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Cafe Neo review

Jonathan Schofield enters Manchester’s most beautiful new building and finds something ugly

Written by . Published on November 4th 2009.

Cafe Neo review

Missed opportunities have a particular whiff.

They give off an aroma of the bottom of a Pot Noodle carton after the contents have been devoured.

On the topmost protrusion of the CJC is a lovely restaurant with exceptional views across the northern end of the city and into the hills. This is the judges’ dining area. The good m’lords get their own dedicated kitchen staff cooking proper meals. Cosy. Meanwhile the hoi polloi below get to eat industrially produced guff. It’s nice to see that the old hierarchies are in place and working well.

The sour stink is all the worse when the missed opportunity lurks inside a structure in which tens of millions of pounds of public money have been spent.

Cafe Neo in the approximately £120m (there are numerous figures flying around) Civil Justice Centre (CJC) is a case in point.

The building itself is a jewel of civic architecture. From the west the glazed facade is a sky reflecting inspiration while the ‘filing cabinet’ effect of the in and out ends add bucket-loads of interest.

Inside, the main chamber of the building is even more jaw-dropping, a vast cathedral-like space that shows just how moving good modern design can be. Because this is a place where people’s futures are decided it is tranquilty itself, a breathe-deep-and-let-it-go moment, to counteract the traumas happening elsewhere in the building.

Clearly the good old British Civil Service, in this case the judicial arm, wanted a building which was built to the highest spec with all the latest environmental controls included and no expense spared. This was a worthy aim despite the fact that the CJC was three times more expensive than the Imperial War Museum and about the same price as the City of Manchester Stadium. We should remember that nobody scrimped and saved on the Town Hall 140 years ago. This is why it remains a classic, where you can see the care in the design, the delivery and the details. Maybe in a century everyone will regard the CJC with as much affection as we do the Town Hall today.

So what do the grey men in suits do when it comes to the catering in such a spectacular building?

Do they ask a Manchester operator to go in there, and produce something with as much good quality and feisty flavour as Peter Booth’s concession in the Whitworth Art Gallery? Do they ask Jobe Ferguson at the Northern Quarter Bar and Restaurant to run the thing for them, so that the food and drink matches all the aspirations they built into the building?

Do they buggery.

They go all mealy mouthed and grey and get in a chain contractor: Aramark. Remember Cafe Neo is open to the public, those using the building and those passing by.

Back to Aramark. This is an intimate little company with a '£400 million turnover and 12,500 employees operating in over 1,000 client locations throughout the UK and offshore'. The CJC meanwhile is a one-off beautiful modern slice of civic architecture. Spot the difference.

Now of course there’s nothing wrong with big caterers employing thousands of people. They have their place. But wouldn’t it have been more fitting given the distinction of the building here to go for distinction everywhere?

Aramark says in its lovely website that it always provides an ‘innovative and creative menu with excellent presentation’. At CJC they don’t. Here they do a bit of soup, several paninis and some cakes. The ladies who work there are lovely, but the food is dire. You can bet that on the way to CJC it's handled like a road haulage company handles pallets. In the mind’s eye it’s easy to imagine the mass movement of the paninis and the cakes along conveyor belts in some Frankenstein laboratory of a ‘unit’ in a trading estate in Hemel Hempstead.

The food we had on our visit and pictured here is not worth describing in detail. It was dreary, functional, re-heated stuff, that looked pathetic in that grand space. The coffee is sourced through Starbucks and carries that bitter chocolate aftertaste that scars the chain’s products. They might as well put in a burger van from outside United and City, it would be just as absurd. Actually that would be much better.

Because the food is so uninspiring the cafe is dead. In fact despite the hundreds of people using the CJC every week, it probably makes a loss. This is a tragedy as people should be coming in their droves for a good gawp even when not on business here.

There’s a twist to this too.

On the topmost protrusion of the CJC - at the Lowry Hotel end - is a lovely restaurant with exceptional views across the northern end of the city and into the hills. This is the judges’ dining area. The good m’lords get their own dedicated kitchen staff cooking proper meals. Cosy.

Meanwhile the hoi polloi below get to eat industrially produced guff. It’s nice to see that the old hierarchies are in place and working well. And guess what? The CJC is directly opposite the People’s History Museum which tells a tale of the labour movement’s struggle for equal rights – or will do when it re-opens in 2010. Isn’t that a jolly coincidence?

So here’s an idea or two.

In this award-winning building let’s put in an award-winning cafe operator such as Peter Booth from the Whitworth. Then we can enjoy the sheer awesome beauty of that main space with some fitting food and drink. Of course the airport security barriers at the entrance to the building don’t help in boosting passing footfall but the poor food and drink do a greater disservice at present. And the building's users deserve better anyway.

Idea two is for the evening. When all the briefs have beaten a hasty retreat to their distant suburbs, and all the cases are closed for the day, let’s calm down that security and let the public ascend to the judge’s restaurant in the sky where a proper chef can cook up delights till the early hours.

That way takings might leap and some of that £120m could be paid back to the public. It would also make this public building a deal more public, because at present the catering is literally bathetic, a stomach churning drop from the sublime architecture to the ridiculous cafe. Talk about missed opportunities...............

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: Gordo gets carried away

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

emma graceNovember 4th 2009.

lilybrown...with all due respect, if your scrambled eggs look like that, I'm very worried for you! My money is still on macaroni.

emma graceNovember 4th 2009.

Ok I'm going to hazard a guess as to the contents of that panini. Tomato, fusilli pasta and black pudding?? It looks vile.

SimonNovember 4th 2009.

Neo are the same company that run the canteen at Salford Uni. Terrible stuff.

wendywillowNovember 4th 2009.

That hugh chamber space should be used as a new contemporary gallery, the light and space is perfect.

ONovember 4th 2009.

The menu board will tell you what is on the sandwich won't it.

lilybrownNovember 4th 2009.

Its scrambled egg Emma, it wasn't too difficult!

scarletNovember 4th 2009.

It's cheese!

AnonymousNovember 4th 2009.

I've seen better sandwiches from Subway

johnthebriefNovember 4th 2009.

As a regular visitor to the building I can confirm that the Court itself is the most wonderful, user friendly Court in the country. An absolute triumph. The cafe is fecking awful, to the extent that after my first visit the only thing I have ever bought there is a kit kat. And not all briefs live in the distant suburbs.

emma graceNovember 4th 2009.

I've even enlarged the picture, and still can't tell what it is. Macaroni maybe? Rule number 1...if you can't tell what it is, don't eat it!

ONovember 4th 2009.

NoMoreInsideJobs - so eveyone at court is a criminal? Let's hope you don't get called up for jury service

EditorialNovember 4th 2009.

John we hadn't made this live properly in the back office and when we did we lost your words. If you wish please re-post.

NoMoreInsideJobsNovember 4th 2009.

I dont think lawyers or criminals deserve decent food.

DanNovember 4th 2009.

The CJC is open to the public?! I didn't know that! That's the best part about this review... forget the crappy food, I'll be happy to wander around in awe clutching my Star Wars lunch box filled with cheese and pickle sandwiches.

NancyNovember 4th 2009.

I think it's macaroni cheese! Looks awful anyway. But have to say, the courts probably wouldn't be my immediate though fora luncheon location, esp when John Rylands nice cakes cafe is next door and Shlurp is a mere schlep away...

lucky-chrisNovember 4th 2009.

Are you just running out of places to review?

Jonathan's lunch dateNovember 4th 2009.

Where are we going next time? Strangeways?

AnonymousNovember 4th 2009.

How is the writer that reviewed this place? Out of hospital yet?

JonathanNovember 4th 2009.

I bet most of them do John though eh?

scoteeeNovember 4th 2009.

Do they allow Kit Kats in the docks jtb?...Ms G,I agree it looks awful although lilybrown seems to think its obvious I have a 19" screen in front of me and all I can make out is cheap pale and grated cheddar cheese with a few slices of haslet EURRGHHH!! are we sure this isn't from the canteen underneath the courthouse ?(just give the convict his grub before he is incarcerated)?

AvoNovember 4th 2009.

@ NoMoreInsideJobs, I don't think you'd find criminals in this place. The clue is in the name. The CIVIL Justice Centre. However, if you think that lawyers don't deserve good food, JtB and I would well and truly be ****ed.

Lord JeffriesNovember 4th 2009.

I love that idea of the judges above and the poor downtrodden masses below. Very Gilray, very Cruickshank. I hope that cage dancing thing is real as well.

JeromeNovember 4th 2009.

It's typical of the civil service to have no attention to detail. I'll be in sample for myself, I had no idea it was open to the public and have always wanted a look. Given certain of my interests I'll enjoy being frisked as well.

SheilaNovember 4th 2009.

definitely cheese!! the cheap stuff that doesnt taste of anything just glues together the panini...

geegeeNovember 4th 2009.

Personally, I'd have the whitworth take over every cafe franchise in a 50 mile radius- one of the VERY few things I miss about Manchester- would love a whitworth in Liverpool.

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