The New Order: 48 Hours in the Revitalized Manchester City Centre
Above image: Manchester Corn Exchange
Visiting Stockholm in 2010, we were expertly tipped off that the newly minted SoFo was the Swedish capital’s most happening new neighborhood. To be honest, we’re always a bit skeptical of such things; and, indeed, SoFo turned out to be just two cool kid cafes and a vinyl record shop. But such is the urgency to declare the next “hip” whatever.
Just prior to our latest trip to Manchester, we were similarly informed that its Ancoats neighborhood had recently secured the distinction as one of the 10 most buzziriffic hoods in the known universe. And our first night out, at a significantly happening new restaurant called Elnecot, seemed to confirm just that.
Ancoats in the 19th Century epitomized the promise of the new industrial age, which England had embraced with uncharacteristic gusto. Majestic rows of Victorian factories urged Manchester towards a new era of technological prosperity. Alas, by the mid-20th Century, that promised had all but disappeared – and decades of downturn and, well, greyness, followed.
National Football Museum
But as is the 21st Century urban drill, developers began converting those same factories into iconoclastic living spaces. In fact, we became quickly, palpably aware that Manchester City Centre had been undergoing a radical transformation upon checking into the stylish new AC by Marriott Manchester City Centre hotel – where the international media had gathered for an edition of AC Unpacked: A Conversation, a new series that brings together creative visionaries for inspirational discussions.
But we have to say we found ourselves most inspired as we actually traversed the new cityscape of this infamous birthplace of Factory Records and the Gallagher brothers. Here was our takeaway.
Being as we were unshakable American Anglophiles, for us Manchester’s allure has revolved entirely around its illustrious music history. It was here that Joy Division, The Fall, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, The Hacienda, Stone Roses, Take That, Oasis and their considerable like all rose up from tower block dreariness to international exaltation. Two post-Millennium films – Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) – captured all the bleakness, humor, drugs, mayhem and musical genius perfectly brilliantly.
To set the mood, we programmed a playlist of Manc classics, which we left blaring in our room at all hours throughout our stay (“You and I are gonna live forever…”). And it was the contemplation of that very music that emphasized just how much everything had been changing in Manchester, for better or worst. Surely there would never be another music scene like it…so, as they say, on to the next.
For as long as anyone can recall, most workaday Mancs retreated to suburbs like Didsbury or Burnage at the end of each business day. But SimpsonHaugh architects have spent the last two decades reshaping the City Centre for full-time habitation, careful not to follow the crass contemporary model of shameless, mercenary overdevelopment. One of their latest projects was the aforementioned AC hotel, where we met partner David Green for a tour of the Manchester’s landmark structures.
Since a 1500 ton IRA truck bomb devastated the area around the famous Corn Exchange building in 1996, the firm has been instrumental in moving the city forward to a new contemporary reality. Without a doubt, striking edifices like the residential No. 1 Deansgate (which, when completed in 2002, was a watershed for City Centre development), Great Jackson Street apartments/retail, the Manchester Civil Justice Centre (by architects Denton Corker Marshall), and more recently the Manchester Town Hall Extension and the Library Walk have visually transformed the city into the 21st Century urban success story that now decisively has the world’s attention.
Manchester Town Hall Extension
The Derby Day rivalry between Man United and Man City dates all the way back to 1881 – and possibly only Brazilians and Italians take their footy teams more seriously. But the National Football Museum (another headline-grabbing SimpsonHaugh project), whether you’re a fan or not, is at least a must architectural visit – as it stands like a modern Great Pyramid above Todd Street. And, well, the exhibitions are a genuinely fun afternoon’s diversion.
Still, history does ground the city; and we were riveted as we roamed the stately rooms of the neo-gothic John Rylands Library, first opened to the public in 1900. It’s considered one of the most important collections of books in the world.
But a visit to the Manchester Cathedral (dating to the 15th Century and built in the Perpendicular Gothic style), turned surreal, as we stumbled upon a “family” of teddy bears set up in a corner for an imaginary…tea party? Leaving us to wonder if it was something metaphorical, or just meant to keep the little ones occupied while the grownups ogled all the religious grandeur. Later we stumbled upon a chap setting up a full bar at the back of the church – and our curiosity netted the information that it was for some sort of music performance that evening. Only in Manchester?
John Rylands Library
It’s hard to argue against the allure of loft-like apartments in Victorian era factories – and row after restored row now makes up one of the most visually striking neighborhoods in all of England. Sure, it’s still a little early to declare Ancoats the next Shoreditch; but along with Elnecot, groovy new spots like The Counter House, Canto, The Jane Eyre, Panda, Sugo, and a super mod bakery called Trove (with its corresponding restaurant Erst) were abuzz with media types. Here and there outside tables gave the streets the hum of emerging energy, and most of the aforementioned places shared a sort of unifying rustic-industrial aesthetic, many with factory windows gloriously framing the surrounding architecture. Yet despite the newness, it all felt very, distinctly English.
For urban trend watchers, Ancoats is most definitely worth keeping an eye on.
The dearth of new generation restaurants in the UK was a stark reality until chefs like Marco Pierre White and Fergus Henderson began celebrating Britishness in cooking in the swinging new post-Millennium London. That culinary revolution eventually spread north, until cities like Leeds and Birmingham were boasting Michelin stars.
In Manchester, though, we steered clear of the haute in favor of the happening. And indeed, the aforementioned Elnecot is as cool as anything in New York or London’s Chelsea or Soho, with its Corbusian aesthetic, and clever menu divided up by Nibbles, Fish, Meat, Veg and…Balls (who wouldn’t love wild mushroom pearl barley arancini?).
The hyper-fashionable 20 Stories is exactly what is says it is, and is surely the city’s most international scene (we detected Israeli, Balkan and Latin American accents). But for all the flash, and heart-stopping views, the modern British cuisine was also a genuine revelation, with Shetland cod, roasted Goosnargh duck and slow cooked pork belly all rising to the heights of the lofty location.
But easily our favorite was Mackie Mayor, a trendy but mad fun food hall in an 1858 Grade II listed building. Spread over two industrial-chic floors under a massive skylight, vendors like Baohouse, Honest Crust Pizza, Fin Fish Bar and Pico’s Tacos make it a pretty much non-stop party. From our experience, bring as many friends as possible, and don’t skimp on the gluttony.
AC Hotel by Marriott Manchester City Centre
A sudden tourism boom leaves Manchester now playing catch up when it comes to the contemporary boutique hotel races. The AC Hotel by Marriott Manchester City Centre is a good start, opened in early 2018 at a perfect midpoint between burgeoning Ancoats and the City Centre of its title, which now hums both day and night.
As is always the case with AC, it’s very much about design, with a lobby done in urbane, earthy tones and stylishly clean lines. To the right is a lounge area that is very much the nerve center of the hotel, with creative and business types mingling and working away by day, giving the hotel a persistent sense of energy. By evening, it transforms into a lively bar, where we had the privilege of gin tasting with the Manchester Gin Company, responsible for the hotel’s signature AC G&T. It’s a “must” order – as is bringing home a bottle of their inimitable Wild Spirit gin.
Upstairs the rooms are all understated chic, with warm woods and elegantly contemporary furnishings. But best of all, generous windows frame a new Manchester skyline, one that has changed at a manageable pace – and that leaves one genuinely wondering just where the fabled music city will go next.