If you paid any attention to London-centric coverage and a handful of stubborn critics, you’d be forgiven for thinking Manchester’s food scene consists of either dodgy meat pies or a frantic race for that elusive coal oil-infused Michelin star, with pretty much nothing in between.
That’s dead wrong: Manchester’s offering of affordable, home-grown food is flourishing. And increasingly it’s a scene that’s moving out of restaurants and into the city’s streets, warehouses and homes. From street food festivals to pop-up cocktail bars, from markets to supper clubs, there’s now a huge array of inventive, tasty dining experiences on offer, much of it international but relying on local suppliers and regional produce.
So you can sample Venezuelan arepas using Lancashire cheese in an industrial hall, or taste Cal-Mex fish tacos using ethically sourced coley in a cobbled street, or even meet new people while you feast on home-made curry at a stranger’s dining room table. Some of the constructs sound gimmicky (food rave, anyone?), but the grub is authentic and tasty and can certainly stand up to what’s being served in the city’s restaurants.
Thom Hetherington is the managing director of the Northern Restaurant & Bar show. He says the idea that Manchester doesn’t have a foodie scene is “rubbish, perpetuated by ill-informed lazy journalists.”
“I am biased, as a local lad, but there is no other city outside London that would keep foodies so entertained,” he says. “Dining clubs and pop-ups (along with crowd-funding and social media marketing) have done in Manchester what they have done everywhere around the world: massively lower the cost of entry for establishing a food and drink business, while also removing traditional stumbling blocks like apathetic mass media, bank lending and onerous property leases.”
Hetherington believes Manchester’s food scene is different because of the city’s risk-taking spirit. “Through its culture, philosophy and the outpouring of talent from the universities, Manchester both produces and attracts an unprecedented number of creative, entrepreneurial people, many of whom are into their food and drink, and all of whom find they can now set up a viable business and give it a go. Exciting times.”
One of these people is Mal O’Connor, the man behind Guerrilla Eats, a collective of Manchester street food traders who set up shop on streets, squares and car parks across the city. “Guerrilla Eats presents street food in an exciting way,” O’Connor says. “The great quality of the food is already there from our traders and we build our events around them; the bars, decoration and lighting all add to the atmosphere of the street food experience. We aim to give street food the platform and the style it needs to grab people’s attention.”
Guerrilla Eats traders include Chaat Chart, Fire & Salt Barbecue Co, Arepa Arepa Arepa and Las Paelleras. “We have very simple criteria,” says O’Connor. “We look for independent street food traders, so we don’t take on restaurants or large catering firms. Then we look at the quality of their food, their passion and their visual appeal. Quality of food is primary as we want everything at our events to be delicious.”
O’Connor thinks there’s room for good cheap food and Michelin star-gazing to happily co-exist in Manchester. “There’s now such a large city centre population that it can support a Michelin-starred restaurant in a way that it hasn’t been able to before. What street food and pop-ups do is make good quality food accessible and affordable. I think street food fits better with the Manchester vibe of quick and casual dining, but anything that raises the expectation of quality of food among Manchester customers can only be a good thing for bringing a Michelin star to the city. Raising expectations ultimately means raising quality.”
Street food was given a twist this Spring when food vendors and DJs set up shop in the Victorian Campfield Market on Deansgate for 12 weeks, for Friday Food Fight. The same team will launch Up in Your Grill later this month: 10 block parties in a Northern Quarter hall featuring a variety of food vendors with craft beer and cocktails.
At home, Monica Sawhney is leading the supper club charge for Manchester. She launched The Spice Club, the city’s first supper club, almost four years ago, cooking for guests in her North Manchester home. “I loved the idea of introducing guests to fresh, delicious, Indian, home-cooking in a social, intimate environment,” she says. “The Spice Club marries together the two concepts of dining and socialising. I believe that this is a perfect match as food is a common denominator and a table full of food naturally brings people together.”
Despite the wealth of Indian food available in Manchester, Sawhney is keen to offer authentic, home-style Indian food. She says it took a while to get the word out and encourage diners to come to a supper club. “I’m now pleased to say that the people of Manchester have taken to it extremely positively and keep coming back for more.
“We definitely have a growing number of passionate diners in Manchester who are constantly itching to try something new when it comes to dining.”
By Clare Wiley
Main image by Chris Payne
Northern Restaurant & Bar show: http://www.northernrestaurantandbar.co.uk/
Guerrilla Eats: http://guerrillaeats.com/bsfa.html
Friday Food Fight/Beat Street: http://www.beatstreetmcr.co.uk/
Up in Your Grill: http://www.upinyourgrill.co.uk/
The Spice Club: http://spiceclubmanchester.com/