Manchester continues to vie for the position of the UK’s second city when it comes to dining out – and at the rate it is going, the birthplace of the industrial revolution may edge out Birmingham and Edinburgh to take that title. In the last year the Northern capital has seen the launch of the first Hawksmoor outside of London, swiftly joined by Spanish tapas group Ibérica, while Wahaca, Pho and Vapiano all snapped up venues in Manchester’s new restaurant hub, The Corn Exchange.
This phenomenal level of growth shows no signs of slowing with Soho House setting its sights on Manchester, Dishoom eyes expansion with a site in the city, Soho’s Randall & Aubin unveiling plans for a second seafood bar and restaurant in Bridge Street (opening later this year), and king of the crowd-funding campaign, Gary Usher (Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle), has raised the cash for his third venture – Hispi Bistro – slated to arrive in the city’s outskirts in Chorlton.
It is not just diners who are welcoming this injection of vibrancy to the city’s dining scene. Harden’s sat down with Aiden Byrne, chef/patron of Manchester House, to talk about this new level of competition, his portrayal in the rather sexed-up Beeb documentary Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester, and the chef’s plans for a new venture in his native Liverpool.
“It’s a really exciting time for the city,” he says. “Personally I welcome the competition. It will make us all up our game, and it will benefit the people who live here, not to mention tourism. Historically, Manchester isn’t really a tourist destination. The visitors we get are often on business trips, but that’s changing as the city has more to offer – especially in terms of dining out.
“Sure, there was nervousness about the Hawksmoor opening last year, but Manchester House was still very young then. Now we’ve found our feet and are a bit more established I can say that there’s no reason why lots of high level restaurants cannot exist alongside each other. We’ll feed off each other, raise each other’s games.”
Aiden launched Manchester House in October 2013 – around the same time that Simon Rogan was opening his Manchester base, The French at the Midland hotel. The launch of two high profile, upmarket restaurants in Manchester (a great moment for the city) became the subject of a rather melodramatic BBC documentary, Restaurant Wars.
Aiden, who comes across as an extremely affable chap, is quick to point out that even the name of the documentary was designed to create a sense of rivalry that just didn’t exist. “There was no ‘war’ between Simon (Rogan) and myself. These documentaries try to create drama where there isn’t any – but I suppose it’s all about attracting viewer ratings at the end of the day,” he concedes. “I just want people to know that my portrayal is not really who I am as a chef. I’m not Michelin Star hungry. It’s not the be all and end all for me. I’d rather provide great hospitality for my guests and give them an unforgettable dining experience than chase accolades.”
But Aiden isn’t bitter about his taste of TV fame, in fact it has helped him reimagine the Manchester House menu so that he is now cooking the dishes he wants, rather than what he thinks diners might expect from a fine dining restaurant. He says: “I think that initially I was concentrating too much on producing food I thought should be on Manchester’s fine dining scene, rather than what I was truly passionate about. So I went back to the development kitchen and started again. Now I’m serving heartfelt food that’s personal to me and my restaurant.”
His statement is upheld by many of our Harden’s reporters who had heard Manchester House’s food had a “gimmicky reputation” in the past. However last year’s survey feedback was glowing, with comments like – “very professional”, “very classy”, and Aiden Byrnes’s “ornate” cuisine is seriously “accomplished”.
So readers will be pleased to hear that Aiden has plans for expansion with a new venture in his native Liverpool. The venue will incorporate not just a restaurant but a chef’s school as well. He is currently in talks to acquire a site, so watch this space for more details. “I’d love to open a restaurant in my home town,” he says. “And the plan is to have a chef’s school there as well. I have my eye on the potential site – it’s very exciting.”
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“The only choice is how many courses you want” (you can have either 6 or 10), when you a secure table in Manchester’s grandest dining space, nowadays part of the empire of Simon Rogan of L’Enclume fame. Despite the lack of options, chef Adam Reid’s “innovative and amazingly flavourful” parade of dishes are “exceptional”, if fully priced; the space itself can appear a tad “corporate”.
“Don’t let its slightly gimmicky reputation put you off!” This year-old, “blingy” office block venture – with “trendy 12th-floor cocktail lounge (limited views)” and “glam industrial-chic” 2nd-floor restaurant (complete with open kitchen) – is “very professional”, “very classy”, and Aiden Byrnes’s “ornate” cuisine is seriously “accomplished”. That all said, it can still seem a bit “forced”, not helped by the punishing “London prices”.
“Standards have been maintained in the move to Manchester”, and this outpost of the legendary London steakhouse chain “is a fine addition to the city’s improving dining scene”. In fact enthusiasm here is just as it was in the early days of the brand’s original debut in the capital, with adulation for its “confident” menu, “fabulous” steaks, and “engaging and knowledgeable” service.
“A real gem in the centre of Manchester” with a “pleasant”, if unlikely sounding, setting in a converted warehouse over a casino; reporters all acclaim the TV chef’s “amazing” cuisine (“at an affordable price”) and staff who “can’t do enough”.
“Setting new standards for Iberian cuisine”; despite only opening in late-2014, this “achingly modern” (think yellow banquettes) new spot, off Deansgate, already “enjoys celebrity status” for its “wonderful, fresh and interesting” tapas from a chef “with a real sense of flavour” (Basque maestro Josetxo Arrieta).
“A favourite of pretty much everybody that’s ever been!” – this formidable Didsbury brasserie “never lets you down”, not least the “consistently great” service. “You could eat here every week – there’s nothing too fancy or clever, and the menu would suit your maiden aunt as well as your new lover.”
William Mills’s “white, minimalist” restaurant “goes from strength to strength” with its “consistently exquisite” and “always inventive” dishes. “The pricing is very fair for the reward of eating so well, with good wines sourced from the local independent wine merchant”.
“Still the best in Manchester (and very probably further afield)” – the Yeung family’s vast Chinatown beacon (est. 1977) remains one of the UK’s top Chinese destinations, and its “joyous” dim sum is particularly notable for its “gorgeous delicacy and refinement of flavour”. Even one long-term observer who feels this “not amazing-looking, but comfortable place” is “currently on one of its recurring downswings” still thinks it nothing short of “brilliant”. Top Tip – “the banquets are especially good – tell the staff what you do/don’t like and let them take care of the order…”
“Several notches above your average Japanese” – this “simple” and “very approachable” year-old diner in Chinatown (decked out with a “wooden interior”) is proving a “very happy” addition to Manchester. “By not serving sushi, they achieve a Zen-like focus on doing other things well, and boy do they succeed”, with “spectacularly good tempura” and other dishes (such as noodles and dumplings). “It’s worth going just to see how good rice can be!”
A new basement Chinatown Thai that’s “effectively part of an Asian supermarket”, but where the ex-solicitor owner’s “sensational” food comes “pretty close to sitting in a Bangkok roadside caff!”; “watch out”, though, “the Thais like it hot, and it is VERY hot”!
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“The atmosphere, the people, the produce available – it’s absolutely fantastic!” says Aiden. He recommends that visitors head up there on a Sunday for the Specialist Market which ‘showcases
the talent, skill, passion and creativity of the finest traders in the North West plus some amazing food to boot’. Aiden even sources some of Manchester House’s ingredients from the market, including Formby asparagus and Wirral watercress.