in a professional kitchen environment.

With many of the ingredients sourced from Darlington’s own market, The Keys has also played an important part in the community by creating around 80 new jobs. After opening at the end of November, the venue has been an immediate success. “With a venture of this magnitude, we feel it is only fitting that we deliver nothing but the best,” Chris adds. “Not only is the work and renovation done to the highest standard but we are delivering an amazing cocktail list the like of which has never been experienced in this town.”

The Keys, 82 Skinnergate, Darlington, County Durham DL3 7LX
Tel: 01325 394 222

keys darlington

Design: The JS Design Partnership
Lighting: Phase One, Phase DJ, Riverside Promotions
Sound installation: Cosmic Electronics
Sound system: Pioneer DJ

Pioneers in sound
While building The Keys in Darlington, the team at Mistell found the perfect sound system after hearing it in action at top clubs Booom and KM5 on Ibiza. With Cosmic Electronics, they installed Pioneer’s XY speakers, supported by Powersoft K-Series DSP amplifiers. These come with pre-set data to maximise the performance of the speakers to suit the different audio requirements of each floor. “The XY series suited a wide array of rigging options in a selection of different size and colour cabinets and subs to blend in with the styling of The Keys with uncompromised sound quality,” explains Martin Dockree, UK sales manager at Pioneer DJ. To complement the Pioneer DJ CDJ 2000nexus and DJM 900nexus in each DJ booth, Pioneer DJ’s Kuvo box broadcasts the track data that each DJ is playing so clubbers can see what they are dancing to during and after their night out. Martin adds: “The Keys is an excellent venue to showcase the versatility of our XY pro audio speaker range, from the more ambient atmospherics of the bar and restaurant to the full-on audio immersion experience of the main room and room two.”

keys darlington

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