‘Stars would eat, drink and do drugs’: Hard Rock Café veteran reveals celebrity life at Manchester diner

By Helen Le Caplain

Not many people can count music legends The Beatles, Elton John and Freddie Mercury among their friends.

But Hard Rock veteran and cultural attaché 72-year-old Rita Gilligan MBE certainly can.

Rita has served at the world-famous eatery since it first flung open its doors back in 1971 in Mayfair and has worked for them all over the world.

Despite her globe-trotting antics, she still has still has fond memories of her time in the Manchester Hard Rock.

The softly-spoken Galway native explained: “We used to get all sorts, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Freddie Mercury and the like coming into Hard Rock Café as an alternative to the fine dining places such as the Hilton.

“My favourite customers were The Beatles – they were lovely people. It was great to be able to go over and say hi and hi-five each other.

“I’m still in contact with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr whose son (Zak) used to be a bus boy here.

“He was always using the cutlery as makeshift drumsticks on the counter tops and his godfather, Keith Moon, said that when he died he could have his 20-piece drum kit.

“But before he died, God rest his soul, he said that he’d had to sell it so he never got it.”

Since those early days Zak Starkey has now established himself as a successful rock drummer playing with the likes of his godfather’s band The Who and Manchester Britpop legends Oasis.

Hard Rock Café signalled the beginning of an entirely new dining experience, moving away from the formalities of fine dining.

“It was a complete change of culture,” she explained.

ICONIC: Manchester’s own Hard Rock Café

“At the time it was just lawyers and judges who were used to fine dining eating out, with eight knives and forks to contend with.

“It took them some time to get used to picking up the burger with their hands and drinking from the bottle.

“Rock stars would come into the café have their food, drink, smoke and do drugs.”

It’s not uncommon for people to lie about their age; shave off a couple of years and hit the hair dye in an attempt to roll back the years, but Rita added a couple of years onto her age in order to scoop her dream job.

“I was in fine dining for 17 years; the whole point of Hard Rock was to bring an authentic 50s dining experience to people.

“They wanted slightly older servers but I was 29 at the time. I lied about my age and said I was 32 to get the job.

And ever since she donned her uniform back in June 1971 she hasn’t looked back.

“It’s a fantastic job – I absolutely love it!

“The success of any great business is great staff; I’ve helped train the staff up and become a mummy and granny to so many of our 39,000 staff!”

At the age of 72, Rita shows no signs of settling down to a quiet retirement, she takes her duties of cultural attaché very seriously and still finds the time to work the first Thursday of the month if she’s in London.

“I’ve opened 170 Hard Rock Cafés across the globe in 48 countries along with 17 hotels and casinos, I absolutely love it!”

Coming back to the city for the first time in 13 years to help launch the Hard Rock Couture exhibition in Manchester, Rita reminisced about her encounter with the chaps from 80s new wave band Duran Duran.

“Duran Duran opened Manchester’s Hard Rock Café in Manchester, they were a bit cheeky when they presented a picture of their handprints 13 years ago.

“One set of handprints were much bigger than the others, I asked one band member (Simon Le Bon) which one was his, knowing full well he’d say the big ones.

“He said, ‘of course it’s mine’ and unzipped his trousers and flashed me! Well you know what they say, big hands…!”

In addition to waiting tables and touring the world as a brand representative Rita also makes the time to undertake charity work, citing the chance to give something back as a great opportunity.

Not only is Rita the first lady of the Hard Rock Café, she was also recognised in the Queen’s honours list and was awarded an honorary MBE back in 1998 for her contribution to Britain’s tourist industry.

Displayed in pride of place on her uniform among a plethora of other badges and pins, Rita explained that she wears it fairly regularly.

“When I last saw Bob (Geldof) he asked about my MBE and why I wasn’t wearing it at the time.

“He had a special miniature version commission made for me to wear with all my other pins, so I now have this larger original one and a smaller one.”

With a large number of Hard Rock Cafés set to open this year in far-flung destinations including Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Bolivia, Rita shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

When asked about the enduring popularity of Hard Rock Café she cited its heritage of providing good food, good service and rock n roll to the masses.

“In its simplest form,” she explained “Music is the medicine of life.”

The free Hard Rock Couture fashion exhibition is at Hard Rock Café Manchester from August 30 – September 8.

For more information visit

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