Reaction to the news of Hawksmoor’s arrival in Manchester (centre of the universe) has been hotter than the filling of a McDonalds apple pie.
It’s also catapulted the status of co-owners Will & Huw into orbit – so we got some face time with the restauranteurs a la mode to find out what makes them tick.
Turns out its Superheroes, WWF, Costco – and a bit about steak too.
“Manchester feels really vibrant
at the moment, maybe in a way that
London hasn’t in a couple of years.”
What did you do before you became a serial restaurateur?
‘(laughs) I was a bad restaurateur. Me and Huw are both from food and drink families; his parents have a cool little café and my mum is a wine columnist for The Guardian. We both thought about getting into the industry but were encouraged by more sensible, older people in the family to get a real job so I went to university, and then did some sales, advertising and cold calling. Lots of cold calling. It was hardcore. Really, it was f*cking hard. I hated that. I was an English teacher for a while, travelled around for a bit. By this point I’d done about five years of university so I did a week-long TEFL course and went around teaching 20-year-old girls in France and Spain, which was cool. Told them really interesting stories about WWF wrestlers and James Bond.
‘We properly started in 2003. Huw was doing some kind of dead end job and when we were 26, he said, ‘I’m going to open my own bar, want to do it with me?’ Genuinely I had nothing else to do so I thought, why not? We begged and borrowed about £100k and opened a little bar in Shoreditch.
‘Then we had a Mexican restaurant and also a pub – we never made any money. It was nice enough; we won a couple of awards, got great reviews and people loved it. But one of them was bleeding money. Then after about five years, bank loans and Huw’s parents remortgaging their house, things started to go well. We sold a couple that didn’t work and thought ‘we’re finally getting the hang of this’.
So how does it work in terms of roles? Will’s the numbers man and Huw’s the creative one, right?
Will: “I wouldn’t say I’m really numbers person, but between me and Huw…I sort of have to be (laughs).
‘Huw actually has a small business degree, which is unbelievable because seen as he’s the least business literate person in the world. And I have a modern history degree.’
This place feels like it’s been here forever. What’s noticeable is the level of attention to detail. Even the final fixings lend themselves to the building. How did you manage it?
“That’s mainly Huw. The builders were fitting some panels and Huw was worried the wood wasn’t distressed enough. He had them whacking it with bike chains outside. He’s also a bit worried that these tables don’t look old enough.’
“…it’s like Manchester itself
is a real destination.”
We could help you distress them? Bunsen burners? Compasses? Or jump off it like a WWF wrestler?
“Yeah, classic! I was in Crazy Pedro’s on Wednesday night, and they’ve got loads of names of WWF wrestlers on their tills. I like that. I had one of them moments. I looked at Helen (PR agent), and was all: ‘Look, look!’ She rolled her eyes at me. But I was really excited!’
I remember a bit of WWF. Brett the Heart?
“Brett ‘the Hitman Heart, I think you mean.”
Didn’t he die on his way to the ring or something?
“Dunno if he died in the ring… He definitely died though. That’s definitely been a thing. Dead wrestlers. A lot of them from the 90s have died. Some of them in not good ways. Sorry. I’m conscious that none of your questions were actually related to WWF superstars.”
That’s ok. So back to the day job…why didn’t you open a burger restaurant like everyone else?
“Why didn’t we? Well, we wanted to go for really, really complex and sophisticated food…like steak and chips (laughs). I mean, Hawksmoor, and the burger phenomenon are kind of part of the same thing…”
Not moons apart are they?
“Well, no one’s reinventing the wheel are they? I know we do quite a lot of food that is not steak and chips. And it’s obviously really, really well done. But basically we’ve just taken something that existed already and that no one really needs to think too hard about whether they like it…Red meat, chips, wine. Easy.”
Yeah but together with your [Will & Huw’s] imagination and Richard’s [exec head chef] culinary skills, you’ve got something pretty special.
“Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s pretty good. But it’s not complicated. We do have a burger on the menu. The pizza thing hasn’t gone crazy up here yet has it?”
A couple of months ago, we were asking the question; ‘what is the next big thing, the next food trend in Manchester?’ Some silly ideas were raised, like edible beards, but I seriously think it’s going to be pizza.
‘In the last 12 months, they’ve been a big thing in London. There are some wicked pizza places. ‘Look, you can quite happily take something people know and you see how well you can do it. That’s really what we were interested in. We’re not trying to be the cleverest people, but just see how well we can do something that’s really, really simple and well-liked.
‘I guess a lot of the burger guys in town are trying to be wackier than the others. But it’s kinda the same principal I think. Maybe this is why I don’t feel nervous about opening in Manchester. When we opened our first Hawksmoor, and for quite a while afterwards, it was viewed as this kind of weird place – as in not usual. The food is on a par price wise with Michelin-level restaurants. Maybe even standards-wise. But it’s just really casual. You come in here and have a really good time. That’s what we’re going for.
‘You don’t have to worry about whether you’re using the right fork – you don’t have to lean in to understand the French waiter – and you’re not intimidated by the wine menu. But we also wanted to create somewhere that you can have a really special occasion.
‘I feel like Manchester likes that kind of thing. I feel what we do, as I’ve gotten to know Manchester more and more…it feels right for this city.’
Anyone who calls Manchester their home adopts a certain admirations for buildings and establishments that can last forever. Mancs are always proud to say they’re from Manchester and share a sentiment about its history. There’s great civic loyalty.
“It’s been an interesting experience for us I guess, coming up here. Coming here and trying to get to know it properly. But also, to do a restaurant that feels right for Manchester rather than just coming and going: ‘there’s your London restaurant. See you later.’’
Which other sites/buildings did you like in Manchester?
“When we looked around, there were about three sites that we thought about. We really liked King Street, the historical feel of it. You look at Brown’s, Rosso, Jamie’s Italian. We loved the buildings, but we didn’t think it was a ‘Hawksmoor Street’.
‘Then we looked at the Northern Quarter. We started out in east London, which is the NQ bit of London I suppose, so it kind of felt most ‘us’ in a way – well, at least our younger selves. But the truth is, Hawksmoor is a 7,000sq ft restaurant with 140 covers and room for 50 in the bar. There’s not really any way of making that work on a Tuesday lunchtime in the NQ. Then we came to Spinningfields, which felt vibrant and destination-y, but its ultra-modern – and we don’t really do ultra-modern. We kind of wanted a King Street building in a Spinningfields location. Then we found this place. Nothing really jumped out at us until this.’
Everybody’s really excited about big London names coming to Manchester…
“I know that’s a thing, but I do feel like the cities aren’t the same. There’s stuff you can change and there’s so much exciting stuff happening here. We wanted to do a Manchester restaurant, rather than a London restaurant in Manchester.”
We have an interesting relationship with the capital. So, an established London name coming here is often viewed as London validating Manchester.
‘London does validate Manchester. They’re all over it. Manchester feels really vibrant at the moment, maybe in a way that London hasn’t in a couple of years.’
Manchester always feels like it’s on the cusp of exploding. There’s always excitement that something’s about to happen.
‘I’ve heard that quite a few times, but always in a self-depreciating kind of way. Like it’s always on the verge, but it hasn’t quite happened. In a way, being on the verge of it is the exciting time. The London food scene, three to five years ago, was really exciting. It was on the verge of explosion and it’s happened now. Obviously, there’s a great restaurant opening in London every five minutes but money is pouring in. It’s becoming a bit more corporate and safe. It’s not exciting. Manchester feels like it’s on the verge of something great. It doesn’t really feel like that in London.”
Who do you feel is your competition?
“The obvious answer is steak restaurants. There are good steak restaurants in Manchester – Grill on the Alley, Gaucho, I know the French one on King Street (L’Entrecote) failed but to be honest, I’m not certain how much people think ‘I want to go to a steak restaurant.’ I think they just want to go to a good restaurant. Australasia’s just around the corner; any nice restaurant has a steak on the menu, so I guess we’ll just compete with any other ‘nice’ restaurant in Manchester.
‘Something I’ve realised here is that Manchester pulls people in from the rest of the North West. Even on the first night we had three tables in from Liverpool, a table in from Wigan, a friend’s family are coming down from Bolton – so it’s like Manchester itself is a real destination.”
Some say Hawksmoor is pretty expensive…
“We did an exercise with our staff on day one, about how restaurants make money. We’re quite open about how the company works. Partly with the idea that, if someone told us the same stuff years ago, we’d have spared ourselves five years of being idiots. So we showed them what it looks like.
‘One of the girls said she felt that if someone questioned the price, she’d feel really comfortable defending it because she could tell them about all the meat and why is was a certain price. We’ve actually put a lower mark-up on all our food – probably the lowest in Manchester.
‘Value is two things isn’t it? It’s price combined with how good something is. You’d rather pay twice as much for something that’s 10 times as good. So that’s what our menu is like. It’s not a cheap place to go out but it’s very good value. I guess that’s for the customer to choose.’
How do you feel about the reaction you’ve had in Manchester so far?
‘It’s been good, really good. It’s one of those things – there’s a lot of expectation, which has been great. When you open somewhere in London, it’s either a bit like: ‘whoa that’s really exciting,’ or people are a bit blasé about really impressive things.
‘A three-star Japanese chef opened a Sushi restaurant three months ago. I’ve only just found out about it and I’m pretty plugged in. I can’t believe no one notices this stuff. I do feel like there’s pressure on us. If you whip people up into a frenzy and then someone tries it and thinks: ‘Yeah, that was ok…’ then you disappoint everyone.’
Did you choose Manchester as just a regional box ticker or did you see it as sort of the second city to London?
‘It was mostly a combination of that fact that we like spending time here and we felt the restaurant would work here without huge amounts of thought into what an alternative would have been.
‘We just thought, we quite like Manchester, we hadn’t really thought about anywhere else and we’re not really in any rush to do so. One of the things about Hawksmoor is that it’s quite unusual. There aren’t a lot of branded restaurants that people feel positive about. I think you can kill that a little bit with over expanding. So I think we’ll just see how this goes and not worry too much about the next city.’
What’s the perception of the Manchester food and drink scene in London? Not from a media perspective but from your friends and family?
‘I would say it’s probably not accurate, or maybe not informed. I think people associate Manchester with going out and having a good time and I think there’s lots of that here. Then there’s the Manchester Michelin star story that comes up every year. We’re very excited about not getting a Michelin star here as well.
‘By the way, we’ve had the most advice ever, opening this Manchester restaurant. Londoners were telling us to ‘make it cheaper for Manchester’; to take a lot of the more sophisticated items off the menu. After spending time here, we’ve thought the opposite. There’s no value in dumbing it down. There’s no difference between London and Manchester in terms of being able to recognise quality. With the price thing, it’s just a demographic fact. There are fewer people with money in Manchester because there are fewer people. I still think people recognise value.”
Surely the margin of disposable income stays the same doesn’t it?
“Yeah, I feel like the people in London who have talked about Manchester, and what we should do here, don’t really know the city. Some of it is based on not knowing Hawksmoor very well too. It’s like everything isn’t it? You find people whose opinion you learn to trust and get as much advice as you can from – and you smile politely at the rest.
What’s your favourite dinner?
‘Is this lunch, dinner, supper or tea? (laughs)”
In Manchester it usually goes; breakfast, dinner, tea. What’s your favourite ‘tea’ then?
‘Ok, let’s go non Hawksmoor. I really like pasta. I’m pasta obsessed.’
Have you been for an Italian meal in Manchester?
‘I’ve been to San Carlo Cicchetti and I’ve been to Fumo. There’s a family one I’ve got on my list but I’ve forgotten what it’s called. But yeah, I like pasta.”
“(laughs) I can’t tell you!”
You have to tell me now!
‘Liverpool Football Club…don’t write it down! No, I’m a massive rugby fan…honest”
I’ll see myself out. Where have you been and loved while you’ve been in Manchester?
‘Kosmosnaut’s cool. I like Sam’s Chop House. The most fun I’ve had is in Mojo’s. Crazy Pedro’s to start, Mojo’s then The Liars Club.”
Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman?
‘Superman. Easy. Batman hasn’t got any powers. I mean, he’s clever and stuff but he’s just a bloke. Superman is Superman. He’s incredibly strong and he can fly.
‘But if Batman had some kryptonite…he’s smart. Surely Batman would know Superman’s game. I’m going to change my first answer. Is that really one of your questions?”
Everyone’s asked the lion v tiger one. I went with Batman v Superman. Besides, there’s a film coming out soon, Batman v Superman, with Ben Affleck. It’s on the news agenda.
“Fair enough. I’ve got three sons, four, two and one. They’re pretty into superheroes. Especially Spiderman. Coming up here and opening a restaurant is a breeze is comparison…’
And that was that. There’s no doubt the pair have put plenty of effort into getting it right in Manchester. The dining room is one of the most stunning you’ll see in the city centre, with the relaxed and easy feel Will and Huw were looking for. There are lots of nice local touches in the menu and the decor too.
And they’ve clearly got into the Manchester spirit, spending plenty of time in the city and enthusiastically ‘researching’ the local bar and restaurant scene.
Is it a game-changer? Time will tell. But the early signs are that Manchester hasn’t gained a good new steak restaurant, but that Hawksmoor could become one of the city’s finest across any category.