There’s something about the naming of anything, not least a business, which somewhat sets expectations. This is the especially pertinent with Infamous Diner on the outskirts of Manchester’s Northern Quarter. In the case of Infamous this is not least because it’s going to draw comparisons with nearby Almost Famous, but because to get away with that sort of name requires a helluva lot of confidence that what you have is pretty damned good.
The exterior of Infamous is extremely subtle. Indeed, it’s actually pretty hard to even see what the place is called. I’d walked past many times but when I suggested we turn up for brunch on a Bank Holiday Monday just before midday, I couldn’t even think of the name of the place. “It’s, umm, just up from the tram stop, opposite the far corner of The Arndale, next door to the tattoo place.”
Once inside, however, subtlety is something sadly lacking in the decor at least. Northern Quarter perhaps has an unfair reputation for being Manchester’s Hub of Pretentiousness. Sure, it has more than it’s fair share of hipsters but many of my favourite places can work well because of the quality of what they do. It’s like Infamous has tried to go the other way and tried so hard to not be typically NQ that they’ve found another type of obvious in big and brash.
I’m not sure I buy their assertion that they’re Manchester’s first independent all-American diner given that they opened mid-2015 but, even if we do, don’t they want you to know about the American influence?
Think of an American diner, and Infamous takes every single pointer and puts them in to one place where they don’t all entirely fit. There’s black and white tiles on the floor and pink and red seating. On one wall is covered in 3000 imported US number plates; on another is the bar adorned at one end with a giant Stars and Stripes. Even the wallpaper, where there is room for it, contains pictures of the former Governor of California when he was known as the Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. The ceiling is gold and sparkly.
The walls on the way to the toilets (the parts that aren’t crumbling away) are adorned with paintings of iconic American images in red, white and blue.
The only thing we ordered that didn’t come with an American flag stuck in it was a Diet Coke.
The waitresses wear red and white candy striped dresses and the waiters have matching bow ties. The first three songs played in the background from our arrival were classic Billy Joel, Springsteen and Bon Jovi… Followed by U2 and Queen. It was like stepping back to the future, the irony being that the only incongruous item in the place was the massive TV screen in the corner showing that film (without sound).
The other irony of all the American influences came of settling the bill when they refused my American Express!
If one can level the accusation at Northern Quarter that it tries too hard to be hip, Infamous has tried too hard to be American and, for me, has overdone that so far that it’s easier to describe it as tacky rather than authentic. I’ve never been in American diner like it, even in the US.
On to the food. My brunch rules dictate something that comes in a stack and a milkshake, so I ordered the french toast with bacon and syrup and was recommended a “Millionaire Shake” which, at £5, was the most expensive thing on our bill. We also got a breakfast muffin and a Diet Coke.
The place wasn’t busy but I felt that we were left waiting for food. For £4.50 the French toast was OK even if with the three rashers of bacon made it look pretty sparse on the plate. Cinnamon is one of my favourite flavours but it was a little overdone.
The breakfast muffin (an English muffin filled with most of the dry components of a typical fry up) also looked small for £4.50 but, while I thought it wouldn’t look out of place sold in McDonalds, it was apparently pretty tasty. I’m not sure I could have put it on one of the plastic plates they use and serve it as it looked without being slightly embarrassed.
The milkshake looked massive served in a shell shaped glass. The chocolate and Nutella base was delicious and I enjoyed the pile of whipped cream and syrup on top. But either I drank more than I thought while we were waiting for food or it quickly disappeared into a foam at the bottom of the glass.
Arguably one of the most telling things was after we left and walked a few doors down to see a queue of people outside the albeit much smaller Federal Cafe and Bar. People are willing to wait for somewhere else rather than try Infamous.
Perhaps I’m unfairly judging the food on the basis of just the breakfast menu that we sampled. The hotdogs looked great. However, American diners do breakfast well so if that’s what you want to be, that’s what you have to do.
The place felt like it would be better working out what it wanted to be. The sheer number of bottles behind the bar and amount of alcohol on the menu suggest that it might be better embracing hipster favoured irony and becoming an American themed cheesy bar first and a diner second.
It feels wrong finishing this review with the conclusion that a place which is trying so obviously to be something actually lacks identity, but it also feels that Infamous needs to work out what it wants to do well. If it wants to be anti-Northern Quarter, do that. If it wants to be a diner, strip back some of the unnecessary obvious and concentrate on the food rather than the environment.
Until it does that, it seems like Infamous will be living up to all the negative aspects of its name.