Hotel review: The Principal Hotel and Refuge, Manchester

Last month saw the star spangled press launch of The Principal Hotel and Refuge by Volta (formally the Palace) in Manchester. Promising to be the new jewel in Manchester’s already bursting glamorous hotel and nightlife scene this Victorian giant has undergone a whopping £25 million renovation. The opening gala certainly didn’t disappoint: colourful characters, giant mirror balls and a DJ set by superstar Mark Ronson, The Principal certainly made its arrival known and is staking a claim as a leading new ‘refuge in the capital of cool’. Vada decided to send local doyen of alternative style, and no stranger to a bit of glitz, Cheddar Gorgeous and his significant other to see what the Principal has to offer now the glitter has settled.

First impressions

The Principal certainly starts at an advantage when it comes to being noticed. Situated along one of the busiest bus routes in Europe, the glorious grade II red brick and terracotta building with its ornate clock tower and beautifully maintained facade can’t help but catch the eye. Its exterior emanates the grandeur of the Mancunian industrial boom and reflects in more than a little measure the great Mancunian love of showing off.

Although it’s always looked like a swanky hotel, the building actually started its life in 1895 as the headquarters of The Refuge Assurance company, a title still emblazoned in stone over its doors and further memorialised in the name of the revamped restaurant and bar on the corner of Whitworth and Oxford Street. It’s hard to imagine an insurance company today leaving such a beautiful architectural feast for us to enjoy!

It remained home to rows of typewriters and analysts all the way until 1987 and only claimed its destiny as a hotel in 1996 under the name of The Palace. Although it was always grand, the Palace tasted of a bygone era. From the fine china to the mandatory plate of biscuits served with the tea, it had a class-laden stuffiness that failed to connect with the evolving spirit of the city around it. I was keen to see if the new owners had harnessed the building;s undeniably elegant potential. I was astounded at the transformation and how the building’s beauty has been revealed in a new way by the redevelopment.

The fine polished stone of the massive camerated entrance hall has been revitalised with subtle, respectful illumination. A magnificent, larger-than-life bronze horse sculpted by Sophie Dickens stands proudly off-centre, overseeing the arrival of guests. Eccentric pieces of period luggage complement the otherwise clean, clutter-free reception desks while the scent of spiced vanilla floods the air. It’s like visiting an old friend who has unexpectedly discovered the elixir of eternal youth and beauty … still the same person but more fabulous than ever. The tightrope between preservation and modernisation has been traversed with great skill and apparently effortless finesse.

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It’s huge! Yes, I know, size isn’t everything and fortunately for us The Principal also knows what to do with it. There are 270 rooms over four intimately woven buildings, conference halls, a business centre with numerous shared working areas, over 19 meeting rooms and of course … a ballroom. Finding your room can sometimes be a challenge, but there are certainly worse buildings to be lost in. The corridors are furnished with period curiosities, the staircases lined with beautiful stained glass. It feels like there’s a new story to discover around every corner.

However, when you find your bed for the night expect high ceilings, feature furniture, modern comfort and a free tuckbox to enjoy! We were staying in one of the older rooms in the hotel, which had both advantages and drawbacks. The almost floor-to-ceiling 18-foot windows are gorgeous, but the building’s listed status has led to a few challenges in providing comprehensive heating throughout and at the end of November it gets a little chilly up North. Fortunately, the staff provided us with a couple of very powerful heaters that worked a treat. Room options include standard, superior and deluxe and range accordingly in price between £150 and £250. There are also a number of suites that go for a much prettier penny.

Roaming the Refuge

Staying in the room is a rather boring option when there is so much to do! There is a fully fitted gym, but unfortunately no pool – I was informed by the staff that this was an impossibility again due to the building’s listed status and age … perhaps a small sacrifice to be surrounded by such splendour. Who wants to work out anyway!

There are a number of places to grab a drink, relax or get your laptop out whilst here but the place to be is definitely Refuge, the in-house bar and restaurant. Gone is the tired tea room feel, replaced by wood framed glass panels, a range of seating and a very long structural metal bar that encases a central atrium. Produced in collaboration with Volta Eatery and Bar in West Didsbury, The Refuge is a hive of activity, from hotel guests eating breakfast to business people seeking a co-working alternative with style. At night it becomes a suave and upbeat place to meet, drink and be merry. The ambience is upbeat but not invasive, the crowd are revelling but not rowdy. What’s that you say? You’d like to hear about the food? Well, if I must!

Food and drink

My companion and I were informed by the maître de that our table wouldn’t be ready for about another 15 minutes but that she would send someone to fetch us when it was. Despite the inconvenience, this presented a perfect opportunity to sample the offbeat cocktail selection available at the main bar. (Oh, the things I have to do!)

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Although intrigued by the ‘Cement Shake’, I opted for the more dismissive It Doesn’t Matter which, despite its apparent nonchalance, is actually a rather bold burst of ginger and spiced rum offset by pomegranate and Szechuan. The other half opts for the more classically named Regal Nectar (Manchester bee references abounding) which is a contrasting blend of chamomile, Scotch and chocolate. Both are also nicely balanced in other ways at between £7-9 each.

Balancing contrasts is something Refuge seems to handle particularly well. The Victorian tiled walls are juxtaposed with quirky isometric designer wallpaper, industrial light fixtures and the period wooden furniture. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is comfortably eclectic.

We opted to sit in the winter garden, a glass atrium in the centre of the room complete with lush trees! Yet none of this is overwhelming or forced. From the minute detailing of the bar’s facadeto the den-like games room that can be hired for private functions, everything exudes an opulence that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Much to our surprise, the waiter had no problem tracking us down in our garden hideaway to take us to the table. The restaurant area was enough distance from the bar to provide a more relaxed feel although the ambience was still upbeat. The tiled mural above the dining area proclaimed ‘The Glamour of Manchester’ (there’s that famous show-off spirit again).

Food is ‘inspired by world travel’ and is divided into small plates and large plates. Scrawled annotations on printed notes offer amusing advice that breaks any formal etiquette of ordering. Most of the dishes are designed to be shared tapas-style, although larger plates are sufficient to satisfy as a main meal. There’s a range of cuisines and around 40% of what’s on offer is veggie friendly – which is, frankly, a huge deal!

We chanced our arm and over-ordered a selection of both large and small plates. The first to arrive was the crispy aubergine and feta, which my companion described as possibly the most exciting way he has ever eaten aubergine! The crunch was certainly just right. Next up, we were presented with grilled halloumi, basil and mustard seed; and lamb shawarma, with harissa and yogurt. It’s hard to go wrong with halloumi, and the melt-in-the-mouth texture of the lamb was interspersed beautifully with exiting moments of harissa spice.

From the large plates menu we went for an American-inspired butter-fried chicken with cornbread and the more refined option of tuna steak with pak choi, rounding off the order with sides of sweet potato mash and mini broccoli. The quality of the food was high with some nice touches of added flair – the occasional pop of chilli in the otherwise creamy potato mash was a particular treat. However, it was the small plates that held our attention.

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Had we our choices again, we may have tried the recommended three small plates each, although the option of the larger plates is always good for members of your party who don’t like to share. Nevertheless, even the most selfish diner would find it hard to resist the fondue sharing platter, complete with chunks of brownie, macarrons, biscuits and lashings of mousse-like chocolate fondant! Definitively. Indulgent. However, we were so curious about the other desserts and didn’t want you to miss out on a full report, so we simply had to order the pear tart with espresso custard as well!

The meal for two (with drinks) cost just shy of £100, so although not super-cheap it’s definitely competitive in Manchester’s current fine dining renaissance. The menu and the ambience felt particularly tailored towards catering for larger groups drinking and dining together. It’s the perfect place to spend an entire evening with a group of friends moving between the variety of places to sit, socialise, drink and dance. This certainly didn’t detract from us having a good time as a pair, but expect to be drawn into the vibe of the surroundings rather than staring longingly into one another’s eyes. Much like the rest of The Principal, The Refuge is a world unto itself to explore.

Connecting with the capital of cool

As you can probably gather, I left a total fan, but this was about more than the quality of the food or the softness of the beds. The redevelopment has opened up this proud and beautiful building in a new and exciting way. The branding for the first of its sure-to-be-regular public events proclaimed ‘Come as you are’. The building’s majesty connects it with the surrounding city rather than a cloistering exclusivity for the privileged few.

Above all else it is so Manchester – a bold and delicious clash of different styles and classes; a meeting of historical grandeur and contemporary excellence on a common bed of elegance. The concept echoes the sentiments of Manchester’s ‘original-modern’ zeitgeist of recent years and in-keeping with a more established Mancunian spirit The Principal and Refuge are not scared to do things their own way.

More information

The Principal Hotel and Refuge are located on the corner of Whitworth street and Oxford Street in Central Manchester.

Visit the website for more information or visit to book a table.

To book a room at the hotel contact: +44 (0)161 288 1111.

To book table at Refuge contact: +44 (0)161 233 5151