As a member of the Design Hotels collection, Town Hall doesn’t disappoint on the art front. From the old safe of lit-up images that meets you at the entrance to the old vending machine sporting vintage logos for Fry’s Turkish delight and Mulford Violets on the lower ground floor, there are plenty of quirky artefacts to feed a greedy visual appetite. The hotel’s feeder tendencies are also apparent in the two restaurants it has on site, but more on those in a moment.
With its grand Edwardian carved stone façade, Town Hall impresses at first glance, particularly given the contrast with the red brick housing estate directly opposite and the adjoining generic streets of Bethnal Green. Once inside, fears for your car and the slight feeling of guilt at treating oneself to such extravagance (rooms range from £290 to £2.5k) are quickly forgotten. The sweeping, double-sided staircase, abundance of marble and water cooler flavoured with bits of fresh fruit are ample distraction.
The receptionist looked a bit suspicious of me at first, so I’m not sure whether photocopying guests’ driving licences is part of the protocol or just for my benefit; either way, you best take along some photo ID. I continued to be overly polite and thankful in a desperate bid to win her over, making small talk about how lovely the place is and the awfully predictable “so are you fully booked?”-type questions, while probably making an impression akin to Basil Fawlty and his crazed profuse apologies in the episode ‘Gourmet Night’.
We made it through check-in and travelled up in the lift to our one-bedroom apartment – they have standard rooms, too – which on first glance looked rather like an IKEA display, with its sleek arty furniture and hints of Scandinavian design. Once my judgemental eyes adjusted, I began to appreciate the almost neurotic minimalism of the place: cupboard doors open with a push, doors and walls slide to reveal spaces for sleep, living, dining and bathing, and windows look out over the neighbouring rooftops. Every square inch is used brilliantly, so there’s a lot fitted in but without it feeling crammed. One space-creating feature guests will either like or hate is the glass wall separating the bedroom and the bathroom. It feels a bit like you’re part of a Tracy Emin exhibition while you’re in there: ‘Girl on Toilet’. A curtain provides a bit of privacy, but you have to trust the person on the other side not to whip it open.
Back in the living area, a sleek white door concertinas away to reveal a brand new kitchen, complete with all the necessary tools and appliances one might use if living there full time. I suspect, though, that those who can afford such luxuries as staying in one of these apartments long-term might actually feel the pull of dining in Viajante or Corner Room downstairs a far easier option – I certainly would, and on this night I did. First we headed downstairs for a pre-dinner wake-up swim in the glistening basement swimming pool, via plaques telling tales of quirky encounters with strangers – part of the Walkwalkwalk installation from artists Gail Burton, Clare Qualmann and Serena Korda.
The Corner Room restaurant has a strict no booking policy, so once we’d registered our interest with the maitre’d we explored the rest of the hotel for the other bits of art, commissioned from up-and-coming local artists via the East End-based Artsadmin, while we waited for the call to tell us our table was ready. Our walk took us past a sadistic-looking vintage dentist’s chair, which I mistook for the electric sort at first, a beautiful and intricate fine line Zoë Mendelson drawing at the top of the grand entrance staircase, and my favourite, trompe-l’oeil trickery in the form of a Persian rug with a moose head protruding from it as though emerging through a membrane, a creation from Debbie Lawson, hanging next to the entrance to Corner Room. It was a taster of the décor in the restaurant itself: an industrial lamp installation at the far end, Victorian spiral staircase to nowhere, and a central feature made of big film studio lights, muddled in with wood panelling, glossy white brick tiles and minimalist furniture.
Corner Room describes itself a “deliciously simple and extremely affordable” and, apart from the steep £10 for the cheese board, it really is: starters range from £5 to £7, mains from £10, desserts from £5. Although ‘simple’ is quite an understatement. Yes, they’ve created a menu that fits comfortably onto one side of an A5 sheet, including desserts, and used a minimal number of words to name the dishes, but on the plate, they induce an appreciative gasp. They have a freshness evoking visions of Mediterranean fishing villages, and a perfect balance managing the sometimes tricky task of ensuring every taste comes through on the palate. Nuno Mendes’s Viajante might be the presumed star of the show downstairs, with its adjoining moody cocktail bar, but Corner Room is the silent achiever here.
We started off with complimentary soda bread and a plate of golden butter sprinkled with sea salt crystals – my, hasn’t eating out come along since the days of those foil packed portions! A couple of olives the size of prize-winning conkers, stuffed with anchovies, were smoothly slid onto the table, and lasted all of about three seconds before we’d devoured them, wishing they’d notice and bring over some more. All this joy and the starters hadn’t even arrived.
Thick slices of mackerel glistened with a just-netted gloss, all elements of the usual whiff accompanied with the fish quashed by slivers of melon, a smudge of gooseberry granita and sprinkling of pistachio; the boy was very happy indeed, I even more more so with my green beans with tapenade and boquerones. One of the plainest-sounding dishes on the menu, it looked like a Jackson Pollock. Crunchy green beans, flakes of toasted almonds, deliciously salty anchovies, deep red sun-blushed tomatoes and lots of other bits and bobs collaborated to create an incredibly exciting starter. The cod and clam chowder Adam slurped his way through was the ultimate autumn comforter, nicely fishy with a generous balance of shellfish and vegetables, topped with a buttery fillet of cod. My salmon dish echoed the quality of the rest, with plenty of fresh elements I felt were doing me good. Dessert reminded me of late summer nights huddled next to the bonfire and the lovely smoky smell you can’t wash out of your hair for days afterwards – a much more edible version, though, in the form of cool pineapple with caramelised fennel and smoked pastry.
The next morning, after a distinctly un-hotel-like silent night’s sleep, we awoke to find our complimentary newspaper outside the door – you can select a newspaper title for a fee or they will allocate one at random. We chose the latter and got the Daily Mail; two doors up had the Guardian, which begs the thought: do they assess what type of reader you are when you check in? Adam’s “alright?” response to the polite “good evening” from the doorman, coupled with the receptionist’s suspiciousness of me, perhaps explains why we got the Mail. A rare freebie all the same.
Along with an iPod dock, array of magazines, two flat-screen TVs and a lagoon bath to lounge in complete with L’Occitane products to lather up, there’s plenty here to entertain guests who tire of their co-traveller, or just don’t fancy exploring nearby Victoria Park and the rest the East End has to offer, which is quite a bit according to the hotel’s guide. Failing that, there’s also a selection of DVDs available to borrow, although with the quirky twist that the list only includes films shot at the Town Hall – an offer which doesn’t sound that exciting at first, until you see the impressively long list, including Atonement, Run, Fatboy, Run and RocknRolla. There’s also a hireable Xbox to test your relationship: if he really loves you, he won’t dial 0 to request it.
Breakfast isn’t included in the room price, but we headed back to Corner Room for it anyway. The £4 for egg and soldiers – which, from the previous night’s dinner, you’ll gather were far better than mum used to make – didn’t seem too bad, plus it delayed the always slightly depressing task of checking out and, in this case, having to find out whether or not the car managed to survive the night.