It is a fine city indeed where Vimto mousse mixes with Sir Charles Hallé, Britain’s first nuclear free zone and an infamous sponge cake. But that’s what the Sculpture Hall Café at Manchester Town Hall delivers: creative regional delicacies in rousing, historic surroundings. It’s just a shame that the food gets all the attention.
Afternoon tea has been around for a while at Manchester’s Grade I listed neo-gothic Town Hall, but has recently been refreshed with a North-West inspired menu.
The results are a great success. Whereas some modern Manchester afternoon teas have gone down the route of oversized cakes and funky herbal teas, the Town Hall has stuck with the classics: small tempting portions, and plenty of them – just enough to fill you up but not so much that you’re rendered unable to strike up elegant conversation. The pleasant tableware is also prettily arranged.
So what’s in store? Well, you can delight in an upper cake stand tier that includes tasty and well-textured potted Yorkshire ham rillettes (alas served in one of those now seemingly compulsory glass jars with metal hinges), Morecambe Bay shrimps and trout mousse and a very tasty chicken liver pâté. Reader, I ate ‘em all.
Having pride in local food is one of the best gastronomic things that’s happened in recent years. And it seems fitting that the Town Hall should embrace this, stuffed as it is with sculptures (mostly busts) of local figures who, in their time, helped to change the world.
Between courses, below the beautiful brick ceiling, you might want to wander around and look at them, perusing the potted histories attached. Sadly, these venerable artists, statesmen and business magnates – Cobden, Bright, Hallé and many others – are mostly tucked away behind chairs or in gloomy corners. The biggest bunch is clustered by the window (an aesthetic pleasure) but rendered inaccessible due to a large plant pot.
Back to the grub and things are looking up. The Vimto delice (sponge cake topped with a Vimto mousse and covered in a Vimto glaze, in case you were wondering) is excellent. Vimto, by the way, isn’t some multi-national syrup. It’s Mancunian, created in the city around a century ago to give fans of the temperance movement something to drink.
The delectable Manchester coconut sponge is next down the hatch. Filled with buttercream and raspberry compote, the chef claims it is ‘inspired by the infamous Manchester tart’, a former staple of school dinners and reportedly first documented by Mrs Beeton.
A mini scone and Eccles cake complete the pleasing pudding parade. A final glug of tea and you’re done.
Having been well provided for, it is now time to digest and discourse. You’re assisted well in this by cunningly positioned pot plants that create the illusion of privacy between tables.
What is not so ideal is the temperature. We are in the North after all and, quite frankly, it’s rather chilly. I asked about this and was told heaters of any kind are banned because of the need to protect the historic surroundings. I’m not sure whether this is really necessary (does the building have no heating?) and would urge management to reconsider for the sake of the customers.
Even so, these are fairly minor shortcomings and Manchester Town Hall’s afternoon tea is a great success. It was also packed – the best review a restaurant can get. For the surroundings and the food, the price seems reasonable too.
Nevertheless, if the Sculpture Hall Café aspires to be one of Manchester’s premier destinations – which it could be – it needs to raise the bar, nail the details and most importantly, embrace its history as well as its food.
Where: Manchester Town Hall
Price: Afternoon Tea: £12.50 per person; Champagne Afternoon Tea: £19.95 p.p.
When: Monday – Friday, 8am to 4pm; Saturday – Sunday, 10am to 4pm