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The Sculpture Hall, Town Hall, Reviewed

You really should go, even if David Blake doesn’t want you to

Written by . Published on January 16th 2014.

The Sculpture Hall, Town Hall, Reviewed

There’s a conflict of interest here.

If someone came in and started ramming foie gras up the arse of a lobster and forcing dry ice down its beak until it popped and smoked then sure the place may fill up. But it'd lose its grace.

For months I’ve been bagging up thoughts and skulking off to sit in a particular chair in a particular corner of Manchester Town Hall. Now and then I allow someone to come with me (but I’m never too pleased about it).

Here’s the conflict.

As a reviewer you usually have to tell readers where a place is and whether it’s any good. That’s the crux of the thing.

On the other hand, I don’t want too many people to know about this one. It's not necessarily that I don't want you to sit in that spot by the Corn Law lot (though it is), but that if you do I’ll spend the rest of lunch pretending that I'm setting fire to your head with green lasers shot from my eyeballs. Or at least burning your sandwich. Although I realise this is lunch, not X-Men.

The corner: MCRs best place to sitThe corner: MCRs best place to sit

When the editor first stumbled across The Sculpture Hall in Santa’s big gothic throne (explored here by he who's well good with buildings ‘n’ that) in the late summer of 2009 and gave it a proper reviewing, people took his advice and started going. Great. That’s the point. Direct folk to the good so they do good and get good’erer, expose the bad so that they must get better or wither and suffocate in their own crapness. L’Entrecote anyone?

Thing is, too many people (not that I've ever seen it full except at Christmas and that's all Afflecks fault) packed into The Sculpture Hall would detract from the very reason that you should go in the first place. That cloistered quality. A chance to wash down self-scrutiny with tea. Take a moment, breathe in the richness of the place. Cast an eye over the endless busts. So many busts. The only place bustier is the Playboy Mansion. But they don't have Earl Grey.


But see the dilemma? You should really go, just not all go at once. Casting aside greedy chair-hoarding selfishness I may say something along these lines: 

“The Sculpture Hall is just about the best city centre place you’ve never been for a bite to eat. Grand, elegant, central, warm, bloody comfy, inexpensive and simple lunch fare in Manchester’s most genteel surroundings. A great place to bag-down, sit-back, take stock, muse, work, read, even nap. 

“Just why it’s so under used is completely beyond me. If the expression ‘best kept secret’ didn’t make me want to lodge a sharpened pencil into my own eardrum I’d say that The Sculpture Hall is one of Manchester’s best kept secrets. Like Chetham's Library, or Lee Dixon.” 

Probably wouldn’t finish with Lee Dixon.

The Sculpture HallThe Sculpture Hall

So regularly quiet is The Sculpture Hall that, after much time spent wondering, I finally ask where the bloody hell everyone is? “This is quiet, even for us,” says the only waitress (which I suppose makes her the manager). So does it ever get busy? “Sometimes, but not very often. Saturdays mostly,” she explains. And how many work in the kitchen? “Just one chef.”

Just one chef and one floor worker in the café (I’m reluctant to call anywhere that closes before 5pm a restaurant) of Manchester’s municipal centre. Seems odd doesn’t it? There's roadside burger vans with more staff than that.

Still, it's understandable when I’m the only one in there for most of this visit. That’s fifty-six bumless leather seats. The next visit is more lively with seventeen of us. Still just over a quarter full and most of those piled in following a Town Hall tour.

It's not as though it's hard to find either. It's not tucked away in some far-flung nook of the Town Hall. Just head in the front entrance, past James Prescott Joule checking his twitter and turn right. That’s it. The reason then must be that people just don’t know it’s there, or dare not enter the big scary Town Hall.

Something i said?Something i said?

'So just figured out the decrease in temperature associated with the expansion of a gas without the performance of external work. Oh and did you see X Factor last night?'Joules tweeting

Ok, so the majority of the menu here is nothing to write home about. It’s so achingly lunchy, like an episode of Loose Women.

Apart from the two brekky items, toast and teacakes (£1.70ish, due to austerity council workers nationwide are now banned from eating any form of cooked breakfast items like sausage because they take longer to waddle around slashing inefficiency), there’s a choice of ten sandwiches (£3.50-£4.50), hot or cold (fancy), soup (£3.25), or soup and half a sandwich if you’re feeling dangerous (£4.95). There's a cake in there somewhere. It’s all very much your run of the mill hammy, cheesey, salmon, tuna, tomato, egg mayonnaisey stuff served with a roquette (rocket? Or a Victorian garden game?) and crisps. Crisps?

Chip snobbery bugs me. People like chips. That’s why they’re on nearly every menu nearly everywhere. God himself likes chips. As does Beelzebub. Crisps are no better, it’s all fried potato, so just put chips on the menu and stop being stiff.

View from the afternoonView from the afternoon

Anyone sat here? Didn't think soAnyone sat here? Didn't think so

Still, you needn't bother with crisps, or a sandwich, or soup, or both (you maverick) for that matter. Because The Sculpture Hall’s Lancashire Pan Haggerty (£5.25) is just about my favourite lunchtime dish in Manchester. Simple Haggerty should be three things, cheesey, tick, onioney, tick, and stodgy enough to make you feel like you’ve pumped full of silicone rubber by Dr Von Hagens. It should give you that impenetrable fullness, make you feel hardy, able to take on the elements, just you and your belly full of haggerty. It should make you want to go build a dry stone wall. That’s what a haggerty does.

The bread roll was a misfire. Heated to the extent that it had a soggy bottom. Bread should never be wet. Unless you're a duck.

Haggerty (£5.25)Haggerty (£5.25)

Bread eating my butterBread head eating the butter

Drinks here are adequate. The coffee is good java, there's plenty of tea and soft drinks, including chilled vimto and dandelion and burdock. Mmm nostalgia. There's wine too, one of each hue (187ml £4.50), whose wine and where from remains a mystery. No other alcohol though. Either you do or you don't, three wines feels a tad half-arsed. Would it hurt to throw a couple of beers on there? Manchester Pale Ale would be perfect, but then, of course, council workers nationwide have been banned from drinking beer. Spend more time in the loo you see. Plunders efficiency.

The menu could certainly do with a jazzing, but then, I'm not here for the food (odd for a food review I'll give you that). I'm here for the surroundings. The lovely, lovely surroundings. Lunch should be a functional and hassle free meal anyway. When you've a head full of words, numbers, boring emails or sheep, if you’re a shepherd, the bombardment of choice at lunch can become quite irritating.

I think it was that local numpty Karl Pilkington that once said: ‘The problem nowadays is there’s too much choice with everything.' I’m paraphrasing but that was the jist. As moronic as this sounds Pilkington does have a point.

The only time lunch should ever really be an event is when you find that somebody has pulled a cork out of it. Then feel free to make it a spectacle.

Santa's big gothic throneSanta's big gothic throne

You do get the feeling that more could be made of The Sculpture Hall. But then, would you want it to be? It's a no from me. If someone came in and started ramming foie gras up the arse of a lobster and forcing dry ice down its beak until it popped and smoked then sure the place may fill up. But it'd lose its grace.

Depending from which way you approach, you may pass a Starbucks, a Pret, a Nero, a Costa, and if it's around lunch you'll invariably find that they're all chocker. It's baffling. More crowded, more expensive and they make you feel punchy. Not only that but they all possess the character of a tax invoice inside a brown envelope addressed to John Smith, gaffer taped to a concrete bollard.

I'm fine where I am, alone, propped in a corner and wedged between the busts of Sir Charles Halle, John Knowles and John Benjamin Smith. It's infinitely more pleasing than it sounds.

You can follow @David8Blake here on twitter.


Sculpture Hall, Town Hall, Albert Square, City centre

Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 11am-4pm

Rating: 15/20 (please read the scoring system in the box below, venues are rated against the best examples of their kind) 

Food:  5/10 (Haggerty 8, selection 3)
Service: 5/5
Ambience: 5/5

PLEASE NOTE: Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away.

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

AnonymousJanuary 16th 2014.

So it IS STILL going...? Poor marketing by the City Council then?

Voice of the Ironing BroadJanuary 16th 2014.

But still, who would want income to offset the criminal cuts the council is making? Why is there one usage law for the libraries outside the city centre and another for the town hall?

StephenJanuary 16th 2014.

This place was doing a roaring trade whilst the Christmas markets were in town. I spent many a late afternoon/early evening sat lounging over a carafe of coffee or pot of tea, before heading off into the night for hard liquor. Very nice it was too!

Peter CoppingJanuary 17th 2014.

There is no need to be rude about Council Workers, David. Man Con wouldn't publish my views about it's employees. That said the service in slow but charming in the Sculpture Hall

1 Response: Reply To This...
David BlakeJanuary 17th 2014.

Sorry, but I think you've misunderstood. I was not being rude in the slightest about Council workers, lovely folk they are. It was more to do with general bureaucracy. But granted, it wasn't much of a joke.

Charles CohenJanuary 17th 2014.

Interesting review old boy, however you may be assured your quiet corner will remain undisturbed by me. The wine on offer is Stowells...shudder... Hardly the stuff to whet the whistles of Halle, Knowles or Smith.

crisbyJanuary 21st 2014.

I enjoyed the review too. I think the place is great, even when having to wait 20 minutes for a tea cake. How it keeps going is a mystery but the rules around council financing these days make me think it must at least break even. When I worked for the Council in the 80s there was a subsidised canteen on the top floor of the extension; the sausage barms that sold in large quantities were worth writing home about, the scones remain the best I've ever eaten, and the biscuits served at meetings were baked on the premises. The public, however, weren't invited. MCC is much more efficient, or at least cost effective, these days, and employs a fraction the headcount it had then - are we any better for it? But at least one can have a butty in the sculpture hall, which is a pleasure worth savouriing.

Frazer MunroJanuary 24th 2014.

It is great wee spot to sit, however, on a weekend they don't start serving until 11am! Talk about inefficiency.

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