It’s not every day – especially not every cold November day – that you walk into a hotel in central London and are literally greeted with open arms by the restaurant’s maitre’d, who calls you by name and does everything in his power straight away to suggest that you’re the most honoured guest imaginable. After a long and, at times, less than relaxing journey with a ten-month-old baby (‘and you, who behaves like a baby’, as my wife would put it), there is nothing more splendid than being greeted by the warmth and cheering hospitality of the revamped and relaunched Marriott County Hall. And then things just get better.
Located within the old surroundings of the GLC, this is a building redolent with history and intrigue, but until recently there’s always been the faintest sense that it hasn’t quite realised its full potential as a hotel. Marriott, for all of their undeniable professionalism and all-round attention to detail, have never quite emerged as a luxury player the way that some of their competitors had, and the restaurant, Gillray’s, had struck me on a previous visit as being a superlative location in need of a clearer direction. However, it has now re-emerged, phoenix-like, and offers a seriously luxurious experience.
Our room overlooks the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, which straightaway marks this place out as a winner; one is so close to the Houses that one hears Big Ben (although never intrusively) chime the hours away through the night, and one makes Eye contact with surprised-looking visitors to one’s right. It’s a superbly appointed place to stay, with the sort of big, comfortable bed that even a disruptive small baby can relax in, ample storage and lots of nice touches, not least the tray of sweet delights that finds a more than willing home.
Glancing around the corridors nearby, one finds a beguiling and successful mixture of the old and the new. On the ground floor are wood-panelled corridors and clubby public rooms, of the kind that one imagines attract many an MP in search of a winding down session outside the confines of their offices. Upstairs, the renovation has focused on the London theme, so wallpaper might feature Penguin books, just as much of the art consists of witty deconstructions of traditional landmarks. It’s stylish, accessible and fun, without being over-designed or snooty. Just what we want, in other words.
And then there’s our return to Gillray’s. Pared down from earlier, uncertain incarnations, it now bills itself as ‘an English steakhouse on the South Bank’. Nothing wrong with that, but this does it several injustices. For a start, there is one of London’s most charming and hospitable managers in the form of Jean-Francois, a man for whom nothing is too much trouble, and whose willingness to cater to his guests’ every need goes far beyond the call of duty. ‘We will play a game, you and I’, he announces at the beginning of our meal. ‘I will fill your glass; you will empty it; and then I will fill it again. We will have lots of fun.’ Reader, he was not lying. Champagne and Rioja, to say nothing of a delicious sherry cocktail from the bar, were more than fitting accompaniments to what we ate.
The steak, of course, is top-notch (although the triple-cooked chips aren’t quite in the same league as some of the others I’ve had), but the real imagination and interest is elsewhere in the menu. A starter of goat’s cheese eschews the usual bland dollop of cheese, balsamic vinegar and salad in favour of a striking, highly unusual combination of watermelon and crushed pistachio, with the cheese acting almost as a counter to the sweet-sour flavours. It is superb. Likewise, one of the signature desserts, the traditional sherry trifle, is a behemoth of loveliness that both honours and deconstructs that staple of nursery food. Paired with a cocktail, it is the best kind of naughty indulgence that leaves one feeling both sated and satisfied.
As, indeed, does everything about the County Hall redux. The staff are top notch, the setting peerless, and the whole stay makes one feel as if one has been treated very well indeed. All in all, then, this might make for one of the most unexpectedly pleasant surprises in London hotels this year. For which, much thanks.
For more information about the Marriott County Hall, including details of deals and offers, visit www.marriott.co.uk.