Samuel Johnson once wrote that ‘if a man is tired of London he is tired of life’. It’s played on my mind for years. What seems like an age ago, I spent some time working at an advertising agency in the heart of Bloomsbury. It was a University placement and I joined the rats commuting in every day. Buying the same fruit from the same vendor and evenings drinking the same free beers at the same after-work gatherings. It was great, but relentless. After a few months I began to get… well, bored.
As my friends all moved to London for work I resisted and, whilst I appreciated the lure of the big city, the gold-paved streets, the limitless entertainment options you read about in the Sunday papers and the Nathan Barley lifestyle, I felt I’d already had a pretty decent mouthful and it hadn’t agreed with my palate.
What I’ve come to realise since is that living in London isn’t best represented by that working life of a satelite commuter. I think I may have even suspected this at the time but was suffering from denial. My appetite for London has certainly increased over time. What I once treated as an occasional snack is now very much a required part of my diet. I think perhaps it’s what happens when you commit to the 45 square miles of this fair isle.
Selecting a place to stay in London that isn’t your friends’ spare bed / sofa / floor is a minefield. It’s amazing the hours you can while away scouring Laterooms, Expedia and TripAdvisor. You can never quite trust the pictures and it’s amazing how ‘a short walk from’ can sometimes be better described as ‘a fairly lengthy cab ride from’.
I would definitely have classed myself as a South of the River visitor; I’ve always loved Clapham. However, I’ve decided to get over the cliché of the East and now there’s nothing better than a stroll around Brick Lane as far as I’m concerned. Therefore when the Town Hall Hotel dropped us an email and invited us to check out their impressive restoration of an imposing Edwardian and Neo Classical Grade II listed building into a contemporary 5* Hotel and Apartment concept, I jumped at the chance.
Bethnal Green is not Clapham. The bright young things of London have charged East like a burgeoning avalanche engulfing Spitalfields and Brick Lane. Bethnal Green is like a mountain hut sitting in its path desperately resisting the gentrification. The benefit of that is that the area is still pretty gritty, but within easy reach of a latte and a bagel.
The building is simply amazing and the renovation is both considerate and progressive. The selection of contemprary art coupled with the backdrop of such a classic and imposing building works very well, as does the concept. We stayed in a double apartment which was furnished beautifully and felt instantly like home. That’s the strategy according to the hotel who describe it as ‘your pied à terre in the city, with a chic but quirky sense of style’.
From the heavy duvet that implores you to take a lie in, to the rain shower and spacious bath right down to the milk left in the fridge of the kitchen for your tea making, it’s the attention to detail across the board that echoes from the hotel and on into the restaurant; Viajante. We invited friends to lunch without having done much research. The format was both a surprise and enjoyable. The menu was offered simply in a three course or six course option, with no menu selection necessary. The waiting staff simply ask what your dietary requirements are and you are catered to accordingly with an amazing menu.
Nuno Mendes’ cooking hints at his Portuguese heritage via the California Culinery Academy, presenting a menu that both surprises and impresses. There’s something liberating about having the difficult choice of what to select from the menu taken out of your hands. From the initial ‘Thai explosion’ amuse-bouche through the scallops with butternut squash and mustard to my favourite, the charred leeks, lobster, hazelnuts and milk skin; a melt in the mouth, perfectly balanced, tasty, textured yet smooth collection of mouthfuls.
My friends seemed to favour the duck, caramel, blackberries and girolles. Each course was met with approval. The ‘soil’ of the dessert was a little unusual and wasn’t to everyone’s taste but a minor element of what was otherwise four hours of amazing lunch.
The really good part? A simple swipe card access from the back of the restaurant, perhaps via a drink in the downtempo and stylish bar, takes you straight back to your home from home.
The Town Hall claim that ‘after Town Hall living no-one will ever go back to a standard hotel again’. I’m not sure I’d hang up my hotel hat just yet but I would certainly be delighted to stay again in the diamond in Bethnal Green, particularly if I were staying a little longer than a weekend. Cook yourself one morning and have a full breakfast in the breakfast hall the next. It’s hard to explain the extent of the Town Hall in a short review. You’ll just have to go and see for yourself.