Is the city making the most of its historic and car-free square?
On any chosen Saturday you're likely to see a couple descend the steps of the Royal Exchange Theatre and step out onto St Ann's Square.
Their appetites sufficiently stoked from a matinee performance of one harrowing heartbreak or another, they look expectantly each way in the hope of a sign beckoning them in for an early dinner, and are greeted only by the glaring 'Golden Arches' of McDonald's or the 'Siren' of the Starbucks branding.
For what is undoubtedly one of the city centre's most prized areas, this weird lack of food and drink options in St Ann's Square is curious considering it's already pedestrianised, well-paved and without a tram or bus in sight.
So what explains this dearth of hospitality options? Is it the rumour of a restrictive St Ann's Church covenant not wanting its eponymous square to promote the demon drink? Is it the city council wanting the space clear for budget boosting commercial markets and events, particularly the Christmas markets?
Turns out the real reason is far more prosaic.
If you put a roof on St Ann's Square, it could be the Arndale Centre. More could be done.
St Ann's Square - let the people talk
So while Manchester's first conservation area sits in relative stony silence, bar the odd whoosh of pigeons' wings, what do those wandering through the square think?
One passerby, 63-year-old Ian Farrell from Rochdale, said how the array of shops in the nearby Barton Arcade are looking a bit unloved too, and this is echoed with the retail units of St Ann's Square.
"I just walked through the shopping arcade," he explained. "And I've got the impression it's looking a little down, that the shops aren't quite of the standard they used to be, and you could say that about the square. If you put a roof on it, it could be the Arndale Centre. More could be done.
"I like that it's open air, but the weather's always a problem in Manchester so maybe with some awnings and some heaters - preferably carbon neutral - you could have people sit out here. Decent food, whether that's a cafe or a proper restaurant, would be an advantage."
Manchester now regularly finds itself on various 'Best Places to…' lists, rubbing shoulders with stalwarts like Hamburg, Kraków and Valencia. However Ian believes that regardless of Manchester's metropolitan reputation, it still stands as an acutely British city like any other, its lack of a cafe culture reflecting that. Not everyone will agree with his words.
"In Europe there's a different culture when it comes to eating out and actually the way you behave outside," he said. "It's not the same here in England for various reasons, so that would be hard. This square also lacks the beauty of a lot of those European squares that we tend to think of because building regulations either didn't exist or haven't been followed. So you've got some pretty grim shop fronts in front of what were some rather nice buildings; at eye-level it's destroyed. It could be improved through shop fronts and restoring some of the original architecture. And I have to say, the fountain is a shocker."
(The weak cotton bud fountain by Peter Randall Page dates from 1996. Tony Blair, soon to be Prime Minister, was the special guest at the launch that year and when the fountain started to sluggishly spout water, he said, “Is that it?”)
Meanwhile Bart, 18, thinks even a lone restaurant would make all the difference to an area of the city not lacking in office workers, many of whom make the familiar lunchtime trudge up towards M&S to jostle for meal deals.
"It's being used pretty well I'd say," he explained. "There was a boxing ring here the other day, and someone held a gymnastics performance. More food and drink here would be ideal I think. Obviously you have the McDonald's but it's pretty poor. It'd be nice to have a restaurant just down here [Mansfield Chambers]. I work here and there's 50 or 60 people in the office who'd definitely use it.
"Where I'm from in Poland, this square would be full of restaurants and pubs, nothing else - you'd have it filled with hospitality. I feel Manchester doesn't have something like that. It'd be difficult to have something here, but just one extra restaurant wouldn't hurt."
The church and the pub
So what is the relationship between St Ann's Church and the Square?
One food and drink business that did enjoy a bustling outdoor atmosphere was Mr Thomas' Chop House, which from 2000 until the pandemic had outside seating in the churchyard of St Ann's Church. The outside area was described in the pages of City Life's Food and Drink Guide 2007, by our editor Jonathan Schofield, as "the most handsome and comfortable pub terrace in the city by a mile."
However a recent statement in the church's annual report for 2022 alluded to the now-glaring lack of seating, in a section ominously entitled 'Churchyards'.
It said: "During the year we were able to bring to a satisfactory conclusion a lengthy dispute with Manchester City Council about the ownership and control of our own churchyard (the land immediately surrounding the Church). The settlement included the cessation and removal of an unsightly and occasionally disruptive catering operation.
"We look forward to a more productive relationship with the City Council, through which we hope to establish a clear policy for the use of the paved area to the south of the Church. Our preference, which we will attempt to promote, would be for a calm and peaceful area of retreat, ideally with a small garden or suitable planting, and businesses which would contribute to that restful atmosphere."
'Unsightly and occasionally disruptive catering operation': that can only mean the Thomas's terrace. It seems in the immediate vicinity of St Ann's there is ecclesiastical influence but it turns out not across most of the Square.
Manchester City council's opinion: they'd like more food and drink but...
What exactly the parameters are for a restful atmosphere is anyone's guess, but it could be argued St Ann's Square has been so well-rested as to be nodding off, while another, less saintly square such as Cutting Room Square in Ancoats attracts some of the best in food and drink.
So, does the council influence the operators in the buildings around the main part of the Square to keep it clear for events and markets? The answer is no.
Manchester City Council looks to King Street for an example of a public space that strikes a balance of business types, where the likes of Boodles bumps up alongside Gails and El Gato Negro.
A spokesperson for Manchester City Centre said: "St Ann's Square is one of the beautiful jewels in Manchester's crown. We welcome retail and hospitality approaches wherever they may be submitted in the city, similar to the recent successes on King Street where a mix of businesses have been established.
"But, as with other areas of the city it comes down to the suitability of the building, the owners of the property and the level of rent that is set.
"Above all the council wishes to see a vibrant St Ann's Square which attracts visitors as well as our own residents."
Cityco, the city centre management company were asked for a comment but declined.
Commercial rents in St Ann's Square - the answer to the question
Sixteen Real Estate, who manage 19-23 and 25 St Ann's Square, the building known as Mansfield Chambers, explained how there had been interest in the building from food and drink businesses, but the cost of the rent on the units proved too steep.
The annual rent on 19-23 St Ann's Square is £400,000, the sort of figure that Alex Haigh, director of retail and leisure at Sixteen Real Estate, explained would be unmanageable for businesses making the profits typical of food and drink.
"If the rent had been up to around £150,000 per annum, I think there'd have been engagement from restaurants," said Alex. "But I think once you go over that sort of level, there's not many operators in that market with the sort of weekly and annual turnover to warrant a rent that high."
The sorts of profit margins needed to operate in St Ann's Square therefore leaves only a few types of businesses in the frame, and Alex explained that transactions on 19-23 have been exchanged with a high end jewellers, with others also looking to move into the likes of the former Real Buzz running shop at 13 St Ann's Square.
"St Ann's Square and King Street, especially with the Boodles now there, I think has become the jewellery quarter," he said. "Arguably in the last five years with more flats and more Middle Eastern money there's now more demand for high end watches and jewellery, I think especially as Manchester becomes probably more of an international city rather than England's second city. If you're selling a watch for £10-15,000 the margins are better than food or even retail."
There's now more demand for high end watches and jewellery, especially as Manchester becomes more of an international city rather than England's second city
So there you have it.
King Street may give an idea of a potential future for St Ann's Square, a mixture of restaurants and retail, and with units freeing up around Manchester's first conservation area. That's just a potential though. There might be empty units and a pawnbrokers in the Square at present but those high rents won't be lowered by landlords to accommodate food and drink if they think they can attract big name jewellers and watch retailers.
In the meantime, there's always McDonald's.
St Ann's Square: the back story
The square in front of St Ann’s Church used to be called Acresfield. From 1227 it was the site of the town’s annual fair. This took place over three days every September, largely for the sale of livestock. In those unsophisticated times, the inhabitants would gather on the opening day at the entrance to the field. When the first animal entered, they would pelt it with acorns and beat it with whips. In the evening they’d get drunk. Simple pleasures.
St Ann’s Square could be equally riotous in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century when electoral hustings were erected. It was after one such occasion when the Liberals routed the Tories that Manchester MP John Bright said if he could find a real Conservative working man in Manchester he’d put him under a glass case and exhibit him. Given the overwhelming Labour sentiment in the city of Manchester presently, that sentence could be easily revisited.
For most of St Ann's Square's history things have been more tranquil from the moment when Lady Ann Bland 211 years ago opened her church and created the elegant square. This the North's 'West End' with upmarket shops for decades.
In Harold Brighouse's play Hobson's Choice (1915) the ambition of cobbler Will Mossop on humble Oldfield Road in Salford is to one day open a shop in St Ann's Square. It was the ambition of all retailers in the North with aspirations until the last decade or so. The empty units in 2023 tell a different story. So time for a change of direction perhaps but rather than food and drink it looks likely to be more jewellery and watch shops. Not easy to imagine tables and chairs animating the square outside those units: "Have you any allergies we need to know about concerning diamonds or Rolex?"