High-concept dining for all
Saturday 14 January 2023
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The COVID years laid bare both the precarity of hospitality and the blatant fact that we’d taken it for granted. People were surprised when bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes they’d known to be busy, folded before furlough was announced, didn’t manage to reopen between lockdowns, or struggled to rehire staff who were wounded by loveless labels assigned to their ‘unskilled’ and ‘non-essential’ jobs. Words matter, and while we can’t unhear or unsee them, we can choose to do better, and be proactive in supporting a sector that facilitates some of life’s most precious parts; time with family and friends, and the chance to taste and touch, meet and move.
As we enter into tough times of a new variety, it has never been more important to close ranks around industries that support us, not only as lovers of good food and booze, but as people with a need to create, express and interact. So, this month Beer52 has brewed a beer to celebrate and promote Exhibition MCR; a new, creative, and high-concept restaurant that can embody all that’s best about the industry, in part because it’s based in a city that does things differently.
Exhibition is a single restaurant served by three distinct kitchens, two bars, one enormous disco ball and a rotating lineup of local artists and DJs. It’s an extremely fresh face around Manchester’s Peter Street, and has just been trading for three weeks when I speak to operations manager Sam Wheatley. “The wind was knocked out of so many people during lockdown, that I think that for us, Exhibition was just born of this desire to build a model that was fiercely independent,” he says.
“What was important, in terms of concept, was that it was going to be quite brave,” he continues. “We could have made this a fairly drinks-led venue, but we were aware there was nowhere to really get good quality, casual eats this side of Manchester. We wanted Northern Quarter quality that really promoted individual, award winning kitchens, which is what we've managed to procure.”
Exhibition offers diners one menu, divided in three to align with each of the kitchens hosted in the space. Baratxuri specialises in Basque fire cookery, and is little sister to Levanter, a Michelin Guide Andalusian tapas bar that’s been based in Ramsbottom since 2015. São Paulo Bistro was born from celebrity chef Caroline Martins’ extensive experience working in star-studded, fine-dining destinations, and culminates in the British Brazilian fusion food she serves at Exhibition. Finally, Osma offers small-plate Scandinavian cuisine made with local ingredients, and is also the second venue to a Michelin Guide destination in Prestwich.
Exhibition also hosts two bars, one specialising in seasonal cocktails, and the other offering an eclectic but accessible wine menu and a stellar selection of beers. “We’re really proud to have Manchester Union’s lager as our in-house tank beer,” says Sam. “A lot of places on Peter Street tend to go down the route of Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen, which are great beers but, like everything involved with this project, we wanted that Manchester stamp where possible. So our draft lager comes from just two and a half miles away, in Salford. We’ve also got a guest line, which will always promote a Manchester brewery; at the moment, we've got Pampel Weisse from Cloudwater on, which is a great beer, and then we plan to work with Sureshot and Pomona a bit further down the line.”
Once kitchens close at 9pm, these bars keep putting in hard yards, serving drinks to accompany a variety of DJs and musicians who take centre stage until late. Food, booze and music are all overseen by the unique work of independent local artists. Like everything else in Exhibition, there’s a seasonal rotation of work to exhibit and support a variety of the talent to be found in Manchester. “Mark Jermyn has done the first iteration of the art,” says Sam,“though that will change again next quarter. We're looking at curating as much of Manchester as possible, so we're trying to get local artists, local musicians, who will reach out to us, whether it's on socials, by email, popping in on site, or word of mouth.”
There’s been no effort spared in the design, concept or aspirations of this venue. Having been burning with curiosity as to the whereabouts of Exhibition’s energetic wellspring, I ask Sam where the team behind the scenes summoned the strength and inclination to bring the venue into existence.
“So, the company is ultimately indemnified by Grade A Alternative, which is a commercial property business” Sam tells me. “They've got numerous buildings throughout Manchester centre, St. George's is probably the most famous given that it’s steeped in history. But during lockdown, they were quite keen to put their own businesses in buildings that were previously occupied by private equity backed companies. So we moved in, put an independent coffee shop downstairs and also opened Exhibition.
“Coffee shops, for example, can be so transactional, so to break with that, we made our first site a coffee, wine, aperitivo bar that really focused on the day to night movement. The idea is that during that rush on the way to the office, people can get a coffee, and then when they finish, they could come in and have a nice glass of wine on the way home. It’s the fact that we could choose our own coffee, we could have staff to run table service, small things like this that made the project something to be quite proud of, and different to a lot of the coffee shops in that area of town. In most places there’s a coffee shop on every corner, but there's not an independent coffee shop on every corner.”
So, as much as the industry has suffered these last few years, the drive and passion to curate spaces that celebrate good food, booze, music and art remains, and might even be spreading to unexpected sectors that can bolster and support the artistry of cultural curation, and exhibition.
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