Bill Collison says that his new restaurant is his 79th although he is keen to stress that it’s not a chain. “Each one is different, each one has its own soul.” He adds that all of the interiors “are chosen by me”.
Certainly, this branch of Bill’s in Manchester’s Spinningfields has a distinctive feel. It’s full of ornaments and plants, the opposite of the trendy, paired back minimalist interiors of many new restaurants.
“Shabby chic,” says a fellow guest.
“Glamorous in a kitsch way,” replies Bill. “It’s how I would want a restaurant to look like.”
Bill is an affable and open host. He joins our end of the table last as he works his way through this press launch of his newest gaff. Bill’s used to be on John Dalton Street tucked away behind the No 50 bus stop and the now defunct Byron Burgers. “It was a bit of a building site,” says Bill before explaining how he wants to make the new place “more exciting, to put on a show, warm and inviting”.
This fresh incarnation is at the heart of Hardman Square, the expanding eating and drinking destination in what used to be Manchester’s financial district before the crash of 2008. Even on a wet autumnal Thursday, it is busy and welcomely warm. Our table is packed with journos, food critics, bloggers and influencers waiting to be impressed. We start with a Shubadubdub, a fruity cocktail with a sweet kick to get the ball rolling and it’s not long before we’re munching and chatting our way through hummus and olives followed by a good selection of starters that include tasty chicken dumplings, tender and sticky chicken skewers, tempura vegetables and breaded halloumi sticks.
Meanwhile, the Picpoul de Pinet is light and dry with a short finish of apples and pears. It partners my main of pan-fried sea bass almost perfectly. The fish is moist and set on a bed of herb rösti and a tomato and avocado salsa. The potato could have done with a bit more crunch, but it was a hearty and satisfying plate of food. We finish with a sample of desserts including a great plateful of apple doughnuts, dark chocolate brownies and a particularly sumptuous Eton Mess, proving that it is by far the cleverest thing to come out of its namesake. We agree that it’s impressive fare.
Bill joins my crowd toward the end of our fine dinner. We learn that he likes the location as he wants it to be an evening venue “for families, wives and husbands, for lovers, for everybody”. It is an intimate and cosy space with subdued lighting “like my living room”. Bill is from Brighton but his sister and her family live in Manchester. He was here recently to see Brighton & Hove Albion lose narrowly to Manchester City and will be back to see them play United. Our conversation moves easily from football to eyewear. Bill sports a dapper pair of glasses which I spot immediately and which endears him to me. Added to which, he is friendly and approachable. I feel like I’ve known him longer than the half an hour he generously spends at our end of the table. With a firm handshake, I say goodbye. I emerge into the cold night warmed by the few hours I have spent in Bill’s and feeling like I just left his front room.