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Arndale Food Court Reviewed

David Blake ventures to the hall of backpacks, snapbacks and sat fats

Written by . Published on September 10th 2013.


Arndale Food Court Reviewed
 

THE division of labour has always been fair at Confidential.

Three weeks ago our Editor went to Simon Rogan’s The French in The Midland Hotel, the most acclaimed restaurant in Manchester, for a slap-up fifteen course lunch, yes fifteen, and sank in the region of three matching bottles of wines to boot. It started at 12.30 and lasted for four hours. It also cost in the region of £340.

They should dish this out in prisons for every meal as standard. The rate of reoffending would inevitably take a rapid decline. In fact, incarceration itself would become a thing of the past

I, on the other hand, get to review the Arndale’s prized Food Court, with at least fifteen hundred strains of varying trans fats, yes fifteen hundred, with matching cokes and a bellow chasing me from the office, ‘Be back by two, would you good boy?’ It all cost under £20.

Sigh.

The (chol)escalatorThe (chol)escalator

The Arndale Food Court is a conspicuous construction, keeping watch to the east and west along Market Street, the glass-sided, airport stairs looking (chol)escalator swallows the hordes up into its bosom.

It’s the stairway to fast food heaven, choc-a-bloc with prams and fake tans, tracksuits, disputes and ugg boots, backpacks, snapbacks, backchats, tattoos and bright Nike shoes. Wailing kids with mothers, friends with brothers and one or two young fervid lovers.

That was my John Cooper Clarke bit.

Tan, tattoos and tracksuit. It's the 3T jackpotThe 3T jackpot: tan, tats, trackieThis was a Friday lunchtime and the place was teeming with folk, noise and noisy folk. The Court resembles a large sixth-form refectory populated by those of the Open University, so anyone really. Dotted amongst the throngs were the odd suit, Arndale troops and parents worryingly plying their kids with fried food and coca-cola.

The Change4Life lot would've been screwing.

But the scene, for the most part, looked like something from the film Kidulthood. Rabbles of feral school goers in the throes of a haribo-high competing for the role of Alpha in front of a table of young girls who were much more interested in taking selfies and taking photos of each other taking selfies than the show being played out in front.

Things take a turn for the quiet as one of three security guards approach the rabble. They retreat.

Now, as a general rule of thumb, I tend not to dine anywhere that requires three security guards in order to keep the peace. It gives the whole ‘mess’ hall an institutionalised and almost penal quality. As though if you dared to jump on the table banging your lunch tray about you may very well be picked off by a sniper from the girders above. We shall have no more riots in Manchester.

The sceneThe scene

Surely though, there can be no spot in all of Greater Manchester that exhibits the cities all-embracing multiculturalism than the Arndale Food Court. It’s heart-warming. The people brought together through a mutual love of processed slop.

But enough of that, on to the food dear boy, the food. Let’s just say that if I’d wanted that must salt in my system, I’d have driven to Formby Sands and licked the sea.

Unsuprisingly, McDonalds, KFC and Subway held the monopoly in the Food Court, with more than three quarters of the total customers queuing at these three vendors. I reasoned that wherever you are in the country, the likelihood is that you can pick yourself up a BigMac, Sub or Bargain Bucket within less than five minutes walk.

Somewhere on Lundy Island, a nearly inaccessible three mile, 400 foot, granite outcrop in the middle of the Bristol Channel, a lonely pubescent teenager stands behind the counter of a McDonalds waiting for his first customer. 

STARTER: TACO BELL

I decided upon Taco Bell for the starter, an American institution since 1962, this American chain serves more than 2bn customers in the US each year. That’s a fair bit of salsa. There’s but four restaurants in the UK and one of those is in a United States Air Force base.

Like much of the Food Court, Taco Bell seemed to exist under varying degrees of organised chaos, the old British institution of queuing had been thrown to the wind and order numbers that seemed to follow no logical structure were being barked from behind the counters, '1062, 12, 3783, 2089, 7' – It was quite remarkable that anyone got anything to eat at all, let alone what they actually ordered.

Organised chaosOrganised chaos

I’ll hand it to the Arndale Food court lot though; the majority are grafters of the highest order and receive their fair amount of unwarranted grief. They’re probably getting paid 27p an hour too.

In amongst the tacos, burritos, nachos, nachos, burritos and tacos there had to be something that could constitute a starter. A carton of fries would certainly not suffice. I was after a real taste of Mexico.

I went for a soft beef burrito from the 99p menu. As close to a starter as I could find.

Now if my real taste of Mexico looked something like soggy lettuce and three shards of grated cheese thrown into a Greggs sausage roll and punched by both of the Klitschko brothers for three days, then yeah this was a bona fide taste of Mexico.

Soft beef burrito (99p): Squashing is not optionalSoft beef burrito (99p): Squashing is not optional

Unfortunately, I’ve had tangy cheese bags of Doritos that represented Mexican food more justly than this – the mince looked and tasted tinned, the tortilla was crusty at the edges and the lettuce tasted as though it’d been swimming for four hours before limping into the wrap.

But hey, it’s 99p. What did I expect?

The coke was fizzy enough.

Little did I know at this point that this soggy and sad looking mini-burrito was to be the highlight of the three course, three vendor experience.

Oh well, onwards and downwards. 

Di Maggio's: Quiet for a reasonDi Maggio's: Quiet for a reason

MAIN: DI MAGGIO’S

One outlet I’d never heard of before was Di Maggio’s on the far north side of the Food Court, an Italian-Scottish restaurant chain using Manchester to make their first step into the English market. They needn’t have bothered. Step back please.

With no customers and a beautifully quaint Italian lake scene splayed across the wall beside the counters, Di Maggio’s seemed a fairly safe option for the main course.

Pizza, pasta and fries, you can’t go too wrong serving pizza, pasta and fries can you? Well, Di Maggio's can. And not just a bit wrong, so very, very wrong.

The macaroni cheese (£4.45) was dished up on a paper plate, a paper fucking plate, the last time I ate from a paper plate I was wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt, cramming Monster Munch into my face and probably ruining some other kids birthday party by being a right little shit.

Slop on a paper plateSlop on a paper plate

Now I like to think that I’ll eat most things, except pickled onions, anything with horseradish and I once refused to bite off a beating snakes heart freshly cut from the body of a cobra in the outer reaches of Vietnam (apparently Gordan Ramsey could though). If you chew you pass out from poisoning. Sounds nice doesn’t it.

But put it like this, I’d have taken the beating Cobra heart, smothered in horseradish and chewed it over and over again in place of this abomination. I’m also pretty sure there was an added hint of grit in there. 

They should dish this out in prisons for every meal. Incarceration would become a thing of the past; there’d be no more crime in the whole of the UK. Just for the fear of having to eat this bloody macaroni cheese.

Still, the coke was fizzy enough.

Note: If you want mac’n’cheese at its finest then head to the Sugar Junction on Tib Street in Northern Quarter, it’s homely, stodgy, beautifulness in a heart-shaped bowl of love.

I needed another main course. Oh well, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

Half looks like a chippyHalf looks like a chippy

SECOND MAIN (because the other one was so crap): HARRY RAMSDEN’S

I needed something safe, something edible, something from Britain’s longest established restaurant chain, something founded in 1928 in a wooden hut in West Yorkshire by a bloke called Harry, presumably.

Surely I could rely on good ‘ole fish and chips (£4.49) with mushy peas (£1.10) to restore the balance.

Well, Harry’s looked in part like a chip shop, it certainly smelled like a chip shop, but did it taste like a chip-shop?

No, not really.

Small fish and chips (£4.49)Small fish and chips (£4.49)

The outside of the chips were tough and akin to chewing on greasy cardboard. The fish, which came in a suspiciously unnatural shape (processed perhaps, from a big freezer cabinet) was overcooked, bland and rubbery. You could have probably deep fried a large triangular white eraser and it wouldn’t have tasted as rubbery. 

Much like the mac’n’cheese, the fish and chips remained unfinished.

The mushy peas were fine, they were gelatinous, they were green, and they were mushy. That is all.

Still, the coke was fizzy enough.

Redeeming feature: The west facing vista from Arndale Food CourtRedeeming feature: The west facing vista from Arndale Food Court

By now, I'd consumed so much salt that I’d started to turn into an anchovy and had sank so much coke to clean out the taste in my mouth I had only seven teeth left. Added to this, I was pretty sure that the cheese and salt from Di Maggio’s had formed a temporary coalition and made off with my tongue. 

Of course what did I expect?

The Arndale Food Court is all the world's fast-food market condensed into one greasy sump. And people love it. (And listen, I'm also partial to a bucket of KFC when trying to get through the day following a long, long night out.)

The Food Court exists beyond criticism in its own spinning vortex of salt and additives. Jamie Oliver would faint but whatever anybody says won't matter. People want this food because a) it's cheap, b) it fills them, c) they like it.

The Food Court lurks in that limbo, beloved of brand name fast foods - and alien to Confidential foodies - where food is functional and best when delivered through the comfort blanket of a fascia that reads McDonalds, Subway etc... 

Yet the staff work hard, the place is kept generally clean by a marauding and restless band of cleaners and it caters to a great number of shoppers from all over the world spending money in our city centre. Which is never a bad thing. 

Each to their own and all that.

And if you want an anthropological, rather than a gastronomical, experience over lunch this is definitely your place. 

(David, next week, I'll be sending you on a Ginster taste test. Ed)

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44 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousSeptember 10th 2013.

best review yet! love it!

GimboidSeptember 10th 2013.

Good article, would've great if you'd left out the "Christ, will you look at these chavs!" overtones.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Lil DegSeptember 10th 2013.

Agreed! You will regularly find me in eateries ManCon regard as high end, proving there are 'chavs' everywhere, it's Manchester after all. You don't sound like John Cooper Clarke, you sound like a snooty spoiled brat, maybe dust off your Ninja Turtles Tee?

PryonicSeptember 10th 2013.

There used to be a reason to go to the Arndale Food Court - the Southern Eleven counter (it's still there, but closed and desolate). I'm not sure whether it didn't do good business or whether it was just a stepping stone for James Hitchin to open the Spinngfields restaurant but it's sorely missed by me at least. It's the first place outside of my trips to the USA I can remember eating proper, slow cooked over wood chips pulled pork - and served in the proper style. Don't get me wrong, I still eat at the Spinningfields restaurant and I still think it's the best pulled pork in Manchester but I've never quite got on with the setting. American style barbecue is supposed to be served on plastic trays soaked in bbq sauce and eaten messily with your hands or just a fork, not served on a poncy wooden board with a little brush to dab the sauce on. The kind of place you tuck the table cloth in to your t-shirt or wear a plastic bib - not get given a wine list and your jacket taken off you by a waiter wearing a tie. Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking down on or wishing the Spinningfields restaurant away - I just wish that both had remained opening serving proper sit down meals with wine at one place and plastic plates of burnt ends, chilli cheese fries and a bottomless cola when I'm in town with a hangover at the other... I suppose Brewdog might be right up my street...

Jemma FieldingSeptember 10th 2013.

review the other food court in the arndale! its much better

soulman1949September 10th 2013.

Not bothered with the main Arndale food court since I discovered the Arndale market food court, cheaper and much tastier. Nice choice of foods, from Mediterranean to West Indian and Chinese to Indian. And there's a place in there that serves tea and coffee in proper cups not those horrible polysterene things. Why don't you do a review of that? They're individual traders who deserve our support not these international uni-cr*p outlets!

4 Responses: Reply To This...
paulsouthernSeptember 10th 2013.

I agree, the market food court is well worth a visit, micro bar as well.

Jonathan SchofieldSeptember 10th 2013.

Good point well argued. The Market is much better with some decent places and that very very fine micro bar. Review within the next two weeks.

AnonymousSeptember 10th 2013.

Chinese place from both food courts are the same chain, no difference in menu or flavour etc

IanSeptember 11th 2013.

do like a Pancho's ever so often.

Jenny CollinsSeptember 10th 2013.

In response to the comments above and the reviews I read on this site and many others it's reaffirmed my belief that Manchester does not have a food middle ground. We seem to go from fast food and 241 chain pubs or all you can eat buffets to establishments where mains are £12+ with overpriced drinks on top. I feel we're missing a place with simple hearty food, relaxed (as in you don't feel like the staff are trying to turn the table over as soon as you sit down) and sensibly priced drinks. Somewhere you could while away a few hours with friends for less than £20 a few times a week. Whilst I appreciate some of the reasons why these places don't exist, I wonder why other UK cities manage to provide such establishments as does the rest of Europe.

5 Responses: Reply To This...
Ghostly TomSeptember 11th 2013.

What about the chop houses? Great local food at an affordable price in pleasant, interesting surroundings?

Jonathan SchofieldSeptember 11th 2013.

Jenny, that is not the case. You can get good food at every price in every part of the city. Got an article going up next week - let's sort it right - in reaction to the Good Food Guide news covering this exact point.

AnonymousSeptember 11th 2013.

The Chop Houses aren't particularly cheap!

Jenny CollinsSeptember 11th 2013.

In such case I look forward to learning where these places are Jonathan. And Anon, you are correct the Chop houses are not middle ground!

Jonathan MoranNovember 11th 2013.

Jack Spratt is very good for this kind of thing.

soulman1949September 10th 2013.

PS now I'm retired I can't really afford gastropub prices so the market food court fits the bill for me.

EmmerageSeptember 10th 2013.

A food court is a food court is a food court. And a food court can be a beautiful thing. You write as if you are ashamed to admit you've been to one, let alone enjoyed the experience. If you "tend not to dine anywhere that requires three security guards in order to keep the peace", then you are surely unqualified to review the complex joy of food court eating. What is great about a food court is the guaranteed anonymity - and the moment when all that breaks down, and someone in your local remembers your salty/sticky/greasy (and above all, affordable!) order. Better yet is when you come to know staff by name; recognise fellow food court connoisseurs, or (as the reference to Southern Eleven above, suggests) when you beat the food court system and find a real gem that goes against everything a food court ostensibly stands for. A food court is designed to be an alienating, cold, and unlovable place, where people will come, eat, and immediately get the hell out. But a food court is so often much more than this – a liminal space, a vast unconquered expanse of tiled possibility. At once a playground and communal dining hall; a capitalist dreamworld and the suggestion of a dystopian future, the food court is the great under-appreciated site of social cohesion and cultural vibrancy. If you visit your local more than once-in-a-blue-moon (when hung over), you will learn an incredible amount about your city - just sit and people-watch for a while. Each outlet will attract a certain demographic, people who will customise even the most rigid menu to suit their needs and tastes: the kids who frequent the global chains will make their pounds go further by asking for a squirt of sauce usually found in a signature burger (to dip their fries in and give a taste of the exotic). Students will combine questionable coffee from one chain with icecream or sugar syrup from another (for an affordable approximation of something like an affogato or a mocha). You will see parents who have given up on healthy kids-meals long ago descend into despair as they try to battle with the unopposable might of corporate advertising (while secretly enjoying the lack of judgemental stares as they tuck into their guilty pleasure). There are families and extended families and groups of friends who will take the opportunity to meet up for a rare chat while they are out getting necessities – people who find themselves with little time, and even less energy, for whom a quick trip up an escalator to a whole universe of convenience is the least complicated part of their weekend - people who are happy and comfortable in such a space. If you visit often enough, you will come to know the networks of staff from the shopping centre who regard the food court as a familiar friend – a bit rough around the edges, but the only constant in an ever-revolving space of consumption and competition, a place where you can come for a quick lunch, and lose yourself for a moment in the procession of mall-goers, and exchange a nod with the other serial food-court dwellers. But the best thing about a food court is the shared camaraderie: the fact that no one else in the food court will judge you for being in the food court (that is, until some guy from Manchester Confidential rocks up and wanders blindly into a world he does not understand, and will never come to love, despite his offhand interest in the "anthropological" value of the food court experience).

9 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 10th 2013.

That was beautiful.

AnonymousSeptember 10th 2013.

seconded

Jonathan SchofieldSeptember 10th 2013.

That was beautiful. Emmerage come write for us

Richard HJSeptember 11th 2013.

Terrific stuff.

MeSeptember 11th 2013.

Excellent!

Axel LariatSeptember 11th 2013.

...a paragraph or two wouldn't go amiss though

PryonicSeptember 11th 2013.

The website strips paragraphs out!

FoodieSeptember 12th 2013.

Can you repeat please

Staff
David BlakeSeptember 17th 2013.

Fair play Emmerage, some really great writing here. Genuinely impressed. The problem is this though, there is no 'gem' up there, not one.

AnonymousSeptember 10th 2013.

I love ManCon but find it a bit odd that the reviewer talks about saturated fats, salt, and cholesterol in this article but doesn't mention them in the numerous reviews of American bar food e.g. Solita, Almost Famous, Southern Eleven, Byron, Dogbowl etc etc which serve up larger portions than McDonalds! Do fat and salt not affect you if you consume them in an NQ/Spinningfields bar?!

2 Responses: Reply To This...
paulsouthernSeptember 10th 2013.

well said anon.

paulSeptember 13th 2013.

Can I like this comment ?

AnonymousSeptember 10th 2013.

There is not a score for the clientele which affects diners 'expereince'

LottieSeptember 11th 2013.

The flavoured sweetcorn in a cup around the corner in the market is to die for. Perfect window shopping partner.

AnonymousSeptember 11th 2013.

Such a "twatty" review.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 17th 2013.

He is a bit

GordoNovember 10th 2013.

Bit harsh that, he's only twelve ;-)

AnonymousSeptember 11th 2013.

What an odious and snobby review. If you dislike a gaggle of bouncers watching you dine, then I suggest you give Alchemist on NYS a miss, as it has the highest bouncer/punter relationship I've seen.

1 Response: Reply To This...
IanSeptember 11th 2013.

and Neighbourhood. Although the food isn't very good anyway.

Luis LoganSeptember 11th 2013.

Def. try the Market Food Court. Actually, didn't think it was a snobby review. It is what it is. Try the Greek food place in the Market. Rice and Spinach with creamy chicken for £4.50 is glorious.

JimSeptember 11th 2013.

I don't mind Harry ramsdens normally but that one at the arndale is awful. The quality of the chips and fish is shocking. It's all frozen and fried which for chip shop chips is unforgivable.

AnonymousNovember 10th 2013.

Another fact about Taco Bell; it's crap.

1 Response: Reply To This...
GimboidNovember 10th 2013.

Don't dare criticise Taco Bell, the other Anon will have a shit fit.

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