What do you do after running a Manchester music venue for 15 years? Open a restaurant, of course.
Those who have walked the streets of the Northern Quarter or watched the Great British Menu will be more than familiar with The Roadhouse and Prestwich restaurant, Aumbry. Few, however, will be aware of the link between the two. That link comes in the form of Kate Mountain, a woman who started her career in the bar of The Roadhouse in 1994 and went on to become its manager during the indie boom years. Back then, The Roadhouse was a regular stop-off for touring bands, as well as a focus for musicians trying to get a career-defining break. “I stayed on after graduating; the place has always had a really family atmosphere, so taking on more responsibility was my idea of heaven. Then the owners went bankrupt and gave us all two weeks’ notice. I didn’t want to work for anyone else; I was happy where I was.”
The then-manager decided to take a massive gamble and buy the venue – but knew she couldn’t do it alone. “Steve Lloyd had been running his own business for ten years at the time, which helped prove that together we could bring the venue back to life. The Roadhouse was as important to him because he was the technical manager, while I knew how to run the club and promote bands,” says Mountain. “The transition was seamless, though there was probably a degree of naivety. But I was 25, it was all I knew, it was one of the few venues that was thriving, and I knew it was viable.”
Their relationship continues to work well some 15 years on, as does the original commitment to supporting and nurturing new musical talent – Mountain counts the Puppini Sisters, Muse and Roots Manuva as acts she has helped develop. “We’ve also been part of Elbow’s success. Before they were signed, they all individually worked at The Roadhouse (apart from Mark Potter); it was a logistical nightmare when they actually performed because I lost all my staff! We made it work; they were always really fun to be with. They could tell a million and one jokes about each other and finish each other’s sentences, they’d known each other so long, and we’ve been lucky enough to be a part of their friendship since.”
If you’re approached by someone you can support, why the hell wouldn’t you work with them?
One of Mountain’s strengths is her ability to form the sorts of partnerships that make unexpected things happen. Her long-term friendship with chef Mary-Ellen McTague (the pair met aged just 19 at, of course, The Roadhouse) is a case in point. “Mary-Ellen decided to leave Manchester and go off and learn to cook properly. She explored various hotels and restaurants in the UK, met her husband Laurence, and worked at the Fat Duck for four years, but we stayed in touch. We’d always joked about opening a restaurant together, and then she phoned me up one afternoon and actually asked. It took me about two seconds to say yes.”
While Mountain is the first to admit that becoming a restaurateur wasn’t top of her list, she reckons that the decision to become one made sense. By that time McTague had some serious culinary form and was tipped as a “best up and coming chef” by the Good Food Guide. “In any field, if you are approached by people you know and are in a position to support, why the hell wouldn’t you want to do something with them? We were well matched in enthusiasm.”
A year after McTague first mooted the idea, Aumbry opened – in an out of town location that at that time wasn’t on the foodie circuit. But the choice of location, in a tiny cottage in Prestwich, proved a wise one. With low overheads, McTague was able to focus on the food without too much of a worry about making ends meet. “I suppose we felt – if we build it, they will come. We always knew we wanted to provide a really excellent offering of the best quality food possible. Seasonal, local and served professionally, but informally. We wanted to provide a proper night out and a sense of occasion, without requiring a dress code.” The risk paid off, with Aumbry winning over national food critics, collecting awards and filling its stylish tables. “Fine dining, historically perhaps, has an association with slightly sneering staff, but we just wanted people to be comfortable and be served by a friendly bunch of highly skilled staff.” Knowing your stuff, making people feel at home – it’s an approach that hasn’t just worked at Aumbry and The Roadhouse. It’s an ethos that has served this particular Mancunian entrepreneur very well indeed.