Last Updated :05/07/08
The Curry Cafes of Manchester, 1992 to the present day.
anchester is different. You can go to most cities in Britain and not see the diverse population variances, the range of housing from opulence to squalor and superb narrow cobbled Victorian alleys from which you expect some Scrooge-like figure to emerge at any moment dragging a filthy orphan by the ear. Manchester has a proud history of immigration since it was the destination of many from the Indian subcontinent earlier last century to work in the "satanic" mills of Lancashire, a tradition it continues to this day. One of these traditions is the provision of staple foods to the migrant (now resident) workers, and it is this interesting and little discussed world we now enter.
I suppose I should clarify what this article is about at this point. If your idea of a "curry experience" is to be pampered by a guy in a bow tie and have a napkin placed on your lap and surrounded by flock wallpaper before launching into some papadoms, then you’ve never visited a real curry café; they are a rare institution, although most cities and towns with Asian populations have them, they just need to be located. They may be regarded by the locals as places where no white man would go, which to me means that it’s a must-visit, plus it must be said that Manchester’s are probably the most accessible and welcoming of any I’ve been in bar none. These cafés exist purely to serve the local Asians working in then textile trades of which there are many just off the centre making everything from underwear to sheets although this is not to say they don’t welcome the English, they just exist to serve the Asian market and make little or no condescension to the English curry house experience - no tablecloths, the sharing of tables with strangers, little or no cutlery and curried brains on Sundays.
I have been coming to Manchester for the last 20 years to drink real ale (of which the city is one of Britain’s premier centres) and eat curry and I’m fortunate to be working at present right in the "Northern Quarter" of the city, the area between Victoria station and Piccadilly gardens. Between these modern 20th century icons of the city stands a maze of Victorian cobbled backstreets housing some of the best curry in the UK and will fascinate anyone with the slightest liking for Britain’s industrial heritage – it seems to drip from every cobble and parapet and ooze from the towering walls... or maybe that’s just the famous Mancunian rain.
The Curry Crawl.
This is a catalogue of cafés past as well as present, so let us start our journey in the southernmost part of curry café land... or, today, ex-curry café land. Leaving Piccadilly station by the main exit, follow the approach road down the hill. Almost at the end was a strange hybrid, the imaginatively named Piccadilly Takeaway, which was a chippy that also happened to sell cheap curries and roti (chapattis), keeping the tradition alive in this area and the food was adequate on my only visit, although it now seems to have vanished.
Carry on down the approach road, over Ducie Street, and take the first turning on the right which is Lena Street. This narrow lane used to host a superb café named after the owner, the Usman café, the site of which is on the right after a few metres. This small single story building was probably an ex shop but Mr Usman, for a brief period from 1992 to about 1996, turned it into a beacon of curry excellence where everything was prepared fresh and the bajias were like eating the hot coals on which the kebabs were cooked. I moved away from the area in 1995, and the café was a pizza bar by the late 90s, then early in 2004 it was sadly demolished to enlarge the car park next door – by 3 spaces. Reaching the end of Lena Street, turn left into Dale Street and after 20 metres was the green and yellow Marhaba, a so-so café that only lasted a few years in the mid 90s before becoming a shop, although the site is now occupied by a "Love saves the day" (whatever that is) and there's no sign of the former building remaining now.
When you reach Newton Street turn left then second right down the dodgy-looking Back Piccadilly. Just a few metres down the lane, starved of light by the derelict, towering Victorian buildings on each side, stands the Marhaba; although I don’t know if this was the new location for the café described above, I have my suspicions it is. A tiny café, this eatery is almost wholly taken up by it’s servery yet dishes out some excellent curries and the breads are particularly recommended, being made there and then as you watch and baked in the tandoor lurking by the cooking range. Rice and 3 is available here and as you sit at one of the narrow tables you may wonder how many people don’t know this excellent place is here, only a few metres off the busy main road; more fool them. One more new-ish cafe around this area is the Cuba Cafe at 43 Port Street which, according to signs on the wall, sells "rice and four" although I have yet to sample it's wares...
Leaving Back Piccadilly turn left, retracing your steps up Newton Street, and rejoin the crawl by turning left again down Dale Street. After 3 intersections you cross Oldham Street, but pause for a moment to witness one of the fallen ones that started it all many years ago. Now ingloriously titled "Maxwin’s fried chicken", this was once the famous Cuckoo Chef, serving curry to the student types who still shop at the superb second hand record shops and alternative clothing outlets of the area. There is a new café on Oldham Street now, and if you turn right here and walk about 100 metres you will find the Taste Masters on the left after passing Gulliver’s bar and the Castle, the only Robinson’s pub to sell all their beers – occasionally. A cheery place which is mainly a pizza and kebab takeway, they also have what is probably the only Woman chef in town and sell very cheap curry; £3 or so for a rice and 3!
From the ex-Cuckoo Chef, carry on down Dale Street (which becomes Church Street), and take a right up Union Street before you reach the Arndale. About 20 yards on the right is the now closed café Yaqub, with signs still in situ, that was open in the mid 90s and served some decent food. Continuing on Union Street the road does a little shimmy and passes Catlow lane on the right – the building here is used for filming "Cutting It" if you’re interested. At the end of this road on Turner Street was a café called Lollywood which I don't think ever fully opened - or at least I've never seen it open!
Walk Northwest up Turner Street towards the Arndale past an establishment which could lay claim to an entry here; the Earth Café Buddhist centre. I’ve not been in but they serve veggie food and apparently it’s pretty good too. After only 100 metres or so you hit High Street with its tramlines where you'll see 2 cafes. The left-hand one, the Shalimar, was set up by the owner of the original Shalimar on Back Turner Street to expand (he went from 8 spaces to 100 overnight!) and was originally called the Chadni, but was renamed in 2003. It has gone upmarket since those heady days in the mid 90s and is by far the largest café in the area, although really it’s a downmarket restaurant but some hues of it’s original incarnation flicker through – "rice with 3", jugs of tap water and cheapish food. Over the road is the Aladdin café, which has had a few names in its life so far. It’s the complete opposite of the Shalimar; small, intimate and with just a long shelf to eat your curry and watch the world pass by. The curry is very passable (they say "just like home cooking!") and the welcome warm – the Channa is particularly recommended if you like cinnamon and they also sell cracking roti for 40p.
Standing with your back to the Aladdin’s front windows, there is a patch of waste ground over High Street a little to the right with a very dodgy looking alleyway cum road running from it which, rather inappropriately, is called Soap Street. Down here is one of the most famous (but in my opinion sadly over-rated) cafes in town; This’n’That. I suppose it’s famous due to the dodgy looking location, so even if you don’t go in take a walk past and experience the road’s pure Victorian squalor, although the area is now undergoing some yuppification and it may not be long before the eateries here are forced out by rocketing rents. It’s not that the food is bad, far from it, but the café has rested on its laurels and been surpassed by the young whippersnappers in the last 10 years. Saying that, it’s an essential part of any curry crawl of Manchester and long may it be so; uniquely, it serves Lassi from a self-service dispenser into pint glasses!
Just down High St, on the corner of Thomas Street, is Hunter’s barbecue. This may not sound like a very promising venue for curry, but don’t judge a book by it’s cover – this is the newest eatery in the now incredibly fashionable "Northern Quarter" and, although it’s prices are higher than it’s neighbours, they have a unique selling point; game. Venison is their speciality and a venison curry or even, surreally, venison kofta, will set you back £5 but it’s well worth it. Alternatively, the curried Quails are excellent, and the huge roti (chapatti) are a steal at 50p. This is the old site of the Yadgar, one of the original cafés (which has now moved down Thomas Street), but expanded by combining with the next-door premises. It's very popular and just that little bit different; apart from venison and quail, you can get rabbit, pheasant and partridge as well as chicken if they have them! They also have standard curries (channa, lamb, okra etc) and all the barbecued items can be taken away. Just over the junction of Thomas St was another café; the Curry ‘n Spice, now closed, which I never visited and so can say little.
The best curry, in my opinion, is one of the relative newcomers; head down Thomas Street, away from Hunter's towards Tib Street, and on the corner of John Street you will find the Al Faisal. This very friendly café is light, airy and positively welcomes the English, although this is not to say they have dumbed the food down, in fact it’s probably the opposite. Try and visit on Tuesdays for the Kofta egg (meatballs with hard boiled eggs) or Thursdays for lamb chops and okra curry. The chapattis are a total bargain and are large and thick unlike those in standard curry houses and in total contrast to the thin, crispy ones in the Kabana. In normal curry houses, the English use naans and the chapattis are usually very sad excuses for the real things.
Another good café is literally 10 metres away on the corner of John St and Back Turner St – the Kabana. Another newcomer, and another light and airy affair that welcomes the local office workers and Asians alike. It has more space and a slightly more sanitized feel, hence the higher proportion of ties, but the food is pretty good – they sell lassi, which is never a bad thing - and the menu changes from day to day, usually with 6 choices including Quails on Wednesday and brains Sunday. The roti are particularly crispy in total contrast to the Al Faisal almost next door.
Another old face has recently moved location; the Yadgar was one of the original curry cafés, originally situated on High Street, but in late 2003 moved premises to just down from the Al Faisal on Thomas Street. If you leave the Al Faisal and turn right, the new Yadgar is 20 metres on the left where you'll find a modern, fairly large café, with a large takeaway style menu over the counter but still maintaining the cheap prices of the old Yadgar and, on my couple of visits, the quality too.
Now for some nostalgia. From the Kabana, head down Back Turner Street to see the finest of them all, now in a sad state of dereliction. About 100 yards down the lane on the left is the original café Shalimar where the owner, a former worker at the famous Shezan in Rusholme (the infamous curry mile), founded this unfeasibly tiny place in the early 90s. Up the concrete steps, now decaying, was the finest café in town with just 2 tables and a shelf, hot coals at the front and kitchen upstairs, but the food here was probably the finest Asian cuisine I’ve ever had. At a time when few English frequented the curry cafés the owner, who described himself as a "Persian", was always full of welcome to us and frequently brought over extra portions and refused to accept payment for naans and the like; he even did Kofta egg especially for us on Saturdays, which was a right treat.
I still like to linger outside, read the peeling menu still fixed to the wall, and imagine the beaming face in the doorway... then sometimes the aroma of cooking wafts down from the Kabana and, for a moment, the world is a wonderful place again. Even though there are now over twice as many cafés as there were 10 years ago I still miss the Shalimar; it was the place where I began my adventures into curry and so, like the Beer House nearby where I began my scooping career it will always have special memories for me.
To complete the crawl, carry on past the Shalimar and in a short while you will appear on High Street, close to This’n’That, right in the heart of the modern curry café land. There is one more café, the K2, on Swan Street almost next door to the Bar Fringe, although it is mainly a kebab takeaway. It does have a curry menu and Herbal informs me that the food is fine, in particular the keema naan! I'll have to get round to trying it one day. Another place, albeit not curry, is the Cebu Cafe situated at 96 Tib Street directly behind the Gulliver's pub. I think it's a Korean cafe or something similar, but so far I've not tried it. A more expensive place is the Saffron in Cheetham Hill's old town hall which, so I'm told, is an "eat all you can" type place but isn't too expensive - reports please!
You need a touch of the old adventurer spirit to tackle some of these cafes. They’re not your usual curry houses but offer so much more of a rewarding visit, and even better if you tag them along with a visit to many of Manchester’s superb real ale pubs which are conveniently situated nearby (the Smithfield and Bar Fringe Swan St, the Marble Arch brewpub on Rochdale Rd, Bar Centro on Tib St etc). Most places do offer starters, although usually only the English take them, except for the superb sheek kebabs on naan that most places do. If you have a main dish with a couple of chapattis don’t expect to pay over a fiver!
So, now you have the gen, go and experience one of the UK’s finest concentrations of curry cafes! A few years ago I would have suffixed that by "before they’re gone forever", but with the growing interest by office workers (especially on Fridays, which is usually Biryani day) their future looks secure, perhaps at the expense of a bit of character. Despite this, the curry cafes of Manchester’s northern quarter are surely one of the wonders of the British curry world; go and see for yourself, you won’t be disappointed... amazed and educated maybe, but never disappointed.
This is a tricky one. With so many cafés around in the centre nowadays, it’s difficult to pick a favourite from them as they all have their good (and bad) points. So, in typically spineless fashion, I present to you Gazza’s "offend no-one" recommendations of curry consumption for less than a fiver; enjoy.
Best Breads – Hunter’s or Aladdin’s, High Street, or the Marhaba on Back Piccadilly. To be honest, I’ve not had a bad bread from any of the cafés I’ve been to!
Best Surroundings – Yadgar, Thomas Street.
Best Nargis Kebab – none sold, but Al Faisal does a superb Kofta-egg on Tuesdays.
Best Welcome – Hunter’s, High Street.
Most Unusual menu – Easily Hunter’s, High Street, for their game selection.
Best veggie curry – Aladdin’s, High Street, for their gorgeously cinnamonny Channa.
Best overall experience (traditional) – Al Faisal, Thomas Street.
Best overall experience (modern) – Hunter’s, High Street.
Gazza’s overall favourite café – Al Faisal, Newton Street for their Kofta Egg (although Hunter’s is very close!).
Version 1.3 - 05/05/2008. (C) Gazza 2004 - 2008.