Urban retreat: The Refuge by Volta in Manchester

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Bar and restaurant The Refuge by Volta has opened its doors at Manchester’s Palace Hotel, reports Mark Ludmon

The grand, red-brick Refuge Assurance building has been a landmark of Manchester city centre since the late 19th century. Clad in terracotta and capped by a clock tower, it stands on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street, displaying the typical ornate, neo-Gothic style of architect Alfred Waterhouse who also designed the city’s Town Hall. After Refuge Assurance left in 1989, it became a 252-bedroom hotel, owned by leading operator Principal Hayley.

As the last part of a year-long multimillion-pound refurbishment, a new bar and dining room has been created over 10,000 square feet of space, making a new destination for cocktails in the city. Taking its name from the previous occupants, The Refuge has been conceived as a relaxing, laid-back retreat from city life, with the tagline of “Come as you are”.

Principal Hayley brought in two experts from Manchester’s food and drink scene, Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford, who are behind restaurant and bar Volta in West Didsbury and Electrik Bar in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in south Manchester. “With our background in relaxed dining and bars, we wanted to take this iconic building and create an atmosphere that was open to everybody and felt accessible,” Justin explains. “It is a refuge from the world outside and a place where you would want to spend a lot of time, whether it’s for afternoon tea or dining in the restaurant or at the bar.”

The Refuge by Volta Manchester

Justin and Luke contributed to the furnishing of the spaces which were designed by Alex Michaelis and Luke Rowett from leading practice Michaelis Boyd with Sara Cosgrove, design director for Project 1898 – the hotel redevelopment programme by Principal Hayley’s owner Starwood Capital Group. Michaelis Boyd worked on the refurbishment of the whole hotel, focused on accentuating and celebrating the “extraordinary” design of the building. Keeping it simple and luxurious, the scheme highlights heritage features such as the strongly coloured tiling and the beautifully carved timber panelling, with furniture made of simple raw materials such as oak, brass and leather.

The double-height food and beverage space was previously a large business hall and, more recently, had been partitioned over, obscuring its scale and rich tiling. Michaelis Boyd opened it up and restored original details, using large crittal screens to divide the space up while still allowing views throughout.

An open kitchen, with blackened steel and zinc counter surfaces, provides a theatrical centre for the 139-cover dining room which brings Volta’s award-winning formula of small plates and grills. Under head chef Alex Worrall, the menu is inspired by Justin and Luke’s world travels, particularly in cities such as Barcelona, Rome, Sydney and Tokyo, with a strong focus on provenance and high-quality ingredients.

The Refuge by Volta Manchester

The dining room’s decorative lighting includes large brass pendants hanging from the coved ceiling as well as lower-level pivoting lights above the banquettes. The furniture, from booths to high benches, is upholstered and painted in colours from the heritage tiling. There is also a private dining room.

The 150-capacity bar is designed for comfort and intimacy, with leather chesterfield sofas, upholstered wing chairs and a long curved banquette. A long table has been installed for people working during the daytime, while a large communal table in the centre is a place for smaller groups to socialise. The 40ft granite bar is clad in copper, with lights behind giving out a warm glow visible from the street.

Beyond the bar is the new Winter Garden, housed within a glass atrium that is filled with greenery to give an outdoor feel – suitable for afternoon tea as well as cocktails. Another space is The Den, suitable for meetings and parties, equipped with a big screen and its own bar as well as table football and pool. With Justin and Luke’s background as DJ duo The Unabombers since the late ‘80s, the music is carefully chosen, including DJs at weekends, supported by a high-quality sound system.

With 18 taps on the bar, Justin has chosen craft beers from the UK and overseas, ranging from Huddersfield’s Magic Rock and London’s Beavertown to the likes of Warsteiner and Kaltenberg. Alongside regularly changing local beers, they have also developed their own Volta Pale Ale, made only with British hops, at 4.3% ABV, with Salford brewery First Chop. For the wine list, Justin has selected smaller, lesser-known growers and varietals that offer good value.

For the cocktails, they have turned to drinks consultancy Gorgeous Group which has worked with luxury hotels around the world as well as Hilton Deansgate’s Cloud 23 bar in Manchester. As well as selecting spirits and training staff, Gorgeous Group’s Julian de Féral helped the Volta team to create a list that would stand out on Manchester’s extensive cocktail scene. “We wanted something that was down to earth and democratic, in line with Volta’s philosophy,” Julian says. “We wanted spirits that the bartenders and guests could get excited about but affordable, not at luxury five-star hotel prices.”

The Refuge by Volta Manchester

As well as brands with a local connection and a British emphasis, The Refuge uses lesser-known products such as Casa Mariol vermouth from Spain and spiced rum Dark Matter. Hardly any of the drinks have garnishes and they come in simple geometric glasses rather than anything fancy. Despite lots of homemade ingredients, the menu of just 10 original cocktails – priced £7 to £8.50 – keeps the descriptions simple to ensure they remain accessible, Julian points out. “Like the food, the drinks are understated but hiding a great attention to detail. We are trying to do something a little bit different but don’t want to alienate anyone.”

Dog vs Bee is described as white whiskey, honey, vermouth and bitters but comprises Few White Dog Spirit, bee propolis, Dolin Blanc and bitter liqueur Suze, served with a chunk of propolis honeycomb. The Sour-like Heavens! is made with Jameson Irish whiskey and “Heaven on Earth” (a rum-based cherry, almond, chocolate and honey liqueur), spiked with tonka bean esprit and using the zesty house “milk sherbet” – made of milk, lemon juice and sugar that froths when shaken, negating the need for lemon, sugar or egg white. It is finished with a red wine float.

They have put the same attention into the non-alcoholic cocktails as well as their Dad’s Persian Lime Soda made with cold-infused black Persian limes, sweetened with kaffir lime leaf syrup. “There is a lot of prepping but, with a fairly concise menu, it means the bartenders can turn out consistently good drinks at high volumes,” Julian adds.

The Refuge by Volta, Palace Hotel, Oxford Street, Manchester M60 7HA
Tel: 0161 233 5151
www.refugemcr.co.uk

Refuge Manchester

Behind the scenes
Design: Michaelis Boyd
Architects: 3D Reid
Built-in seating: Woodhouse Contract Furnishers
Upholstered furniture: Ozo Living
Dining tables: Andy Thornton
Dining chairs: Contract Chair Company
Central dining table: Vintage Industrial Metal
Large ceiling lighting: Northern Lights
Other lighting: Mullan Lighting, Michaelis Boyd
Drapery: Robena Contract Furnishings
Artwork hanging: Hang My Art
Fabrics: Futura Leather, Sekers Fabrics

Originally published in the November 2016 print edition of Bar magazine.

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