How Manchester championed vegetarianism and food halls long before anyone else
Michelin awarded the city its first star in 40 years, it’s got more worthy cafes than you can shake a stick at, and is now welcoming famous chefs for new openings, too. Ibrahim Salha pays a visit
Manchester and its surrounding towns have long held a seat at the table when it comes to great British foods. The list mixes things known countrywide such as Bury’s black pudding, Eccles cakes from the town of the same name, with local favourites including pie barm from Wigan, Manchester tart, and even the soft drink Vimto calls the city home.
They’re pretty simple, rely on the quality of the ingredients, and most of the products are aligned with the history of the city. It’s a history – industrial, agricultural, radical – that has set the groundwork for a culture that is centred around good food.
It’s no surprise, then, that the food here is generally of an exceptionally high level, with restaurants everywhere you turn and a buzzing culture of dining out.
The city’s first Michelin star in 40 years, awarded to Mana, certainly felt overdue but shows that it’s flourishing.
What might be at the centre of this proliferation is food halls. Love them or loathe them, Manchester, like other major UK cities, has welcomed food halls warmly.
The most notable of these is Mackie Mayor, housed in a listed market building with kitchens dedicated to pizzas, tacos and Thai street food, to name but a few.
In truth, though, the obsession with food halls is a natural progression for a city that’s flanked by the market towns of Stockport, Bury, Wigan and Altrincham. It’s the latter that I enjoyed the most; Altrincham Market, which is the cousin of Mackie Mayor, describes itself as “fiercely independent” and “passionately regional”, and the produce is very good.
The sourdough from the Lovingly Artisan bakery is as fine as any you’re likely to come across, while the New Market Dairy clearly has meticulous, smart sourcing; Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese is just one of the many excellent options on offer, and a local favourite, too.
The remarkable Market House inside of Altrincham Market features excellent pizza, from Honest Crust (the same vendors you’ll find in Mackie Mayor) among other delights, while the regeneration has attracted quality restaurants around the town. Sugo Pasta Kitchen, one of the best, serves up exceptional starchy carbs, like the cavatelli with mussels and guanciale.
But if it’s more the bread side of Italian fare you like, then my pick has to be Rudy’s, in the Ancoats area of the city near the northern quarter or Peter Street in the Deansgate area. Apparently the concept was born out of an early adoration from Franco Manca, but it’s obvious that the pizzas here easily eclipse anything served since they were in London’s Brixton Market. The margherita, cooked hot and fast and ready in a minute has puffy edges and excellent San Marzano tomatoes and imported mozzarella. It’s also possible to get a pizza and campari soda for £10, which is one of the greatest bargains in the city.
And while food halls are thriving, it’s the cafes that really draw me in. While they don’t really differ very much in terms of decor (they tend to lean in to their minimal hipness) there’s enough variety among them to make visiting a handful worthwhile. Pollen Bakery is the standout.
The produce – including the fantastic sourdough bread (available at Tom Kerridge’s Bull & Bear restaurant in the city) – is generally excellent. There’s also Idle Hands, which has a selection of staggeringly good sweet pies. And don’t miss Siop Shop in the northern quarter, whose excellent doughnuts command a loyal army of fans.
There’s no doubt that this entrenched food culture has been part of the attraction for big name chefs, and one of the biggest is the Bull & Bear, in the Stock Exchange Hotel (a Relais & Châteaux property), which has Tom Kerridge as executive-chef at the helm. Aside from his various cookbooks, Kerridge is best known for the Hand & Flowers pub which kickstarted the public’s love affair with gastro pub food. The former trading floor is now the restaurant and considering the amount of people eating here, it’s already made itself a destination.
The food more than matches the opulence of the setting in quality, but it’s mostly conventional enough; what’s really special is the care taken with the ingredients, and the little flourishes in the cooking. The chips, for instance, are sizeable batons, probably triple-cooked, but what makes them stand out is the gherkin ketchup on the side, a wink and a nod to fast food burgers, yet still refined.
It’s an excellent menu: potted salmon with cucumber chutney displays a deft palate, while the baked potato with steak tartare presents itself as something you could whip up at home, but appearances bely the skill and time involved in constructing the dish.
The mains are ever-so-slightly bigger than the starters, including a burger which comes slider-sized in circumference, but about three times taller than any burger should be, making it pretty difficult, but still enjoyable, to eat.
But the flavours are superb: a slow-cooked patty that remains pink (the addition of saltpetre seemingly at play) is topped with bacon and pickle and well worth tilting your head sideways to eat. I’d also make sure to not miss the incredibly silky banana custard dessert, served with dates and honeycomb.
Aside from the restaurant, the hotel is a worthy addition to the city. Although it’s grand, it still manages to bear a boutique feel, and they’ve made the graceful choice to marry the old features with modern touches.
Similarly good is the Dakota Grill, a brasserie-style hotel restaurant in the impressive Dakota. This growing mini-chain also has locations in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds, and it exudes cool, atmospheric luxury.
The rooms are tasteful, and the service is professional, but the restaurant is by far the highlight. I ate an excellent ribeye steak, well cooked and showing touches of being smartly pre-salted.
And for a restaurant that is fiercely proud of the quality of its meat, the fish is remarkably good. Monkfish with samphire, mussels and bacon had a brilliant sweetness and firmness from the fish, while halibut offered the same way also caught the eye.
There’s a lot to like in Manchester if casual-yet-fine dining is your bag. Kala, from the same people that brought you Sticky Walnut and Burnt Truffle, was probably the restaurant that more people recommended to me than any other. I’m glad they did.
The Sunday lunch set menu, at three courses for £25, is a bit of a steal. Starters range from pig’s head croquettes to mackerel escabeche, while mains include a roast beef with all the trimmings that you’ll have to travel far and wide to top.
And while it’s aligned with other cities in how its residents approach food, there’s a generosity in much of the restaurants in Manchester which allows it to stand out from the rest.
The service, warm and friendly yet knowledgeable, is just one of the ticks in the pros column, while the cooking and quality of the ingredients in a lot of restaurants here make it completely worth the time of residents and visitors alike.
While the traditions of the area are alive and well, it does feel like a city in the nascent stages of something really special, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.