It is not long before half past six in the evening. Outside Deansgate heaves with Friday’s post-work revellers, darting decisively from one bar to the next so as not to lose their early weekend momentum. On the other side of the brickwork, inside Hawksmoor, however, the scene is serene and satisfied.
There’s bustle. Of course there’s bustle. It’s Friday evening and this is one of the finest restaurants in Manchester. Reservations are chocker and the staff are reacting appropriately. But their’s is a drift rather than a dart. Swiftly between dining room and bar, servers, bar staff and various levels of what appear to be management are operating effortlessly. The chatter between themselves and the coming-and-going customers perfect punctuation to accompany a thoroughly contented sit with a majestic dirty Martini.
I slide each Belvedere and Fino soaked kalamata from my drink via a stainless steel cocktail pick into my mouth, breathing in every ounce of atmosphere from the surrounding brass, mahogany and parquet. The bar lamps sit charmingly low, glowing up my ‘Don Draper is done for the week’ bullshit that I appear to be on.
And, truth be told, the building that houses Hawksmoor’s Mancunian outpost could quite believably be hosting sordid sixties Madison Avenue shenanigans. It could have a piano’s ivories being tickled by an undone bowtie sporting lad who’s watched La La Land too many times. The staff could be bedecked in starched whites and enough Brylcreem to make an FBI agent blush. There could be cherries jubilee on the dessert menu and a fully stocked cigar humidor presented to each table.
In this broad shouldered late Victorian ex-courthouse, Hawksmoor could eat itself doused in nostalgia. But one Martini lit sashay through to your table and you are immediately assured that this grand old dame of a dining room has been left in good hands over the last eight years.
We are guided towards our table in the far back corner of a room teeming with date nights, family dinners, old mates catching up and post-work regulars. Not enough restaurants feel like this any more. There’s an otherworldliness to it. A bygone era that still feels up-to-date, steadfastly refusing to become drowned in an attachment to the past that borders on parody.
This is a room that immediately makes your meal feel important. You sense the enjoyment and enthusiasm radiating off every other table and realise that soon you will be vibrating in a similar manner to those around you. Your eyes are involuntarily drawn to plates of food passing within sniffing distance. The menu is neither too simplistic nor is it overblown. It is fine tuned to the very last dry-aged detail.
Hawksmoor’s aim with their Manchester expansion in 2015 was simply to serve the best steaks in the city. The reputation the group had acquired for itself from its London operations suggesting ahead of time that this would be a reasonable aim to have.
You only need to take a solitary bite from your preferred cut to know that they’ve achieved this goal and then some. And done it with a dedication and respect for the craft that has seen Hawksmoor go into Big Steak’s backyard in New York City and sweep up blinding reviews as an outsider barging into the steakhouse capital of the world. And when you can shut up discerning and doubting New Yorkers, you can be confident that no goal is too lofty for your ambitions.
And it is this success stateside that makes the Hawksmoor experience even more irresistible. Going into Peter Luger’s territory and turning heads after you’ve already conquered London and the north of England could easily be a series of victories that would generate an aloof air to proceedings. The impatience for those among us who are not well versed in bovine variations and wine pairings.
Instead, the staff are immaculately informative and genuine. They put you at ease with a casualness that belies the fact they probably have at least another half dozen packed tables that require their attention. Recommendations are made, laughs are exchanged and no one is left intimidated by the various cuts, sauces, sides and wines that have been presented before them.
I opt for a heft of a ribeye, medium rare. My friend plumps for the fillet, rare. We both know the score when it comes to sides. Those triple cooked chips and that creamed spinach didn’t stand a chance at being left alone. A first carafe of Malbec is ordered up as we toast and survey everything. Each order, each joke cracked with a server, each clink of cutlery and fresh glasses. Each screech and scratch of stainless steel on crockery as the best steaks in Manchester are pulled apart and devoured.
We don’t wait too long before our meat arrives. Just the sight of it on my plate makes me deliriously joyful. I’m enjoying my meal before I’ve even taken a bite. And when I finally do, the steak commands all my tastebuds to groan under every robust fleck of flavour that emanates from its inch perfect char, all eye wateringly tender and delicately salted. The chips and the spinach don’t just hold their own in the ribeye’s company, they accentuate it to another level entirely. Every delicate balance of texture and taste perfectly weighted and optimised in harmony with the other elements of the meal. A big, bombastic, beefy symphony of flavour and wonder.
The second carafe of Malbec accelerates the flowing conversation about the final two seasons of Barry (go and watch it immediately if you haven’t already) and yes, of course we’re having dessert and yes, I plead with our server to extol every crunchy, gooey, salty and sweet virtue of the peanut butter shortbread to me so I can devour it in 10 gloriously delightful seconds.
Our empty dinner plates are collected, rich with fat and blood residue. We’ve dined like Tony Soprano and Big Pussy Bonpensiero after the murder of Matt Bevilacqua, only without the vengeful post-torture and shooting glee that accompanies their steak dinner. There is immense satisfaction plastered across our faces. If there was to be one acceptable descent into Mad Men revelry right now it would be for a celebratory, top button undone, cigarette under the bar lights. But alas, we’re happy easing back into our seats with matching contented sighs and the final swigs of Argentinean red.
A dining room and bar combination such as Hawksmoor’s exudes history. In a past life, it was a courthouse attended by those who could not come to an agreement. There are no deadlocks in the present day, though. There is an overwhelmingly agreeable attitude to dining here. The aforementioned adventure to the Big Apple entirely understandable as this is a room that could be dropped into any old neighbourhood in Manhattan and immediately feel at home.
At not yet 10-years-old, Hawksmoor Manchester is a far cry from being an ‘institution’ yet if someone told you they’d been serving up curated cow parts for 100 years you wouldn’t for a single second doubt them. They’ve brought Grade II listed history into the modern day and made it feel as warm and vital as a remastered Beatles album. You could dine here 1,000 times and remember every experience in vivid detail.
With so many venues in Manchester still steadfastly refusing to let go of black and yellow chevrons and the myth that ‘we do things differently here’, Hawksmoor blending the past with the present makes for a very exciting future if similar ventures and ideas can be as successful across the city.