I remember it like it was yesterday.
The Corn Exchange in Manchester city centre was every teenager’s dream. Creaky floorboards pointed the way to record-sellers, second-hand bookshops and stalls offering all manner of dubious and unrecognisable goods. The scent of a decade’s worth of incense sticks hung in the air, punctuated by the unmistakable come-hither of bacon baps and fried egg sandwiches. The passageways between outlets were narrow and threatened new experiences at every turn. This was nirvana.
As it turned out, you could buy Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind in the Corn Exchange. As a sixth former sneaking into town on a regular basis, I took my life in my hands on the nearby Ritz’s bouncy dance floor. I recall one especially eventful evening when Smells Like Teen Spirit boomed out across Whitworth Street. During a particularly enthusiastic bout of dancing, my best mate’s boob popped out of her top. We hastily shoved it back in.
A cursory glance at YouTube reveals that, today, the video for that song has amassed more than 862 million views. Oh my. But what I’m really getting at is the Corn Exchange’s importance to generations of Manc teenagers. And, following the 1996 IRA bomb which devastated a third of the city centre, we weren’t the only ones appalled at the council’s decision to turn the Exchange into a glass-encased shopping centre. Nor were we alone in our determination to give that soulless retail destination a wide berth.
Fast forward to today and the Corn Exchange has been re-reinvented into a foodie palace. It’s got it all going on. Architects have removed all manner of late 20th century add-ons, and there’s been a concerted effort to return and retain those exquisite period features. Put simply, the crappy modern renovations have been stripped away and there’s more than a semblance of the former spirit of this special building.
Manchester’s Corn Exchange has morphed into a gastro destination. At the latest count, there are 13 restaurants huddled in this Grade II listed building, among then Cosy Club, a chain of bars and restaurants which prides itself on fancy venues and fabulous decor. Founded in Bristol in 2002, its Manchester outlet makes the most of the cavernous interior of the Exchange. Here it’s all light and space, a throwback to the building’s original purpose – a Northern centre for corn traders to buy and sell produce.
On one of the coldest days of the year, Cosy Club fails to live up to its name. Opening up onto the Corn Exchange’s spacious central space means that it’s nigh on impossible to heat during a Northern cold snap. We keep our coats on. Nevertheless, the warmth of welcome and the cheery nature of the staff do much to mitigate our chills.
Cosy Club would never be anyone’s choice for fine dining; nor would it be top of the list for Manchester diners seeking a silver service, all singing, all dancing gastro experience. But, aside from special occasions, who wants any of that anyway? On the day I went with a Northern Soul colleague and her young daughter in tow, Cosy Club fulfilled everything we were after and more.
We established ourselves in a squashy sofa and a comfy chair, pratted about deciding what we wanted, and were pleasantly surprised when dishes that promised only mediocre sustenance were delicious, plentiful and moreish. The vegan menu excelled itself (a tricky accomplishment given the propensity of restaurants to trot out flaccid tofu and lifeless mushrooms), and the halloumi fries screamed “eat me, eat me”. As for the hake, it fair shouted “I taste proper good”. And so it did.
While our trio gave the thumbs up to the various dishes, a common complaint came down to temperature, and not just of the room: yes, it was frosty outside, but is that any excuse for serving dishes on the tepid side? Come on, Cosy Club, if any day deserves meals that make you blow furiously on your food, surely a Northern winter weekday is one of them?
D’you know what, though? I’d go back there in a heartbeat. And I’d take my seven-year-old niece who would love the big sofas, the child-friendly atmosphere and the chicken lollipops. Cosy Club, I’ll be seeing you.