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Fine dining for Manchester?

Jonathan Schofield talks to restaurantrepreneur Tim Bacon about his latest Manchester projects

Written by . Published on June 14th 2010.

Fine dining for Manchester?

Confidential’s invented a new word.

Of nineteen letters.


Takes a bit of practice to say but it’s got rhythm, it’s got meaning. We’re proud of it.

Every city should have places like Zuma in Knightsbridge. Manchester needs one, it can’t be the same as Zuma, but we’re taking things up a notch or three.”

Tim Bacon is the classic restaurantrepreneur: a serial initiator.

He came to England from Australia in 1987. In 1993 he bought JW Johnson's on Deansgate, created the Via Vita bars in 1996, and then the Life chain in 1998, followed by Living Room in 1999 and Prohibition in 2002. Presently with the Living Ventures brand he co-owns Blackhouse Grills and Gusto restaurants.

Throughout this period he’s not only bought but sold businesses at the right time, especially the Living Room chain which made him a fortune. His only turkey was the ill-conceived and ill-sited Prohibition close to Kendals. Grill on the Alley, part of Blackhouse Grills, is more typical of the man: it remains a model of what an upper-mid-range city dining venue should be.

Now Bacon’s on the march again with the New World Bar Company. He’s striding back into the city centre, more specifically into Spinningfields, with a bar called Alchemist.

Tell me about that name, I ask, at the beginning of our interview.

Bacon laughs. “Alchemist refers to the fact that it’s on the ground floor of a bank,” he says. “It’s a bit cheeky, a bit of fun.”

Alchemists, of course, are people who attempt to turn base materials – rock, iron and so on – into gold. They always fail. This is in contrast to many bankers over the last couple of decades who’ve turned other people’s money into their own personal gold while performing alchemy in reverse with global finances.

Alchemy needed

“Alchemist will be spectacular,” Bacon states confidently. “It’s more than 2000 square feet with nine metre ceilings. We’ll have a huge back-bar full of bottles reached by a ladder. I’m going to tire staff out with running them up and down the thing to get the drink. It’ll provide a bit of drama.”

So what will it look like?

“I want it look like you’re walking into some upmarket Miami place with that sweet, gold, liquid environment, very streamlined, very smooth,” he says. “It’ll be good for Spinningfields. There’ll be a big emphasis on the drinks, the cocktails, the wines, but of course there’ll be food too. Tapatisers, if you know what I mean, starters, tapas, but also sandwiches and burgers. Efficient, tasty food. We’re looking to open on 18 October.”

So how come this is not under the existing Living Ventures brand?

“The New World Bar Company has been created because Living Ventures is 38% owned by the Restaurant Group and they want out. That means they don’t want to invest in any new ideas at the moment. We do.”

“We’ll have a branded arm and a non-branded arm,” he continues. “Alchemist is one of the latter, a standalone unique proposition perfect for the area. We’re doing another non-branded venue in Alderley Edge at No15 Wine Bar. This will be, I’m thinking, a smokehouse with a bar, and an Arts and Crafts thing going on. We’ve already got Surburbia in Hale.”

Some pretty grub from Tetsuya's, SydneyAustralasia, accessible fine dining not fine dining-lite

I’m still reeling from the word ‘tapatiser’ - nowhere near as good as our new word ‘restaurantrepreneur’ - when Bacon hits me on the blindside with some really big food and drink news.

“There’s another idea we’re working on in Spinningfields too. The working title is Australasia.”

Another bar then?

“No, much more than that. I want to give the city accessible fine dining, based on a Pan-Pacific menu, with chefs sourced from Australia. This place will be 8000 square feet and will open early in 2011. I want it to create a stir, get a bit of a buzz going.”

Eh? 8000 sq ft? Accessible fine dining? Where?

“On Deansgate in the Armani building - between John Rylands Library and the Royal Bank of Scotland. There’s a square there. We’ll cut an entrance into the floor of the square and cover it in a canopy.”

What, I say, a bit like the Pyramid in the Louvre that takes you under and into the gallery?

“That’s right,” says Bacon. “I think Manchester needs a properly done place that combines great food, great looks and great atmosphere. Somewhere that’s a bit aspirational. I remember when Reform (now Room, at the top end of King Street) opened it had that for a while until things started to go wrong. Every city should have places like Zuma (internationally renowned smart dining in Knightsbridge, www.zumarestaurant.com). Manchester needs one, of course it can’t be exactly the same as Zuma, but we’re taking things up a notch or three.”

This is great news. Bacon and I then spend a few minutes trying to define ‘accessible fine dining’. It appears that we’re talking good stuff that isn’t ‘forensic’ or too far up its own jacksy. I just hope that ‘accessible’ doesn’t turn out to be ‘fine-dining-lite’ for us unsophisticated northern apes.

This doesn’t seem Bacon’s style though. His businesses tend to tick the boxes in terms of all the key characteristics, customer service and training being a huge element of the success he’s delivered. A frequent diner at his own Grill on the Alley, he admits he causes “panic” in staff given his own exacting standards.

Tim Bacon

Final question.

He’s a wealthy man now, settled in comfort in deepest Cheshire with French wife, Karine, and two kids, Maya and Phoenix, so what keeps driving him?

“Boredom,” he says. “We’ve had the Blackhouse Grills for a number of years. I want to do something different.”

If Alchemist and, more particularly, Australasia manage to light up the city, then let’s be thankful for his low boredom threshold.

Spinningfields, in particular, should benefit from Bacon’s alchemic touch. It looks likely to get not one but two destination venues within six months of each other. The tyranny of the chains in the city’s newest central district might at last be broken.

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

GordoJune 15th 2010.

Hopefully this will be the equivalent of apes picking up sticks. It's time for a shake up guys.

HungryalreadyJune 15th 2010.

Brilliant news. If this is anywhere near as good as Zuma, then it will boost the whole city dining scene.

HungryaswellJune 15th 2010.

Like the sound of both the places, can't wait for a bit of quality Pacific rim food. In fact my mouth is watering already.

Paul KennyJune 15th 2010.

Love grill on the alley, best place in Manchester, good news.

flicJune 15th 2010.

"Restaurantrepreneur" and "tapatisers"? Somebody kill me now.

Jonathan SchofieldJune 15th 2010.

Restaurantrepreneur is sort of German don't you think Flic? I'm seeing if it will catch on, proud of it. If it does I'll become a restaurantrepreneurdescriptorinitiator.

Leigh ScottJune 15th 2010.


Jonathan SchofieldJune 15th 2010.

Scoteee have I left you stuck for words?

WhitesidesOnsideJune 15th 2010.

Sounds promising - just hope it doesn't go the way of Ithaca which i fear it would...

NeedtoknowbasisJune 15th 2010.

Bacon runs things better than Arnie Hira, by a factor of 14 million.

Leigh ScottJune 15th 2010.

One can always live in hope Mr. S.

Scott NeilJune 15th 2010.

Alchemist's upscale Miami analogy reminds me that F Cohen was going to site his gallery in Spinningfields once, wasn't he? (before negotiations w the council broke down.) Miami, a city w a strong contemporary art market, maybe Mr Bacon can persuade Mr Cohen to think again...

TribianiJune 15th 2010.

I agree that Manchester is in desperate need of a 'Zuma' or any other of the 50 odd high class restaurants that you can find in the captial that absolutely wipe the floor with anything that Manchester can offer. Unfortunately i don't think that Manchester can sustain a real top end restaurant - the appetite just isn't there for one. We seem to do second rate better than any other major city in the country (and yes, that includes Jem&i, Abode, etc). Even bloody Birmingham has a better food scene for crying out loud - how depressing.

Leigh ScottJune 15th 2010.

Tribiani- the want and need for high end establishments is in Manchester. Historically quality chefs have left or not started up due to the high rent and rates that landlords/agents were commanding they simply couldn´t charge the prices required to cover the over heads, and those that tried, failed due to the lack of standards and consistency Ithaca; Blancs et-al.

It doesn't surprise me that Birmingham has a better reputation for top restaurants.
The rates for property there have been on their arse for years, so it stands to reason that quality food can be delivered at competitive prices.
Now is a good time for the restaurantrepreneurdescriptorinitiators to get involved and lead from the front creating and not just critiquing, they should drive the opportunist in to Manchester looking for fresh faces like a real award winning outwardly thought food magazine should!

The readership is there as Gordo consistently reminds us, were interviewing top chefs arn´t we? We have the contacts and relationships don´t we?

Hark- Is that the sound of property continental´s retractable pens clicking with little or nothing to do over there?

Scott NeilJune 15th 2010.

are rates in Brum really that different to Mcr, Scoteee?

it does sometimes strike me wrt Brum that there is a city at the centre of a conurbation of similar size to ours, similar demographics etc, and yet they have three Michelin starred establishments (i'm not particularly fussed about Michelin etc myself, i'm just saying, people do use it as a benchmark after all, let's be fair) in or within two miles of their city centre.

what are they doing right? etc.

Brum centre strikes me as as shiny, EU-regenerated, and glass/steel/brushed concrete-tat full as town, after all.
(though i admit it sounds like you know about rents and i am just going off my visual impressions of Brum.)

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