In a world of indie hospitality unease it’s wonderful to encounter a bold opening in a suburb. Yet even at the launch party for Libertine, featuring fire-grilled meats, cool cocktails and a real feelgood vibe, the very surroundings set me thinking.
Back in the day this beguiling building was home to Withington’s Old District Bank. You can imagine some mutton-chopped, fob-watched, pin-striped bank manager encouraging or foreclosing on some entrepreneurial dream or other. It’s been ever thus, even if these days investment contact is more disembodied.
What is certain is that many businesses are now counting the pennies and it’s not adding up. Come the autumn when our ‘zombie government’ has reassembled and we match the new PM’s promises to actions, we will surely discover if the cost of living crisis and energy price armageddon can be mitigated. Help is certainly needed for bars and restaurants, which are not subject to the energy cap.
Meanwhile, on the brighter note, let’s all relish the greatest gift that banks have given to the food and drink industry – an array of sumptuous venues across Manchester, a riot of marble and mahogany, stained glass and fancy ceilings.
Libertine, as you’d guess from the team that brought us Cottonopolis and the Edinburgh Castle, takes a different tack from the conversions that dominate King Street and the city’s traditional financial quarter.
Gordon Ramsay for Jamie’s old joint. Is it a banker?
Take the trio of Edwardian banks, credited to Charles Waterhouse – the NatWest at 53 King Street, Parr’s Bank and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Bank, neighbours where Spring Gardens meets York Street. Respectively they are now L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Brown’s and Rosso, none of them offering cutting edge cuisine, but all boasting spectacular interiors. If, let’s say a bit on the blingy side.
Across King Street is the big daddy of them all. Sir Edwin Lutyens was the mastermind behind the Midland Bank, leaving the nuts and bolts to a local firm. It’s now divided into Hotel Gotham and what was Jamie’s Italian. The hot rumour is that a certain Gordon Ramsay has plans to re-open the vast Jamie site and install a version of his (critically panned in London) Lucky Cat.
Lucky man if he gets his wish. The main Banking Hall (below) could not be skylit, so Lutyens designed arcading on all four sides and wooden galleries as in Wren churches. In the basement is the original vault, a mini-Fort Knox. Fingers crossed such a wonderful space can be appreciated again, but how much will the heating bills cost?
The heat is on at the Libertine thanks to a centrepiece grill
What sets my new favourite Withington haunt apart is the scuffed chic. Like at mothership Cottonopolis bar in the Northern Quarter Libertine’s original features are not buffed up. There has been sympathetic restoration of the finely carved frieze and balustrade parapet at roof level and of the marble pillars and previously concealed mosaics. The stripped-back walls in contrast create a rustic patchwork effect.
There’s a similar aesthetic, though smoother, going on at the wonderful Coin bar inside the former Lloyds Bank in Hebden Bridge, one of over 6,000 local branches across the UK have shut in the last decade – a third of the total. Salvaged Libertine is a more ambitious project, offering a restaurant, bar and music space with the emphasis on a ‘community focus’. Cocktails are impressive and there are 20 keg lines and four cask beer lines.
The restaurant is centred on live cooking over wood and charcoal. Veg, not just meat. Even so the trio of dishes that impressed at our soft launch meal involved za’atar herb-crusted lamb rack, oak smoked pork belly with harissa and 35-day Himalayan salt-dried beef pave with salsa verde, all the global flavours handled deftly. Expect brunch and roasts too, while prices are not exorbitant
So a valuable addition to the Withington scene. Even as we tighten our belts and prepare to turn down the thermostat a notch, the message is go out if you can to a local bar or eaterie. Use them or lose them. They are banking on you.
Libertine, 437 Wilmslow Road, M20 4AN. Dog-friendly.