Here’s the rub: if you’re a visitor to London you probably won’t have heard of Bethnal Green, which is where this hotel is situated. It’s a formerly disregarded patch of east London, a bit further east than Shoreditch, but well connected to the centre of town by the Underground's Central Line. There are several bona fide attractions nearby - the V&A Museum of Childhood is a few minutes’ walk one way, while on Sunday mornings the gorgeous Columbia Road flower market and its arty-crafty boutiques isn’t much further in the othe. There are lots of contemporary art studios and a fine park too - but the hotel backs on to a housing estate and its restaurant faces a row of almost entirely nondescript shops. If you like to be insulated from the ordinary, workaday life of a city’s residents when you travel, this might not be for you.
The apartments I’ve seen are spacious and equipped with a good oven, microwave, dishwasher, cutlery and crockery (some have a washing machine) on top of free Wi-Fi, tea and coffee, TV/DVD and the other services you’d expect at a luxury hotel. They are decorated in pale colours and comfortably furnished, but minimal in style - although the ‘feature’ rooms are more varied, with original Edwardian details. Not all the details quite work: I liked having sliding doors to separate the sitting area/kitchen and bedroom, but one of them banged into the wall-mounted TV, and having a glass wall between bedroom and bathroom to let in plenty of light might not suit everyone (a thin white curtain can be pulled to preserve your modesty).
The showpiece is the incredibly impressive De Montfort Suite in the 1909 wing of the former town hall. It’s a white, building-sized supersuite, consisting of entire floors glassed off from a triple-height sitting room with huge arched windows. You’ll pay nearly £3,000 a night, if you include VAT, to stay in it, so it’s probably best viewed on one of the occasional architecture tours - or as one of the 16 guests at chef Nuno Mendes’ twice-monthly Supper Club.
The Grade II-listed Bethnal Green Town Hall was mostly built in 1909, but expanded in 1939. While the new owners (the hotel only opened in spring 2010) have made a real point of keeping the Edwardian and art deco style original intact (Portland stone exterior, green and white marble within, original mahogany and walnut panelling, safes, stained glass and even fire hoses on giant brass reels). They've also added arty details: film equipment in the foyer (the Town Hall has been extensively used as a period film location), a moose made out of carpet near the breakfast room, dentist chair installations and some intricate erotic wooden panels in one hallway. A ‘metal veil’, patterned by laser-cut holes through the aluminium in a variation on original art deco designs that can still be seen in the council chamber, covers the extension floor and provides neat shadows through the windows. The corridors can feel a bit deserted - I half expected the ghost of a civil servant to tap me on the shoulder and ask what I was doing here.
Eating and drinking
The highlight of any visit will be Viajante – the hotel restaurant, where young chef Nuno Mendes delivers imaginative multi-course set dinners under the influence of El Bulli’s molecular gastronomy, combining unusual flavours, textures and colours (six, nine or twelve courses cost £60-£85; the three-course lunch is £25). The attached bar is small and not entirely built for lounging, but it does serve knockout cocktails. The breakfast room (to the right after the moose head, with a further art installation along one wall) is small and pleasant. I enjoyed scrambled eggs with Alsatian pancetta and seasonal mushrooms (other ‘garnishes’ for the eggs include cumberland sausage, San Jorge cheese, black pudding and home-cured smoked salmon), toast and jam, juice and tea – at £9 it isn’t cheap, but is considerably less than you’d pay in an equivalent central London hotel. It’s £6 for continental, or £12 to dig in to the buffet: three types of bread, a couple of juices, the usual mini-croissants and pains au chocolat, plus cold meats (pork rillette, salami) and two cheeses.
Another strong point is the prettily tiled, narrow swimming pool (15m x 3.5m), in the basement but glass-roofed so you can swim and admire the sky. A glass-walled gym overlooks it – the machines all have TVs which also screen running routes round landmarks all over the world. I was disappointed by the changing rooms, which have very little space and nowhere obvious to hang your clothes – it might be best to get changed in your room and potter down in your robe and slippers.
The staff were young but very enthusiastic about the hotel. The few hiccups I experienced (the in-room handbook describing a different model of oven to the one in the kitchen, for example) were swiftly resolved, with a minimum of fuss.
Who stays there
Wandering around the hotel I barely saw another soul, even though the bar and restaurant were both busy. A dizzy young bohemian was checking out when I left and I bumped into an elderly gentleman and his wife in one of the corridors downstairs, suggesting a good balance of guests! The restaurant is proving very popular with gastronomic adventurers from all over town.
Rates are significantly reduced for long stays and there are often weekend deals.
- Fitness Centre
- High-Speed Internet
- Room Service
- Swimming Pool
- Business travellers
- Families with teenagers
Pros & Cons
- Great design, interesting historical details
- Excellent, adventurous restaurant
- Sparkly tiled swimming pool
- Public areas lack atmosphere
- Out-of-the-way location