The weekend before last found me in Manchester; and before embarking excitedly upon the Coronation Street tour, I could think of nowhere better to start my Sunday than Annies.
Annies is the tearoom and restaurant owned by Jennie McAlpine (who we know and love as Fiz) with her partner Chris Farr and her Dad, Tom. I arrived there in desperate need of a decent breakfast after attending a wedding the night before. And that is exactly what I got.
Living in London, I’m used to paying over a tenner for breakie and still feeling hungry afterwards, so I fired off my order for “The Big Breakfast” (at £9.95) without a second thought. Alas, my eyes proved bigger than my stomach before almost popping out of my head when the food arrived.
Seriously – the plates weren't round – they were oval. And on mine sat two eggs, two rashers of bacon, two sausages, black pudding, hash brown, beans, tomato AND four slices of thick toast. It was absolutely delicious and soaked the booze up a treat.
Generally, the prices at Annies are very reasonable and my breakfast was excellent value for money. It was cooked to perfection. The mushrooms in particular were seasoned beautifully. But the rave reviews since Annies opened eighteen months ago are not just for the food. It is the whole experience.
Upon arrival, diners can expect to be greeted by enthusiastic and friendly staff who clearly love working there. The Manager, Richard Wisdom, will enthusiastically recount the history of the building, which sits in Manchester’s iconic Royal Exchange underneath the famous theatre. He also tells a brilliant anecdote about delivering food to ‘Sally Webster’ one night before turning round to see ‘Sophie Webster’ at another table. It sounds like a scene in The Bistro!
Annies is much larger than you might think from outside. The décor is wonderfully ornate – regal, almost. In the restaurant downstairs, think Parisian red curtains with top hats on the walls and a piano in the corner from which live music emanates of a Friday evening. It exudes a strong cabaret vibe, which is exactly the idea. The tearoom upstairs is cosier, and immaculately wallpapered in floral prints. Even the toilet is tastefully decorated; the sure sign of a classy establishment.
A miniature Rovers Return housed in a glass cabinet is the only piece of Corrie memorabilia on display. However, a living, breathing link to Coronation Street exists in Jennie McAlpine who can often be seen keeping an eye on things and amiably chatting away to customers. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Jennie and Chris who were very happy to talk to the Coronation Street Blog.
Previously Annies had been the Conservatory, a swanky cellar bar, which was subsequently renamed but had run into disrepair by the time it closed in the 90s. It lay derelict before they took the venture on. Annies is now stunning inside and out. A great deal of work has gone into this and both Jennie and Chris are delighted with how things are going.
Much of the original design has remained in place, retaining a classic feel. According to Jennie, they “wanted it to feel like it hadn’t just been done. It was never the idea to put a modern twist on the building”. Most of the chairs are therefore originals that have been reupholstered. And very comfy they are too!
Annies is located in St Ann’s Square, an area of Manchester famous for its markets. In times gone by, cotton would be traded at the Royal Exchange, often referred to as ‘Annie’s Market’. “It’s in keeping with the history”, enthuses Jennie.
But the name ‘Annies’ is about more than that; it is also the spirit of the place, evoking as it does a sense of home. Lots of people have told Jennie and Chris “they had an Auntie Annie or their Mum is Annie”. The aim, Jennie explains, is for customers “to feel at home, not like a stranger”. I can safely say this has been achieved.
Described by many as a ‘hidden gem’ or an ‘oasis of calm’, Annies is in the middle of Manchester, yet Jennie notes that “people say it doesn’t quite feel like they’re in the city centre … it feels a bit of an escape.” Chris tells how mothers will come in with their buggies for some tea and tranquillity following a stressful trip round the shops. When they sit down, “you can see it lift off them and they just feel relaxed”.
Although I was there for breakfast, Jennie tells me people can “come in and have anything from a cup of tea and a piece of cake to a full three course dinner”. Chris points out that afternoon tea is popular, especially with champers. I imagine they’ve done a roaring trade of late with Corrie fans travelling to Manchester for the tour.
It’s not just Corrie fans who frequent Annies, mind; they have a long line of regular customers and first-time visitors. You never know; some might not have even heard of Weatherfield! Annies prides itself on a warm welcome and heart-warming traditional British cuisine and “hopefully people want to come back”, says Jennie.
There is a definite Lancastrian emphasis, as ‘Lancashire Rarebit’ sits alongside ‘Annie’s Hotpot’ on the menu. The latter is, of course, a nod to Betty but as Jennie points out, hotpot is “a very traditional dish in this area”. It is therefore natural that a traditional restaurant in Manchester would provide it.
At Annies, the classic lamb and vegetable dish is topped with crunchy sliced potatoes and served with homemade red cabbage. But Jennie “would never dare say it’s anywhere near as good as Betty’s hotpot… we don’t have the secret ingredient!” As well as traditional local fare, national favourites such as cottage pie, fish and chips and sirloin steak are offered up, and traditional roasts on a Sunday.
The ‘Fizz Bomb’ intrigues me; an ice cream pudding covered in chocolate and containing popping candy… hence the fizz. “It’s nothing to do with anything else”, winks Jennie. Those kinds of dessert are often known as ‘bombs’ or have ‘fizz’ in the title somewhere but the link to our beloved Fiz is a nice touch.
Jennie is at Annies as often as possible and genuinely enjoys meeting customers - “that’s the best bit about it”, she says. While quick to praise Chris for the hard work he puts in, and the “great team” around them, Jennie is not afraid to muck in herself. “I’ve been known to carry a tray – I served a cup of tea yesterday – I made a big meal of it and I wanted a round of applause afterwards but I did do it”, says Jennie self-effacingly.
She only serves sparingly because Jennie considers herself “the clumsiest person ever”. Chris confesses to feeling slightly uneasy whenever he sees Jennie limbering up to carry something. But despite denigrating her own waitressing skills, Jennie worked in cafes and restaurants before becoming an actress and would practice by carrying things around the house. I praise this dedication to her craft and without missing a beat she quips, “Always rehearsing!”
On Friday nights, “cabaret kind of songs” are performed around the piano. Jennie generally only sings “for charity or when pushed”. One such occasion was New Year’s Eve when she was persuaded to get up and perform, fittingly, the song “Cabaret”. “My musical taste is the same as my taste in décor and my taste in teacups”, laughs Jennie, “nothing (made) after about 1950”.
Annies really is a terrific place and I will make a point of popping in whenever I am in Manchester. Anyone going on the Corrie tour must seek this place out. But if you can’t get to Annies, you can now bring Annies to you! Annies has just launched a range of products to buy online as well as in store. The online shop launched earlier this week and is looking great. Check it out here.
Jennie explains that it is all about “bottling” their products so that “people can take a bit of Annies home with them”. And those who can’t make it to Manchester can “have a little bit of (Annies) at home”. The range includes Annies jam, pickles, tea, biscuits, sweets and cakes. It’ll certainly make it easier to find Chrimbo prezzies for Corrie-loving relatives.
It’s an exciting time at Annies. Jennie and Chris joke that they’ve “not quite discovered how to send a hotpot through the post yet” but “there will be a way”. I suggest a moped for deliveries but as Chris rightly points out, a bicycle with a basket on the front would be more appropriate. “Good idea”, says Jennie… “We’ll start that Monday”.
Jennie and Chris are so passionate about what they are doing at Annies; that I wouldn’t bet against takeaway hotpots coming on stream before the year is out. But there are plenty of delicious, yet more transportable products, available in the meantime. I look forward to buying some in.
Be sure to look out for my next blog in which I will report on what Jennie had to say about Coronation Street and the many other interests that occupy her time, not to mention her feelings on impending motherhood.
By Martin Leay
Follow the Bluenose CorrieBlog on Twitter and Facebook