Culinary archaeology: a Northern Quarter tour that fuses food and history

Polly Checkland Harding
Northern Quarter Taster Tour photo by Robert Martin

John Ryan’s new Northern Quarter Taster Tour is a one-off walking tour that takes in some of the history and food of this most fashionable of locations.

“Anything could happen in the next three hours.” John Ryan, the tour guide behind Manchester Food Walks, hugs his notes for comfort. With the aim of eating at one venue every fifteen minutes on this, the Northern Quarter Tasting Tour, it’s no wonder he’s apprehensive – especially as service in the area can be, in his words, “interesting”.

This new walking tour combines a rambling meal of signature small plates with historical morsels, with Ryan testing all of the eateries personally (cue self-deprecating jokes about an expanding waistline). The idea is that punters walk away with a mental map of happening venues along with historical titbits about the Northern Quarter. But in an area of complex cultural and culinary diversity, the challenge is in choosing a route that encapsulates its past, as well as where it’s headed.

We begin by looking back. Before filling the gap in our stomachs, there’s guesswork on the letters missing from Lemn Sissay’s poem Flags, the broken stanzas of which trail along Tib Street. Sissay’s “words of the street”, once embedded into the pavement in full, now exist partly in remembrance – much like the hazy recollection one walker has of her first tequila at Great American Disaster, a burger joint that, in the 1970s, seemed culinarily racy. So how does our first food stop at Black Dog Ballroom compare to memories of yesteryear?

Its menu certainly reflects a more modern fad: eating as a secondary activity. There are four pool tables available to play (£5/hour) and Black Dog’s American diner-style fare is good for grazing whilst wielding a cue. Here, we tried hot dog bites, deep fried mozzarella balls and three kinds of pizza. The Hoi sin duck and cucumber on the Crispy Duck (£7.95) was an odd combination for a pizza, but the Florentine (£7.25) was deliciously sticky with goat’s cheese.

Walk away with a mental map of happening venues

Though historically rich, the Northern Quarter is in a near-constant state of reinvention. Currently proving popular are eateries with a single specialism – new addition Pieminister, our next stop, is riding this particular wave. Its fetchingly named pies (£3.50 cold/£4.50 hot) all have a butter pastry base, with suet for the sides and top. Ingredients are UK sourced; accompaniments are many and varied (the mushy peas were winningly minty).

On the way to the next venue, Ryan takes us past Tib Street’s electric substation: curated by the Out House project, its evolving sequence of graffiti (images have included Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg and political exile, Edward Snowden) demonstrates a more fleeting approach to cultural archaeology. The changing flavours at chocolatier Bonbon Chocolate, a sweet detour, echo this sense of momentary pleasure: the pistachio and lime, salted caramel and chai tea latte we tried were all superb (chocolates are from £1.40).

There are, however, more permanent monuments to Northern Quarter history. Tour guide Ryan explains that the eleven John Street Birds perched high above the pavement close to Bonbon Chocolate were designed to commemorate the neighbourhood’s Victorian reputation as a “Pets Paradise”. Similarly, Indian café This & That is a reminder of the curry houses that once dominated the area in the wake of the rag trade: fantastically cheap, This & That is Soap Street’s hidden gem and a notable exception from the tour.

Instead, we made our way to Simple, a laidback bar and kitchen that opened in 2001 and was an early alternative to the spice monopoly. It did also herald a wider change within the Northern Quarter. As the cuisine diversified so too did the clientele; today’s eateries are a long way from the cheap and cheerful curry that one walker remembers used to come in four grades (up to “suicide”), at just fifty pence a pop. Prices may have risen in the past decade or so, but the Northern Quarter today is home to such diverse restaurants as French newcomer Montpellier’s (dishing up such Eurocentric options as a slightly soggy double-decker Croque Monsieur, £7.95) and Oldham Street’s Ning (where, appropriately, we ate our spicy, street-food style lentil fritters out on the pavement). These places are confirmation of the neighbourhood’s latest reincarnation: it is a culturally rich, if not always dependable, area to eat in.

We end with a sugary reminder of Manchester’s classic confectionary. After tea and a simple selection of cakes at Rosylee, a tearoom named with curiously displaced Cockney rhyming slang, Ryan treats us to a remodelled Manchester tart on the roof of his Northern Quarter office. Made by craft bakers Robinsons in remembrance of the traditional recipe, this custard and jam tart was delicious, despite being accompanied by a (similarly traditional) cough medicine tasting chaser of Vimto vodka. Evidence suggests that the Northern Quarter’s food venues will continue to evolve along with its history: it remains to be seen which flavours we remember.

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