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REVIEW: Bill's Restaurant, City Centre

Jonathan Schofield gets on a soap box and wants more edge

Written by . Published on October 29th 2014.

REVIEW: Bill's Restaurant, City Centre

FOOD consumption in restaurants is prone to the prevalent idea, the 'big thing'. Often this starts out small, strikes a chord, gets copied and before you know what's what, it's got so big it's hard to remember where it all came from or why.

Bill’s is voguishly cluttered. Makes sense, people prefer clutter, it reminds them of gran’s house, it’s comforting. Modernism has its moments but Brits generally want busy.

'Big ideas' reign in food more than ever from Brazilian churrascarias through burgers and yoghurt bars to endless cicchetti options, sharing platters and craft beers. Some ideas are good, some make you retch.

Homespun comfort at Bill'sHomespun comfort at Bill's

One of the really 'big ideas' is to be cutesy, homespun and ‘genuine’. This usually involves restaurant chains trying to tell us they're still a tiny operator who started out selling turnips on an allotment twenty years ago and nothing's changed despite the 89 'units' nationwide and twenty people in marketing, five of whom are working on the ‘next best concept to hit Rotherham’.

These girls and boys play on words such as  'yummy' , 'friendly' and 'shared values'. The presentation comes directly from the Innocent smoothies stuff a decade ago and Apple ads now. You know the ones, a folk singer track and a knowing smart-arse voice-over to make us think we’re in some sort of club, that we're special. Madmen still rule in ad-land only now they don't wear ties.

Bill's, John Dalton StreetBill's, John Dalton Street

Sometimes it seems we aspire to turn the world into a kids’ party arranged by parents who take the offspring to pottery making sessions in garden centres and prefer Halloween because Bonfire Night has fireworks and problematic provenance.

It makes me want to curl in a ball in a bus shelter and rock to and fro my face buried, just to hide myself from all the Innocent smoothie smiles that are beginning to look like everyone's been replaced by alien replicants and I’m next on the list.

It’s the Age of Smug. And we love it. Mostly. If we have enough money we can assuage our conscience with a commitment to recycling.

The marketing for Bill's Restaurant group is a bit like this, you just have to look at the greeting card typeface of the logo. 

Rustic with things in big tinsRustic with things in big tins

On Bill’s website there’s stories of start-up sheds in Lewes, tiny shop units, floods, recovery, then keeping the original values with a name that doesn't refer to the 'the damage' but to the man who created it all. It’s designed to make us think we’re still in that start-up shed pickling shallots.

So is Bill’s a load of flim-flam, a meretricious fandango of persiflage (I know, I know, I’m being churlishly un-homespun), masking the true nature of a slick 21st century business?

Well, of course, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the gusto of the staff and their desire to want you to enjoy the experience. And it’s hard not to enjoy Bill’s Manchester, there’s always people to look at, the London plane tree in the terrace out the back is a proper star and the design is amusing.

Indeed, there’s more ‘rustic’ bric-a-brac in Bill’s than in the average shallot pickling shed - although it doesn’t go as far as The Botanist round the corner with screwed down garden forks to prevent the swain from Wetherspoons next door popping in to borrow the fork but not for the garden. It all looks a devil to dust.

Then you realise this is a modern form of the tile-bedecked gin palace with the ornate bar of the nineteenth century. Next door to Bill’s is the Restaurant Bar and Grill (RBG), the bar of which may sport the odd vase of lilies but shuns clutter. RBG is out of fashion. Bill’s is voguishly cluttered. Makes sense, people prefer clutter, it reminds them of gran’s house, it’s comforting. Modernism has its moments but Brits generally want busy.

The menu’s busy too: mezze, risottos, pies of duck and fish, ‘peri peri’, soup, steaks, burgers, salads and even fish finger butties. Wow.

Salt beef rostiSalt beef rosti


The pan-fried hake (£11.95) comes with cracking caper, tomato and avocado topping which gives vitality to an otherwise decent dish that’s about 22% too small and comes with a shy spud rosti. The lamb rump with garlic and rosemary, gratin potatoes and so on (£15.50), is entertaining, but also about 22% too small.

The burger (£9.95) got a nod of approval but the Thai Green chicken (£10.95) was only a bit too small and split oddly on the plate as though it were a picture drawn by a kid. Good heat in the curry but it was too greasy in texture, oil floating on the sauce surface.

The salt beef, spring onion and potato rosti hash was fabulous (£5.95) despite an egg with all the personality of Dale Winton off camera. But at least the strong salt beef and potato rosti hash shared my values all right, I’ll be back for that like a shot, big flavours everywhere. Sweet potato fries (£3.55) were just dandy, the pecan pie (£5.50) very good, the cinnamon doughnuts (£5.50) shy of cinnamon.

Thai green curryThai green curry

The doughnutsThe doughnuts

The biggest let down was the ‘peri peri’ marinated half chicken (£11.95) that was stringy, low in heat and about half too small.

So some things good, some things bad, the winners being the atmosphere, the salt beef, the avocado and caper sauce, the charming service and the big bold red, a Tempranillo, at £21.50.

Bill’s compromises too much, tries to be all things to all men. Clearly the formula works but they need with the food to get back to that Lewes’ shed again, get back to basics, forget all the branded ‘Bill’s’ aprons for sale, up portion sizes and put more fire in the food in terms of both heat and originality. Lose the Dale Winton egg.

Branded apronsBranded aprons

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @JonathSchofield or connect via Google+ 


You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @JonathSchofield or connect via Google+ 

Bill's Restaurant, 8-12 John Dalton Street, City centre, M2 6JP. 0161 834 2756

Rating: 13.5/20
Food: 6.5/10 (salt beef 8, hake 6.5, lamb 6.5, peri peri chicken 5, green curry 6, burger 7, fries 7, doughnuts 5, pecan pie 6.5)
Service: 3.5/5
Ambience: 3.5/5

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, 18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away

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

AnonymousOctober 28th 2014.

Finally! Bill's gets a review :)

Poster BoyOctober 28th 2014.

Emperor's old clothes. Another chain vehicle for serial financier Richard Caring and his Strada/Zizzi mates to fatten up, before sale to private equity...

3 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 28th 2014.

Good point. Hence the small portion sizes and emphasis on silly conceptual clutter / film flam. Okay food, bad value for money. In other words a typical chain. Avoid.

BobOctober 28th 2014.

Least he knows how to make money!

AnonymousOctober 28th 2014.

^ Yep. That's why life in the UK largely sucks.

PaulOctober 28th 2014.

What about Bills ???? !!!!

AnonymousOctober 28th 2014.

Went the week it opened and had hoped the issues we experienced were teething problems, but the review flags some of the same issues. Nice place and friendly staff, but seemed very disorganised and several main dishes on the menu were extremely small for the price; my friend complained to the manager, who was already dealing with another unhappy customer nearby. It has potential but needs tighter management and to be more generous with portions- you don't go to a restaurant like this for tasting menu-size dishes.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 28th 2014.

The last time I went I was being stared at quite overtly by a customer on another table so left. On my way home I realised it had been just my reflection.

Henry VOctober 28th 2014.

Great breakfasts, the scrambled egss have been lush twice, once poor. Really like the fish pie. Its good for a meal if you are on your own as well and want a good plain dinner and read of your newspaper.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 28th 2014.

Probably because they sell 'egss' and not 'eggs', Henry.

Ron TowerOctober 28th 2014.

Went last week, very poor. Portions too small, fish and chips not worth half the £11.95. The chicken burger was tiny, grossly overcooked, sesame bun very dry. ‘Skinny fries’ were a small pot of frozen French fries and unless it was a misprint they charge £2.95 for half a draft lager. They also got the order wrong. Abysmal for the money.

MOctober 28th 2014.

Not loving the 'chips in a mug' trend. Until someone starts doing them in toby jugs there's never enough. Thought the place looked nice and it had a decent buzz when I was there on a Saturday afternoon a couple of months back. I came away feeling short changed though. I see them cutting down on the portions in order to up-sell, be it for a desert or a side or whatever. You either go along with it and feel ripped off and stick to your guns, buy what you thought you wanted when you went in and leave feeling unfulfilled. And will it really ruin your ambience to sell your draft beer in pints rather than halves? Of course it won't but then you can't sell me two halves for 6 quid.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 29th 2014.

Shirt changing on prices if overseas is seen as cheating,in UK it's seen as clever marketing.Its time these scam restaurants got exposed.

CJOctober 28th 2014.

I've been put off trying Bill's by the outdoor seating which looks terribly uncomfortable. Anyone lasted a 3 course meal on those chairs?

Barry TravisOctober 28th 2014.

Umpteen words about the status of British wants and design culture, description of the lamb dish "entertaining". Perhaps a little more explanation of the food in real terms, comparing and egg to Dale Winton is laughable. For someone who spends so much time slating current over used trends, you seem to have fallen into the current one of food reviewers who write long articles but never actually say anything informative.....Instead using the space to display how well you use a thesaurus

1 Response: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldOctober 29th 2014.

Barry, may I borrow your thesaurus because I haven't got one?

AnonymousOctober 28th 2014.

I don't get the grumbling over the egg. How exactly do you imbue a poached egg with 'personality'??

AnonymousOctober 29th 2014.

Given the marketing guff happily published by mancon about bills when it launched I think its a bit cheeky to start the review with a big anti marketing speech.

3 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 29th 2014.

There was a decent Spanish clothes shop here,now there is a crap,over priced restaurant.

Jonathan SchofieldOctober 29th 2014.

You just can't win can you? We always keep saying that editorial is separate from sales don't we? Here's some proof.

AnonymousOctober 29th 2014.

The level of sycophancy for Bills when it opened put me off going

AnonymousOctober 29th 2014.

WENT earl on...Nice staff but portions small and not cheap.....

AnonymousOctober 29th 2014.

Been advertising for an assistant manager since it opened so that may be why service is erratic

CJNovember 4th 2014.

Apologies - walked past yesterday and the original terribly-uncomfortable-looking outside seating has been replaced by something that looks much more welcoming. Will give Bill's terrace a go now - well next summer, at least!

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