​Vimto truffles – only in Manchester


A version of this article is also published by the Financial Times. 

My arrival at Manchester Piccadilly station at 10.30 pm was timely on several counts. 

Most immediately, it meant that I was soon sitting down to a plate of English cheeses and a glass of Palacios' Pétalos 2012 Bierzo as the dinner in the recently opened Hawksmoor steak restaurant in aid of Action Against Hunger was coming to an end.

This was followed by the announcement that this event, organised by my FT colleague Tim Hayward among others, had raised over £15,000 for this charity embraced by many in British hospitality. This gave way to the enjoyment of a specially conceived chocolate truffle that may yet vindicate the adage that ‘what starts in Manchester soon spreads to the rest of the world'. More details of that are to follow.

The following day I was able to take stock of the major transformation under way in this northern city’s restaurants, with figures suggesting that the rate of openings is now as high here as in any other part of the country, including London.

Although I did notice an application for a change to a liquor licence on the former home of the Temperance Permanent Building Society on Peter Street, these new openings are principally concentrated in two very different areas: the Northern Quarter centred around Oldham Street and Spinningfields to the south of Deansgate.

The former will seem like home to anyone familiar with the streets of Soho or Brooklyn. Small, atmospheric buildings have now become pubs, bars and clubs that act as a magnet for the city’s 30,000 students and its streets seem as crowded with pedestrians as its pavements.

By contrast, Spinningfields provides the bling often associated with this city, home to some of the best-paid footballers on the planet. Here broad, new, pedestrianised streets are flanked by large office buildings and shops interspersed with café operators such as Pret à Manger, Giraffe and Carluccio’s. Occupying one side of the newly created Hardman Street is Thaikhun, for Thai street food and Thai furniture, next to an even bigger corner site occupied by Iberica, the first outpost of this northern Spanish restaurant group to open outside London.

That afternoon I joined the young, vociferous and packed audience at the fourth Northern Restaurant and Bar Awards to listen to Will Beckett, one of the two founders of Hawksmoor (and son of food and wine writer Fiona), explain how they had spent two years looking for what would also be their first opening outside London.

He began modestly describing the outfit he was wearing – jeans, an open-necked shirt and jacket – as ‘his smartest outfit’. He then went on to encourage anyone thinking of opening their own restaurant by confessing that Hawksmoor emerged only after his and his partner Huw Gott’s first three restaurants had all ended unsuccessfully. And they stumbled upon the idea for a steak restaurant only because the fourth place they took over, more in hope than expectation, came with a large grill, a feature that they have copied in their subsequent restaurants.

While Beckett tried to minimise his personal input behind Hawksmoor’s success by claiming that everyone loves restaurants serving meat and potatoes, good fortune has followed. In London their seven restaurants now serve just under 10,000 customers a week with an average spend of around £50. Manchester got off to a promising start by serving 1,600 customers in its first week, albeit at a slightly lower average spend.

Beckett then laid down several helpful guidelines. Firstly, how crucial it had been to listen to their original investor’s advice to appoint a full-time, experienced finance director six months before a potentially damaging financial crisis appeared on the horizon, a crisis which, as a result, they managed to solve. Secondly, not to deviate from their founding principles: they source meat exclusively from the Ginger Pig farms in Yorkshire and make an unusually strong commitment to staff welfare, the Action Against Hunger charity, and to sustainability as measured by the highest possible ratings from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.

Beckett then explained that they had eschewed possible locations in the Northern Quarter because he believed there would not be sufficient lunchtime trade. They also decided against Spinningfields because it could not offer the kind of heritage building they believe resonates best with their customers. Instead, they decided to renovate a former courthouse – the original windows declaring that this was the place for PROBATE and REGISTRY are still clearly visible next to the entrance.

In retrospect, Beckett seemed relieved that he did not listen to those in London who advised that his menu should be modified for Manchester and prices should be reduced, although Mancunians are offered a special £15 rump steak and chips lunch. But there are certain new dishes designed to appeal to northerners – veal rump with fried oysters and cottage-pie skins – as well as a non-alcoholic cocktail using tonics from the UK’s only remaining temperance bar in Rawtenstall.

North–south divisions remain, however. The receptionists sent up from London have been somewhat confused by those calling ‘to book for their tea’, mistaking this northern reference to dinner for an early evening, pre-theatre booking. But, according to Beckett, it has been noticeably easier to find the kind of staff they are always looking for – relaxed, friendly and passionate – in Manchester than in the capital.

This north–south gap may be bridged by the spread of Vimto truffles, created by chocolatier Paul A Young and journalist Zoe Williams. Originally Vimtonic, Vimto is a soft, herbal drink created in Salford in 1908. Several cans of Vimto were added to 64% Madagascan chocolate, topped with an edible silver powder to look industrial and non fussy. They proved so popular that they may soon appear in Young’s London shops.

Hawksmoor 184-186 Deansgate, Manchester MW3 3WB; tel +44 (0)161 836 6980

Paul A Young chocolates