“Shite almighty” is the cry as a howl of wind and heft of pints cyclones around the insides of our collective craniums. This startling few seconds is enough to remind us, as we briefly attempt to sustain a solid vertical base, that it is in fact only just gone past four in the afternoon and not in fact half two in the morning. Drizzle descends and I inform my mate from work with whom I’ve been supping the afternoon away with that I need to steady myself and the five pints inside my stomach. Being that we’re in Back Piccadilly and (not so) fresh from a questionably lengthy session in Mother Macs, there’s only one port of call for me to attend to.
God (and every other deity) Bless Cafe Marhaba.
My journey may only be a dozen or so stumbled steps through the humid precipitation of a hazy mid-June aft, but I would happily hike miles through sleet, snow and acid rain for a meal as memorable as the one I’m about to inhale.
Graffiti and posters for club nights I will never, ever attend are splattered with such abandon across the backside of Dale Street that you could be forgiven for wandering past Marhaba without even acknowledging its existence. Tucked between peeling white painted brickwork, overwhelmed wheelie bins and nondescript, shuttered doors and windows, it is simply an aroma that grabs you. Plum by the nostrils you are snatched and led through a well worn door that sticks open with a firm nudge. A cacophony of spices and expertly cooked chicken and lamb radiates from the kitchen, ever so slightly out of sight, tucked away at the end of the counter. The lunchtime rush a good couple of hours since dissipated, the overworked steel pans are downturned on the hob, blackened from countless hours over the flames.
Decoration is at a minimum, here. Five two-top cafe tables, synonymous with greasy spoons up and down the country, occupy the wall along your left as you enter. One wall is adorned with the curry menu against a kitchen standard backdrop of plain white tiles, the other with kebab options. This pair of plastic hoardings, with their whiteboard marker prices scrawled next to dishes as standard as tikka massala and jalfrezi through to lesser spotted alternatives such as lamb pumpkin and keema potato, make up what is, for my or anyone’s money, one of the most important menus in all of Greater Manchester.
Because, let’s face it, any menu with ‘BIG SAMOSA – £1.00’ on it is 100% unfuckwithable.
I stare, mouth agape, partly due to my over imbibed level of consciousness, partly due to the freshly baked scent humming from the tandoor, glowing like the Thundercat symbol and hitting me with the same ferocity as the first listen of ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’. Yes, yes, alright, the rice and three offerings that have been doing the rounds here since 1992 are the stuff of legend round Manchester, much like Roy Keane’s sessions in Mulligan’s or that Sex Pistols gig that everyone and their dad went to in the ’70s.
But on this particularly pissed wet through Friday in June, 2017, I didn’t rate my chances of polishing off a trio of lamb karahi and bhunas of both chicken and mushroom. The sauce, the spice, the rice. The mere thought of it weighed too heavy on my already gurgling gut, much as I fucking adore each and every dish on Marhaba’s carefully crafted menu with the same level of reverence I hold for my own parents. Father and son duo Nazir and Abdul Ahmen do not fuck about when it comes to pelting out perfectly prepared Punjabi flavours, after all.
What I want is my meal to be slapped against the side of that clay tandoor, which continues to beckon my gaze towards it.
“……One garlic naan please. No, just on it’s own. Tin of…….pop an’ all.”
Abdul wastes no time in rolling and flattening flour, oil, sugar and salt into an oval disc before lowering it into the bowels of the clay oven. I ruminate over the drinks fridge at the far side of the cafe. It’s Rubicon. Sometimes it’s Vimto, but more often than not, it’s Rubicon. In what is relatively short order, but feels like a lifetime to the popped up halfwit awaiting its presence to grace his face, the naan appears, a mesmeric garlic and herb swirl of wonderment. I herd it to the nearest table behind me as if I’m smuggling five kilos of coke through an airport. Almost sending the plastic water jug flying for a six as I crash into my seat, I hurriedly tear into my feast, drooling like a cartoon dog chasing a string of sausages.
“Fuuuuuuuuuucking hell” I gasp. The fucking thing is softer than Art Garfunkel’s voice. The dough pulls apart with the immense satisfaction of scissors gliding through wrapping paper. Steam envelopes my face, garlic butter permeates every one of my pores and my face contorts into a manic ‘Jack Nicholson’s lost the fucking plot here, lads’ sort of grin with every mouthful that cushions my tastebuds.
I reckon the entire thing has disappeared down my gullet in two minutes tops. The rain now teeming down outside, boinging off the tarmac, sputtering across the entrance way through the door I left open upon my entrance. I steady myself with a couple of final gulps of Rubicon. The glucose laden licks shaking some energy into my faltering, lager laden body. I wipe my chops with my bare hands, rubbing over my face like later career Al Pacino when he’s just received some bad news. I throw a couple of cups of water from the jug down me for good measure and allow myself the sort of lean normally reserved for the beginning of a post-Christmas dinner nap.
My WhatsApp pings. “You still out or you gone home?”
I am now soaked up, revived and emerging from Marhaba’s with the energy of a thousand Scatman Johns. I finally arrive home at half three in the morning. The next morning I watch old clips of Keith Floyd on Saturday Kitchen while my head feels like Joe Pesci is interrogating me for information in a vacant warehouse in Las Vegas. But no level of hangover can dampen the spirit of a man who less than 24 hours earlier had been banqueting in the back streets of the Northern Quarter at a cost of roughly two quid. I feel weary, helpless, anxiety ridden and ashamed as I do on all my hangovers, but I also feel like a fucking champion for my triumphant visit to see Nazir and Abdul.
Five years later, I still think about this afternoon on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes daily. I still frequent Marhaba at every available opportunity, even if that has, unfortunately, become less of an occurrence over the last couple of years. Last week, however, I once again plonked myself at the table by the door not long after the lunchtime rush and took down a chicken tikka kebab, nestled within one of those most luxurious of tandoori naans. The couple on the next table took down platefuls of keema and rice, while a bloke in the corner passionately compliments the chana he’s just polished off. The rain, once again, begins to descend. But I’ve got my chicken tikka naan and nowhere else to be. Fucking result.
It can sometimes feel flippant to label places as ‘institutions’ or ‘iconic’. Both terms are barely enough to sum up just how important Cafe Marhaba has been to Manchester over its 30 years of business. Hopefully there’s at least another 30 years of rainy day naans to come.
It’s grey. Of course it is. The charcoal underbelly of the early afternoon clouds sags southwards, ever closer to street level. A seemingly ever present imminent threat. The hi-vis brigade jostle for position with office workers, faces flush with post-WFH gloom, at the pedestrian crossing, anticipating the change from red to green as if awaiting the starting pistol of the Olympic 100m final. The Yotel doors open, finally allowing for the emergence of bleary eyed stop outs, foreheads bathed in a tequila flop sweat, tongues protruding en masse akin to a collection of exhausted labradors, beckoning hydration towards them.
You avert your gaze contentedly towards the counter in front of you. Your plate piled with sumptuous Spanish rice and freshly roasted carvery meat. The chaos around you only serving to intensify the zen within you. It’s another Wednesday lunchtime at Katsouris deli and there isn’t another place in town you would rather be.
All grand, old European cities must, as a point of absolute necessity, be in possession of a flamboyant, architecturally ambitious delicatessen. Multiple, in fact. Manchester, for whatever reason, seems woefully thin on the ground when it comes to grandiose establishments from which to procure a smorgasbord of charcuterie while you ogle legs of ham hanging from the ceiling and wheels of pungently aroma’d cheese big enough to fit a fucking Range Rover. So it is with the sincerest gratitude that thanks is offered up to Katsouris and its 16 years of service to the city centre.
Located on the corner of Deansgate and John Dalton Street, Katsouris is housed within well worn 19th century gothic stonework. From its exterior, all gold typeface encased within lofty windows, beckoning starving pedestrians inwards for a half ciabatta that could quite easily double as a pillow for a post-work commute power nap, Katsouris could be resituated to Athens, Barcelona, Bologna or Paris and remain identical without alerting any suspicions from locals. Inside however, it’s a different case entirely.
While some seriously questionable (albeit charming and atmosphere enhancing) opera warbles over the speaker system, the realisation once you step foot through the rather ornate entrance is that this is in fact a Manchester market caff that once went on a holiday to the Med in the ’70s and never wanted to return. The deli counter doesn’t sprawl like it does in the centuries old institutions of Italy, Greece and Spain, but the menu is a seismic work of art large enough to command its own fucking postcode. An interior consisting of grey and blue striped couch style seating may not be wowing any aesthetic junkies, but it radiates familiarity. It’s a Greek cafenion by way of Bury (where the original Katsouris still proudly stands in the town’s famous market), delivering Southern European ambience with a North Mancunian attitude.
The girls behind the counter debate what time they will each take their breaks across a rapidly increasing number of customers, while an unseen voice from the kitchen queries how far off the carvery station is from being at capacity, with orders beginning to diminish the supply of turkey, gammon, peri peri chicken, paella rice and continental sausages. Flour flies off the freshly cut crusts of ciabatta, the pillowy innards moisturised with butter before a deluge of roast pork liquifies it into every pocket within the porous Italian loaf. Some are sent into the eager hands of those who need to leg it back to the office for an emergency feast before spreadsheets begin to dominate their eyelines once again. Others are slapped in front of diners who have nowhere else they need to be. Delighted that they’ve managed to snag a seat before the carnage ensues. Crockery and cutlery clatter together amid the rapid-fire chatter and chews of yet another throng of lunchers, the majority of whom have been patronising this beloved spot for the best part of its decade-and-a-half existence on Deansgate.
It is the carvery counter that began my own long, sordid love affair with Katsouris, back in the Advent of 2006. An early December stop on the way back to Castle Irwell student village, where I would no doubt be wiling away an afternoon avoiding another boring-as-shite lecture on radio editing to instead focus on a twelfth viewing of The Big Lebowski and a further run through of Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor (still bangs). A turkey, stuffing and cranberry half ciabatta was ordered up, a reprieve from the baltic winds howling through the centre of town. Watching this masterpiece being constructed, I knew there was no chance it was being risked in the squeeze of the 93 bus journey back to Lower Broughton. It demanded to be savoured.
As far as introductions go, it was up there with Cameron Diaz showing up in that red dress in The Mask. Jim Carrey jaw dropping reacts and all. The turkey so succulent, the cranberry and stuffing intertwined in a sweet and savoury embrace, like long lost friends who have just bumped into each other outside the pub toilets after seven pints. A customary can of Fanta lemon knocked back after the final morsel has been devoured. It was an instantaneous knowledge that this was to be a regular haunt that made the experience so satisfying. Sixteen years later and each return is as welcoming as the last.
The window seats to the right of the main entrance are a must if available. Providing some of the best people watching opportunities in the city, whether it be a mid-morning viewpoint accompanied by a Big Kat breakfast or a lazy late afternoon sojourn with a mezze platter and a coffee. Somehow, I don’t believe I’ve ever parked myself at those seats when it’s been anything other than thundercloud grey outside. It almost wouldn’t make sense to be perched there when it’s cracking the flags. Katsouris just lends itself to the security of being secluded away from the outside world. You can observe the hysteria from within its four walls, arming yourself with a full stomach before venturing back outside into whatever gale force pandemonium awaits.
But before you leave, you should always make sure to take an edible souvenir or three with you. The aforementioned deli counter, while rather diminutive, still boasts considerable quality. Mortadella, salami, stuffed vine leaves, sun dried tomatoes and the like can be sourced from here, of course, as can a multitude of freshly prepared salads from the bar to the left. But what you want here are the sweet goods. Those cannolis demand your attention, as does the flaky, sticky baklava. Leave without it and you’ve gone seriously wrong. Each bite another reminder of how you simply must keep coming back here.
Opposite the deli are shelves piled high with dried pastas, Italian cakes and sauces. Once the post-lunch lull arrives, these are well worth a peruse as your stomach tries to handle digesting a Lamb Siciliana or Zorba The Greek without knocking you into a two-hour long coma. Studiously monitoring these shelves was often a student era routine of mine around 3.30 in the afternoon between 2006 and 2009, when I became aware of the knowledge that the few remaining cold sandwiches in the fridge would soon be available on a 2 for 1 deal.
Not wanting to be too obvious with my desire for half price sarnies, I would pretend to be keenly interested in ostentatiously packaged bags of multicoloured farfalle, paccheri and Strozzapreti. Slowly I then meandered to my right, throwing a cursory glance over the ‘Greek Lamb Special’, ‘Chicken and Bacon Club’ and ‘Oriental Chicken’ to see what took my fancy. Then my line of vision landed ever so subtly (like a fucking sledgehammer) on whichever member of staff looked most agreeable to helping out a depleted looking university student. With all the speed of a snail who’s shell has been filled with cement, I would hold a sandwich up to my knackered, clumsily shaven face until I heard the immortal words “Those sandwiches are 2 for 1 now, y’know…”. And just like that, my next two meals were acquired. Whether this offer is still in effect is knowledge I unfortunately do not possess, but maybe give it a go anyway and see what happens.
With Deansgate becoming a soul crushing ghost town as you approach from the Cathedral side of the city, you’d be forgiven for veering away to an area less bereft. The former Lunya and Barburrito sites still sit empty, crying out for new owners to come in and revitalise a tragically flagging strip. A few footsteps further forward, though, and Katsouris serves as a gateway to more affluent times ahead. The wonderful new Mews only a couple of minutes down the road, along with Hawksmoor of course, a permanently bustling Federal and forever welcoming Dimitri’s taverna. Once you reach Katsouris, while the grey clouds physically may remain overhead, they cannot maintain a dampened spirit. Step inside, grab a window seat and feel very smug, satisfied and optimistic about what lies ahead.
“I was working 60-70 hours a week, taking a hell of a lot of drugs, not eating a lot and I did that process for 10 years of my life. I suppose to some people I seemed successful because I was always in a new city, in a new venue. I wasn’t though, I was running away. I was hoping that if I changed to a new environment, to a new city, that my reality would change. But it didn’t, because I had these destructive habits that I would take with me.
– Paddy Howley, So Let’s Talk
To the overwhelming majority of hospitality workers, the above quote will, unfortunately, feel all too familiar, whether it applies directly to them or one (or several) of their friends and colleagues. As passionately as many champion the industry, there is also the growing recognition that an overhaul in its approach to mental health and wellness is drastically needed.
Publicly, Covid has pummelled restaurants, bars and pubs in a manner akin to Ivan Drago slaughtering Apollo Creed in the opening round of Rocky IV. The takings that have been lost coupled with the lack of monetary support from government an obvious, non-stop battering played out before a nation’s very eyes in the news and on social media. Yet behind the scenes, the emotional drain has been exacerbated beyond breaking point, with already very fragile workers leaving the industry in droves, unable to withstand another series of body blows in a sector that, even during the golden periods, demands an ungodly amount from those who serve within it.
Paddy Howley spent 16 years in hospitality, from glass collecting in a working men’s club in his hometown of Burnley to successfully managing and consulting for a number of venues across the country. His expertise was constantly in high demand and he earned well because of it. Yet his earnings brought him no stability or security. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead Paddy bounced between rented accommodations while using his pay packets to finance the purchase of the substances that fuelled every single one of his 12-16 hour shifts. Unsurprisingly, it was not a lifestyle built for longevity.
Tucked into a booth at the rear of Albert Schloss’ sprawling, Bavarian influenced beer hall, Paddy is accompanied by documents on his screen and on the table in front of him. He sips a ruby red mocktail and, though his current workload is clearly still mountainous, it is one that evidently provides him with a great deal more contentment than his decade-and-a-half in the trade. This is because his work now is helping those within the industry, the people he once worked with. The people he once was.
Just over two years ago, Paddy founded So Let’s Talk, an organisation ‘on a mission to 86 the silence’ because, while giant strides are being made to shine a light on mental health issues within society and cease the stigma surrounding them, the same advances have not been replicated within hospitality, where heads are resolutely kept down, wary of upsetting the combustible head chef or exhaustively figuring out ways to keep the creditors from the door. It is a work-life imbalance Paddy knows all too well.
“I was given the opportunity to be a general manager when I was 20,21,” Paddy recalls, shooting an almost painful smile across his face as he delves back to the formative days of what would become a decade long cycle of almost catastrophic excess. “It was at Posh nightclub in Burnley and I had no real right to be in that position at that point in time. I was way too young. And with that job came some really destructive habits. My recreational drug use from a young age was through the roof. I had a really unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
“The most destructive thing was, if I wasn’t in work serving drinks, I was outside of work spending more money than I had on drink and drugs with people who do the same thing for a living. I used to see the industry as a lifestyle, not a job. I used to introduce myself as my title, so I’d be like ‘I’m Paddy the GM of…’ and I had zero disconnect from my job with my real life.“
After almost 10 years of drinking, smoking and snorting his way across a variety of North West establishments, Paddy found himself back home in Burnley, physically and emotionally at odds with the apparent success he was supposed to be luxuriating in.
“Towards the back end of 2019 is how the catalyst of So Let’s Talk came about. I got the opportunity to work at a pop-up bar in Manchester over the Christmas period. They asked me to come in as a consultant, write a cocktail menu, train the team, take as much money as I physically could. Then they go ‘right, here’s five AFD’s (All Fucking Day) back-to-back’, so that’s five 16 hour shifts back-to-back. But instead of going home after those, I’d go out, stick loads of drugs up my nose, drink far too much alcohol and turn up to my shift like nothing had happened. That was normal for me. Nobody recognised that I wasn’t compos mentis. Not one person noticed that I was in a real dark stage at that point in time. After those five days I went home to my mum’s spare room, I was in between rented accommodation and, for the first time in my life, I had suicidal ideations.
“I checked my salary for the year. I worked out I’d spent 65% of my salary on drugs and alcohol. I’d flirted with the idea of leaving the trade before but always come back and this time I was like ‘shit, I need to leave’. So I left. I went to an AA meeting, worked out it was an unhealthy relationship to alcohol and drugs and not an addiction and I went sober.“
That Paddy’s lifestyle is one that has become cliché for the industry is a damning indictment of the entire sector. The ‘burning the candle at both ends’ mentality has been treated as the norm within the restaurant business for far too long. Coupled with zero hour contracts and decision makers who care only about bottom lines rather than the people who’s graft contributes to the numbers atop those lines, it’s no wonder why half of hospitality workers suffer from some form of mental health issue (the statistic was one in three at the beginning of the pandemic, according to numbers Paddy himself provides me with).
The lack of help that was available lit a fire within Paddy that led to the foundation of SLT.
“The conversation around mental health didn’t exist. Until around a year or 18 months ago did I start talking to businesses who had a budget for health and wellbeing. It was never a fucking thing before. Also now we’ve got a whole new generation of hospitality professionals who are asking questions during the interview process, about work-life balance, what the benefit structure looks like, is there inclusivity and diversity within the business? None of this existed until very recently.
“I got paid in a brown envelope every week and spent it all on drugs and alcohol. So the change has been huge but for me what is blatantly obvious is there was a lack of education or care. We would wear badges of honour for our destructive habits. A lot of it was celebrated. It’s not cool and it’s not sustainable to be competing over how many hours a week you’ve worked. If you drunk a bottle of tequila and still turned up for your open, you were a trooper. Even the language, ‘you’re a trooper’, is used so heavily within the industry. You’re not going to fucking war, you’re serving food and drinks.“
– Paddy Howley
But even with the conversation around mental wellbeing becoming more prominent between the workforce and their bosses, a hair raising February exposé published by The Mill, about the alleged behaviour of Mana’s Michelin Star adorned leader Simon Martin laid bare a workplace culture so inhumanely toxic (liquid nitrogen laced assaults and live animal beheadings were just a couple of the disturbing allegations to emerge from the account) that the systemic barbarism of the professional kitchen that has been allowed to flourish for generations was finally discussed in the open to such a serious extent that it felt impossible to ignore any longer.
In a world where customers are more inclined to avoid establishments where bullying and harassment cultures are fostered and staff are mistreated with regards to pay, perks and hours, the disconnect between owners/investors and those on the ground is in dire need of recalibration. Not to mention how the past 24 months has seen staff leave the industry in droves, with little desire to return once restrictions were lifted and businesses reopened. It is a dilemma Paddy is keen to rectify.
“We have much more conscious consumerism nowadays. People will read that article about Mana and not go and eat there. I wouldn’t.
“The long term goal for So Let’s Talk is to create a health and wellbeing rating for the industry, like the food hygiene rating. It’s one of the biggest things that we’re looking at creating. The reason being is that recruitment is such a challenge in the industry at the moment. It’s not because no one wants to work in hospitality, it’s because they don’t want to work in the hospitality industry that we’ve created. They don’t want the archaic styles of the past.
– Paddy Howley
“People during lockdown had a chance to connect with themselves again and they were saying ‘I’ve not read a book in seven years’ or ‘I’ve not had a home cooked meal in three months’ because of working in the industry. So they’ve thought about how they can earn the same money but have the free time and they’ve gone ‘well I’ll go work in a different industry’
“Deloitte came out with a study that revealed that for every £1 you invest in health and wellbeing you receive on average £5 on your bottom line. It’s so obvious. But then you look at staff turnover and it’s 100% plus in so many venues. How is that a viable business model nowadays?“
Of course, with more progressive and open minded individuals owning and operating start ups and independent venues across the city there are plenty of places where the wellness of workers is a priority rather than a bonus. Living wage offerings are, thankfully, becoming more commonplace when job vacancies are shared. There are owners who actively take an interest in the people they employ to represent and better their businesses. But as Paddy tells me, generational gaps still exist and are still far too intrinsically embossed into the fabric of the trade.
“It’s wild to me that it’s 2022 and we’re still having the same conversation about whether happy and healthy people are more profitable.
– Paddy Howley
“It’s challenging at times because generations blame each other and a lot of the business owners and board members in hospitality are white, male boomers and if they’re making decisions about a business that is full of Gen Z’s and Gen Y’s it’s dangerous, because the boomers are saying the Gen Z’s and Y’s are entitled snowflakes who have never done a hard day’s work in their life and then the other way is the young workers, who are making the money and working at a grassroots level are calling the owners bigots who have ruined the environment and the economy.
“So when you have a blame culture like that, no conversation happens and when a decision is made, it’s the people at the top deciding what they think their team needs. Some businesses go a step further and initiate the conversation but then only listen to reply not to understand.
“Are you giving your teams what they need or what you think they need?
– Paddy Howley
“One of the questions we ask bosses now is ‘what’s your email culture like? Do you receive and reply to emails at 3am? If you do, what does that say to your team? That they always have to be on 24/7? Is it not better for you and your team to create boundaries around your time so they don’t look at you and think that’s what they have to do to get to that position.“
As attempts are made to bring about an understanding between generations there will, of course, be resistance from some, unwilling to believe that the problems that have plagued the past are actually of any genuine significance. The macho culture of kitchens and bars, where aggressively charged attitudes and military level discipline tag teams with debilitating substance abuse and alcohol addiction, is a needless charade that has been far too damaging for far too long. Talented chefs, bakers, bartenders and waiting staff have seen anxieties and depression accelerated towards headfirst crashes from which some, tragically, never recover.
The hospitality industry thrives on hard work, of course. And even in the most serene of destinations, there are going to be shifts that leave staff stressed, cursing those ignorant guests or perhaps a colleague who’s ideas have clashed with their own. Nowhere can be a utopia 100 percent of the time. Yet conflict resolution and peace making processes can be positioned in the foreground more, rather than a last resort, as has so often been the case in the past, if they’ve even been utilised at all.
The cyclical nature of the volatile head chef ideology must, once and for all, be 86’d. Making your staff genuinely fearful for every shift renders any gastronomic ingenuity you may produce meaningless. What good is a scared shitless workforce? As an owner or investor, should you not be looking beyond the bottom line and the sparkling reviews and maybe understand what could be improved at a human level rather than a business one? Because at some point, that crash is coming. In some cases, maybe it isn’t for a few years, maybe that mind boggling level of staff turnover keeps the wheels spinning just enough to ensure it is easy to ignore just why it is that no fucker wishes to remain in your employ for much longer than a few months. But in the modern day, with so many establishments crumbling and so many more heartbroken ex-chefs wanting their horror stories to be heard, the crash is as habitual as the behaviour as those who have caused it.
“We now work with senior management teams within businesses” Paddy reveals, digging into the SLT work that has been so well received by almost 12,000 hospitality staff over the last two years. “We have conversations with them about what it takes to be a healthy business and what areas they might be lacking in, whether it be their team’s health or the environmental health of a business or anything like that. We educate and then with that education we have a session where we sit down with the decision makers in a company and tear apart their operations and put them back together in a healthy way, then the change is created from there.
“I remember after I put the post on the Manchester Bars page, we had a meeting at Speak In Code where I just said ‘what are we gonna do? How are we going to change things?’ And it all came back to education. And that made me shiver, because I thought, if I’m a hungover, overworked, undernourished, underpaid, undervalued hospitality worker, I’m not gonna want to sit and listen to some ‘expert’ who’s never fucking worked in the industry talk to me about health and wellbeing. I’d just tell him to do one.
“What we did is, we said right, if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it properly and we’re gonna work with experts in their fields, but then we’re gonna take that information and we’ll evolve it to make it make sense to the industry, then our team is going to deliver it from a position of experience. So from an idea in my mum’s spare room, we’re now at a point where we’re helping thousands of people within hospitality.“
Given the client list that SLT have now amassed (Common and their various associated venues, Mowgli, Soho House, The Alchemist and BrewDog are among those who have enlisted their services already) thanks to their education, events and sessions tailored around everything from weekly classes and workshops focused on financial and nutritional wellbeing to regular yoga sessions and live workouts, it would appear Paddy and his team have gone and done things properly as they initially set out to two years ago.
As Manchester moves into a post-covid period of further regeneration, with an increasing number of major establishments looking to make the city their home in the North, the number of new jobs created off the back of these openings will also mean more potential for cut throat atmospheres, with tens of millions of pounds being poured into new venues outside of London comfort zones and a soaring demand for instant success. Such investment in the city could, and hopefully should keep Paddy and his team busy for the foreseeable.
To find out more about So Let’s Talk and the incredible work and campaigns they’ve produced over the last two years, visit their website
To say they opened only 7 months ago, Soul n Surf on Great Ancoats street is already causing quite the stir. You’d be forgiven for thinking their Instagram account is shared by two different venues, as they go from chilled brunch to serious club scenes. It’s a vibe and it’s all down to partners Titi, Ayo and Ben – not to mention the brains behind the brunch, manager Billie.
I sat down with Billie and Titi – who’s head chef, as well as co-founder. We friggin LOVE a woman in charge so it was great to hear about her journey and how the fusion of West African and Soul Food from America’s deep south, came to be.
Titi, who – “I started over lockdown doing catering from my home, serving seafood on a tray.” I realised that there was a demand for this kind of food and people were surprised, saying ‘I didn’t know you could have Jollof rice and lobster’ so it was different.
The concept, Titi explains, is that you can have traditional Nigerian food, “and it doesn’t have to be native, but it can be modern. Anyone that walks in can enjoy our food. It’s for everybody.”
When I tell you the way Soul n Surf is multi-faceted, what they’ve done with the limited space they have is a madness. The site now occupies what used to be Soul Coffee, but you wouldn’t know it.
Thev’ve added a bar, social seating and a huge mural celebrating black excellence – from Wizkid to Whitney, Anthony Joshua to Aretha – and a less-melanated Aitch makes an appearance, in homage to Manchester’s greats. Titi says, “it represents us – my age group, my race.” It’s a place that is vibrant, welcoming – and above all, proud. And that shit’s infectious, you guys.
Now on the food. Demand for Titi’s cooking means she quit her full time job in customer service in banking – so only a slight change. Billie has been in the tight-knit hospitality community since uni, honing in on a love for all things brunch – which is why they hit both mealtimes so well.
Among the waffles and full breakfasts served by day, the Frenchie is a brunch dish that stands out.
Pillowy, thick slices of fried brioche with a sugared crust that is just 👌🏾 this slab of perfection is then drizzled with caramel sauce, biscoff, strawberries and blueberries, golden syrup, and vanilla mascarpone. Beaut.
If you’re okay with eating two meals in one venue with a five-figure combined calorie count, then stay on for the Soul platter, where you’ll be greeted with all the gifts: crispy chicken wings and king prawns that are sweet and spicy; buttery, garlicky lobster tail; your choice of fried rice or jollof rice (which Titi makes with veggie stock so you’re good) and sides like mac ‘n’ cheese. Holy hell.
Billie describes soul food as, “food that makes you feel warm, full and happy. It’s not particularly healthy-” -but literally, who cares? This is a place to indulge in every sense. Undo your belt, let loose and join the party. Soul n Surf are the neighbours we all wish we had.
Go down and show them some love.
The expression “soul food” originated in the mid-1960s, when “soul” was a common word used to describe black American culture. It came about after the Great Migration of 1920s when black communities uprooted and left their homes in the south due to the rise of racial intolerance moving to North and West-America.
Adrian E. Miller, who wrote Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, discusses the origins of soul food in this Epicurious article. It’s 2022 and surface tokenism won’t fly; if we’re going to enjoy the food – we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the culture and what came before, right?
“Where I’m from, it’s all rain and music – but I’d go to this chicken shop after school and get a chicken split”
This was a very real conversation I’d had with a friend at uni halls in 2009 (shut up) about what’s so great about where we came from. I’d heard about the long-standing institution that is Chicken Run even before my first trip to Manchester, so pretty fair to say this feature has been a loooong time coming. Kwame, who now runs the family gaff with his brother Leon, took a hot 5 to step out from the mad crowd of regulars and (believe me when I say-) KEEN new diners, and give us the Chicken Run story, of which he is a main cast member.
“Funnily enough, no one actually realises this but you know the actual movie Chicken Run? The guys that made it lived around the corner, so we were there before that was even around…
Theres a lot to it. I wasn’t born when it first started, but for the most part my mum and dad started it just as a way to support their children. My dad has 13 kids, he’s always been cooking.”
Kwame’s father retired after running it for 31 years, to fulfil a lifelong dream. “My whole life he’s been setting up to go to Africa. Since the beginning, he’s been trying to build a house there and sort stuff out to live there and now finally he’s been able to. So he’s left it to me and my brother.”
With such a cult following, it’s a lotttt of pressure. But if anyone knows how to carry on this legacy, it’s Kwame and Leon, who spent most of their childhoods in and around the joint:
“In Primary, after school, we’d all be sat upstairs most of the evening til 9pm”.
So it’s widely known that you go to Chicken Run for one main thing, their holy grail: The Chicken Split. While I wait for the interview, it’s all anyone in the packed place orders, so it’s important to relay to you just how deserved the hype is.
Tasting notes: A long dumpling, pillowy on the inside and with that sweet, sweet crust on the outside – sliced through and stuffed to within an inch of its poor delicious life with CR’s signature fried chicken and tart salad cream. It’s messy, it’s glorious, and it’s a joy to eat. It was a good part-way through our chat that one of Kwame’s well-meaning friends stopped to tell me I had salad cream on my nose, which should give you an idea as to how this behemoth of beauty is to be eaten. No regrets tho huns, you’ve got to lean into this party in your hands and not GAF. It’s the only way.
They also serve home-made cakes (Kwame’s favourite is the marble, but I think my heart belongs to the pineapple, with hot custard. Oh god.) Wash all the goodness down with some homemade juice – go for the sorrel, you won’t regret it.
Standing proudly in Moss Side since 1989, the place has seen a lot of changes over the years, and the whiff of gentrification is permeating the area. The shop used to have a bullet hole in the wall, for those who remember, and Kwame reflects on how different things are:
“Its way calmer than it was then, even in terms of things you’d see outside. The odd shooting here and there, you don’t really get anything like that anymore.”
Manchester is rapidly becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in the UK, with the property market a bloodbath. Make no mistake though, Chicken Run’s going nowhere.
“We’ve been here long enough so not much is gonna affect us, but you can see it more when you go up princess road. Like, they’re building slowly away from town all the way down. It’s mad.”
On his way back into the shop, which is now heaving, Kwame calls over his shoulder and asks if there were any requests. ‘How do you want it?’ My indecisiveness due to ordering-regret and thoughts of Tu Pac serve me well, as
I’m presented with a Kwame Special. And oh sweet baby J, this thing is weighty. Unwrap the paper and behold: a chicken split BUTONLYWITHMACANDBLADDYCHEESE. These things are filling as fuck as it is, but why not treat yourself? You’ll be full for a week.
Ending on the Chicken Run ethos, Kwame shows that he’s staying true to his parents’ vision and nothing will shake this institution.
“Feeding the community, that’s what it’s always been about. There’s a lot of people that rely on us”
Now, more than ever, this resonates. Do yourself a favour and get to Chicken Run, where you’ll be eating history, community and soul.
When things go wrong and will not come right, Though you do the best you can, When life looks black as the hour of night – A pint of plain is your only man.
– ‘Workman’s Friend’, Brian O’Nolan
The delicate thunk that emanates from the base of a tulip glass gently connecting with walnut echoes beautifully throughout an empty pub, with only the barmaid and the horse racing on TV for company. Nitrogen bubbles cascade southwards through a swirling storm of chocolate brown, eventually settling into a shade of black darker than a pair of priest’s socks. A millimetre or so above the iconic golden harp sits the silk soft cream, resting tranquilly atop the impenetrable depth of stout. You’ve waited patiently, now you slowly, triumphantly hoist the pint towards your lips and within a nanosecond are beguiled by the serenity of the whole experience. Whatever catastrophe and chaos lies on the other side of the door can wait, because you’ve got all you need right here.
Guinness is fucking brilliant, isn’t it?
The Black Stuff from St.James’ Gate has been easing anxieties and fuelling festivities since 1759 and will be in full flow across Manchester this Thursday to mark the annual St.Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Given that even a tepid St.Pat’s can resemble scenes akin to Ireland completing the World Cup and Eurovision double, it’s nigh on impossible to contemplate what a first non-lockdown effort since 2019, which also coincides with the Cheltenham Festival, will entail. Imagine the delirium of Stephenson Square during the latter stages of Euro 2020, only crammed into every single pub in Manchester for an entire day with an emerald green colour scheme, and you’re probably along the right track.
Which makes the need for the ideal locations in which to enjoy a perfectly poured Guinness all the more pressing. Let’s face it, what good is a decent pint if you can’t take a single uninterrupted sip without being knocked arse over elbow by some giddy knobhead on their one non-Christmas related pub visit of the year?
Following on from 2021’s groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, trailblazing EATMCR Chip Safari, we took it upon ourselves to deliver another tour, this time as a public service. We wanted to ensure our readers were only frequenting the top tier establishments this St.Patrick’s Day, while on the lookout for the finest Irish import to hit the city not named Roy Keane.
Upon piecing the plan together, one of the fundamental aims was to avoid over-earnest Guinness snobbery. We’ve all had a good laugh at the Shit London Guinness account on instagram, of course, but the desire of many very online bores to dissect every pint they come across is an exercise so fucking exhausting it almost ruins Dublin’s finest for you forever. Then again, we were also not going to suffer any gimmicky nonsense like serving the Black Stuff out of a fucking Toby jug or anything similarly fucking absurd.
The philosophical mantra that resonated with us most ahead of mapping out our route came courtesy of everyone’s favourite Vada Pav merchants, Bundobust who, responding to a tweet of ours looking for recommendations, exclaimed ever so profoundly that “the best Guinness is in your head” and, not to get too bus stop shaman on everyone, but we can fuck with Guinness being a state of mind over it being a merciless ‘Pineapple has no place on a pizza’ discussion for personality vacuums on social media.
But to begin, we had to give our numerous pints of plain something to latch onto, leading us to the only place and dish we felt suitable to kickstart proceedings. Even if it meant taking an unexpected Mexican detour…
STOP ONE: THE KOFFEE POT
An Irish Fry. What else? Littlewoods Butchers dry cured bacon, sausage, grilled tomato, mushrooms, a gooey golden yolked fried egg, a perfect potato cake, black AND white pudding (guaranteed to make you deliriously happy) and a substantial slice of wholemeal soda bread. While the old Koffee Pot, resplendent with it’s condensation soaked single glazing, tattered seating and formica will always have my heart, it’s also impossible to be unhappy inside the Oldham Road digs that they’ve occupied over the last few years. And sitting down to a plate that so idyllically encapsulates the most heartwarming aspects of Irish cooking – the splendidly starchy stodge of the potato cake, the porcine pleasure of of the white pudding and the deftly satisfying, buttered up crunch of the soda bread – is a source of joy that is difficult to replicate.
Yet this was a visit that was not without error. While KP’s website does state that they serve bottles of Guinness Porter, when I cast my eyes over the menu in-house, it was nowhere to be seen. Asking the server about this, I was recommended a ‘Mexican stout’ instead. Given that it would be stylistically in keeping with the variety of bev I would be drinking for the remainder of the day, I plumped for the server’s option, intrigued by what the Mexican take on stout would be, having only ever been exposed to the sun kissed cervezas of Corona, Modelo, Pacifico, Dos Equis and Tecate.
As big Julie Roberts in Pretty Woman once said, big mistake. Huge.
There was nothing wrong with the tin of Mexican Hot Chocolate stout that was presented to me. I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy it. But the dull fizz of chilli against a leaden backdrop of stout was not sitting right with my Irish Fry. A brew would have been a much better option in this case. But don’t allow my Mexican misadventure perturb you. Saddle up for an Irish Fry to honour St.Pat and you won’t go far wrong.
When money’s tight and hard to get And your horse has also ran, When all you have is a heap of debt – A pint of plain is your only man.
– ‘Workman’s Friend’, Brian O’Nolan
STOP TWO: THE STATION, DIDSBURY
A relatively quick tram journey from St.Peter’s Square to Didsbury village begins the tour in earnest. Waltzing past the suburban outposts of Botanist and Solita as we depart the met stop and make a beeline down School Lane, there is a sense that the security of a middle class enclave won’t offer up the necessary atmosphere for Paddy’s Day drinking. Gentrification and good Guinness experiences are not common bedfellows. Yet there stands The Station, nestled next to a Domino’s on the corner of Wilmslow Road, all red brick and enough Guinness adornments to suggest that either they really know what they’re doing with their plain behind the bar, or we’re about to venture inside a pint sized museum that would be more comfortable trapped inside a touristic cesspit in any major city with a decent sized Irish population.
Thankfully, one step inside The Station and you can breathe a sigh of relief. The mood is gentle, the paraphernalia curated tastefully along the walls and bar. There’s the toucan balancing a glass of the Black Stuff on it’s beak, look. There’s an understated authenticity to proceedings here, punctuated by an extraordinary selection of Tayto crisps. We grab a packet of pickled onion and another of Worcestershire sauce and pull up a stool each underneath the TV and adjacent to an impressively stocked jukebox. The Guinness itself is given the right degree of care and attention before being served and hits all the right notes on a quiet Friday lunchtime. No doubt on a much more boisterous Paddy’s Day afternoon, it’ll go down even smoother. Taytos in hand, we depart, with the barmaid proudly showing off the Guinness harp phone charging port on the bar which, it has to be said, I really want for my own house, gimmicky though it may be.
The cream curtains billowing wildly out of the upstairs window lends a homely frisson to the whole vibe and sets us up ideally for the day ahead as we wind ourselves back towards the city via another legendary suburban bolthole…
STOP THREE: FIDDLER’S GREEN, LEVENSHULME
Surrounded by a Persian kebab house, New Mexico Fried Chicken and a branch of Paddy Power, Fiddlers is an institution located with seasoned boozers in mind.
Unassuming with it’s bottle green, Celtic lettered signage, Fiddlers opens up into a bygone era, but one which has been miraculously preserved away from the modern trappings which would dampen its appeal. The proud association with Donegal is strewn across the interior, from framed Gaelic football shirts and scarves to plaques and cherished photos. It’s the character defining sort of pub that is passed down throughout generations. You’ve spent a good few Saturday afternoons there with your dad and granddad, watching the football results come in over games of dominos and Pontoon. A low glow hangs warmly in the air, inviting you inwards like an old family living room. Only one with a group of blokes howling at their latest horse letting them down by about six furlongs while another trio in the corner have a very pointed discussion over what the best dog is (“get fucked with your Jack Russells. What a load of shite”. Fair play).
Were it not for the fact we had another half dozen establishments to tackle in town, we could have quite happily settled here, maybe nipping out for an emergency Levy Bakery run a few hours in to keep us going. Getting yourself situated in here on Thursday morning wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.
STOP FOUR: LASS O’GOW….HOLD ON…CLOSED!?
Unforseen circumstances, apparently. Fair enough, can’t be helped. Gutting for our tour plans, though you should still make sure to pay the Charles Street supping spot a visit on the big day. While Scottish in heritage, this is a den designed for some prime Guinness consumption. Don’t miss it.
STOP FIVE: THE GREY HORSE, PORTLAND STREET
Any pub that caters to your, quite frankly, ludicrous query about screening a Denis Irwin highlight package on it’s television set AND offers up FREE PORK PIES IN A VARIETY OF FLAVOURS deserves to be protected at all costs and demands your custom.
The Guinness is sublime, the service even better and the atmosphere among the best in the city. Elbow-to-elbow with rabble rousing regulars of all ages and backgrounds, the Grey Horse is a Mancunian icon and should feature on any pub crawl ever undertaken in the city, Paddy’s Day or not. Buy Howard a pint as well. He’s a spectacular human being.
The only downside, if you can even call it that, to our visit, is we had to depart just as the historic 1999 fourth round FA Cup tie between United and Liverpool began to play on the set. Only got to see Michael fucking Owen’s third minute header before taking off. The temptation to loop back for Dwight Yorke’s 88th minute equaliser and Ole Solskjaer’s injury time winner was very fucking overwhelming.
Long live the Grey Horse.
When health is bad and your heart feels strange, And your face is pale and wan, When doctors say you need a change, A pint of plain is your only man.
– ‘Workman’s Friend’, Brian O’Nolan
STOP SIX: MOTHER MACS, BACK PICCADILLY
Well and truly into the thick of it now and in need of some roughage to help us chart the choppy waters of the business end of our tour, supplies are sourced from Go Falafel and Cafe Marhaba, with the Macs bar staff only too happy to welcome the scintillating scent of samosa drifting through their door as we place our orders and, naturally, marvel at the framed newspaper clippings detailing a murdered wife and a fatal fire, both of which have taken place during the pub’s storied history.
Tucked away down a Northern Quarter back alley, Macs is a secluded source of zen among a manic metropolis. It’s no frills and you can usually find The Chase on the telly, which is obviously brilliant. They do a decent pint and the bar staff are only too willing to rip the piss out of you at a moment’s notice which, much like their devotion to airing Bradley Walsh game shows, is very important when it comes to accompanying a pint of Guinness.
Our first NQ pit stop boxed off, we head Oldham Street way for a couple of heavyweight encounters…
STOP SEVEN: THE CASTLE, OLDHAM STREET
A place that needs no introduction, but one which it is impossible to tire of indulging in. Since 1776 The Castle has been quenching thirsts and, in more recent times, providing one of the finest jukeboxes in the city, which is an essential during any St.Pat’s celebration.
Sequestered at the far end of the bar, bundled up against the wall, we sway while trying to piece together the final furlongs of our route. Three more stops, we reckon. As the time ticks past five, more glasses are routinely clinked as the door swings to-and-fro with an ever increasing load of post-work sorts desperate to start their weekends. Our group, meanwhile, are preoccupied with how long the walk across the road to the next stop is going to take us as pint number seven is dispatched before we’ve even collected enough shrapnel between us to put some Talking Heads on the jukebox. Fuck sake.
STOP EIGHT: GULLIVERS, OLDHAM STREET
Not going to lie to you, it’s at this point where everything goes a bit west. Could have been stumbling into Gulliver’s World and none of us would have likely batted an eyelid. We amble onwards, though, because we’ve got a job to do. A civic duty that must be carried out. Christ we’re fucking trousered. Everyone else is, at most, on drink number three and we’re bellying up to the bar clocking in at number eight. A trio of delinquents hellbent on providing content that St.Patrick himself would be proud of. Only with less banishing snakes and more simply getting very, very pissed.
Fortunately, Gulliver’s has long been a venue with an allowance for a reasonable level of debauchery. Not that our behaviour veered far beyond the realm of ‘just about managing to sit down successfully without taking the entire table to the floor with us’ but also something worth bearing in mind for 17th March. A mainstay of Oldham Street and a Northern Quarter stalwart, it’s an easy gaff to settle yourselves into, as we come perilously close to doing during our visit. You’ll find some seriously good Guinness and a reliably solid selection of tunes in here come Paddy’s Day, so make sure it’s on your list.
STOP NINE: PEVERIL OF THE PEAK, GREAT BRIDGEWATER STREET
In some very deep waters now, but where better to be in them than the most beautiful pub in the whole land? That emerald green is like a siren call, beckoning drinkers inwards, which, now with emergency Taytos dispensed down our gullets, we are only too happy to oblige.
We cannot locate a free table for the remaining three of us wild rovers, but it’s probably for the best as to sit down at this point would mean never, ever getting back up. We fortuitously stumble upon an empty hatch and lean our weary bones against it, praying it’s not some elaborate set up for a ‘Del Boy through the bar’ prank.
Luckily it’s not and we soak in the end of the work week among countless contented souls, all either slinging back pints with the heady excitement of a toddler let loose on a pick ‘n’ mix stall or savouring them in order to prolong the ecstasy of binning off another 40 hours of endurance. Even nursing a bellyful of nine pints, the majesty of the moment is not lost on us. If anything, the seven hours worth of alcohol only make the moment more ethereal.
When food is scarce and your larder bare And no rashers grease your pan, When hunger grows as your meals are rare – A pint of plain is your only man.
– ‘Workman’s Friend’, Brian O’Nolan
STOP 10: MULLIGAN’S, DEANSGATE
It took about 12 seconds for countless comments to flood into our instagram notifications and DM’s urging us to make Mulligan’s the centrepiece of our tour. Of course, no sooner had the plan been hatched than it was decided that Deansgate’s finest institution (soz Katsouris. No offence, we still love you) would serve as the finale.
Obviously, things will be a little different on Paddy’s Day itself, with Mulligan’s operating on a ticket only system for the day, which is understandable given its resounding popularity. On a pre-Paddy’s Friday night, it is still reliably chocker, the band for the night tuning up on stage, a Friday night game I will never, ever remember playing out across the multiple screens affixed to the walls. Flags, scarves, memorabilia, souvenirs and special keepsakes from across the Emerald Isle decorate every inch of the walls and the mood is as boisterous as ever.
As we crescendo our Guinness Safari, we are joined by two thirds of the team from Well Good, and who better to finish your night with than a pair of wild Wiganers who immediately set about blagging us a table (still absolutely zero idea how this happened) and breaking us from our ‘one pint per place’ routine. Although, given that we’re now on our tenth drink, that’s not exactly the wisest decision we’ll make, but fuck it, we’ve earned it and we gladly bring up a dozen while surrounded by what feels like half of Manchester. A wondrous place.
We depart before the band strikes up. That’s what 12 pints of stout over nine hours will do to you. But we leave proud, pissed and content. And pissed. So very, very pissed. The Well Good lads grill the bouncer over the origin of his kebab and are duly pointed around the corner to Cafe Istanbul, where they promptly devour some monstrous looking chicken and doners. Judging by their reviews the following afternoon, it perhaps isn’t a bad shout for those of you following this guide on the big day. A suitable bookend to the Koffee Pot Irish Fry.
And, remarkably, not long after nine o’ clock, we make our various ways home. There are, of course, dozens of other spots to take in and enjoy a wonderfully poured pint of Guinness in Manchester. Edinburgh Castle can be a borderline religious experience at times, with the Kings Arms, City Arms and both Sam and Tom’s Chophouses delivering the goods inside some of Manchester’s most iconic settings. The neighbourhoods outside the city limits also hold a fair amount of wonders too, with our time allowances only affording us a couple this time round, we can also recommend The Crown in Heaton Moor, with The Albert in Withington and Chorlton duo Bowling Green and Duffy’s also earning numerous mentions in our comments.
Whether you follow our tried and tested route this St.Pat’s Day or not, remember the immortal words of Bundobust Twitter, “The best Guinness is in your head”.
“The old Jimmy’s was held together with spit and sellotape. There’s no way we could have done what we’re doing now at the old Jimmy’s.”It’s hard to disagree with George Craig, as he reminisces over the previous six lager stained, sticky floored years between Newton Street and Ancoats. Taking in an early afternoon IPA as the sun threatens to crack through the front door of Jimmy’s Vol.II on Blossom Street, there is an unmistakable sophomoric vibe about the recent addition to Cutting Room Square. Thankfully, it’s more ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ than ‘Second Coming’.
Like any great second album, there is more than a hint of maturity entrenched in the new Jimmy’s, yet clearly enough mischief to maintain the excitement associated with their Northern Quarter debut. George himself, the frontman for brand and marketing as well as Jimmy’s food operations, is now 31, married and about to celebrate his daughter’s first birthday. It’s quite the paradigm shift from life circa 2016-19. As the gentle opening licks of the Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ slumbers out of the speakers, George explains to me how food is now his focus, where once it was an unfathomable addition to the offerings on Newton Street.
“When we were in the Northern Quarter, we just weren’t set up to be a place that did food. We were somewhere you went to watch bands and get lairy. I don’t think anyone would have wanted to eat in that fucking basement.”
Jimmy’s past as a sweat soaked, subterranean den of debauchery doesn’t exactly inspire memories of craving hunks of smoked brisket or fresh lobster tails delicately dotted with parmesan butter. In fact, if memory serves correct, food was often expelled rather than digested at the neon clad Newton Street dive, which was grimly part of its charm.
Two years on from Jimmy’s undignified eviction from Newton Street (in favour of a *let’s out a prolonged, exhausted sigh,* fucking office development) the red bricked Blossom Street spot feels like a natural evolution, even if it may not have been envisaged in the initial masterplan for the Manchester branch (sites in Liverpool and York have also been minted in the intervening six years).
“I was devastated when we were booted out,” laments George over the late 2019 shunting, which was further exacerbated by, y’know, that massive fucking global pandemic that decided to drop at the beginning of 2020.
“There really wasn’t a plan if this place hadn’t come up. We’ve obviously had the dark kitchen doing Deliveroos during Covid, but a new Jimmy’s almost didn’t happen. And even after reopening, we had that dreadful fucking Christmas and January’s always quiet as well, but now it feels like we’re finally starting to get somewhere again.”
Fortunately, a Cutting Room Square vacancy popped up courtesy of Matt Bambroffe, who played five-a-side with George’s older brother, Jimmy (of Jimmy’s!) and was also a family friend of George’s wife, Megan. Neighbouring with Rudy’s, the Jane Eyre and Edinburgh Castle among others, it almost feels as though 2019’s eviction was a blessing in disguise, with the new digs firmly cemented within Manchester’s brightest, burgeoning neighbourhood. Although that’s not to say it hasn’t still presented plenty of its own problems over the last few months.
“We’ve not got the late license like we had at the old Jimmy’s, and we’ve not got the live music license, even though we have a basement space downstairs which is ideal for it. So that’s something that we want to change eventually. Also you get things like residents in some of the flats surrounding us complaining. We had one complaint about food smells coming out of the building when we weren’t even open, so there’s shit like that to deal with, but y’know, we’re really happy here and looking forward to properly kicking on with the food, which I’m really excited about.”
The food is George’s passion and is one that was established long before his family broke ground on Jimmy’s six years ago. As the lead singer of indie outfit One Night Only, George, along with brother and bandmate Jimmy (of Jimmy’s!) toured the world and, though the traditional assumption of a touring band’s diet is one that consists of nothing more than petrol station Ginsters, Red Stripe and Jack Daniels, the Craig lads were exposed to some of the globe’s greatest culinary experiences and, crucially, some of the world’s best barbecue in the American south, which served as a transformative experience for George.
“We were being taken out to all these mad places by Universal in every city we went to, but it was in the Deep South and in Texas where the barbecue really blew us away. We hit up all the famous spots, like Franklin barbecue in Austin and I’ve taken all that and tried to implement it in my own way here, but with our own sort of spin that makes it unique to Jimmy’s.
“I’d say it’s glam rock BBQ. That’s how I’d describe the Jimmy’s menu. We’ve got a dish called cock fingers on there and a hot dog called the King Dong, so it’s that sleazy sort of rock and roll vibe from the ’70s, which is the type of music I’m into combined with the food that I love. I just wanted to have fun with the menu, as you can with a lot of the names on there.”
The ‘Meatwood Mac’, ‘Springsteen Rolls’, ‘Brisket Case’ and ‘Plantera’ are just a few of the plates that are being slung from the Jimmy’s kitchen and form a menu that has been a real labour of love for George, who has gone from hosting the likes of Sam Fender, Bill Ryder-Jones, Kate Nash and Red Rum Club to obsessing over every minute detail of a barbecue offering that he can confidently compare to the joints he immersed himself in during the heady days on the road.
It is harking back to the early days of Jimmy’s that shift into focus just how vital a venue it felt like at the time. Springing into action in 2016, it suddenly became a go-to for the post-midnight crowd who intended on crashing into the weekend amid in as chaotic a fashion as possible. It was also a venue that helped break in acts like the aforementioned Fender. In a city already swamped with stages on which to perform, it could have become just another pretender, yet Jimmy’s thrived and intertwined itself into the fabric of the live music scene in Manchester. The experience the Craig brothers brought from their longstanding ties to the music industry, having both been signed to Universal since their early teens, was evident in their execution of everything within Jimmy’s four walls. There were no hang ups on tired Mancunian tropes, but instead a raw and ready atmosphere that they knew would resonate with the city’s gig goers.
Behind the scenes, the operation is a family affair, with George and Jimmy’s (of Jimmy’s!) mum, Louise and Dad, Richard, helping out with food development, site styling and company administration. Such a tight knit nature has undoubtedly help keep the Manchester branch afloat during the treacherous waters it encountered over the last two years.
“I think some people had this impression that we had a bottomless pit of cash, which was simply not true. It’s been a real struggle,” explains George, clearly relieved that the navigation of Jimmy’s is finally back on course, “We’ve had some absolute nightmares to deal with but I think being a family business has definitely made things that bit easier. Obviously it’s still really hard a lot of the time, but we’re all looking out for each other, it’s not like we’re dealing with a load of investors or anything like that where you’ve got people to answer to who could make life even more difficult for you. Any problems we have with Jimmy’s just get dealt with between us and we carry on.”
The new Jimmy’s still possesses a lot of the same attitude as the old Northern Quarter haunt. The neon signs still adorn the walls, the signature lightning bolt present on every glass. There’s the comforting blend of Americana dive bar and local warmth, like you’ll be greeted with your regular order upon arrival but also have someone taking the piss out of your trainers. Which is exactly what you should want from any establishment worth it’s salt, to be honest.
A surrounding Ancoats area may come across a tad more low key than Newton Street. Not as rough-and-ready, more marina than mucky piss up, but it may be the coming-of-age work that Jimmy’s needed in it’s discography to properly ingratiate itself into the pantheon of iconic music venues in Manchester. With a sound proofed basement just crying out for bands to grace it’s stage, the spirit of the old Jimmy’s could soon be allowed to flourish once again, only this time with something to soak up the suds.
Until then, it’s barbecue, brunch and blues and a return to whatever normalcy might end up being after a tumultuous two years. Like all rock-and-roll greats, Jimmy’s is evolving and, while we eagerly anticipate the ‘weird, experimental psychedelia’ phase of whatever their third incarnation may bring somewhere down the line, we should all be very excited for the Ancoats Anthology because, if the early days of their new barbecue menu is anything to go by, it’s set to churn out a series of bangers.
Jerk Junction has been around since 2013 but when Jake took over the restaurant 1.5 years ago, their progress and growth have been clear to see: from their epic rebrand, to their expanded outdoor cabin seating with neon feature wall – all in the name of feel-good food. It’s fair to say that they’ve claimed the corner of Manchester and Woodside Road with music, the most mouth- watering smells, and always a warm, community vibe. I chatted to Miss Lola, who’s been running the kitchen alongside Miss Ivy for years before the change in ownership; if anyone knows what’s up, it’s this doyenne. She tells me why Jerk Junction is always a party, and we talk nose-to-tail eating, growing up in Jamaica, and what makes JJ’s food the most unapologetically authentic Jamaican joint.
“At the end of the day, the secret is in your seasoning. We love food, we love getting together and eating – that’s the thing about Caribbeans.
You’ve got to have the right seasoning and cook it for long enough. Take our rice, you can’t just cook it in half an hour and you can’t just cook it from a tin.”
Now, if I could only relay to you the absolute horror on Miss Lola’s face when I tell her about Tilda’s Caribbean packets of microwaveable rice…
Then, to the kitchen, where Miss Lola runs the show, stirring as she goes – and hot damn, kittens, is it an immersive experience: the herby, homely smells from the huge bubbling pots of rice and peas, her jerk gravy (an ode to this later) and Scotch. Bonnets. Everywhere. Plant-based eaters will be thrilled to know Miss Lola is working on her famous stew peas recipe, but vegetarian-like, and they do offer vegan stew on the menu. We also stop to admire the homemade dough being worked, knowing it’ll be fried into the most delicious fluffy dumplings, or spinners, with a sweet, crisp outer shell. We know size doesn’t matter but these are MASSIVE, like biting into an apple but a much more rewarding experience.
We first try the curried goat, and I already know it’s going to be an emotional experience just looking at the bowl, with its deep colour and fragrant steam. It’s rich and savoury, slow cooked on the bone (picky eaters, get over it, that’s where the flavour’s at) for the most tender chunks of meat that melt in your mouth. It’s peppery and warming and the perfect winter companion, served with rice and peas and golden plantain.
While we eat, Miss Lola reflects on her experience with food growing up, having moved to the UK when she was 10, and accessibility to ingredients in a wildly different time:
“40, 50 years ago you couldn’t get all these things. Over the years everything improved, you don’t have to go back to the Caribbean and pack a suitcase with spices…we all can have the Caribbean taste here – but’, she warns, ‘if you don’t have the traditional way of cooking, it won’t taste the same.’
There’s truth to what she says when you look at the following Jerk Junction has, ‘we get every nationality, everyone comes here and they tell people ‘you’ve got to try JJ’ because it IS proper Jamaican food – there’s no half-measures about it y’know? And that’s how I want to keep it.’
When it comes to committing to authenticity, Jerk Junction puts their money where their mouth is. We enter the Jerk Shack which houses Jake’s pride and joy: the custom-made drum imported from Jamaica. The jerk chicken, by way of coals and magic I’m sure, is cooked to perfection, every time.
It’s their speciality so you can expect nothing less than juicy, smoky chicken that stops a conversation and demands all your attention. I chose to douse mine in their jerk gravy which is beautifully fruity, with a slow-building heat that’s not quite spicy, but rounded with sweetness and tang.
Miss Lola’s favourite dish is her ackee and saltfish ‘with roasted breadfruit because that’s the Jamaican in me.’
Her ackee and saltfish situation is actually kind of holy with its seasoning, and completely different to anything else on the menu. The thyme complements the salt-cured fish and the soft ackee is a taste I can only describe as ‘fun’. It’s herby, a teeny bit spicy, but so fresh and light you could eat it by the bucket, with very little chewing necessary. Plus, ackee is healthy af and full of nutrients so there’s that.
On maintaining Jamaican culture and tradition in the UK, Miss Lola notes the disparity between the two cultures: “There’s other things that people don’t eat that we eat, like stewed peas with pig tail. I still cook it; my friends come round to eat it, but I cook it for joy. It’s an occasion food. The children like it as well, you see. And our children are born in this country so you have to each them your tradition and way of eating otherwise it will just die out you know? You have to keep at it.”
We discuss the future of Jamaican food, and Caribbean food in general. With a lot of chain restaurants like Turtle Bay popping up all over the UK, Miss Lola is firm in her belief that “Jamaican food is strong enough to stand on its own because people want it to be proper Jamaican…my plans for the future is to enjoy what I’m doing, and I can’t see me not doing it, it’s for the love in me, to promote Jamaican food. The original, not the watered-down version.”
Far be it from me to question anything Miss Lola says. While they’ve enjoyed well-deserved success, Jerk Junction recently came under fire from a ghastly minority online after being featured in a Google ad for #spenditblack, and raising awareness about Black Pound Day (BPD is the first Saturday of every month where people can make more of a conscious effort to buy black-owned). Trolls are gonna troll, but really it begs the question: if you enjoy black food/music/art/aesthetics and love to benefit from black culture, but don’t want to see black-owned businesses elevated and celebrated, what are you doing eating their deliciously-seasoned food in the first place?
Some food for thought there. Catch Miss Lola, Jake, and the team, where they’re open 7 days a week in the new year. Lucky us!
Tue-Thu, Sun 12pm-10pm Fri-Sat 12pm-12am *will be open on Mon in the new year
He may have penned it 36 years ago, but Dave Davies’ words on the above 1985 classic feel more pertinent than ever as the British hospitality industry prepares to enter the bleakest of mid-winters.
Taken from The Kinks’ 1985 ‘Word of Mouth’ album, ‘Living on a Thin Line’ not only laments a lost identity and yearning for ‘days of old’, but also directs an industrial amount of vitriol and disdain towards British politicians which, it’s safe to say, is a set of emotions we can all share wholeheartedly right now.
Since March 2020, restaurants, bars, pubs and cafes across Manchester have been mercilessly sieged not only by Covid-19, but also their own government, who’s overwhelming incompetence and blatant treachery has betrayed every single person working in hospitality, costing countless people their livelihoods, as well as an exhausting barrage of mental health issues that present us with another crisis on top of what is already currently being endured.
Those on the frontline for the last 20 months have been battered and bruised by the total lack of support from Downing Street, who have consistently lurched from one indecision to another, doing everything they can to withhold adequate resources from thousands of desperate business owners and their staff.
With every small victory, like last summer’s reopenings and ‘Freedom Day’ this past July, there was always that glimmer of hope that a corner MIGHT had been turned. That a rampant vaccination programme would allow a more permanent return to full, restriction free trading and, should any measures need to be reintroduced, that they would be done so responsibly with lessons learned from previous debacles.
Only Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s productivity levels only seem to spike when there’s a Cobra meeting that needs avoiding, an illegal, lockdown breaking party or cheese and wine laden ‘work meeting’ that needs attending or, of course, if foreign healthcare bosses register an interest in buying parts of the NHS. If you’re a restaurant or bar owner unsure as to whether you can open tomorrow or, more likely, you’re relying on social media leaks to be drip fed the government’s impending, weeks too late plans, then chances are your plight is not appearing near the top of any agendas being seriously discussed inside number 10.
Which leaves Manchester’s hospitality scene in a current state of despair and near disrepair. Yesterday afternoon, it was announced that £1bn of funding is being granted to British hospitality venues affected by Omicron. It is hardly news that inspires longterm confidence, mainly because the figures announced (a maximum of £6,000 per venue) won’t even come close to covering the cost of the damage that has already been done and is still yet to be done. As Manchester’s Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord tweeted shortly after the announcement, “This isn’t a package. It’s an insult.” This path has been miserably trodden several times before. Hospitality can only take so many hits before venues retreat to the trenches forever, unable to withstand constant assaults from new variants and despicable, morally bankrupt millionaires with more power than brain cells or integrity.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the back breaking efforts that have been made by so many across Greater Manchester (and beyond) have been worth it? Is this fight nothing more than Homer Simpson valiantly getting his head caved in by Drederick Tatum, unaware that the concussion inducing haymakers are never going to relent, each one thundering a destructive blow that shifts the bout one step closer to finality.
“What we couldn’t do, what we wouldn’t do, It’s a crime, but does it matter? Does it matter much, does it matter much to you? Does it ever really matter? Yes, it really, really matters. “
With revelations of the government’s rampant criminality coming to light with increasing fervour over the past couple of weeks, the groaning scale of Johnson and co’s duplicity has rightfully enraged the public and made fools out of us all. For bar staff, waiters, chefs, glass collectors, suppliers, cleaners, general managers and everyone in between, it wasn’t so much a slap in the face as it was an entitled mouthful of gob being callously spat by an uncaring, self serving con artist.
Establishments had to evolve and reinvent themselves multiple times over during the multitude of lockdowns inflicted upon them over the past two years. Whether it be for takeaway services or reconfiguring socially distanced dining areas. Many had to morph into al fresco offerings, forking out for extra furniture while only able to serve somewhere in the region of 30-50% of their usual covers. Rules were resolutely adhered to, because what other options were there? As it happens, offering to cater one of the seemingly endless Downing Street do’s could have probably earned any number of restaurants a small fortune.
And now, here we are. A repeat of early March 2020. The public being encouraged to stay home to help curb the spread of Omicron without any actual solutions to keep businesses afloat. Oh, apart from the grant of ‘up to £6,000’. A flippant, token gesture that still does nothing to address the seismic losses that will be made when venues are forced outside for a couple of weeks during the impending ‘circuit breaker’ slap bang in the middle of the two coldest months of the year. Cheers Rishi. Nice one, Boris. Nothing beats sharing a meal with a mate or loved one while feeling like you’re sat on the side of the fucking Eiger. We’d be better served letting that mad fucking singing reindeer head from the Christmas Markets pass parliamentary rulings related to hospitality than the people currently in charge.
“It’s been soul destroying, incredibly stressful and hugely worrying,” says Nick De Sousa, owner of Northern Quarter’s Tariff and Dale and Chorlton’s Lead Station, when I ask him how the last couple of weeks have been on him and his staff across the two sites.
“The teams have been affected. They want to go home for Christmas and are frightened of isolating alone. No support on the horizon means that there is uncertainty about the business and everyone’s future. They have been so resilient in the face of all this, they’re incredible and I am so proud of every one of them. They’ve pulled together and reflected our culture and values.”
– Nick De Sousa
This same whirlwind of emotions has been mirrored over at Common and Nell’s Pizza, with the NQ and Kampus residents feeling the sting of a depleted city centre.
“I’ve veered from despair, to determined, to despondent through to light headed hysteria about 12 times already this week” reveals owner Jonny Heyes. “We’ve probably taken around 50% of what we would’ve hoped. But ultimately we just need to crack on.”
And what of the potential two week ‘circuit breaker’ on the horizon, tentatively scheduled for 28th December, if yet more leaks from parliament are to be believed?
“I’ve pretty much stopped preparing for this stuff” shares Jonny, “you tend to spend lots of time doing stuff which quickly becomes completely irrelevant. So we’re just focusing on trading through to Christmas and then we’ll just roll with the punches.”
“The Lack of clarity is baffling, this is the dangerous part for us,” answers Nick. “They need to form policies which actually work with the industry they’re aimed at. Outdoor trade in January? OK then! Waste of time.”
The mood isn’t exactly any merrier over at Mecanica, either. The ‘gimmick free’ Swan Street cocktail bar was hit with a deluge of cancellations over the weekend and is likewise facing an uncertain close to 2021, as General Manager Phillip Aldridge tells me.
“The real issue for me is the lack of forewarning. Letting us all order up for a big Christmas only to take it away last minute just means we’re left with costs to pay without any way of clawing it back.
“And now if we go into lockdown we’re left with an excess of stock that we can’t shift, which is obviously a massive dent in cash flow. Just make up your mind early and stick to it so people can actually plan what they’re doing, rather than just dithering and saying yes then saying no last minute.
“Pile on top of that you’ve got the mental anguish of the staff having to work knowing everything they touch could ruin their Christmas. Masking up because they’d like to spend Christmas with their family instead of in isolation.
– Phillip Aldridge
“I need to place orders today, do I buy champagne for New Year’s Eve or not? Are we going to be open? Who knows? It’s only 10 days away.”
Another newcomer, Delhi House Cafe in the Corn Exchange, has similarly been left floundering through the festive season, with Managing Director Sherry Lamba explaining how ‘disheartening’ this most recent ordeal has been.
“We opened in Augustlast year which was a brave/stupid move. Opening between the lockdowns wasn’t easy. We tried our best and reached a point where we thought we’d got it. But after the recent government announcements our bookings last week dropped by 70%, which was a big, big hit, especially when we were hoping for our first Christmas to be a good one. It all fell apart in a matter of two days.
“We are different from any other Indian restaurants in town, trying to promote something very unique. Delhi House Cafe is born in Manchester, trying to give the people of this great city the most authentic Indian experience. Just when the crowd was getting what we are all about this hit us. It’s so disheartening.”
Disheartening almost feels too mild a word when you begin to process not only the scale of monetary losses, but also the physical and mental anguish that those within the industry are being subjected to at one of the most traditionally stressful periods of the year. Eunji, owner of the astonishingly good and incredibly named Thirsty Korean in Chorlton, emphasised the emotional strain December’s downturn has had on her and her staff.
“Since Plan B has been applied, we’ve had cancellations every day. As soon as we open, the phones are ringing just for people to cancel their reservations. There was literally two tables during prime time on Friday and Saturday.
“Our revenue has been 50% down on the previous two months. Mentally if I say honestly how it has been affecting me, I felt like I was a failure running a business even though I did everything I could. Two weeks ago on Sunday I put my staff on from five o’ clock until closing. The staff closed the venue 90 minutes earlier than closing time and said to me that they had no customers. They felt wrong staying open even though they needed the hours to make money. We try hard to stick together not only in business but as friends, as it is the loneliest months we are going through.
“All of our stock is miserably full, as I was ready to be busy in December. I have no idea what to do with it all if we get locked down. At the moment opening the venue is more expensive than closing the venue and it hurts not being able to guarantee them that many hours so close to Christmas. It’s horrible.“
The toll that is being taken on hospitality workers is relentless. The life altering circumstances that have been thrust upon them ignored by those in power, unaware of what an actual day’s work feels like. As it transpires, when you and your mates are sitting on a ‘weekly big shop at Fortnum and Mason’ level of wealth, you tend to turn a blind eye to the suffering of those who make your privileged existence possible in the first place. Who knew?
Those who toil, living hand-to-mouth on an ever decreasing collection of tips to supplement their disappearing hours from the rota, are precisely the people who enable communities and cities to thrive. The delirious masses pouring out of bars in Ancoats, Stevenson Square, Canal Street and Oxford Road are the result of innumerable hours of graft put in by the staff serving them and cleaning up after them, generating a thriving economy that provides work for thousands more desperate workers, all waiting in the wings to contribute, to perhaps build their own businesses, carving out their own corner of the city to make a name for themselves. These people build cities.
The likes of Night and Day, The Castle Hotel, The Crown and Kettle, Temple Bar, Corbieres – all historic venues that have provided a cavalcade of timeless, endearing memories. Refuge, Kala Bistro, The Creameries, Schofields, Sugo, Tokyo Ramen – newcomers over the last few years who have ingrained themselves into the brickwork of the city, immediately feeling at home. These are the venues we cannot go without. They are a magic Manchester cannot replicate if they were to shutter because there is simply not enough money to staff them any longer. Yet, along with countless other venues, they are being ripped apart by a deplorable level of cowardice from the people who are supposed to protect them. And those who are now wondering how many more times they might clock in and out are suffering much more than merely in the pocket. They are suffering mentally. If Boris Johnson is foreshadowing a ‘tidal wave’ of Omicron hitting the British Isles, then the mental health crisis accompanying it is a tsunami so monstrous it may never be recovered from unless proper help is invested in and invested in immediately.
And this is an area Paddy Howley, who heads up So Let’s Talk, a group who specialise in being mental health advocates for the hospitality industry, knows all too well.
‘’One in two hospitality professionals either have or are experiencing ill mental health whilst working in hospitality,” Paddy explains to me. “Scary, isn’t it? What’s scarier the fact that this stat was released earlier this year and with the current lack of compassion and blatant disregard for the hospitality industry that the Government has shown its set to get worse before it gets better.
“The lack of clarity and support is crippling our beloved industry. The team at So Lets Talk spend our days running sessions on mental, physical and financial health to the people within hospitality. We talk to hospitality business owners and teams in Manchester daily and the feeling of uncertainty has never been stronger than it is now.
“Mass cancellations, people not wanting to work in hospitality and team members having to isolate means that businesses are forced to close early or ride the storm once again and hope for some support in the future.We’re hoping Rishi realises that the VAT on £0 is £0. If the government doesn’t act quick the fifth largest industry in the UK will never be the same again.
“We want to let everyone know that SLT are here for you now and always. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for support.”
“Living on a thin line, Tell me now, what are we supposed to do? “
As Dave Davies’ words from 36 years ago ruminate a little more, the question remains. What are we supposed to do? What is six grand supposed to do in the long run? What is abject government ignorance going to achieve other than to leave the hospitality industry in tatters? A headline grabbing figure of £1bn in grants might sound like an eye watering amount on paper, but it’s merely a drop in the ocean.
There needs to be clarity. There needs to be actual, proper support. There needs to be understanding. Without any of this, we could be looking at an even bleaker picture come Christmas 2022.
Nestled in the Northern Quarter, Ali has been running Little Aladdin since 1997, when the NQ was a different place entirely.
“I took over the cafe when this area was mainly serving the Asian community working here in the warehouses and factories around NQ, and that’s how these menus came about — Hello there!”
This is pretty much the pace of this whole interview: from his tiny counter in his tiny corner cafe, Ali sings out snatches of his story (ask him about his Bollywood renditions) between greeting and serving customers during the busy lunchtime on which we cleverly decided to schedule this chat. His offering honours the cafe’s past lives, continuing to feed and sustain workers in town with massive portions for small prices.
The majority of his customers are regulars and vegan, but that’s about all they have in common. From students to construction workers, everyone is-without exception-so down for this food.
At the counter, you’re taken through the range of seven (seven!) vegan curries for your Rice+Three, which change daily and is their most popular order. On this particular Tuesday, you could choose from dishes including daal, spinach, cabbage, mixed veg, and cauliflower. Throughout service, I watch as food appears from what seems to be a hole in the floor – and when I can’t take the mystery any more, we’re led downstairs to the kitchen where world’s friendliest chef Mustafa shows us his prep and cooking area – there are chickpeas marinating everywhere, and it smells so good.
“The way we prepare the food is as if we’re cooking it for family at home. There’s nothing artificial, and the flavour is very unique. Because it’s vegan it will always be affordable”. [We digress at this point to talk about the resentment we feel towards establishments that do vegan food for super-expensive]
The food we had was fresh, honest and flavourful. It’s very much a no-frills affair, which is why a falafel and fried tofu wrap (ngl looks basic, tastes amazing – especially with their homemade selection of vegan sauces: chilli, garlic, mayo and mango) won’t even set you back a full fiver. The Biryani though, was notable in that where a traditional Biryani would be layered and cooked with bone-in meat, its absence changes the dish entirely. Expect generous chunks of butternut squash and other nutritious veg in there – you won’t miss the meat, I promise.
Ali’s journey with veganism started with a health concern: “I was always a big lad, still am. I started cutting down on red meat to lose weight, then stopped eating meat completely. I realised you don’t have to add any animal products to enjoy good food. Then I got really really ‘holy’ on that – started working on myself and also learning from the many different vegan communities in Manchester and their views — Hi guys, how are you?”
Ali’s is a story of travel, hard work and determination. Like many in the 80s, he emigrated to the UK from Pakistan in 1986, “I came alone and didn’t know anyone. I would say I’m a self-made man; I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs but I worked hard, I feel like my cafe is a community spot serving the many friends I’ve made.”
With a story so familiar and reminiscent of the many people from all over the world, coming to the UK full of hope and carving out an honest existence, it is truly what makes Manchester such a beautifully diverse city. When asked for his parting words of advice for those trying to make it on their own, Ali is a champion of grit and self-motivation:
“Nothing is unachievable – and don’t give up early. Though Covid did affect us big time with offices not being fully open, but people are starting to come back in. Never give up. The most important thing I would like to say is that nothing is going to help or be enjoyable if you don’t have proper good health, and that’s starts with food, the environment, and animal welfare.”
Ali dreams of expanding his tiny cafe, able to then offer even more of his super-popular vegan food. With his growing die-hard following he has shown that this, like his dreams before, can be achieved.
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