Once maligned as a gastronomic backwater, is Manchester’s food and drink scene really one of the best outside London? We ask foodie Thom Hetherington.
A report out late last week from industry specialists CGA Peach reckoned that Manchester’s food and drink scene is outstripping London’s. Well, sort of: the growth in the number of restaurants, gastropubs, cafés, bars and the like has soared by some 57% in Manchester in the last decade – which comes as no surprise to anyone who has eaten out here of late. From Japanese to Chinese, via an explosion of high-end tapas and higher-end dining, the idea that there’s nowhere to eat in Manchester is now a laughable suggestion.
It’s not just Manchester, either. Leeds, increasingly touting itself as a foodie “destination” thanks to indies such as Friends of Ham and The Man Behind the Curtain, has also done well. “Although Manchester leads the way there’s growth across several northern cities,” confirms Thom Hetherington, the man behind this week’s Northern Restaurant & Bar show. “Liverpool is comparable to London, with a 31% growth in the number of restaurants in the last decade, but Leeds has also seen a huge jump – by 55%.”
Manchester leads the way, with the richest dining scene outside London
Right now the cynics among you will be pointing out that Manchester has experienced such colossal growth only as it was starting from such a low base. The cynics would, of course, be right: London can hardly break a sweat when it considers competition from the north. As food writer Kate Feld pointed out when the Observer lauded our food scene back in 2013, “we don’t have anything approaching the well-rounded restaurant scene you’d expect from a city of this size and stature.”
There’s also been the small matter of the economy. In a period of what could be politely described as economic turbulence (and less politely described as a regional catastrophe), Manchester’s rising number of bar and restaurant openings has at times felt inexplicable. Yet it’s undeniable: the food and drink sector in Manchester is fast growing, with the critics talking up places such as Yuzu and Siam Smiles and the appetite (sorry) for tables at top tier restaurants The French and Manchester House seemingly insatiable. “Taking the Good Food Guide as a broad but credible yardstick, we have had more restaurants listed than any other UK city outside London and Edinburgh for more than a decade. Sure, we don’t have a city centre Michelin star but nor do Glasgow, Leeds or Liverpool,” says Hetherington.
One reason for that growth is tourism. Here, Manchester has never had it so good. More hotels keep being built, more big conferences keep pulling in business tourists, and more cultural happenings, such as the Whitworth’s reopening and this summer’s MIF, attract another kind. “The number of hotel rooms in the city has increased by 123% in eight years, yet Manchester also has some of the highest occupancy rates in Europe,” confirms Hetherington. “Hotel rooms don’t have kitchens, and tourists love to get out and explore the city.”
So it appears there is little to slow the city’s food and drink scene down. Which, according to Thom Hetherington, makes perfect sense. “In terms of breadth, depth and variety, Manchester is probably the richest and most enjoyable dining scene outside London,” he says. We imagine Leeds might have something to say about that – but as food-loving locals we’re not about to disagree.