The shortage of top-end restaurants in Manchester stretches back decades. Now, in a big culinary year for the city, Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne are both lauching new restaurants. But can they break the spell? Tom Vaughan reports
It's 1974. Flares rule. Britain is in the midst of the three-day week. Bagpuss is yawning his way on to the BBC for the first time. Dancers in discos are doing bad impressions of Mud's Tiger Feet. And the Michelin Guide for Great Britain & Ireland is published for the first time since 1930. For two fleeting years, the French restaurant in Manchester's Midland hotel holds a star, but the city has since failed to regain the accolade. Thirty-seven years can be a long time to wait for a gastronomic meal.
Once upon a time, maybe this was the case. But a lot has changed in 25 years. In 1996, chef Paul Heathcote opened his brasserie Simply Heathcotes in the city centre to little competition. "Back then, unless you wanted Italian, Chinese or a curry, there really wasn't much to choose from," he says. "After work, everyone drove home to the outskirts of the city."
Nowadays, it is a different scene. Thom Hetherington is managing director at the Northern Restaurant and Bar Show and, unsurprisingly, a passionate defender of Manchester's current restaurant scene. "I do have an issue about how Manchester is judged - especially the idea that the dining scene is underdeveloped," he says.
- "Manchester is full of great restaurants, from little backstreet Japanese restaurants to the likes of Harvey Nichols and Michael Caines at Abode."
Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor at The Good Food Guide, agrees that, at a certain level, Manchester is well equipped with eateries: "There are nice restaurants there, but they are just nice. Until Simon [Rogan] opened, there was nothing that would make you drive into town if you lived on the outskirts."
Find it bizarre
For Tim Bacon, managing director at Living Ventures, the restaurant group behind Aiden Byrne's forthcoming restaurant, the lack of a Michelin star is perverse. "I just find it bizarre that there isn't one," he says. "It's one of our major cities, for God's sake. Go to any other major European country and their largest cities will have fine-dining options."
He's right. Barcelona, Hamburg, Marseille - not one of them is short of top-end restaurants. But then again, when you look at any UK city centre outside of London and Edinburgh, few are stocked with Michelin big boys. "It's not a Manchester story," says Carter. "It's a story about UK city centres. Like so many cities, Manchester is a drinking city. You're not going to drive into the centre on a weekend because it's full of twenty-somethings on the lash. Who wants the hassle of all that as well as parking, when you can drive to a nice restaurant on the outskirts and park right outside."
Nor do city centres appeal to hard-headed businessmen, says Hetherington. "The economics of making a Michelin-star restaurant work in a city centre are difficult. It's hard to make money out of them at the best of times. Either you need to be underpinned by someone who doesn't care - a hotel operator or wealthy backer - and these people tend to prefer London, or you follow the Shaun Hill approach of finding a quiet location, getting your head down and cooking your arse off."
Wooing a city-centre crowd, especially in the north, needs a different kind of offering, and many have got it very wrong in the past, says Bacon. "The Mancunian mindset is different. Historically, people have put fine dining and good food in a very restrained setting. I've seen people try with white tablecloths and formality and fail. If you look at major cities like Chicago or New York or Sydney, there are plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants that have no resemblance to the French fine-diners you get across the world. Fine dining doesn't have to be that and we are trying to create something unique for Manchester."
With Living Venture's current portfolio containing six different mid-market, highly popular brands across the North West, formality is one thing you won't be expecting from Manchester House. Yet the goal is definitely to win a star; Bacon has been quoted as saying the whole project with Byrne is about gaining that accolade. Is it really that focused an objective?
"As it stands at this moment in time, the driving force is to create an offer that should get a Michelin star but not to create a conventional fine-diner in the process," he says. "But if we end up with a stonking business with no star, I won't be crying my eyes out."
Byrne himself believes there are plenty of people in Manchester with money who want a quality restaurant. "However, they don't want the pomp, so what we're doing will be entertaining and unpretentious," he says.
One thing is for certain: in Manchester, the time is as good as ever for the restaurant scene to expand into the top end. "The city has changed so much in the last two decades," says Carter. "I love its energy and its buzz. It reminds me of 1980s New York, but without the scary factor."
A success story of city-centre regeneration, Manchester has developed across several markets to pull in visitors."There are five major draws into the city," says Hetherington. "There is football, the Manchester Arena and the huge concerts it puts on, the Manchester Central exhibition centre, the huge shopping and, of course, the BBC. Restaurant operators say the opening of Media City and the expense accounts that come with it has made a huge difference. With the train line from London, it really is commutable for many people."
The question is, even with all these developments, will the city take to fine dining?
The likes of Hetherington and Carter are convinced that the profiles of Rogan and Byrne will be sufficient to pull diners into the city centre. Heathcote recognises that both share a quality that is essential for opening in Manchester - an understanding of the North West.
"It's not just about the timing," he says. "No one of this pedigree has being brave enough to try conquering Manchester in the past. I myself never had the inclination. Once or twice I met people who were keen to invest, but on a personal level I'd been cooking that food all my life and was a bit tired of it.
"However, I'm convinced it will work. It needs someone with pedigree and an understanding of the North. Maybe a few years ago, if someone had tried fine dining here, they'd have probably been London-based. But both Aiden and Simon have been trading up here for some time and both understand their clientele and know what they want."
The last word should go to chef and restaurateur Michael Caines, whose restaurant opened at the Abode Manchester hotel in 2008 amidst friendly warnings. The success of the business has proved his detractors wrong.
"Lots of people were quick to tell us there was no way a restaurant like this would work," he says. "But it was busy from day one. We had to understand the market and we made sure we created a relaxed atmosphere with no tablecloths and so on. Five years on, it is the busiest restaurant in the Michael Caines group. You can't underestimate the city as a market. Manchester is on the up."
SIMON ROGAN CONQUERS MANCHESTER
Simon Rogan's arrival has taken Manchester by storm, writes Janet Harmer. Almost everyone, from local reviewers ("This is the place that will change your mind about the quality of dining in Manchester" - Gordo, ManchesterConfidential.co.uk) to national critics ("I'd walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful of the chopped raw ribeye of ox in coal oil" - Giles Coren, The Times) and, most importantly, the general public, is loving the original and classy style of cooking he has introduced to the French at the city's Midland hotel.
With the restaurant's revenue 300% up on what was previously being achieved and weekends booked up nearly three months in advance, it appears to be a win, win situation.
And Rogan is not even half way through his transformation of the food and beverage offering at the Midland. September will see him launch a larger second restaurant there - Mr Cooper's House & Garden, a more informal, international offer that will replace the Colony restaurant.
Rogan's presence - on what is his first hotel management contract - at the Midland marks a £400,000 investment by QHotels, the property's owner and operator.
The money has been, and isbeing, spent on refurbishing the 60-seat French and creating a new space in Mr Cooper's, which will see a 50-seat destination bar taking centre stage within the 150-seat restaurant.
It appears the investment is well on the way to being paid off, but was Rogan not just a little bit nervous that Manchester diners would eschew the innovative food that won him a second Michelin star at his celebrated L'Enclume restaurant in Cartmel, Cumbria last year?
"I admit to being slightly apprehensive as I am well aware the city has not got a good track record of serious restaurants staying open," he says. "I don't know why fine dining hasn't worked here before. Maybe the formula wasn't quite right, the food or chef were wrong for the city, or businesses were overextended."
However, Manchester has given Rogan his most viable expansion opportunity since he got his second Michelin star. "I wanted to do something else, but it had to be somewhere with good transport links and easily accessible to Cumbria, which is still my home and my main focus," he says. "I was offered a number of restaurants inand around London and all over the country - but Manchester is where I wanted to be."
With the decision not to seek another site in closure of Roganic, his two-year "pop-up" restaurant in the capital, and a new, larger kitchen being installed at L'Enclume next month to assist Rogan's ambition to achieve a third Michelin star, it made sense to concentrate hisculinary empire in the North West.
An introduction by a third party put Rogan in touch with Mike Magrane, the Midland's general manager, who was looking for someone to work with on the relaunch of the Colony. Rogan felt his involvement with a replacement for the Colony would work only if he took on the French too.
"It had never been my intention to do anything this serious, but the problem is, I only know how to do serious," says Rogan. "Even Rogan & Co and the Pig & Whistle [his second restaurant and pub in Cartmel] have become serious as time has gone on. That is our brand."
the French opened under Rogan's watch on 12 March, less than 12 weeks after he signed the contract with QHotels. The restaurant, which has existed ever since the four-star, 312-bedroom hotel opened in 1903, was given a facelift, new kitchen and front-of-house teams were put together and menus drawn up.
While the room's high ceilings and ornate mouldings remain, the heavy, dark red silk wallpaper, Louis XV armchairs and over-the-top silk-swagged curtains have been thrown out in favour of a pared-down décor that features two huge glitter ball-style chandeliers, stripped oak tables and - the key talking point - a carpet cleverly woven to replicate a wooden floor.
"We wanted a real wood floor but thought it would be too echoey with the high ceilings," says Magrane. "While we've kept 20% of the opulence, overall the restaurant is 80% more relaxed. It has always been a very special room, but is now more accessible. There was no dress code before, but people felt there probably was and generally came suited and booted. We're now attracting a younger audience with the likes of Ryan Giggs eating here in the early weeks."
Trudi Purtill, design director of QHotels, oversaw the revamp, which was designed by Cheshire company Style Matters.
The new teams have been created by merging existing staff (three in the kitchen and three in the restaurant) with 10 that Rogan brought with him. Kamila Plonska, previously assistant restaurant manager at L'Enclume, replaced the retiring restaurant manager, while the head chef is Adam Reid, who has previously worked with Paul Heathcote and at the Chester Grosvenor. And what about the new menus, which revolve around a set choice of three courses at £29, six at £55 and 10 at £79? As in all of Rogan's restaurants, the cooking is strictly seasonally focused, with many ingredients coming from the 20 acres he farms in the Cartmel Valley.
There are some historical references, such as the way Rogan combines preserved tomatoes bottled from the farm with Wetcomber Cheddar cheese to create a umami-rich combination as inspired by the 18th-century writings of Elizabeth Raffald in The Experienced English Housekeeper. There are also several dishes previously seen at L'Enclume.
Meanwhile, the dish that has got everyone talking - diced raw ox in a smokey-flavoured oil with kohlrabi and sunflower shoots (pictured on the front cover) - reflects Rogan's aim to create the perfect dish, using the best ingredients and served with a minimum of adornments.
As well as giving a new lease of life to the Midland's food and beverage offer, Rogan's arrival in Manchester has also injected new confidence into the city as a fine-dining venue.
"We know at least two high-profile chefs are looking at properties in the city," says Magrane.
"There is a sudden belief that fine dining, in the right guise, can work in Manchester."