Hunger strikes…

The rumble of Manchester’s tummy has been growing steadily louder and louder for years but the typical fare of days gone by is no longer as satisfying as it once was for the city’s hungry mouths. Nosireebob, restaurants, cafes and takeaways aren’t bringing as much to the table as they did once upon a time and these days discerning diners ‘oop north’ are on the lookout for something a little different – the supper club, a favourite of foodies in the more cosmopolitan cities of this world, like London and New York.

Supper clubs, or underground restaurants, have been around in one form or another since the 1990s, starting up in Cuba where they were known as paladares – eateries serving home-made Cuban food that were operated out of people’s homes as the perfect foil for government-run restaurants. In the last couple of years, the idea has really gripped the imaginations of gastronomes all over the world and going to a stranger’s house for dinner with a bunch of people you’ve never met is now considered normal behaviour.

So what place does this tasty trend have in a city like Manchester, a very practical place with traditional urbanites who know what they like and definitely know what they don’t? Some might well think that Manchester is the land that taste buds forgot and if it’s not pie and chips, they just don’t want to know, but there’s a growing number who now believe there is definitely a place for grabbing bites well off the beaten Mancunian track.

The increasing numbers of supper clubs in and around the city are testament to the fact that the times, they are a-changing and Mancunians are becoming ever-more receptive to this particular form of repast. The first supper club to spring up in the city was The Spice Club, specialising in delicious Indian food. This was later followed by the likes of Gastro Club, set up by Katie Brunt, and Our Paleo Kitchen in south Manchester, although this latter club is now on the wane.

Chris Trimble, gastronome and the man behind the Foods To Try Before You Die blog, says he doesn’t believe this growth in Manchester’s supper clubs to be random, rather “more a natural side-effect of a growing foodie scene. There seems to be twice as many local bloggers now as when I started a year ago and there’s a lot of other cool things going on. Gastro Club is the one that really takes my fancy. If I can get some more money, I’ll definitely be joining that.”

Another he might be tempted to try is the rather dubiously-named Menage a Trois in Altrincham, run by Lex Smith (also known as Lady Nom) out of her boyfriend’s mother’s basement. She spied a niche in the market in this little Manchester suburb, noticing that foodie offerings were all quite “samey” in Altrincham and Hale and there seemed a real need for something a little different.

“The hardest thing has been getting the message out there and getting enough people out there wanting to come,” she says. “It’s quite niche. They don’t know if it’s going to be good or not, you’re going to some stranger’s house for dinner…But it’s on the uptake. The age difference in people interested in it [surprised me]. [I expected it to be mainly] mid to late 20s but it’s been a really good spread of people.”

Lex makes great use of local businesses, such as Richards’ Fruit & Veg Emporium, Hale Butchers and Evans and Axons in Didsbury, and makes sure her produce is all locally sourced. “I hate Tesco’s and I don’t go to supermarkets,” she says, adding that half the fun of running these events is that she can serve food that people perhaps wouldn’t order if they were in a restaurant – giving them a chance to try something new and exciting.

Her menus have been quite adventurous (no doubt inspired by Lex’s travels on not one, but two gap years), with the most recent supper club – a Pintxos evening of Spanish food – featuring squid cooked in its own ink, oxtail, breaded oysters, cod cheeks and salt cod, among many, many other dishes. Unlike other underground restaurants – such as The Spice Club – Menage a Trois has no set cuisine it plans to stick to and will be tackling fare from all around the world. The next event is a British Summer extravaganza on June 9th, followed on the 30th by a Creole barbecue, both of which sound tantalising to the extreme.

Even though Manchester’s always been a bit slow to join the party where food trends are concerned and tends to arrive after other guests like New York, Tokyo and Paris have long gone home, now that supper clubs have finally started to attract a little more northern attention, the only way from here is up. Fingers crossed the city’s appetite won’t be sated for quite some time.

Watch out for my review of Menage a Trois tomorrow!

What do you think of supper clubs? A little bit weird or a fun new way to try new foods and meet new people?

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