Let’s get the stereotype out of the way first. Contrary to an enduring and widespread global belief, Britain now understands food. It is true that it was once hard, by today’s standards, to find a good restaurant (or even an open restaurant) in most smaller towns at most times of day. By the 1990s, however, factors ranging from longterm post-colonial immigration to the cult of the TV celebrity chef had combined to raise the knowledge, availability and diversity of good food – and the options in a city such as Manchester are positively impressive, as we hope visitors will agree.
The map above illustrates the personal recommendations of various staff and students based in Manchester and involved in organising the Congress. We don’t claim to have listed all the ‘best’ restaurants in and around the city – just the ones we know and like, which is probably reflected in the geographical spread. We encourage you to do your own exploring: below are some notes on the spread of cuisines in the city and their locations, with more general advice on dining out.
To British people who are not scholars of history, the idea of a ‘traditional British’ restaurant might seem an oxymoron: it’s popularly assumed that British people do not have a tradition of eating in restaurants that serve British food. In fact, the history of indigenous British dining – overlapping, to some extent, with pub culture – is long and rich. One important nineteenth-century institution was the ‘chop house’, which is re-created in a chain of three city-centre restaurants: Mr Thomas’s, Sam’s, and the Albert Square Chop House near the Town Hall.
There’s an old saying, often passed off as a quotation from one or other European statesman, that the English are an unfathomable nation with fifty, sixty or a hundred different religions, but only one sauce. There’s a grain of truth in this: food presented as ‘traditional British’ is likely to be plainly cooked and simply arranged, relying on the high quality of the raw ingredients (often sourced from local farms) to make its point. Soups, stews, (savoury) pies and puddings give more scope for combining flavours. Britain is also an island surrounded by fish, and has been known to cook it well on occasion.
Then there is ‘modern British’, a style which is easier to demonstrate than to define, on offer at such venues as The Wharf in Castlefield or Rhubarb in West Didsbury. The term usually implies the same commitment to local ingredients but less attachment to traditional methods, some fusion with other culinary approaches, and more experimentalism in general. Portions tend to be lighter; pricing perhaps a little higher, although as usual with restaurant culture this is far from an exact science.
Chinese food is usually reckoned the earliest of the non-European cuisines to have impressed itself on the Manchester palate, arriving with large-scale Hong Kong and mainland Chinese immigration from the 1950s. The restaurant scene is concentrated in the centre of Manchester, in particular (unsurprisingly) around the city’s Chinatown, one of the largest in Europe, which fills most of the grid of streets bounded by Mosley Street, York Street, Portland Street and Oxford Street.
The range of quality establishments is broad enough that even London restaurant critics admit to its importance, although there is heated debate about the merits of various competing options. Yang Sing is the famous, old-established Cantonese destination restaurant; Red Chilli, the spikier (and spicier) Szechuan upstart, with branches on Chinatown and close to the Congress site on Oxford Road. Ho’s bakery, offering take-out and café seating, is another Manchester institution, famous for its buns. Tai Wu (on Oxford Road, just outside Chinatown) is the best known of the area’s many good-value buffet restaurants; the Rice Bowl (Cross Street, rather further away) gets some of the nicest customer feedback; and we’ve heard approving comments recently on both Wing’s and Great Wall. There are many other options, however, and part of the fun is in seeing for yourself.
Chinatown and its fringes also have the greatest concentration of restaurants representing other East and Southeast Asian cultures. Thai is among the most widely represented (try Chaophraya), but there’s everything from Japanese (Samsi on Whitworth Street) to Vietnamese (I Am Pho).
Mention of curry in Manchester immediately brings to mind the ‘Curry Mile’. Actually around 700m (just under half a mile) in length, the ‘Mile’ is a neon-drenched strip of over 70 restaurants and take-aways along both sides of Wilmslow Road, beginning just south of the University campus and continuing through the inner suburb of Rusholme, along a route much used by the student population. This makes it a very convenient short walk from the Victoria Park halls of residence, and easily reached from the city centre via the Oxford Road/Wilmslow Road buses. The Curry Mile offers low prices, the certainty of getting a table somewhere immediately, and a classic Mancunian experience.
Whether the Curry Mile still offers much in the way of good curry, however, has become an open question in recent years. The unfortunate and widely attested fact is that too many Wilmslow Road restaurants are now happy to offer customers a wide range of basically interchangeable dishes of lightly spiced and brightly coloured meat, salt and fat. There are exceptions, of course, and Mancunians still have a few favourites on the Mile. In recent years, however, attention and acclaim have gravitated to establishments in the city centre such as EastZEast and Zouk, or in the suburbs further out, such as Chorlton’s Coriander. The Curry Mile has also begun to trade less in curry and more in kebabs and other Middle Eastern food, again with a variable quality profile.
A few words on authenticity may be useful. In Britain, South Asian food in general is widely termed ‘curry’ or ‘Indian food’, whatever its nature and origin. Most Indian restaurateurs and staff are not Indian in the literal and post-1947 sense (nationally, the trade is strongly Bangladeshi; in Manchester, often Pakistani); the popular standard dishes draw on influences from many regions and have mostly changed out of recognition. In some cases, such as the famous balti, you may be experiencing an uncertain Mancunian approximation to a dish whose point of authentic origin lies in far-off Birmingham or Stoke-on-Trent. It is usually best to put the whole question to one side and focus on whether the food tastes good.
Lovers of the meaningfully geographical, however, may wish to know that EastZEast leans to Bengal; Coriander to the Punjab; and rather confusingly the Punjab on the Curry Mile is better known for its South Indian-style dosas. In the leafy suburb of West Didsbury, meanwhile, there are no less than three specifically Nepalese restaurants on a short stretch of Burton Road (which may represent one of the largest concentrations of Nepalese eateries outside Nepal).
Manchester has a problem with Italian restaurants. It is not that they are bad – some are very, very good – but ‘Italian’ seems to be the current badge of choice for bland, identikit eateries, particularly in the city centre. Nobody in Britain would specialise in British food without thinking carefully about what British food ought to taste like; opening Italian restaurants, by contrast, seems to be almost a reflex action, undertaken by people who know little to nothing about Italy, its food, or the joys of life in general. If you want a good Italian, get a personal recommendation.
The connotations of the French restaurant in British culture have turned full circle in recent decades. Early reverence, followed by ingrained suspicion of cheap attempts to gain expensive credibility, has now given way to a tacit agreement that anyone with the audacity to claim to be running a high-class French restaurant is probably serious. Accordingly, establishments such as 63 Degrees and The French at the Midland sell themselves on a special-occasion dining experience (with prices commensurate).
Spanish food (chiefly tapas) also has some cachet in Britain, represented locally by El Rincon de Rafa and La Tasca, and the Greek-in-principle Dimitri’s has a wide-ranging menu bridging tapas and mezze cultures. Middle Eastern restaurants are not clustered in any one part of Manchester but are relatively common across the city centre and suburbs, with Petra particularly well-placed for Victoria Park.
Other European cuisines tend to be represented mainly in the city centre. Eastern Europe has yet to make an impact, but this is changing. One recent development we haven’t had a chance to review yet is the Polish Big-O’s at the Old Abbey Inn on Pencroft Way, walking distance from the Congress venue. If you call in, let us know what it’s like!
The city centre offers plenty of choice, but if you’re spending several days in Manchester, why not do a little exploring? For good options in a quieter, leafier location, try the suburbs of Chorlton, West Didsbury, or Didsbury Village – in particular, Beech Road in Chorlton and Burton Road/Lapwing Lane in West Didsbury, both particularly rich in interestingly different restaurants. These areas are easy to reach via either Metrolink from the city centre (East Didsbury line) or bus from the University campus (Chorlton: number 85 or 86 from Booth Street West; Didsbury: 41, 42 etc from Oxford Road; West Didsbury: 111 from Oxford Road).
It’s possible to get a full meal under £5 if you know where to look. Manchester’s greatest contribution to the world of dining on a budget is the curry café, an unpretentious institution combining a fast-food ambience (think plastic chairs) with a real-food menu. Confusingly, the famous curry cafés are not on the Curry Mile, but in the Northern Quarter, This and That, Kabana and Al Faisal being the names usually cited.
Otherwise, noodle bars such as Umami are often a good bet for a quick, decent meal on a budget. A lot of cafés and sandwich bars will offer a substantial enough alternative to dining: try for instance the Katsouris Deli in the city centre for very good fresh sandwiches.
Vegetarian restaurants in Manchester include the well-known Greens in the suburb of West Didsbury (advance booking particularly recommended) and 1847, with branches in both the city centre and Chorlton. Anand’s Vegetarian Deli is the recommended Curry Mile option. The Eighth Day Café near the upper end of Oxford Road does lighter meals, while the basement veggie café on Burlington Street offers lunchtime food right on the University campus (open weekdays throughout July, we’re told, despite the scaffolding).
In general, vegetarians dining at omnivore establishments in the UK can expect at least to be understood and to some degree catered for. Problems familiar in some parts of the world – being advised to pick the meat out, incredulity that vegetarian extends to fish, chicken, beef etc – will not in general arise. The vegetarian’s chief concern is boredom: many menus feature a limited choice revolving around a fairly narrow palate of reliable clichés. In a city the size of Manchester this problem can be avoided easily enough with a bit of prior online menu checking. Vegans will find a much more limited range of options, and will need to do more research.
Visitors requiring halal food have a good choice, as virtually the entire curry industry (see above) is halal by default. Kosher presents difficulties: the region’s large Orthodox community is mainly settled in North Manchester, leaving the main possibilities inconveniently far from the Congress location (suggestions here). Dairy and gluten intolerance are widely known about: if you explain the nature of your condition to restaurant staff, they can often help.
Restaurants, and cafés with table service, present one of the few situations where tipping is generally expected in the UK. 10% is widely seen as the conventional tip rate; 15% is a signal of appreciation for good service.
Some restaurants apply a service charge, typically at 12.5%. This may serve as an automatic tip, but there is actually no guarantee that the money goes to the staff who served you. The obvious way to find out is to check with the staff themselves. Service charges are always optional. You can, if you wish, have the service charge removed and substitute your preferred tip in cash.