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Cathedral Visitor Centre Restaurant

Sarah Tierney thinks a medieval bridge is better than the cafe

Published on June 23rd 2010.

Cathedral Visitor Centre Restaurant

Tourist attractions in Manchester have some real winners when it comes to feeding you after you've soaked up your quota of art/knowledge/history.

Whitworth Art Gallery probably tops the bunch with its freshly-made cakes, organic ingredients and reassuringly homely-looking kitchen behind the counter. Left Bank at the People's History Museum also shows what can be done when you take your cafe as seriously as your collection, and if Manchester Art Gallery would sort their service out, I'd head there for coffee, cakes (and maybe some culture) more often.

So it was with hopeful hearts that we descended from the gift shop of the Cathedral Visitor Centre to its below-the-ground restaurant. Heading down here is a bit like getting on the little train at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York to be transported back in time. When you emerge in the restaurant, you're several layers beneath the Manchester of 2010 and about level with the Manchester of 1450.

Chew Bun

You know this because there's a medieval bridge spanning the left-hand side of the room. It's Hanging Ditch Bridge and it was hidden from view for over 300 years (except for a brief exposure during building work in the 1880s) until the Visitor Centre was built in the regeneration spree following the 1996 bomb.

Hanging Ditch was possibly named after 'hen', meaning wild birds, and the Welsh 'gan', meaning between two hills, which is a much nicer image than a swinging corpse. It might also be something to do with the way the stream here ‘hung’ above the River Irwell – which seems more logical.

Decent salad selection

However, and here's a detail that doesn't sit well in a restaurant review, the reason the bridge was hidden is because Hanging Ditch was built over after Mancs dumped tons of sewage and rubbish in there.

Anyway, onto the food. The restaurant does canteen-style service with a servery of hot dishes and a fridge of salad items, cakes and sandwiches. The Visitor Centre stages conferences in the day and delegates head down here for their lunch. We arrived after they'd had the pick of the hot dishes (we were admittedly a little late at 1.45pm) so we had two to choose from rather than four.

Is this a restaurant or cafe?

My friend's pork sausages with summer fruit (£7.25) had a high point in the rich, dark compote of blackberries and caramelised onion. The sausages weren't so good – smooth and soft rather than rough and meaty. The accompanying veg was dry and crispy. The peas and carrots looked like they'd been sitting there since the fifteenth century themselves.

I had the three cheese and tomato pasta bake (£7.25) with salad. Goats cheese and sundried tomato with floppy, overcooked pasta and no crispy cheese top. It was okay but could have easily been improved by some herbs. The salad was fine – home-made coleslaw and fresh green leaves, with plenty of other ingredients to choose from (see the picture).

The bridgeBigger portions were offered

We were offered bigger servings, by the way. They're not stingy here; we just didn't have a huge appetite.

For dessert my friend had carrot cake (£2.75), which was decent but probably not made on the premises. I had a cream-heavy choux bun (£2.75) or chew bun, as it turned out. If you need a knife to eat your dessert with, something's wrong.

The restaurant is licensed but we just had a pot of tea (£1.75) and cans of pop for a quid each. No glasses though, heightening the sense that we'd travelled back in time to my secondary school's cafeteria circa 1989 rather than medieval Manchester circa 1450. Except school lunches didn't cost £11-a-head. A bit steep in here, we thought.

Remains of a Medieval yucca

On the Visitor Centre's signs, the restaurant is sometimes referred to as a refectory, which seems a more appropriate description. The school-dinner style of serving (a dollop of this, a scraping of that) means that food presentation isn't of restaurant standard. Neither is the décor.

The bridge is a unique feature – it's one of the city's few medieval structures and it should have people flocking down these stairs (in the 1880s, 32,000 people paid to see it in just three months). But like the food, the surroundings let it down. The place needs smartening up with a fresh coat of paint (not the bridge) and some new furniture. The drone from the fridges or cookers in the kitchen didn't help the ambience.

Nice carrot cake

Some restaurateurs would kill for a location like this. Get some candles out and a few wall hangings and you could stage hog roast medieval feasts with daggers instead of knives and forks. Well, it'd be better than empty plant pots and wobbly tables.

It seems a shame that after all the work that went into creating the Cathedral Visitor Centre, they aren't trying harder in the restaurant. It could be a result of having a captive audience of conference delegates. As it is, there's not a great deal to tempt you off the street, or even out of the gift shop. Apart from the bridge of course – go there just to see that.

Three cheese close-up
Rating: 10/20
Breakdown: 4.5/10 food
3/5 service (it's self service)
2.5/5 ambience
Address: Cathedral Visitor Centre
10 Cateaton Street
M3 1SQ
0161 835 4030

Open 10am-4pm

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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Andrew RevansJune 24th 2010.

Sorry to hear this; the only time i've been there was soon after it opened (ie several years ago) and it was excellent. Maybe the guaranteed income and low expectations of the conferencegoers has made them lazy.

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