When I was eleven, I went up to London for the day with a friend and her father. We had, of course, been breathlessly excited about the trip for weeks, poring over our Just 17 pull-out guide to London like country mice who had been invited to dine with the Queen, and planning outfits that would have the whole of the city agog at our flair and elan, utterly undaunted by the small fact that our wardrobes consisted largely of C & A jeans and Chelsea Girl blouson jackets. And I would love to say that the highlight of the trip was something erudite, and cultural, and academically enlightening - the V & A, perhaps, or The British Museum - when actually the best moment of the trip (if not of our entire lives up until that point) was eating at The Hard Rock Cafe.
The intervening years since these heady, youthful days have seen Manchester get a Hard Rock Cafe of its own, one of the few jewels in the crown of the largely unloved Printworks development that opened its draughty doors more than a decade ago, and actually the largest Hard Rock in the UK. And of course, I used to go - we all did. But more recently, my head has been turned by other, newly fashionable parts of the city, with their jam jar cocktails and their dirty, filthy burgers and their ironic chickens in baskets, and I have visited Hard Rock no more. Now, quite rightly, the venerable giant has decided to remind us all that actually, Hard Rock have been making burgers in the UK since 1971 and are pretty good at it too, by throwing down the gauntlet and declaring their legendary burgers the best in town. Did I want to investigate this further? Hell yes.
The place is quiet when we arrive soon after 6 on a freezing cold Tuesday night, but we are soon safely ensconced in an all-American booth, located under a very 80s Bowie suit in a glass case - fittingly, considering that the great man has gone to number one in the hit parade the previous day. I am accompanied by ace cocktail reviewer The Liquor Chick (more from her later), and Mr Liz, who has heard the word "burger" and invited himself along: for we are here not only to try the cocktails but also to sample mini versions of all nine of the burgers on the Hard Rock menu. They arrive in three sets of three, irresistably arranged on original long players very much in keeping with such a musically themed location (Mr Liz is saddened to eat from Simply Red in round one; I am triumphant when Whitney arrives bearing my final platter): here they are, listed in order of my preference:
1. Hickory BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, basted with Hickory Bar-B-Que sauce and topped with caramelised onions, crisp seasoned bacon and melted Cheddar cheese. If there's one thing I like, it's summat moist on my burger; if it's the sweet-yet-punchy Hard Rock Bar-B-Que sauce then so much the better - and the onions are perfectly sticky as they meld with the gooey cheese. We all like this one, very much.
2. Red, White & Blue Burger, laced and grilled with spicy Buffalo sauce and Cajun Seasoning, then topped with crumbled blue cheese and a crisp fried onion ring. I'm a bit of a sucker for blue cheese, but even Mr Liz (a confirmed blue cheese sceptic) enjoys the combination of the salty, tangy cheese and meaty burger.
3. California Burger - a toasted bun brushed with Ranch dressing, fresh cucumber slices, lettuce, tomato, freshmade Hard Rock Guacamole and topped with Monterey Jack cheese. A surprise bronze medal here - I like the hint of healthiness from the salad and the coolness of the Ranch dressing (and again, lovely and moist).
4. S.O.B. Burger, basted with spicy Chipotle Pepper puree and topped with Montery Jack cheese, served on a buttered-toasted bun with Hard Rock Guacamole & grilled onions. Nice and spicy, this one - the S.O.B. officially stands for "South of the Border", although it seems that customers have been suggesting alternate meanings for the acronym attached to this saucy fellow.
5. Mushroom & Swiss Burger, smothered with sautéed mushrooms and topped with two slices of Swiss cheese. A classic combination - it shouldn't (and doesn't) go wrong.
6. Local Legendary Burger. All Hard Rocks offer a burger unique to their particular location; for Manchester, it's a deconstructed lamb hotpot - aka a lamb burger topped with carrot and onion (and photographed here in all its topless glory).
7. Legendary 10 oz. Burger, topped with seasoned bacon, two slices of Cheddar cheese, a crisp fried onion ring, lettuce, tomato, and pickles. This famous old fellow is languishing slightly towards the bottom of the leader board PURELY because it's so traditional - it is delicious, and would be higher if my head headn't been turned by fancy blue cheese et al.
8. Veggie Leggie - a grilled patty topped with a grilled Portabello mushroom, courgette, yellow squash and roasted red pepper. Apparently, vegetarian customers sometimes try to send this back because it's so satisfyingly meaty tasting, and the vegetables that come with it are stunning - one of my favourite things of the night.
9. The Big Cheese, topped with three thick slices of American, Monterey Jack, Cheddar or Swiss Cheese. This one is last for me purely because I find it slightly dry - Mr Liz, who prefers less sauce to me (in pretty much every sense) very much likes it.
Now I must obviously point out that we were invited in to try these special mini versions of the main menu as guests of the restaurant - the 10 oz. monsters from the full menu will obviously be very different from what you see here (although presumably no less delicious). We were privileged enough to have a chat with Head Chef Anthony, as well as try an exclusive new cocktail (The Liquor Chick is going to tell you about this in a moment), but every customer in what is a full restaurant by 8 is clearly having a very excellent time too - we are particularly impressed by our lovely server Jo, who is happy to chat burgers with us at every opportunity. I have already been trying to decide which full size burger I will be trying first when I go back as a paying customer, as I'm pretty sure I can't manage nine of the 10oz ones (although I fear this is the kind of thing Mr Liz will view as a healthy sort of Man v. Food challenge). Truth be told, though, it's no real surprise that Hard Rock do a good burger; what we ARE pleasantly surprised by is the quality of the cocktails. So with no further ado, I'll remind you that Hard Rock Cafe Manchester can be found on Exchange Square, M4 2BS, and hand you over to my knowledgeable friend...
*wavy lines on screen, different voiceover starts*
The fear with an iconic brand like Hard Rock is that it’s been around so long it would be all too easy to fall into the same old routine and keep things ‘ticking along’ as they are, using the term ‘retro’ as a means of attempting to appear ‘trendy’ when it really means ‘we’re too lazy to change anything’. But NO, unlike a lot of iconic chains, Hard Rock IS trendy and IS exactly the type of thing we need in our cosmopolitan city centre lifestyles.
Gone are the days of the Harvey Wallbanger and cocktails with simple flavours and the same old ingredients, Hard Rock knows how to keep it fresh. NOW, we have the Raz Rita. A gorgeous twist on the traditional Margarita, with Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila, triple sec, Monin Raspberry and fresh raspberries *in love*. We were also lucky enough to try the Gini Hendricks, showcasing the immaculate taste of Hendricks gin, made on our very doorstep by one of Manchester’s Hard Rock Cafes Bartenders (take a bow, Nathan) and going global in the next few months *proud*.
And it didn’t stop there, we also tried a number of other cocktails including the Raspberry Lemonade, Southern Rock, Hurricane, Mixed Berry Lemonade, Pomegranate Martini, Purple Haze, Triple Platinum Margarita and the Mosh pit. And there wasn’t one I didn’t like *plans to return and consume all 28 cocktails on the menu*. Want to know the best thing of all? With an array of different Gins, Rums and Tequilas (to mention just a few), you won’t find them using all the same brands of spirit time and time again *permits oneself a few extra cocktails for the sake of ‘trying out’ a few more spirits* . The cocktails are all reasonably priced and you can even pay for it to be served in your very own Hard Rock souvenir glass.
Don’t get me wrong, this place still has all the things that make Hard Rock one of a kind; the rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and the classic American diner feel that the owners set out to achieve over 40 years ago. It’s got a chilled out rock ‘n’ roll vibe with a unique city centre atmosphere. EVERYTHING you could possibly ask for in a social hub like this and more importantly... great drinks *in heaven*.