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Home to one of the nation’s best-established urban food and drink festivals and surrounded by fabulous produce, Manchester is an endlessly diverting place to eat out. Hardcore foodies with Michelin stars in their eyes puzzle over the lack of really fancy places – the tough truth is that there aren’t enough people with enough money to sustain more than one or two – but what the city lacks in starched napery, it claws back in diversity. A thriving Chinatown is home to fabulous Szechuan food, the trend for small Italian plates is alive and well in an unlikely in-store spot, and there are independently-minded chefs with great experience ploughing brave furrows on the fringes of town. When Mancunians fall in love with a place, they fall en masse, so don’t forget to book.
Hop on a tram to Prestwich, alight at a cottage that looks like it should be in the middle of the woods, and you’ll meet chefs and spouses Mary-Ellen McTague and Laurence Tottingham. Together they cook refined British food to exacting standards, making the journey wholly worthwhile.
Down under Spinningfields, Australasia looks like a luxury beach house (hard to achieve in a basement) and serves clever Australian and pan-Asian dishes that work more often than not. Book-ended by an open kitchen and a busy bar, it’s a long room with buzz – meaning that at the weekend you’ll need pin-sharp hearing and an open mind.
Manchester’s favourite Thai restaurant is spread over two floors above Sam’s Chop House, sister to Tom’s and worth a pre-dinner diversion. Carved screens and staff in full garb create atmosphere, and although the menu is straight-down-the-line, the food is far from pedestrian.
The little brother of celeb-magnet Italian restaurant San Carlo, Cicchetti’s glam 1970s’ look and lively crowd detracts from the knowledge that it’s in a House of Fraser. It has its own door and opening times, and the small sharing plates are a huge hit.
One of only two northerly outposts, Manchester’s Gaucho scores every time for well-trained staff, impressive surroundings and huge hunks of meat. The all-Argentinean wine list is an impressive piece of work, although it tends to drive an already-high bill further up.
Michael Caines at Abode (pictured, left and below right)
Yes, Michael Caines spends most of his time in the south west, but the restaurant he puts his name to bears the hallmarks of his ultra-smooth, seasonal style. Chef Mark Rossi is in charge, and the basement dining room is home to one of the best-value gourmet lunches in town.
The success of the original Portland Street branch has brought expansion for this Szechuan firecracker, and purists still prefer the mothership. Avoid the Cantonese standards and head for the spicy stuff, which has few frills but quite a few thrills.
Stuart Thomson’s intricate dishes make an occasion out of a visit to the posher of Harvey Nichols’ second floor restaurants. Floor-to-ceiling glass and a sleek interior are a fitting backdrop for some of the city’s most ambitious cooking.
Part of the group which includes Grill on the Alley, Australasia and The Alchemist, The Grill on New York Street has a confident swagger which matches the robustness of its chargrilled steaks. The Piccadilly location adds convenience to its list of virtues.
Peripatetic chef Robert Owen Brown has settled by the River Irwell, in a rather ugly pub which offers the odd beautiful dish. Great Britishness in all its forms, from crumpets and local cheese to game and Eccles cakes, is celebrated, but there’s the odd butter sauce, too.