The hex currently hanging over Manchester’s gastronomic scene is one that stretches back to the seventies, when the city won its first and only star for The French in The Midland Hotel, before losing it the following year. Since then, the city centre’s lack of Michelin acclaim has become something of a touchy subject. Why, we all wondered, in a city of half a million people with a thriving bar and restaurant scene and a thoroughly cosmopolitan outlook, is it so hard to get a world class meal? Is there a reason why Manchester hasn’t produced a Michelin standard meal since the 70s? And at the end of the day, does it matter?
Chef Andrew Nutter, proprietor of award winning Nutters restaurant in Greater Manchester, thinks so. “I think it does take a Michelin star to be taken seriously as a foodie city. Food journos always seem to snub Manchester and have a bit of a grudge, but at the end of the day it’s largely down to the Mancunians who live and eat here; they’re the ones that decide where they want to eat and enjoy, and Michelin might not be at the top of their wish list for regular dining.”
In 2013, the wait seemingly came to an end when Manchester’s patience was rewarded with not one, but two heavyweight contenders stepping into the culinary ring. The French at The Midland was trusted to the capable hands of two Michelin star chef Simon Rogan, while the Living Ventures group opened Manchester House in a disused office block, overseen by chef Aiden Byrne – the youngest chef ever to be awarded a star. The spotlight of the gastronomic world fell on Manchester. Restaurant critics licked their lips, sharpened their knives and jumped on a Virgin Pendolino to find out whether these two new restaurants were as game changing as we all hoped.
The arrival of these two culinary big hitters may have caused people to sit up and take notice of the city, but should we really be viewing them as the saviours of Manchester’s dining scene? Yes and no is the answer, and it all depends on the importance of that evasive star. Manchester already boasts several very good restaurants, with kitchens headed up by chefs who are only getting better. Mary Ellen McTague at Aumbry in Prestwich, for example, who honed her craft under Heston Blumenthal at the three star Fat Duck. Then there’s Michael Caine at Abode, apparently the busiest restaurant in the Michael Caine group – testament to the city’s appetite for fine dining. And of course the hitherto jewel in the Living Ventures group’s crown – the glitzy pacific themed Australasia – favourite of the city’s elite society with the prowess to bolster its blingy verve. Oh yes, Manchester does food, and it does it well. Now what about that star…
In March 2013, chef Simon Rogan – who already has two Michelin stars to his name for his highly regarded Cartmel restaurant L’Enclume - announced that he would be picking up the gauntlet laid down by the Midland Hotel, the Grand Dame of the city’s hotel industry. “My brief was to restore The French to its former glory” Rogan explains, “and to do that there were a number of objectives - with one of them to gain serious recognition within all the major food guides. Manchester's got big designs on being a world class city, which it's well on its way to being, but it needs those top end restaurants, as that's one thing that's missing.”
The Edwardian dining room was updated with a fresh aesthetic that replaced the formal white tablecloth approach with more relaxed 60s Scandinavian style design, an earthy colour palette and some completely necessary disco ball-esque chandeliers. Simon set about revolutionising the somewhat outdated menu, bringing his passion for seasonal, local produce combined with creative techniques and sensational flavours that have already earned him two stars and a legion of fans.
The result has been a constantly full restaurant (tables are booked up months in advance), three AA rosettes, and gushing reviews from most camps. Despite all this, however, The French was overlooked by the 2013 Michelin Guide. Simon is relaxed about the situation, stating that his emphasis is on pleasing the customers and keeping the restaurant busy rather than an out-and-out attempt to catch a star. “I really don't know what it takes to win a Michelin star – or any other accolade for that matter – we just concentrate on what we do, try to do our best and please the customers.
“I've already got two (stars) so it's not an absolute essential,” he laughs, “But The French deserves to have its Michelin star back – and the staff deserve that accolade as well.”
Hot on the heels of The French came a second high end restaurant, this time courtesy of the Living Ventures group who already operate several highly successful bars and restaurants in the city – including the aforementioned Australasia. The £3m Manchester House swaggered confidently into a Spinningfields office tower in the Autumn, with a very clear goal in mind: to win a Michelin star. The restaurant’s pre-opening press release talked of “a strong desire to bring a Michelin Star back to the city centre after losing its only star back in 1974” – and with high profile chef Aiden Byrne at its helm, these ambitions seemed realistic. Speaking of the concept behind Manchester House, Byrne says: “Manchester’s lack of Michelin stars was the catalyst for the design concept for Manchester House. Our ambition was to create a space where the people of Manchester didn’t feel intimidated and uncomfortable. A place where they can call their own.” Have they achieved their vision? The answer seems to be a resonant ‘yes’. With its modern, semi-industrial design, spacious, comfortable furniture, and colourful, theatrical menu showcasing Byrne’s creative and exciting mastery of cuisine, Manchester House is the antipode of traditional French style high-end dining. Waiters wear jeans and banter with diners, creating a relaxed environment in which to enjoy Byrne’s playful and ambitious menu. The only goal yet to be realised from the team’s original vision is the ever elusive star.
So does either restaurant have what it takes to earn a star in 2014? Andrew Nutter believes so. “If passion and drive are key factors to getting a star, both restaurants would definitely deserve one” he says. “The French have gone for the formal, elegant approach with sourcing ingredients from their own gardens and farms in Cumbria and Manchester House has gone for the uber cool feel with a truly Mancunian stamp, but there are so many criteria to meet. One thing’s for sure, we’ll all be raising a glass when it happens!”
Another thing that’s for sure, is that if Manchester is going to win back a Michelin star, it needs to do so on its own terms. What works in other cities just won’t fly here – something that Byrne and Rogan, two chefs with strong Northern pedigrees – completely understand. “Manchester doesn’t do snobbery and being intimidated,” says Aiden Byrne. “They want to feel comfortable and relaxed.” Mancunians are famously staunch in their resolution to work to the beat of their own drum, away from the long cast shadow of the capital. As the late, great Tony Wilson famously said: “this is Manchester. We do things differently here”. Overused as they may be, the words still resonate across all spectrums of the city’s cultural landscape – from music to literature and dining. Mancunians want top notch dining minus the pomp and ceremony – and that’s exactly what they’ve been given in Manchester House and, to a certain extent, The French. “From day one The French has been very, very busy,” says Simon Rogan. “And Manchester House too - we've both been doing great business, so that proves there's an appetite for it here”.
Looking back on 2013 from ten years in the future, we may see it as the year that everything changed for Manchester’s foodie landscape. Initial reports seem to suggest that this time, the city may have finally broken the spell, with two restaurants that hold a successful balance of style and substance, with that all important Manchester stamp. Longevity of this standard of cooking and dining will depend, in part, on whether the Michelin gods decide to shine a star in Manchester’s direction in 2014. Only time will tell, but for now, things are definitely hotting up in Manchester’s kitchens.