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Restaurant Wars: The Battle For Manchester, Reviewed

Jonathan Schofield, the BBC, Belinda, Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne

Written by . Published on April 16th 2014.

Restaurant Wars: The Battle For Manchester, Reviewed

THE VOICEOVER woman - let’s call her Belinda - started by purring at us like a sex kitten on a chat line. And I’d thought this was about two restaurants opening.

Restaurants at War: The Battle for Manchester was all about the BBC trying to make a drama not out of crisis but out of an entirely welcome and uncontroversial development in the city

As the programme progressed her voice bobsleighed through hysterical and alien before settling on Sat Nav, ‘Turn left for Mr and Mrs Best, real Northerners to show we at the BBC value all our viewers. Turn right at chef bent over crazy dish squeezing creamy stuff from a teet’.

At the end of the hour long docupantry Belinda returned to sex-kitten – I bet she was in a bikini pointing at her phone. She whispered us back next week for more action, breathing the name “Rrrrrrrogan” like it was culinary Viagra and the name 'Byrrrrrrne' as though it were seedy pillow talk.

Aiden Bryne on Restaurant WarsAiden Bryne on Restaurant Wars

Restaurants at War: The Battle for Manchester was all about the BBC trying to make a drama not out of crisis but out of an entirely welcome and uncontroversial development in the city: the opening of two fine dining restaurants, a reinvention of The French in The Midland Hotel by Simon Rogan, and the other, a new venture by Aiden Byrne at Manchester House.

The Midland team, Simon Rogan, chef, on the left, Michael Magrane, general manager, on the rightOn The RightThe Midland team, Simon Rogan, chef, on the left, Michael Magrane, general manager, on the rightOn The Right

Of course being uncontroversial and entirely welcome isn’t enough for the Beeb anymore. The station isn’t so much Auntie these days as Nympho, prepared to do anything to get noticed. Every now and then during this programme I couldn't tell whether I was watching a spoof documentary or a real one. 

Thus the finest documentary makers in the world are now ducking and weaving to make interesting but harmless subjects, challenging or even nasty, and thus presumably more interesting.  

Sadly for the Beeb the closest we came to war between our protagonists was Rogan at one point gloating in pure Estuarine English, with something like, “He ain’t got nuffink on me, I got two Michelin stars, what’s he got?” He then grinned in what I now call roguish Rogan.

But then Rogan lost the roguish and went Rupert the Bear.

“But his food is very different from our food,” he murmured, “and if he’s a success and we’re a success, we can feed off each over, and it will make the city a better place and we can all achieve our turnover targets.”

Everyone round the Midland Hotel War Room (aka The Wyvern bar) nodded. It was an entirely reasonable thing to say. Belinda sounded sulky as she moved us on, with a voiceover reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher.

All the fight came from Mrs Best and Anibral Cabral, the ex-restaurant manager.

Regular customer Mrs Best and hubby, three decades visiting The French and counting, was uncertain whether fancy modern tasting menus and the like were really the scene for the vaudeville atmosphere and established a la carte menu of The French (Est. 1903).

At one point she had a gentle British row with Rogan who went roguish again as she suggested he was all wrong and he suggested she'd have to lump it. “He’ll fall flat on his face,” she said in an aside to camera. 

Cabral wept on his leaving day and came back to rubbish the interior fit-out of the re-invented French. The weeping was painful, showing real distress and anger, an excruciating aspect of what is now deemed entertainment in BBC peephole TV.

Not to Mr Cabral's approval


Not to Mr Cabral's approval

Far worse was the rubbishing of one young chef who clearly couldn’t balance demands of family life and professional life. Did the producers not think he and his family might watch this? The Beeb put him in the stocks and let crap get thrown at him. He wasn’t even given a right to reply, instead we had Belinda talking about him 'resigning' over a sequence of the condemned man sweeping up.

Overall though, the programme, which featured more Rogan than Byrne as it closed with the former opening his gaffe, was a thoroughly enjoyable hour’s viewing. Byrne gets more time next week.

The people featured, many well-known in Manchester, behaved according to character as the circumstances dictated.

No-nonsense Rogan spent a lot of the time sighing and holding his head in his hands as nothing particularly went wrong aside from a clumsy cabbage slicing incident. Adam Reid, his main man at The French, was steady as it goes, firm of character. Aiden Byrne came across as very human, worrying about the investment and faith shown in him.

Tim Bacon of Living Ventures, the one showing Byrne all that faith, exuded his usual Alpha-male confidence, funny one minute, angry about dangerous light fittings and a rubbish video the next. Michael Magrane, general manager of the Midland, was the perfect host, smiling, conciliatory, making sure all the viewers were aware of the balancing act between fine dining and making money.

Mark Garner even put in an appearance at the opening night for The French. Our publisher, aka Gordo, was reasonable too. He must have been really drunk.

Manchester House take on a Manchester Tart

Manchester House take on a Manchester Tart

Ruth Allan, who also writes for us and was his dining companion for the evening, managed to introduce a tidsy bit of actual judgement from a professional writer, admiring Rogan’s simplicity with food over Byrne’s complexity. I swear I heard voice-over Belinda sigh ecstatically.

But even Ruth's statement was hardly controversial, this wasn’t a war or a battle. It wasn’t even a duel. It was entertaining light entertainment with a highly selective reveal of how two top end restaurants go about opening.

It should have been called How To Open A Fancy Restaurant. Of course, Belinda might have had trouble sexing that up.

At least The French and Manchester House have gained a load of free publicity. Since they're both wonderful this is good news. Apparently the phones at both places have not stopped since the programme aired. Even before the show went out there were several months of weekend waiting lists at both. 

Mrs Best might have to eat her words.  

Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester, concludes on Easter Monday, on BBC2, 8pm. Watch here.

Our review of The French here

Our review of Manchester House here

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on @jonathschofield

Aiden Byrne at work in Manchester HouseAiden Byrne at work in Manchester House

The French - not exactly Chateaubriand


The French - not exactly Chateaubriand

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

Calum McGApril 16th 2014.

Jonathan. Perhaps I am tired but not sure I can spot the Tory swipe? The programme was OK. The Guardian article slagging off Manchester was not.

Calum McGApril 16th 2014.

You thought the Guardian article was bang on?

2 Responses: Reply To This...
JonathanApril 16th 2014.

Yes I did. I think it was mocking the arrogance of the chefs and their snobbery rather than making out that us "northerners" were not ready for fine dining. And I am someone who hates that newspaper with a passion.

AnonymousApril 16th 2014.

What is this 'arrogance' and 'snobbery' that was apparently on display? I saw two chefs displaying a strong desire for producing excellent food, and a belief in what they were doing. Also, particularly in the case of AB, a good deal of gratitude to those who have put their faith into what they're trying to achieve.

Poster BoyApril 16th 2014.

Don't shoot the messenger, "it's Television, stupid"...

mancdwellerApril 16th 2014.

It would have been more balanced, given the amount of air time they gave to Mrs Best (who has been eating smoked salmon and omlette three nights a week for 25 years), if they had also spoken to at least one potential customer, such as the young professionals they alluded to, who was looking forward to the new additions to the Manchester scene. They seemed to focus far too much on the people who were reluctant to accept change.

11 Responses: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldApril 16th 2014.

MancDweller, going to do a follow-up article about that serious omission tomorrow.

Jonathan SchofieldApril 16th 2014.

As for the other Jonathan, I'm going to invoke the comment rules again because he ruins comment threads like this with his oddities.

Gordo Knows WhoApril 16th 2014.

Take from someone who knows Mr & Mrs Best very well she has never ever ordered omelette there, had the facts been right they would known it would've been more likely fillet of beef or dover sole when available or fresh tuna

AnonymousApril 16th 2014.

Spot on. It is basically impossible for a chef of Rogan's standing to have a sensible discussion on food/menus with someone like Mrs Best. It really does come down to "if you don't like it, then you'll have to eat elsewhere". It's not arrogant, it's just the way it is.

AnonymousApril 16th 2014.

Mr & Mrs Best now dine elsewhere, in restaurants and hotels where their custom is welcomed and appreciated.

AnonymousApril 16th 2014.

Fair enough, that is their prerogative. It's a shame that some long-standing customers will no longer go, but if you asked the owners of the Midland whether they're happier with the new French or the old French, I think the answer would be pretty clear.

AnonymousApril 16th 2014.

The recording of this program was started around October 2012 and finished during early 2013

AnonymousApril 16th 2014.

EDITORIALLY DELETED. This comment has been deleted for being plain nasty - just like the BBC was with the 'resigned' chef

Gordo Knows WhoApril 16th 2014.

What has that got to do with the program. Idiotic response by anan

mancdwellerApril 16th 2014.

Good to know, Jonathan Schofield. I look forward to it.

AnonymousApril 17th 2014.

EDITORIAL COMMENT: This comment was removed. Nothing to do with clout dear Anonymous ranter, more about how people like you were brought up and how you don't seem to have the decency to restrain yourself in attacking a private individual anonymously. Very cowardly

Nick WestApril 16th 2014.

The chef who apparently "resigned" clearly did nothing of the sort. You didn't have to to read between too many lines to see he was bullied out of a job by that arsehole head chef who seemed to think he'd done the city of Manchester a favour by returning.

AnonymousApril 17th 2014.

How daft I always thought Gordo alias Mark Garner alias the Fat One were one and the same ? ??

TimbucApril 17th 2014.

I thought everyone in the programme came off pretty well. Unlike Jonathan in the comments here.

Pedro1874April 17th 2014.

Rebecca Front, ex "The thick of it", the actress and comedienne was the narrator. I haven't had the funds to go "fine dining" for a while but the programme, for all the flaws and bias certainly made me start saving up to visit both restaurants. Good luck to each of them. BTW, any Ramson fans have two weeks left to say goodbye to Chris.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldApril 17th 2014.

I think she's really called Belinda

Pedro1874April 17th 2014.

Have avatars received the ban too? My avatar is shown next to this box as I type but as soon as I post, it disappears!

Mal L.April 17th 2014.

Interested to hear about the waiting lists for tables at The French, I admit that as a result of watching the programme I will not be one of them. Two questions though: What percentage of the people booking tables are customers returning after trying the tasting menu? and IS there still only the tasting menu available or is there now an 'a la carte' menu also available?

1 Response: Reply To This...
LennieApril 18th 2014.

There's still only the tasting menu. Personally I love tasting menus which is probably why I've eaten at the French 4 times and Manchester House twice since they opened. I also ate at the old French a couple of times (including at least one tasting menu). While the food was good, and Anibal Cabral was an excellent host, I prefer Rogans food.

Mal L.April 18th 2014.

Thanks Lennie that's interesting. I endorse your comments about Anibal Cabral who was indeed a wonderful host and for me an essential element of the French. No Aibal, no tablecloths, no choice? I think I'll leave rhe French for a while longer but I might give Manchester House a try.

1 Response: Reply To This...
LennieApril 18th 2014.

I do agree with you about the lack of tablecloths. I prefer to see it as a chance to have everything rather than having no choice, and of course if theres anything you don't eat or have allergies they can supply a substitute. Kamila Plonska is also a great host and I've found with its smaller size the service is more personal in the French compared to Manchester House, though both are excellent.

Richard AthertonApril 18th 2014.

I love both restaurants and found the overall experience of the French excellent value for money. The menu completely changes every couple of months and is seasonal so I will certainly be heading back. As for the programme, typical beeb but kitchens are very demanding places to work full of bullying but you have to harden yourself to work those incredibly brutal shifts and make it anywhere near the top of your game. If you can't stand the heat...

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousMay 9th 2014.

"If you can't stand the heat..." Join a union and expect working conditions in line with what is humane, legal and honest?

AnonymousApril 21st 2014.

Gill may well be right about these two restaurants - but what's far more humiliating though, is this "enduring obsession" Trinity Mirror journalists have for his damning opinions on our city? They're forever quoting his (and enthusiastically seeking out others') damning opinions about Manchester. Okay, if it's a politician or top businessperson etc - but newspaper columnists & no-mark celebrities, really? What a tragedy for Manchester when the trustees of the Scott Trust sold our local newspaper to this Trinity Mirror group! (And don't get me started on the ruination of the previously excellent MEN website, since they took over.)

5 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousApril 21st 2014.

True but it's click bait material. A cynical but commercially sound strategy. Good for Trinity Mirror, bad for the city.

AnonymousApril 21st 2014.

MEN stories & articles use to garner literally hundreds upon hundreds of comments on the MEN website. Now under Trinity Mirror, there's hardly any. In a city (unlike London & Liverpool etc) that doesn't even have a late night radio talk show anymore, never mind a dedicated commercial talk station, this surely is bad for the city? Thank heavens for ManCon Jonathan, but 164 Deansgate, Channel M, Piccadilly Radio sport & late night phone-ins etc etc - just what has happened to the local media in this supposedly "culturally lively" city?

GimboidApril 21st 2014.

Anonymous, that happened because the MEN started requiring users to log in via Facebook in order to post comments, using their real names. Far more people now comment on stories on the MEN's Facebook page, instead.

AnonymousApril 21st 2014.

Spot on original anon - they are obsessed with finding anyone in London who will criticise Manchester. Pathetic.

AnonymousApril 22nd 2014.

His face on their website for 3 days running now. Wonder if he'll beat Chloe Sevigny's 20 day (or whatever it was) record on there?

Terence WallisApril 21st 2014.

I was so shocked at hearing that £4000 of food was trial cooked, served to vacant places, & then tipped into waste bins........all I could think then was what a lot of tossers they all are & they deserve to fail. Are there no hungry people in Manchester that might have been given that food? There are people starving to death in this benighted world but the cooks in Manchester throw it away....shame on them.

Voice of the Ironing BroadApril 22nd 2014.

Were there no black untrained waiting staff beautiful enough to make the cut? Didn't notice anyone who wasn't white and blonde in their waiting team. No one appeared to be over 25.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Alex24April 25th 2014.

You might want to consider how many black people applied (and if any did how they performed at interview) before insinuating there was racial discrimination.

Belfry BlackApril 25th 2014.

Must admit this was the only thing we noticed as well Voice, along with the fact that there wasnt a trace of a Mancunian accent between them!

AnonymousMay 5th 2014.

Can't help wonder who Mr and Mrs Best are... would have been interesting to know how they came by the sort of money where you can spend £25k a year in one restaurant.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousMay 6th 2014.

More money than taste by the sounds of things! #omletteandchipstwice

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