Urban life

The Revival of Manchester’s Northern Quarter

Once a fallen industrial district, Manchester’s Northern Quarter has become an eclectic destination of hidden bars and quirky shops

Something was bothering me. As I wandered through the Northern Quarter, it felt familiar in a way I couldn’t place. It was my first ever weekend in Manchester and my knowledge of the city was still based on stereotypes – ’90s rock bands and scarlet-clad football fans. And yet the imposing brownstone blocks, glossy boutiques and easy-to-use grid system reminded me of somewhere else.

Google had the answer. The gentrified streets of once-industrial north Manchester look so similar to Brooklyn that New York-set movies, TV series and adverts are regularly filmed here. And much like Brooklyn, the Northern Quarter’s revival has been all encompassing, taking the kebab stalls and seedier establishments of an area scarred by England’s ruined cotton industry and transforming them into something glossy and creative.

Mark Newton

Manchester’s place on the world stage has always been in flux. A century and a half ago, the city was rich, at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and known as Cottonopolis for its lucrative factories. It was even home to Mr Rolls and Mr Royce, who teamed up to make cars for their Mancunian friends.

But as England’s textile manufacturing industry floundered after the wars, Manchester suffered from poverty and – as the century progressed – one of the more rampant drug cultures in Europe. Which is not to say it hasn’t had its moments in the spotlight: the 1990s were defined by David Beckham’s winning goals and the Gallagher brothers’ dulcet tones. But those in search of a good meal or a great outfit tended to go elsewhere.

Mark Newton

No longer. Today the Northern Quarter is overrun by enticing cafes, clever concept restaurants and Scandinavian-style boutiques. I began with lunch at Evelyn’s, an LA-style restaurant filled with plants – both of the edible and potted varieties. Fitting, really, given that Manchester invented European vegetarianism when the incongruously named Reverend William Cowherd insisted his congregation go meat-free 200 years ago.

‘Manchester has rediscovered vegetables, which is something to celebrate,’ says Sax Arshad, the Mancunian owner of Evelyn’s, as he serves me a wasabi and kale poké. ‘Seriously, though, people’s palates have changed so much here. Everybody just ate the same when I was growing up, and now it’s all about vegan curries and Japanese tasting menus. There’s a real energy around food.’

Mark Newton

After lunch, we went downstairs to Daisy’s, Arshad’s basement club that recalls London’s very hip Soho House. Except here the membership is a ludicrously cheap £100 (HK$980) a year, which lets members hot desk by day (with a free coffee) and sip cocktails by night.

The sun sets early in December and the light was already fading fast by 3pm, so I scurried past Japanese tearooms and sherbet-coloured craft stalls to Affleck’s, a multistorey emporium of tat that would have been a nirvana to my teenage self. There are tattoo parlours, sweet stalls, bubblegum-pink cafes and row upon row of vintage clothing racks.

Mark Newton

Slightly more age appropriate was the serenely sleek Beaumont Organics boutique. Run by designer Hannah Beaumont, it sells ultra-fashionable clothes in neutral colours – think Paris’ arty Left Bank, up north. ‘There are two different styles of dressing in Manchester,’ says Beaumont, with a laugh. ‘There’s the Northern Quarter, where women go out in trainers, floaty skirts and Scandi-style jumpers – and then there’s the city centre, which fulfils that Manchester stereotype of tight dresses and high heels, and no tights in winter.’

Another shop that clearly rejects the blue legs and stilettos aesthetic is Nola, which has a similarly hipster vibe. Then there is Deadstock, which is filled with jumpers, hats, candles, shaving kits and limited-edition menswear. Nearby is Oklahoma, whose tagline is ‘Home to fun’ – usually an immediate sign of dreariness – and which actually lived up to its promise, selling quirky china tea cups and lamps that are both absurdist and very pretty.

Mark Newton

By this point I wanted a drink, and given it had been dark for at least two hours, I felt I deserved one. Did I opt for Corner Boy, a fusion of dingy Irish pub and glossy cocktail bar, or Science and Industry, a speakeasy with a hidden drinking den? Both seemed a good solution, and after two particularly potent cocktails, I was ready for Matt & Phreds, one of the city’s longest-running live music venues, run by Claire Turner. ‘Music is everything here,’ she says, in her Mancunian lilt. ‘The city’s place as one of the great centres of music in the world is what attracts people to it – it’s in our blood.’

That night, I caught their blues jamming session – up on the stage went paunchy, grey-haired men in flat caps, bearded hipsters and Vivienne Westwood lookalikes (with the outfits to match). The place was packed past midnight and the mood was buoyant and friendly – it was, I was assured, ‘very Manchester’.

Mark Newton

As is Mackie Mayor, a converted factory with food stalls selling everything from fried chicken bao to Neapolitan pizza and glasses of natural wine. There is live music on weekends and, along the sharing tables, strangers strike up easy conversations in a way that would seem almost psychopathic in London.

While the city might be nailing the laid-back indie vibe, it also has a glittering Michelin star in its gaze. The most likely recipient is Mana, headed by Simon Martin, an ex-Noma chef whose food has taken the city by storm. His tasting menu is only three months old but is already the stuff of legends – although be sure to check your free will at the door along with your coat. ‘Swapping courses on my menu is like reading a book with the chapters out of order,’ he says. ‘Everything has been meticulously planned.’

Manchester, Mackie Mayor

‘I think Manchester is on the cusp of great change,’ he continues. ‘There are amazing farms around us, we have easy access to the sea and it’s jam-packed with passionate chefs. It reminds me of Scandinavia before it was in the spotlight. Now it just needs the confidence – and the visitors – and it will do great things.’

Where to sleep:

I stayed at INNSide by Melia in the heart of the city. The beds were vast, the views were dramatic, and the mini bar was free – what more could you want?

Cathay Pacific flies to Manchester from Hong Kong seven times a week

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