When Steve Pilling left catering college, his first job was in the kitchens of Manchester’s Midland Hotel, whose French Restaurant, with executive chef Gilbert Lefevre leading the brigade, was the last Manchester holder of a Michelin star.
You might say, in an ironic sort of way, that since then Steve’s foodie trajectory has been down hill all the way. His profile and reputation, however, have travelled in precisely the opposite direction.
Having once helped to cook the fish course for Her Majesty the Queen, he now presides as boss of Stockport’s newly opened communal food court, the Produce Hall, where he’s proud that fish and chips cost under a tenner.
In the mid-1980s the Midland was sold by British Transport Hotels, closed for several years for refurbishment and reopened as the Crowne Plaza. Gilbert Lefevre never came back; neither (so far) has a Michelin star.
Steve went into the green grocery business and eventually owned half a dozen shops, but he says: “The change in the law that enabled supermarkets to open on Sundays killed my business virtually overnight, as it did a lot of others.”
Ever resourceful, he built a new career helping to revive struggling pubs and it was in that role, one day in 1995, he walked through the doors of one of Manchester’s most historic hostelries, Mr Thomas’s Chop House.
The small but beautifully formed pub on Cross Street, dating back to 1867 – located next door to Manchester’s old town hall and backing on to St Ann’s Churchyard from 1712 – and Steve Pilling were made for each other.
Despite the rich history, by the mid-1990s Mr Thomas’s had become unloved. Steve’s remedy was simple – though it appears to have eluded others – go back to basics and specialise in classic English dishes fit for a classic English pub, with an emphasis on impeccable service. The ultra-popular onion soup took 35 hours to make.
It was during his time there that Tom’s beautiful green-tiled dining room was rediscovered – it had been walled off and forgotten for many decades – and the rear door to St Ann’s yard opened.
The winning formula was repeated in 2000 – this time in partnership with former advertising executive Roger Ward – at Sam’s Chop House across the way in Back Pool Fold.
Roger’s Victorian Chop House Company now owns Mr Thomas’s (temporarily renamed Mrs Sarah’s), Sam’s and the Albert Square Chop House, his multi-million conversion of the Unitarians’ Memorial Hall.
Steve’s parting with the chop houses was triggered initially by his need for medical treatment for injuries accrued from years of playing squash at high level, and a long recuperation. “Hips, back and knees,” he said ruefully.
But he bounced back on the restaurant scene in 2009 by opening Damson, a critically acclaimed neighbourhood restaurant in Heaton Moor, with a second fine dining Damson following at MediaCity in 2013. Steve also had the Red Lion dining pub in High Lane, Stockport, and grand designs on opening his Roast Restaurant & Oyster Bar in the Courthouse development on Deansgate in Manchester city centre.
But big changes were on the way in the city’s ever-expanding dining scene and Steve was reading the runes. He pulled out of the Courthouse plan when Hawksmoor opened virtually next door to his proposed Roast.
Then Damson in MediaCity closed, Steve commenting about “a malaise and lack of demand for finer dining”. Damson in Heaton Moor closed in 2017.
Steve said: “I think fine dining disappeared like that Malaysian flight in the middle of the Indian Ocean.”
By the time Damson closed in Heaton Moor, the bar area had already been remodelled as La Cantina, his take on a Spanish tapas bar. The restaurant itself reopened as Roost, specialising in simple rotisserie chicken and wood-fired pizza – casual eating out; no bookings.
Said Steve: “With Damson we might have seen people perhaps once every six months, maybe once a year. At La Cantina and Roost, people come in two or three times a week. It’s all about changing perceptions of eating out. And ironically, the average spend is not that different. At Damson we had two course meals for less than £15.”
Steve’s “empire” is now about as far away from Michelin star dining as it’s possible to get. His Dockyard pubs in MediaCity and Spinningfields are stripped back and industrial in style featuring the likes of battered bangers and truffled mac and cheese, as is The Gasworks in First Street.
He also has interests in the Vesper cocktail bar in Pall Mall, off King Street; Lost in Tokyo, a late bar in the Northern Quarter; the Moortop pub in Heaton Moor; and most recently, Stockport’s Produce Hall, which he believes in a few years will be the hub of a “new Covent Garden” in Stockport “seven minutes from Manchester with rents 60 per cent cheaper”.
With tongue in cheek, he said: “Damson is in a state of cryogenic isolation, ready to come back as the Man Behind the Shower Curtain with the Light Bulb Missing.”