Alannah Jones enjoys art and arancini at the top ten culture cafes in Manchester
Once little more than an afterthought - serving stale sandwiches and weak tea in an underlit basement - the museum cafe has now become a core part of the visitor offering, and in some cases even a destination in its own right. As well as housing our most historically and culturally significant artifacts, Manchester’s museums and galleries now provide some of the most memorable dining experiences available in the city.
Next time you’re meeting friends for a coffee, treating your mum to afternoon tea or heading out for a working lunch, give Costa a swerve in favour of your nearest heritage cafe. At every spot on this list you can expect a warm welcome, good food and the self-righteous glow that comes from supporting Manchester’s heritage sector.
The Portico is an authentic hidden gem of central Manchester; you might well have walked past the door many times and had no idea it was there. Just off St. Peter’s Square, through a small green doorway and up some winding stone steps, the library hosts a collection of rare and antiquarian books, as well as frequent art exhibitions and, most importantly, a cafe.
The cafe has an authentically cosy vibe; the smell of books intermingling with the aromas of a toastie maker. It’s the perfect space to sit for an hour or so with a book and a coffee under the beautiful glass dome, and the ideal refuge from the Saturday crowds. The service feels quaint and endearing: homemade soups and granary loaf sandwiches served up on mismatched floral-patterned china.
With perfectly modest prices — £6.50 for a soup and a sandwich combo; £2.50 for a toasted teacake — and plenty of veggie/vegan options. There’s even the option for wine or G&Ts, if you fancy getting mildly boozed among the bookstacks.
The Portico Library, 57 Mosley Street M2 3HY
Though only a few doors down from the Portico, the Gallery Cafe at Manchester Art Gallery occupies a different culinary league. If ogling the collection of Pre-Raphaelites has made you thirsty, head down to this elegant cafe. The space is airy and inviting; flooded with light from the vast Georgian windows, macarons and opera cakes winking at you from the glass display cabinet.
Overseen by a former Masterchef: The Professionals finalist, it boasts a much more upmarket selection than average — wild mushroom tagliatelle and smoked mackerel sandwiches; mussels in a white wine sauce and three-tiered afternoon teas. Though if that all strikes you as a little fancy, rest assured, you can still find (skin-on) chips, cheese and (onion) gravy, or a Manchester tart. As you’d expect, it’s towards the pricier side — £25 per person for that afternoon tea — but the quality just about justifies it.
Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street M2 3JL
A poke around the home of one of Manchester’s most famous authors would be incomplete with a visit to the volunteer-run tea room. Located in the basement of the house (what was the kitchens and servants hall in Gaskell’s day), the menu is limited to tea, cake and soup of the day, but you can guarantee it’s made with love - without doubt the place to go if you're missing your gran's carrot cake.
Tickets to the museum are £6.50 for standard admission but you can come back as often as you like within a year. A personal tip would be to plan your visit for the second Saturday of the month to tie in with the regular second-hand book sale and pick up a Penguin Classic. In the words of Gaskell herself: “Nothing like the act of eating for equalizing men.”
Elizabeth Gaskell's House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester, M13 9LW
Easily the most impressive space on this list (or at least the most architecturally stunning), the Whitworth Gallery Cafe is housed in a huge glass box extension to the museum proper, allowing diners to eat while suspended amongst the trees of Whitworth Park. Equally breathtaking on a sunny or rainy day, and popular with students due to the proximity to both universities, the menu just about lives up to its setting.
If you’re feeling #goodtoyourself, order the Nourish bowl, or swing by between 10 and 11.45 for a brunch that includes their signature sweet potato hash. The dishes are well made, and though service could be snappier, it’s the setting that really elevates this one.
The Whitworth Gallery Cafe, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road M15 6ER
For any comrade famished by an afternoon spent perusing Clement Atlee’s pipe and Michael Foot’s donkey jacket, a visit to the People’s History Museum cafe is a must. Run by ethical catering company Open Kitchen, you can dine inside or out on the terrace overlooking the Irwell. As part of Open Kitchen’s committed sustainability mission, everything on the menu is locally sourced, and mostly made from ingredients which would otherwise go to waste. All very admirable, of course — and luckily, on the evidence of recent visits, not at the expense of taste. By necessity the menu changes frequently, but look out if you can for the bean burger and the locally brewed ales.
People's History Museum, Left Bank M3 3ER
Trundle halfway up Cheetham Hill and you’ll find the Museum of Transport for Greater Manchester. Though you can’t access the cafe unless you buy a ticket (£5 for adults, free for children), it’s well worth a visit to be transported back through over a century of Manchester’s network of buses, trams and memorabilia. Open since 1979 and operated ever since by enthusiastic volunteers, the museum is a love letter to Manchester transport — check their website for frequent opportunities to ride through the city on vintage buses.
The cafe is a real throwback in the best possible sense. Serving the type of food you might expect a 1960s bus driver to pack for lunch, the retro tea room offers meat pies for £1.50, soup for £2 and cups of tea for £1. Entirely catered by friendly former drivers, it’s all served up with lashings of homespun charm. Don’t forget to thank your driver!
Museum of Transport, Boyle Street, Cheetham, M8 8UW
Run by Benugo, the Warehouse Cafe at the Science and Industry has a somewhat slicker, more corporate vibe than most on this list. Nevertheless, you’ll find a decent selection of sandwiches, cakes and hot food. The decor is appropriately industrial: lots of glass and steel, juxtaposed with wood-panelled walls and lots of pot plants. Its reasonably priced, reasonable quality coffee and buzzy Castlefield location mean it can get fairly crowded at peak times.
In addition to a selection of cold sandwiches the cafe serves hot food — including flatbread pizzas, quiche and frittatas — making it a chilled spot for a weekday lunch with friends. The coffee and cake for £4.50 deal is also pretty decent.
Science and Industry Museum, Liverpool Road M3 4FP
Manchester’s museum dedicated to sharing Jewish stories and culture recently underwent a £6m renovation, almost doubling the building’s footprint and adding a new gallery space and cafe. With a stunningly intricate copper-clad facade, the museum looks especially beautiful lit up at night.
The sleek, contemporary cafe offers a range of kosher and vegetarian food that give a flavour of Jewish cuisine. With a menu based on the three principles of Jewish food (evolving recipes; meals to nourish and sustain you; and bringing people together), you’ll find such staples as challah bread and honey cake alongside revamped classics like “Not Quite Traditional ‘Chicken’ Soup” — a hearty vegetarian broth with oyster mushrooms and Matzo balls.
This is undoubtedly one of the best museum cafes in Manchester: not only is the food utterly delicious, but you have the chance to further immerse yourself in the culture the museum celebrates. They are the deserved winners of the Cafe of the Year award at the 2022 Museums and Heritage Awards — Mazel tov!
Manchester Jewish Museum 190 Cheetham Hill Road M8 8LW
Venture out Stockport way for a visit to Greater Manchester’s oldest stately home, the rambling Tudor mansion Bramall Hall. Run by Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, the house and its grounds are undeniably magnificent. Admission to the house is £6.50 for adults but you can explore the parkland and visit the cafe for free (excluding any parking costs).
Though parts of the timber-framed hall date back to the 14th century, the cafe/restaurant is in the newly renovated stables - but you'll find a lot more than straw and oats on the menu here. A few furlongs ahead of standard museum cafe fare, try the superfood salads and arancini but leave room for a substantial slice of one of their freshly baked cakes.
Bramhall Hall Stables Kitchen, Stockport SK7 3NX
The North West outpost of Imperial War Museums does a good job of not glorifying war or going too hard on military memorabilia, focusing instead on the causes and human impact of war.
If you find yourself knocking about in Media City there are far worse places to kill some time than the museum’s Watershard Cafe, serving a robust menu loosely inspired by wartime staples in a bright and spacious area of the museum’s ground floor. Prices are higher than average for your standard salads and sandwiches (the chicken caesar will set you back £8.95), the homemade eccles cakes and the expansive views across Salford Quays are worth rallying the troops for.
Imperial War Museum North, The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, M17 1TZ
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