London’s new Town Hall Hotel
GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
HAVING grown up in London, I feel somewhat responsible for it. So when I see tourists trudging through Hackney, my indisputably unlovely neighbourhood in east London, kicking crisp packets down the Bethnal Green Road, I want to take their puffa-jacketed arms and lead them to another part of town. Somewhere more genteel and less urine-scented.
Somewhere that will make them jealous, rather than itchy.
Somewhere with dry cleaners rather than launderettes. You know? As my months in this part of the city turn into years, and years into decades, I feel myself falling out of love with it, just a bit. So, like couples who decide to spice up their desiccated marriages, I decided to revitalise our relationship. I decided to take a holiday right here. It sounds oxymoronic, I know: Hackney, scene of riots, gun crime, the TV drama Top Boy about young drug deale r s .
Where rain was invented. Sudden holiday destination for many this year, unwittingly visiting for the Olympics.
A new hotel opened in Bethnal Green’s old town hall last year, opposite the kebab shop, just beyond the all-night snooker club.
I’d passed it often on the bus - an imposing listed Edwardian building, the brick lightly stained. This time though, I checked in after work. Millions of pounds were spent restoring and transforming the art deco interiors of the old town hall, and shoving a marvellous “metal veil” over the back of the building. The architects won the RICS London award for building conservation, as well as the national Project of the Year award.
The final effect, when you walk into the quiet marbled lobby and gaze up at the grand staircase, and perhaps flop your weekend bag heavily down on to a Danish modernist chair, is one of intense, tasteful calm. A swimming pool is secreted downstairs, lit by a skylight.
The old council chambers, still wood panelled and leathery, are popular for civil ceremonies and, once a month, host the Test Presents fashion film club, with screenings introduced by designers.
There’s a beautiful cocktail bar soundtracked with jazz, where the drinks come in vintage glasses, and very handsome women twiddle on their laptops in the dark.
And, hilariously for an area awash with substandard curry and half-fried chicken, there’s Viajante, a M i c h e l i n - s t a r r e d restaurant.
The moment my boyfriend and I sat down to Viajante’s six-course tasting menu, home (nine minutes down the road) seemed very far away.
In the kitchen, men organise tiny leaves on the plates with tweezers.
The chef, Nuno Mendes (who worked for a time at El Bulli), brings dishes straight to your table - mackerel ceviche, “milk skin”, beetroot sorbet. It’s all a bit brave and adventurous and magic, as is his less formal (and more affordable) restaurant Corner Room upstairs, where the olives that arrived at lunch the next day were as big as satsumas.
From the bedroom, a little apartment with its own washing machine and family-sized bath, the bleak view is hidden by the laser-cut veil - a sheet of metal covering the ceiling-high windows.
One room, the De Montfort Suite, is breathtaking - it holds a banquet hall and triple-height ceilings, and his-and-hers bathrooms.
A bedroom hovers above the ballroom-like space. But even in our more modest room, the hotel offers guests a private chef who’ll prepare a fancy meal bedside, and each evening the Town Hall Tea Lady knocks on the door with a trolley.
It took about 15 minutes in the hotel’s embrace to feel like I was on holiday - 20 until it felt like I was on a really good holiday. We checked out after lunch, refreshed, walking with the air of a suntan. But before we left the room with its two TVs, its yachtsized bed, we peered out over the shops.
Not only could you see our apartment but, when a strong breeze blew, bringing with it the familiar scents of chicken and smoke, you could smell it, too.