We were in Manchester, a couple of days ago, being shown its rich built heritage by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. Many ornate and grand C19 buildings, once idiotically threatened with replacement by grossly inferior piles, have been respectfully restored and repurposed as hospitality businesses. We can state from direct experience that Manchester can boast several spots worthy of Wonderland City.
Some tiresome blighters have been known to despise a perfectly good hostelry just because it is part of a chain. Here at Wonderland City, we look to more tangible, objective metrics such as the elegance and Golden Era vibe of a place, the service, the quality of the offering.
By those standards, the Manchester branch of the Brown’s chain of brasseries is a cracker. It occupies the ground floor of an Edwardian Baroque building of 1902 which was built for Parr’s Bank (later part of National Westminster). The square footage of each grandiose window, if laid horizontally, would be greater than some flats we’ve lived in. The location is very central.
The gentlemanly, ornate interior has been largely repurposed, with many original features and period-sympathetic lighting and fixtures. The area which used to be part of the executive suite is particularly attractive and more intimate than the lofty banking hall.
The menu is quite contemporary, presenting a mix of international ‘fusion’ dishes and perennial favourites. The drinks are honestly priced, with cocktails around £10-11 and a bottle of Taittinger Brut Réserve at £60. We did not have the opportunity to sample the goods on our rather rushed visit but the staff’s welcome to our group pf architectural gawkers was very gracious, which bodes well for actual customers.
Ratings – People: ■■■□. Look/Feel: ■■■■
Verdict: an impressive find and very much our sort of place.
The Refuge at the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel
Another conversion of a former public hall, in this case built in 1891 for the Refuge Assurance Co. The handling of the large space, with its high-Victorian faience-lined surfaces, mullioned windows and tiled flooring is very sympathetic, despite the occasional ill-advised concession to C21 graphics. The Dining area on the south side is more serene than the lively public bar.
The menu, as at Brown’s, is international fusion, minus the reliable fallbacks. Pricing and, aspiration ally, execution is well north of Brown’s but the desired effect was missed, on our visit, by glacial and somewhat distracted staff. The old saw that the quieter the place the poorer the service was confirmed, regrettably. Still, an impressive space with great potential.
Ratings – People: ■□□□. Look/Feel: ■■■□
Verdict: clear potential but arguably needs to clarify (and attain) its aspirations.
Piccolino Caffé Grande
Leaving aside the puzzling solecism of its name, this informal restaurant (rather than a café), is nicely housed in the former offices of the Northern Assurance, just next to Manchester’s historic town hall.
The external set-up looks more strictly Victorian than the interior, which we would describe as creditably retro, without the full Golden Era richness we prize. Overall, quite pleasant, though.
A full menu of Italian dishes (first and second courses as well as pizza) is sure to fit all tastes and the drinks are reasonably priced.
Ratings – People: to be determined. Look/Feel: ■■□□
Verdict: location and food offering over Wonderland City details but worth bearing in mind.
Approaching Manchester’s exquisite cathedral (the interiors are worth a trip in themselves) from the south, a visitor might chance upon Shambles Square, a bit of modern urbanism resulting from the clever repositioning of much older buildings. This charming setting is literally surrounded by pubs and traditional restaurants. A ‘tourist trap’ we would be happy to be snared by.
Although, up to now, all the places we’ve covered are in the Metrop, clearly the attraction of elegant, period conviviality is universal and we hope to extend our coverage to more locations. And so we say to our readers outside London: if you know of places that deserve a Wonderland City mention, drop us a line. We look forward to hearing your suggestions.