“ Arndale Centr, MAnchester. Tel: 0161 817 2510 „
Est Caffe, not to be confused with the now defunct chain Est Est Est, is located in the Arndale Centre in Manchester, at the Printworks end, opposite Next. Years ago I was absolutely convinced the Arndale had 3 floors, thanks to the fact that one of the Market St entrances had both up and down escalators from it. I now know better (that's a weird mezzanine bit, with nothing but a Greggs on it), but if I was still unconvinced, Est wouldn't help matters since it's on the first floor but also has an upstairs. Confused? I regularly am...
Although they call themselves a Caffe (and what's that extra 'f' about?), Est is really a full-service restaurant with none of the hallmarks of you usual cafe, like self-seating or a counter full of yummy, homebaked cakes. At the same time, its menu is only one page, and it's much busier at lunchtimes than in the evening. Maybe that's what a Caffe is to them - half cafe, half restaurant - though if that's the case I'm sure Restafe or Caf-estaurant would score more points in the Barney Stinson school of word invention.
Anyway, I digress. For once it wasn't me but a friend who was off on a big foreign adventure, and Est was our eatery of choice for a farewell lunch. We went on Saturday and at 12.30pm when we arrived there was a queue of people waiting. This is at once both a sign of a reassuringly popular place and a bit of an a*se when you've a plane to catch, but luckily we only had to wait a moment and, when we were shown to a table upstairs, found they had plenty of unoccupied places, so it seemed to be a staffing rather than seating resource issue. The menu is posted outside the Cafestaurant but not on their website, so it's not the sort of place you can decide in advance what you want. Unless you've been there before, that is: I have eaten here numerous times over the last 3 or so years, and I don't think the menu has changed once in that time. Happily, my eating habits have, though, so I took my time to look it over to decide what I wanted.
The menu has an Italian theme, and also a fair bit of repetition. Once I'd decided I was in the mood for either roasted vegetables or goats cheese, I then had to narrow it down to having one of them on a pizza or pasta, as part of a salad, or in a bloomer or wrap. The combinations are pretty much identical, regardless of the form they take, but at the same time there is a good choice and if it had been the other way round and I'd been in the mood for, say, a pasta of some sort, I'd equally have had half a dozen or so to choose from. I've had this 'repetitive choice' thing before, once in an All Inclusive hotel where they used it to recycle the food: certain fresh veg one meal, cooked the next, in a soup the following day etc. While it was a bit annoying there as you were eating 3 meals a day with them for a week, I really like it here, as you're not left trying to make a decision along the lines of "I really like the sound of feta and olives....but I want a sandwich not a salad" - whatever combination you fancy, it's highly likely they've got it on the menu. In the end we got one goats cheese pizza, and one with roasted vegetables, added some drinks to the order, and sat back to relax.
We were seated upstairs (in the non-existent 2nd floor of the mall) and had a view of the shoppers below. Despite it being open rather than glassed in, it's not too unpleasantly noisy and you can still hear yourself speak, though it's perhaps not the place for a nice romantic meal. The decor is bright and modern, without having a distinctive Italian feel to it. They have booths as well as normal tables, but for the most part it's a simple place that's quite plain without feeling sterile. The loos in Est are upstairs, but they have a disabled one on their lower floor (which is the Arndale's upper floor - you can see how I still get confused) and every time I've gone and my table has been upstairs, they've first checked this is ok and, I assume, would strive to seat you somewhere else if stairs were a problem.
Our drinks arrived quickly, and were exactly as we'd ordered though considering there were 3 options for Diet Coke on the menu (regular, large, or a glass bottle) I wasn't quite sure until I got the bill which one had come as standard. The food took a reasonable length of time to arrive - long enough to reassure you that it was freshly prepared, not too long you were looking around for it. For a busy weekend lunchtime, the service actually seemed quite quick. The pizzas were massive and very colourful - you could clearly see the different ingredients without having to think back to what the menu had said. They were hot but not so much you would burn your mouth, and we dug straight in. My only complaint was that the bases were only partially scored into pieces, and the knives we had weren't very sharp, so a bit of sawing was involved to carve it into manageable chunks.
On previous visits I have eaten from their starters / light bites section. I like it when they call it that, as you feel less bad about ordering something smaller and cheaper than one of the mains. The time before this, I went with my mother when I'd just returned to the UK and she ordered the roasted veg and feta salad, which I 'helped' her with. It was huge, and a proper meal in itself, not a poor substitute for something more substantial.
The one thing I have never had here, and this may come as a bit of a surprise, is a pudding. They have a few on the menu, but the choice isn't very extensive, and since they're not on display in glass cabinets in a luscious, tempting way, I've never really been that interested. I also seem to remember some confusion last time, when my mother ordered a cappuccino that came out looking very un-cappuccino like, but the waitress assured us that's what it was.
Service here can be variable. It's never unpleasant, but sometimes, like when there was the coffee question, it can be a bit abrupt. This Saturday, though, we had a super friendly waitress who was just the right level of attentive, checking we were ok for drinks, once, and checking our food was ok, once, but staying out of the way the rest of the time. We got into a little chat when she asked if we were doing Mothers' Day shopping (we were probably the only people in town that day NOT doing so) and she was pleasant and interested.
I like Est because they have a great menu with lots of vegetarian options - though none of these are marked on the menu which is a bit annoying as you have to read all the descriptions. They have about as much veggie food as non-veggie, and every section of the menu has multiple choices for everyone, regardless of whether or not they eat meat. There's also a range, from fancier things to plainer dishes - with pizza, for example, mine had 5 or 6 toppings, but you could also go for a bog standard Margharita or, if you wanted really plain, a slice of toast or a buttered teacake, or even just a bowl of chips.
The prices are reasonable, and there's not too much difference between their dishes, so you can choose what you like rather than feeling like you have to go for the cheap option. Sandwiches and wraps are about £5 each, while pastas, pizzas and salads are about £8. This is the reason I had a pizza on Saturday - I'd been thinking about a salad, but for that price I thought I may as well have something more filling.
Last summer they were pushing their loyalty card: you could sign up on the spot and get 15% off then and every subsequent visit. I remembered I had this card and dug it out before our trip, so two pizzas and two soft drinks came in at about £17 in the end. The 15% is off food only, and I'm not sure they're still signing up new members, but if you have a card it's worth holding on to. It's very rare these days that I ever eat out without some kind of coupon (or Tesco voucher). Est is only a small chain, but they've cleverly found a way to compete with their rivals, and it would make me more likely to go here than one of the independent options in the Arndale.
Est is open the same hours as the shops, though it used to be the case that their kitchen closed earlier - on at least one occasion I remember trying to go after work and finding they were only doing a drinks service. This may have changed now the Arndale is open longer hours, but it would be worth checking in advance. Est do a breakfast menu which is available all day, and the proper food starts from about 11.30am I think.
Ests seem to be located in shopping centres or airports, a rather distinct niche. While you'd perhaps be unlikely to think, "Ooh, I fancy a nice gourmet meal out...let's go to the Arndale", it is perfectly placed for passing shopping trade, and as such they're always quite busy. It's very family friendly - they do a kids' menu that seems very good value, and instantly offer up high chairs and so on. The type of food also appeals to little ones, but has more sophisticated options for their parents too: this is definitely a step up from Pizza Hut and the like.
Recommended for a freshly prepared, tasty lunch while out shopping, or as a venue for a pre-cinema tea (the Printworks is just next door).
Other locations include:
Heathrow Airport: Terminal 1
London Luton Airport - New Terminal
The Metro Centre
The Trafford Centre
Like the best Italian fashion, Est Caffe delivers both style and comfort.