Restaurant review - The Rivals, Manchester

Ham Hock Terrine at The Rivals

Ham Hock Terrine at The Rivals - Credit: Archant

Sheridan’s The Rivals was the first ever production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. The 1976 staging starred Tom Courtenay and Patricia Routledge and heralded a golden era of exceptional theatre in Manchester.

Open kitchen at the Rivals

Open kitchen at the Rivals - Credit: Archant

With stars like Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, John Thaw, Bob Hoskins, Andy Serkis and more, treading the boards here, it was also a place for some stellar star spotting.

Indeed the Royal Exchange Cafe, as it was back then, was all part of the dramatic fabric of the place. In those early days you could pick a newspaper from where it hung on the wall and read it munching on simple but wholesome favourites like granary bread and cheese and home-made soup, surreptitiously glancing over at director Nicholas Hytner, or actor Albert Finney. Post-performance, the cafe was where everyone retired to for drinks before going home.

In recent years, there were attempts to transform that area into a high end restaurant and for me and those other people who remember it as a more casual dining space it just didn’t work. The more corporate feel wasn’t quite suited to the space. Who knows? Maybe behind the restaurant doors lurked Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp enjoying a glass of Burgundy together. I wouldn’t know because the nearest I went was the foyer cafe, for cappuccino and cake.

Now not only has the cafe in its latest incarnation been transformed into a restaurant called The Rivals, after that first production, it has as its new owner Rupert Hill, himself an actor, known largely for his role as Jamie Baldwin in Coronation Street but latterly co-owner of the Castle Hotel and Gullivers in the Northern Quarter, the Eagle in Salford and Bakers Vaults Stockport.

Rivals at the Royal Exchange

Rivals at the Royal Exchange - Credit: Archant

The changes are apparent as soon as you step through the door. With walls adorned with recycled timber doors, an open kitchen backed by dark green tiling and retro light fittings, some of which have been plundered from Royal Exchange productions, there’s already a more appealing ‘boho’ vibe.

Rupert has done for the Royal Exchange what the Unabomber DJs Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford have done for Manchester’s Refuge and created a space that’s suited to the city’s appetite for relaxed but cool drinking and dining.

What a terrific location to meet people and you don’t have to be a theatre luvvie to enjoy it. You can drink or dine pre-theatre, pop in while a production is being staged or visit when there are no shows on at all.

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The menu has a seasonal feel, so ham hock terrine, £6.50, seems exactly the right thing to feature midwinter: meaty, satisfying with a kick of piccalilli and crunch of crackers. Roast pear, paired classically with blue cheese, was served with a plentiful helping of candied walnuts and strips of chicory, giving it a modern twist.

Soup at the Rivals

Soup at the Rivals - Credit: Archant

Highlights from the main courses included a featherblade of beef cooked until it was meltingly tender. It elicited ecstatic sounds from the other side of the table, an aubergine ‘steak’ and a hearty lentil bake, all tasting authentically home-cooked but with a cheffy flourish as far as its presentation. The only downside was a chocolate tart which was a little too dense for my companion’s tastes. There was much to enjoy from a magnificent cheese board and home-made truffles.

With a wine and beer list that has plenty to offer discerning customers, the newest addition to the Royal Exchange is a worthy ‘rival’ to other newcomers, who (lucky for us) are changing the face of the fast-growing food scene in the city. w

The Rivals, Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester. 0161 615 6666.

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