The new Northern Quarter cafe aims for the austere briskness of a 1940s tearoom, complete with checkerboard floors and apron-clad waitresses – but can the food match up?
In case you missed all the trees, Stevenson Square is being given a makeover. About time, eh? It’s the closest thing the Northern Quarter has to a main public gathering place, but it’s never been the kind of spot you’d wanted to spend too much time in, with its multitude of bus stops and distinctly pedestrian-unfriendly road layout. Still, in the last few years, a fledgling cafe society has crept in among the art supply stores and clothing wholesalers. The latest arrival, Rosylee Tea Rooms, is perfectly situated to take advantage of the change in the square’s fortunes.
I must confess that my inaugural visit to Rosylee confused me greatly. The restored interior is a stunning shape, with a décor that aims for the austere briskness of a 1930s/40s tea room. Squint and it’s all there: apron-clad ladies bustling across checkerboard floors, white brick tile, bare dark wood tables, rattan chairs and an upright piano ready for late-night sing-alongs of “Sweet Adeline” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” But look closer and you notice the dubious photographic prints on the walls and the trailing plastic plant installation on the ceiling (I don’t care what anyone says: fake plastic trees are tacky and that thing’s gotta be a killer to dust besides). When we arrived they were playing old time jazz but halfway through our meal, the soundtrack changed over to mournful post-millennial alt. singer-songwriter, which seemed to sum up the general lack of follow through in evidence. If you’re going to the trouble of creating a mood with cockney rhyming slang and aprons and nostalgic decor, you ought to stay on message.
Rosylee’s menu has got more sections than a DFS showroom
When a place is going to be open from morning to night, serving everything from coffee to cocktails, it often puts the menu-writing folks in a panic. Rosylee’s menu has got more sections than a DFS showroom, offering not just lunch but “light bites” and “comfort food.” It also features a worrying number of things described as “parcels,” as well as “ballantines” and “bonbons.” Yes, it’s way more cheffily elaborate than I expected – the fish and chips comes with saffron crème fraiche.
I went for their chunky ham hock terrine, a salty wodge of meat which worked well with a poached egg but needed more support than the prissy squares of brioche and pineapple flecks could offer, and the addition of some unnecessary hollandaise was a bafflement. Leek and potato soup was on the thin side. My friend’s hot smoked salmon and prawn Marie Rose sandwich was a sprightly thing, livened up with capers and served open faced on a good bloomer, and she couldn’t fault it. But cheap it wasn’t. Sandwiches cost £7-10, with another £3-4 for chips or sides. And the aforementioned fish and chips will set you back £12.
The verdict? The food is good enough to warrant a return visit, and it’s pleasant to spend time in a location that’s handy for a lot of things but I can’t really get my head around what they’re trying to do here. And the problem is, I’m not sure they can either.